Thursday, January 31, 2013

Django Unchained, unmarked

I really wanted to love this movie. Some of the three or four best movie watching experiences in my life were at Tarantino movies. Not every film is great, but they're always interesting.

Django is not a great movie. It's a lot of fun for a cinemaphile but, in a movie with a substantial gory on-screen body count, it doesn't really draw blood.

Set in the antebellum South, Django (played with admirable swagger by Jamie Foxx) is a slave, freed from a chain gang by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (a great role for Christoph Waltz). Schultz freed Django for the purpose of identifying three wanted criminals but the two later become friends. Ultimately Schultz agrees to help Django track his wife Broomhilda to a plantation owned by Calvin Candie for the purpose of buying her freedom. It's a Tarantino film, so that synopsis leaves out all the operatic violence, sharp dialogue, and atmosphere that makes one of his films entertaining. It all works really well for me right up until the last half hour or so, when Tarantino paints himself into a corner, ending-wise, and has to backtrack a few steps to pick up the loose ends where he had dropped them.

But I'm going to take a second and bring back to mind Tarantino's most recent movie to highlight where I see this film really went off the rails for me. "Inglorious Basterds" was not a universally well-received movie. Some people didn't like the talky sections, some people didn't like the gratuitous violence. Some really resented the, eh, 'deviation' from established history the ending represented. While, I'm not going to argue the movie was some kind of classic, I do think it represented a brave experiment for Tarantino. Not so much for camera work or twisted narrative structures, like his other works, but for a ballsy determination to make a film that matters.

When I was still in college, I happened to get into this discussion about Tarantino with one of my professors. She asked me if I liked Pulp Fiction and I said, yes. She asked me why. I think I said something about the nonlinear plot and Tarantino's darkly comedic style. Then she asked me what Pulp Fiction was about. What did it mean? Did I honestly think Jules Winnfield had a genuine 'moment of clarity,' that would change forever the direction of his life, or was this simply an extended allusion to old Kung Fu movies? To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, was there any there there?

I didn't really have an answer back then and I think it's probably fine I still don't have one now. Pulp Fiction was just one of those movies, a rite of passage, a cultural touch-stone. It's not really about anything besides how cool movies can be.

But Inglorious Basterds, for me, posed an interesting question. Is it ethical to watch war movies? This is supposedly a review of Django so I'll keep this digression short but here's the essence of why I like this question: in the movie, we follow a brutal gang of America commandoes on a behind-the-lines mission in occupied France. They are fighting Nazis with blood-thirsty relish, each soldier ordered to collect 100 scalps. This is horrific but we don't, as the audience care, because we're watching the Americans and their enemies, the Nazis are so obviously horrific and deserving of death. But here's the thing, Tarantino doesn't let us off the hook in this movie. Towards the end of the movie, we follow a German sniper backstage as a cinematic depiction of his war-time exploits thunders behind him. The audience, filled with Nazis and collaborators hoots and cheers every single American death at the hands of the sniper. In the last shot of the movie, we the audience adopt the perspective of a Nazi branded with a swastika. As the American soldier takes away his bloody knife, it is we the audience marked.

Do I think for a second Tarantino is calling his audiences Nazis? No, far from it. I think he is simply pointing out in very graphic terms that we can not be cozy in our self-assumptions as an audience that we are safely removed from the events of the screen. We are complicit in some way in the violence in the movie, involved in it.

So that is what I found lacking in Django Unchained, any sense that this was anything other than wish fulfillment. An awful lot of cartoonish blood gets spilled in the course of the the freed slaves quest to save his Broomhilda, but not much actual blood is drawn by the script. I admire how matter-of-factly slavery and its obvious evils are presented in the film. Tarantino presents human bondage, in every manifestation, as a perversion of natural order, a mutilation. From a runaway slave torn to bits by dogs to a house servant incapable of distinguishing his interests from that of his owner, this is a view of the antebellum south designed to provoke and outrage. The ex-slave rises up, gets well-deserved revenge against all who stand against him, and then rides off into the horizon in the classic Western mode. Our anti-hero is an African American and so the familiar tropes of the genre seem fresh, but the fact remains, this is a very standard story. It ultimately doesn't make any demand upon its audience more than watching garish violence for its own sake. If you dislike the violence, then you can safely dismiss the movie.

I think that's a shame. Django Unchained, other than its ending, shows a lot of heart and craft in its details. I just wish the movie had left more of a mark.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review of Silent Knife by David Nurenberg

I've actually got a bit of history with this one. Full disclosure, this novel, released last year on the White Wolf imprint, was something I've read a few times in the past few years. I've was a beta reader on one of the early drafts and I reread another version of the novel put up as a serial on the White Wolf website.

It's inspiring to see the book finally reach print, especially after all of the various versions appear to have improved and refined the story.

The plot of Silent Knife is steeped in the mythology of the World of Darkness, the fictional noir universe of White Wolf's many role-playing games. Silent Knife focuses more or less on the Masquerade, the treacherous and Byzantine politics of the Vampire world. Ariadne, the eponymous protagonist, is a relative newcomer to this world, changed into a vampire barely a decade previous, negotiating the relentless demands of her Prince, Liliane, during a full-scale rebellion. The leader of the rebellion, Roarke, possesses arcane powers unusual for the undead and legions of followers eager to upset the balance of Liliane's vision of a New Jerusalem. Although young by immortal standards, Ariadne is an important warrior for her Prince, possessing rare talent with the blade, and a predator's instincts for the hunt. As the body-count rises, Ariadne stumbles upon a remnant of her own old life, a man named Andrei she once loved. Even though the mortal who loved Andrei is long dead, she risks everything to be with him, to dream of some better life outside of Boston.

Nurenberg is a big fan of China Mieville and the most compelling parts of this novel stem from a similar impulse towards detail and world-building. Silent Knife's alter-Boston is a place invested with Lovecraftian cosmic horrors and the hidden machinations of powerful forces. Like Mieville, Nurenberg doesn't just want to tell a story. He wants to bring his metropolis to life, filling it with hordes of characters, living and dead, and weaving a grand spectacle of blood, sacrifice, and flawed redemption. I am not a big fan of fiction set within pre-defined universes but I appreciated Nurenberg's attempt to breathe new life into the genre. He chose atypical characters as vampires: the obsese, mordant Bourne is particularly vivid, a former labor organizer, embraced as a kind of sadistic joke by his philosopher sire, condemned to see history's pattern repeat again and again, without having the ability to change any of it.

This is the overall theme of the book, characters trapped a few steps outside of redemption, lurching towards acceptance. The tragedy of the story is that each character seeks that redemption from the same thing most likely to condemn them. Ariadne regains some measure of humanity by reigniting an affair with Andrei, but that humanity dooms both of them in a world that feeds off of mortals. Bourne can't help but long for Ariadne even though his unrequited desire for her, serves only to drive him deeper into fury and revenge. Liliane's vision of a shining city on the hill leads to unspeakable sacrifices, and ceaseless carnage.

While I wish the novel was a few dozen pages and one or two sub-plots shorter, overall I think this is a fresh and seductive portrait of Boston noire. Like the city, it's a tapestry at once intimate and personal, but also panoramic and cold. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

LSC movie marathon

This years selection of movies is particularly good, WALL-E, Looper, Galaxy Quest and a special surprise from 1967. Everything else is exactly the same about the experience if the MIT sci fi movie marathon: same ticket prices, same theater, same friends, same unbelievably uncomfortable seats. I guess that's part of the charm for me, the perennial, predictable ritual.

Friday, January 25, 2013


This is my first chance to respond to the big news on the internets today: JJ Abrams signing on to direct the first Star Wars sequel (of the original trilogy). I have to say, my reaction is basically positive. 'El Maesto' of the lens flare gets mixed press but I've never seen anything by him that I out and out hated, I liked the Star Trek reboot a great deal, and even his misses like Cloverfield have a certain degree of puzzle-box charm.

But then, as is probably apparent from a brief check of my current watching habits, Star Wars isn't something I get super worked up about. Don't get me wrong. I like Star Wars, it's a big part of my childhood but I've always been on the fence about what the show is about really. The idea of Luke Skywalker as a timeless expression of the monohero, the duality of good and evil, wookies, it all works a lot better with a healthy dose of sly humor: which is probably why "Empire Strikes Back" is my favorite film.

In addition to being able to write (gentle) humor, Abrams brings an awareness of cinematic history to his projects, and a sense of intertextuality, the way one story is shaped by knowledge of another.  If you look at his films, a motif emerges of movies within movies, films commenting on other films. In Super 8, for example, the kids don't see the monster at first, they watch it on a movie they didn't even know they were creating. For the Star Trek reboot, Abrams took all of the familiar elements, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the Enterprise, remixed them with the expectations of modern spectacle-driven blockbusters, and yet wound up with something very close to the spirit of the original show. That's what I hope Abrams might might bring to Star Wars: something very wrong, some obvious sacrilege ultimately highlighting what the original movies were about.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


As you might have heard, Obama won the election. He's president now which means he gets to write this thing called an inaugural speech. Obama's speech adhered to a few basic American values, enshrined in several famous documents, and wrapped up everything in a nice, 'looking out for the less fortunate,' sentiment. Pretty standard stuff for a Democrat recently reelected by a significant margin.

At no point in the speech does Obama lay out a vision for the arrest of all Republicans. It doesn't call for war crime tribunal for Cheney. It doesn't even call for the repeal of the second amendment. Okay, so let's keep this in perspective when we look at what the Republican reaction was:

"Bereft of outreach to the other side," intones Brit Hume.

"The words were code for a progressive agenda," scolds Darrel Issa. "I'm hoping the president will recognize compromise should have been the words for today..."

"...Shadowbox(ing) a strawman," offers Paul Ryan.

That last comment is a frequent conservative criticism of the President, the charge that Obama ascribes views to his opponents they do not actually have, a charge nearly as frequent as the carping over his use of the teleprompter. According to Ryan, no Republican actually resorts to name-calling, spectacle, and absolutism, the President is inventing fictional opponents with no relation to reality.

Hmm. Ryan, it's not too hard to find these 'straw-men':

I'll save you the trouble of watching the whole thing and go right to the part you've no doubt heard about already, Lapierre's embrace of the term absolutist, and anger that the term should be declared synonymous with extremism. Goldwater once famously said that 'extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,' so I guess this is a step forward in that respect. At least Lapierre seems to recognize social cost of being called extreme.

But his defense of absolutes in a democracy is interesting to me. At one point he states that absolutes, and here I guess we're supposed to understand absolutes as an absolute right to bear arms, are all that prevents a situation where two wolves and a lamb vote on what to have for dinner. Dressed up rhetorically it's easy to miss what Lapierre is admitting to. "We're the lambs," he suggests, "You all are the wolves. If we didn't have our guns, you would gobble us up." This is further evidence of the kind of thinking John Stewart lampooned earlier this month, the idea that the real purpose of guns is not sporting, or home defense, but the last refuge of the over-regulated, over-taxed regular American from the tyrannical 'other' that has somehow seized America. That's the right they are seeking to protect, right more important than children's lives, their right to veto democracy.

And just so we're clear about what types of weapons an absolutist considers fair game, check out this quote from Representative Ted Yoho: "On guns, (my constituents) were saying that the sentiment, when you read the Second Amendment, is that the militia had the same equipment as the military to protect them against the tyrannical government. I think it's more important today than ever, that we uphold our second amendment."

Our military is equipped with all manner of weapons: rifles, artillery, tanks, airplanes, and missiles. Just how well-armed does Lapierre's lamb need to be?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rock Mining

In another sign that space mining may be, you know, a real thing, check out this press release from a new venture company called Deep Space Industries. Like Planetary Resources (a company backed by Google directors and James Cameron), this company aims to find asteroids and other planetary bodies in the solar system containing valuable minerals and hauling them back to near earth orbit.

I'll let you read the press release and watch the promo video, but this is interesting for a variety of reasons.

First off, the idea of a company using drones and robotic crafts to find and mine asteroids is an important first step to any other serious exploration of the rest of the solar system. It is just incredibly expensive in terms of fuel to lift resources from the surface of Earth into space. Leaving aside the mineral wealth that such rocks might contain, finding an asteroid with water would enormously helpful.  Water wouldn't simply be important for life support in space but, split into hydrogen and oxygen, constitutes one of the best sources of reaction mass in space.

Also, asteroids provide an important shield from radiation. One can easily imagine using a 'cored' asteroid as a carapace for a journey to the other planets, the rock protecting astronauts from solar flares and cosmic radiation. The immense space within the body could house colonists, infrastructure and fuel, as well as staving off the lethargy and physical deterioration observed in astronauts on extended missions into space.

Pure speculation, but this is one of those things that makes me sincerely happy to be alive right now. None of this is going to happen tomorrow, but all of it could happen sooner than we might think.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Arisia Wrap-Report

My first thought, heading into Arisia, was to do a little daily report on what I was up to, panels I'd attended/participated in, that kind of thing. But I personally find it hard to sit down and write when there's a glut of things to see and do.

So instead, recorded for posterity, are my observation from three and a half days of convention:

Friday: mostly hung out with friend +Alex LaHurreau, visited a number of panels, including Science in Politics and World-Building through Soft Sciences. I appreciate a certain type of con panel: knowledgeable people discussing familiar topics in weird ways. I'd say that both of these panels were fine, they talked about the sorts of things I would imagine talking about myself if I was on the panel, but there wasn't much new. I enjoyed Alex's pick of "When Comic Creators Go Off the Deep End," but in retrospect they should have broadened the topic to include other mediums. It turns out there are plenty of crazy comic book artists (go figure) but the conversation never reached ignition point.

Saturday is the day most folks come to Arisia, I caught up with a number of friends in the panels before the Belly Dancing show, and then felt very proud watching my wife do her number to the song "Allure," by Beats Antique. In addition to performing it, she choreographed it and did the costume design for herself and her dance partner Baseema. Great job!

Beyond that, the panel I most remember was the "Cyborgs, Identity, and Ghost in the Shell," which was that happy mix of a great creative work (movies, television series, and manga) and a panel willing to explore the weird consequences of the technology the series portrays. What happens when a downloaded consciousness lacks a subconsciousness, when there is no 'deeper self.' Could a Stand-Alone Complex actually exist? Has it already happened? Anyway, the mark of a great panel isn't always the answers offered, but the questions inspired.

In general that's why I go to Arisia, to find new things to check out or explore. I was part of two panels on Sunday and both filled me with ideas to try in my own campaigns. I wrote preview postings on both earlier this week, but both panels were a surprise. Both were well-attended for one thing, but people genuinely interested in the topics, which is greatly encouraging. On the basis of this experience, I will absolutely try to join a few more panels next year. I wrapped up that day with a reoccurring panel on DARPA's 100 year starship project, which was kind of a mess but a really informative one. The sentiment I most appreciated hearing was a (paraphrased) quote from Buzz Aldrin: At the core of the risk-free society is a ... failure of nerve." Who knows if this species will ever leave this solar system, let alone colonize the Moon and Mars, but I honestly sense the pendulum has begun to swing back. Human beings need something to drive towards in order to progress, why not space?

Today I watched a bunch of movie trailers. The "How Do We Pay for the Future" panel was also pretty good, but my energy was beginning to flag by that point. Anyway, Arisia is something I look forward to each year, and 2013 was no disappointment.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Arrival at Arisia

So registration was a mad house and my silver line bus broke down at the courthouse station, but I'm here! The room is perfect, and I'm ready to enjoy all the awesomeness coming my way.

I've been thinking for a while about a post listing the most Sci fi sites in Boston, had a few possibilities taking the T to South Boston. First off let's talk about Alewife, one of the most cyberpunk of Greater Boston buildings, the slanted curtain of windows over the ticket area a miniature arcology. Then you have Porter Square which just feels like some kind of Mega-engineering project from Trigun. You see exactly how the station was cored out from the rock around it, practically feel the hundred feet of earth sitting on top of the station.

As mentioned I had an unscheduled lay-over at Courtroom station, clad in chrome and ultraviolet, drenched in ozone from my bus' burning tires. Very William Gibson.

The World Traded Center area itself is a good spot for a Sci Fi convention, the BCAC sweeping over Summer Street, rippling LED signs reflected from the stubby anonymous towers. This is constructed space, concrete veldt.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

World-building for Games

People play tabletop RPGs for all sorts of reasons. Some like the idea of having an alternate persona accomplish great deeds whilst on grand adventures. For others, a role-playing game offers a chance to bring a by-gone era to life, replicating the past with the highest fidelity possible. But for me, what an RPG represents is a chance to cooperatively bring another world into existence.

I'm a writer, so creating new worlds is part of the job description. Even when writing more or less realistic fiction, I enjoy exploring how a certain corner of reality functions, how it is different or similar to my own experiences. But this is a lonely process. I'm creating a world alone knowing full well that no other person may wish to read about it. Additionally, no matter how exotic the world I create is, it can only be a product of my own mind, my own experiences. 

In a Role-playing Game, on the other hand, it is almost impossible to create something individually. Unless I'm handing the players at my table scripts and expecting them to follow stage-directions, the other people at the table cannot help but have an effect on the imaginary world. At the most superficial level, just by creating a character, players are inputting information about the world, providing context and hooks for world-building.

I prefer games that embrace this aspect of world-building and expressly structure it within the game. Two that I think do a really fantastic job at the idea of collaborative world-building are:
  1. Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker
  2. Diaspora (FATE system) by B. Murray, C.W. Marshall, T. Dyke, and B. Kerr
Apocalypse World is a triumph of minimalist set-up. Basically a GM is responsible for printing off a few play sheets for the players to choose from, and then conducting an initial session where the features of an apocalyptic scenario are introduced. The players, by interacting together, create the tensions propelling the story, but also the features of the world itself. Mostly this happens through the GM's leading questions: why don't you ever go to the green trailer at the end of the community? What madness did you gibber the first time you saw what lay at the bottom of the pit? Why don't you ever tell anyone about the pale rats that visit the camp at night? What I find so compelling about this system is that even the GM doesn't know what those pale rats are. The player won't know until he or she answers the question. But once an answer's pronounced, that aspect of the world is written. Does this lead to wild inconsistencies? Sure. Does this create worlds that people want to explore and interact with? Hell yeah.

The hard sci-fi space opera game Diaspora, like most FATE system games, has a nifty character generation system encouraging players to find reasons why their characters know each other. Typically, the other characters appear as guest stars in the story the players write for their character. Diaspora is unique, though, in its approach to world-building. The stories of Diaspora revolve around a cluster of worlds, each solar system connected to another by a series of wormholes. While the players have absolute say in the shape  each solar system takes, they have to find ways of fitting their worlds together. Who trades with whom? Which worlds have rivalries or conflicts? After finishing this world-building system, I decided that the world one of my friends created was so interesting I based my character there. A negotiation commenced between us about the features of this world, a process we both had a stake in. Where Apocalypse World is almost confrontational in its world building system, Diaspora truly takes it as an article of faith that a group of people can shape an entire universe together.

Really, any RPG from Red Box DnD all the way to the most dice-less squishy indie game include some aspect of world-building. The challenge is not building a world, it's making sure everyone at the table has a place in it.

Author's note: As I've mentioned previously, I will be part of a panel at Arisia 2013 on just this topic. If you're interested, make sure you have a ticket for the Sunday session and go to the Independence room at 8:30pm. Along with +Peter Maranci, I'll be on the panel with Alan Wexelblat, Ed Fuqua, and T. Christopher Davis. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On rails versus Sandbox

As I mentioned yesterday, the first of my two panels at the Arisia SFF convention is on the topic of "on rails" versus "sandbox-style" campaigning in tabletop RPGs. I was initially interested in this panel because I feel as though my own evolution as a game master has moved from one extreme towards the other.

First, let's define some terms. I'm going to assume at some point in your career, someone convinced you to sit down for three or so hours to play D&D. You got a character sheet, some dice, and a mission and that's that. Role-playing games have gone in various directions since the their origins with Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons, but for the most part certain things remain the same. You get a character, you roll some dice, and you go on an adventure. What has changed over time is how the task of telling a story occurs. Mostly in the past, the creation of the story, was the unchallenged responsibility of a single person called the game-master (or dungeon master). This might be referred to as "on-rails" game design, although that term actually comes from video game design.

Be that as it may, on-rails game design does refer to a certain style of play, where a Game Master dictates the vast preponderance of the story. The GM takes a direct and total control over the world design, monster and non-player character design, and plot. Depending on how serious the GM takes this, a campaign can be extremely detailed, to the point that nearly every eventuality is pre-planned and pre-set. This is how I started out, for the most part. First introduced to RPG's, what struck me was how playing a game like this was essentially story-telling where I didn't have to write all of the dialogue. I learned a lot about writing stories from what things worked and didn't within role-playing games. But I never shook the sense that as the GM, I was ultimately responsible for the overall enjoyment of the game. If the game worked, it was because I did my homework and if it didn't, I must have overlooked something. The number of games that function in this way are almost too numerous to count but classic examples include: Dungeons and Dragons (obviously), the Hero System, Palladium, and the Storytelling system (to a certain extent).

Then you have the sandbox style of gaming which I was introduced to late. Sandbox gaming, compared to 'on rails,' gives more freedom for the players. Instead of a story, there's just a setting. The players are responsible for accomplishing their own goals, in the order that makes sense to them. GM's still have to prepare, but the assumption is that the story would develop in due course as a outgrowth of what the characters are trying to achieve. For good examples of this style of play, check out the indie RPG section in your local game shop, and check out Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard and, of course, Burning Wheel. These are games without a preset 'world,' or 'characters,' only a set of rules governing the outcomes of conflicts. At first, I wasn't sure what to make of it. The idea of having more player input wasn't unwelcome, it just seemed unlikely. I had never had the experience of playing with people interested in creating a story collaboratively. I assumed the whole point of being a character was you didn't have to do that kind of work, you could just sit back, enjoy the ride, and launch the occasional fireball at a passing orc. But I gave it a try and realized what this style offers.

Truly immersive role-playing. The possibility of emergence, or unexpected events taking place through the interaction of players and pre-established facts about the campaign. Nothing is more awesome in gaming than having some small detail that I put into the first session of a campaign suddenly reappear months later when one of the players brings it back up. When done correctly, this kind of storytelling can have real emotional impact.

Really I don't have a problem with either of these two styles of play. Sometimes you need a story in order to get the players from A to B. Sometimes you the players just have to suck it up and agree to the mission into the ghost world because that what the story requires. But on the other hand, no GM should ever have to work alone. A game system that discourages player input and advice is not only counter-productive it blunders past the central reason why anyone would play a tabletop RPG: to create things that only the human mind can invent. If your only intention is to experience a powerful story, read a book.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Looking Forward to Arisia

This is a very special week, dear reader; Arisia is nearly here. 

If you do not live in the Greater Boston area, you have perhaps not heard of this institution so let me illuminate you. Arisia is the largest and most diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy Conventions in New England, now in its 22nd year, its fourth at the Westin Hotel. The diversity piece is actually one of the coolest things about the event: unlike Comicon, or a Star Trek Convention, it isn't one particular sub-culture of geek culture, it's all of them. Books, television, films, comic books, RPG, technology, philosophy and counter-culture, you name it. Another peculiarity of Arisia is while the convention does have guests of honor (SFF writers and artists), for the most part the convention is about fans. And the costumes, also the costumes:

Fans come up with the topics for the panels, fans are usually chosen for the panels on all manner of topics and fans run the organization and volunteering for the event. In the three years I've been to Arisia, I've seen panels on topics ranging from the latest discoveries of exo-planets, questions concerning the copywriting of 3-D printer designs, an Isaac Asimov retrospective, movie year in review, and a reading of the worst fantasy book ever written, "The Eye of Argon." As you might guess, in a convention this big, not every panel is amazing, but if you approach the weekend with curiosity, it's a lot of fun.

This year, as I've mentioned, I will be joining two panels, both on Sunday. The first, "RPG Gaming: Rails vs. Sandbox," the first at 10:00 am Board Room and the second at 8:30 pm, "Worldbuilding for Games." I'm looking forward to both obviously, but for slightly different reasons. I'm going to offer my thoughts on the difference between highly structured games tomorrow, but in a nutshell, I almost feel the question is somewhat anachronistic. Every game mixes some elements of structure and pre-set planning with more free-form experimentation, the real question is finding the system that strikes that appropriate balance. The other panel is on a topic very near and dear to my own heart and one I'll try to elaborate on Wednesday in a preview post.

But whether you go or not, expect more than a few blogs this week and weekend about the event. It's a high point of my year and one of those things I truly believe makes New England winters endurable.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pippin: Theater of the Mind

Consciousness is the choice of which abstractions we experience, out of an infinite number of ways of slicing the continuity of the universe. It's the feeling of existence that is the choice. 
Jaron Lanier from his essay, "You Can't Argue with a Zombie"

All commercial art forms, movies, books, and theater, resort to necromancy from time to time. As nothing quite indicates future success quite like previous success, Hollywood and Broadway constantly haul treasured works from their graves, animate them with an infusion of fresh blood, and send them to stagger forth into the night in search of dollars. 

Pippin, a very successful musical in the seventies, is currently playing at the American Repertory Theater, according to Mrs Crooks, a springboard for a return to Broadway this Spring. Despite a troubled production, difficult book, and jarring presentation, the original ran for 2000 shows, only ending on the year I was born, 1977. So on one level it's overdue for a revival. The music was written by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell and Wicked) and contains its fair share of bouncy, radio-friendly hits. Its original choreography from Bob Fosse was memorable, his costume and set design garish and striking. 

And yet I'm not surprised it took so long to return to life. Pippin has plenty of ugliness behind its surface charm.

On the most basic surface level, Pippin is a greatly fictionalized account of the eponymous son of Charlegmagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Pippin returns from university to find his own way to self-fulfillment, ultimate happiness in life, and confirmation of his own uniqueness. It's all very "Age of Aquarius," except for more sinister undercurrents. He tries his hand at war, debauchery, revolution, and despotic rule before slumping into apathy and depression. He meets a simple and ordinary widow, falls in love, and settles into a simple and ordinary life. Then the crisis: can this really be all there is? After all of his wanderings and experimentations, is his life no more than than fixing leaky roofs, farming, and consoling his adopted son over the death of a duck. He flees, contemplates suicide before realizing his life's true meaning: to love and be loved in return. Pretty standard stuff, the basis of countless shows.

However, all of that ignores the fact that the show takes place within in a menacing surreal circus, and the acrobatic flips, contortionist tricks, and spectacular dance numbers accompanying him, all move at the command of a sinister ringleader, a demonic and seductive "Leading Player." 

The story proceeds at such break neck speed that the actual story doesn't stray too much from the outline I sketched above. Other than Pippin and Catherine, the simple widow, no character spends much time on stage or offers much rationale for its existence. They are archetypes, costumed performers, and clowns. This isn't Les Mis or even Into the Woods, where effort is expended developing characters and their motivations. Pippin is a fairly transparent attempt to dress questions about the nature of consciousness and reality in the drag of spectacle and catchy choruses.

Pippin works for me best if you think about all of the events, characters, and props as existing only within a single person's mind. Maybe that person is Pippin, perhaps that person is the audience. The 'Magic' that the players do - prestidigitation, narrative convolutions, and distortions make sense within the context of a mind examining a menu of  possibilities. Jaron Lanier, a philosopher I've quoted above, described consciousness as a kind of 'dial,' or 'gauge,' which fluctuates through various levels of meaning. Perhaps that is the process this play dramatizes. As Pippin tries out various roles and guises, he mirrors the work a human mind must do during the course of its life, weighing choices against expectations. Pippin wants to be powerful and significant but he's repulsed by the corruption and banality of each identity he adopts. Each of his choices pale before the glow of the extraordinary destiny he sees for himself. The "Lead Player," caters to this angst, seducing the young man through song, spectacle, and wry commentary. By the end of the musical the demon's intent is clear: to force the searcher into a dilemma where the only possible way to fulfill impossibly high standards of a meaning and significance is a grand finale, an act of self-immolation. To go out with a bang. Pippin ultimately recoils from this, resuming a conventional life with a wife and a son. In one clever addition to the revival, in the end this boy, Theo, returns to the stage in the closing moments of the play to reprise the "eagles have to soar" line from Pippin. That is the only cue needed for the circus performers to slink back on to the stage. Magic and illusion tend to charm the innocent.

As with any revival, you have to wonder what the point of this is. Can a play created during the 70s, catering for a post-Woodstock audience really have much to offer now besides Cirque du Soleil acrobatics and updated instrumentation? Sure, Pippin's quest for meaning in life is one of those timeless themes, but what makes Pippin resonate now? I do think one other aspect of this story really registers. When Pippin reaches his final crisis of existence, the basic question is of either accepting a normal life or making some dramatic fiery exit that 'that will live on in the minds of others.' In Pippin that fire was aimed inwards, but tragically we know that isn't always the case. In the final calculation, I wonder how much separates the need for fame from the urge for infamy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

There should be a word

If you are, let's say, re-watching two television shows more or less concurrently, you might experience a weird sort of conversation taking place between the two shows. Especially if the show come from a similar corner of the pop-cultural universe.

Now watching Star Trek The Next Generation's second season, I got to the episode "Contagion." Quick recap to save you the effort to remember a very forgettable episode: the Enterprise responds to a distress call from the USS Yamamoto in the neutral zone to find her sister ship stricken with mysterious equipment failures. Right after the captain of the ship waves off Picard's suggestion to evacuate the ship, the Yamamoto suffers a core containment malfunction and violently explodes. Subsequently, the Enterprise begins to suffer similar equipment failures throughout the ship, a problem Geordi eventually traces to what amounts to a computer virus. The problem nearly destroys the Enterprise until Geordi tries...

Cut to IT Crowd, which I'm also watching, and Roy's catchphrase: "Have you tried turning it on and off again?"

Which is EXACTLY what solves the problem on The Enterprise. Sigh, the 80's were a weird time. I'm going to cut Star Trek a little slack and say the episode was filmed during a time where popular culture hadn't really internalized the concept of computers. Apparently Roddenberry only green lit this episode when someone explained what a computer virus was. So the idea of rebooting the Enterprise's mainframe from an uncorrupted file must have seemed somewhat exotic. Or something.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dystopian Desires

John Stewart says it best: "Their paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present." Stewart was talking about the real reason why gun advocates like the NRA push back so hard on reasonable gun control measures. Fearful people in this country want guns as a safeguard against their own government/society. I grew up in this culture, the dark little secret at the heart of a certain kind of rabid gun collector is they don't want to make sure they have a hunting rifle or that they can fire off a few rounds in a gun range. What they want is a way to stop hordes of undesirables in the event of a total breakdown of law and order.

The irony is, the rampant gun culture in this country, the expectation that the best solution to a problem is violence, probably does more to advance that societal decay than anything.

But I want to backtrack a little bit because there's something a little earlier in this monologue that really resonates. After a few clips of pundits claiming that the assault weapon ban didn't do anything to bring down gun violence, Stewart starts pointing to all of the perfectly reasonable things that do work when combined together in a rational system of laws. This country brought down the incidence of drunk driving deaths, not because of a single law, but an entire series of laws, initiatives and public awareness campaigns. Small steps bringing measurable improvements. The gun lobby would have us believe that if a single gun control measure doesn't work, then we shouldn't try anything.

Link to whole video.

I don't think the gun debate is the only place where this mentality surfaces. Republicans would have us believe that if a single millionaire suffers higher taxes, that's it, no one will ever be hired in this country again. If a single undocumented worker is allowed to successfully gain citizenship, that's it, the entire world will immediately start hopping over the border. It's ridiculous, but we've heard this nonsense for so long, it's hard to even realize just how insane this line of reasoning is.

Reform is possible. Just because something has happened in the past, doesn't mean it always has to happen. Segregation wasn't ended in one day. Child labor wasn't abolished after a weekend of debate. Plenty of work remains before everyone in this country will be able to marry whom they choose. Does the fact it's difficult to make these changes, mean we shouldn't bother?

Are we doomed to a dystopia because some people can't imagine anything else?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Martian Couch Potatoes

Lot's of reasons to post a link to this article:

  1. Turns out the depiction of the long journey of the Ares in "Red Mars," was pretty accurate.
  2. Lends support to the idea that the slow boat to Mars maybe a non-starter. Sorry Zubrin.
  3. Seems like the least I can do to acknowledge of the suffering of a crew of astronauts confined to a small room for 520 days and then not even getting to see Mars at the other side.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Reaction on Utopia Versus Dystopia

Are stories about utopias morally superior to stories about dystopias? By writing about futures where governments break down, resources run dry, pandemics run rampant, and zombies wolf down unsuspecting pedestrians, are we making those things more likely to happen?

Give credit where credit is due, +Robert Llewellyn asked a provocative question in his post to the the sci-fi community the other day. Does the preponderance of dystopian, post-apocalyptic (a word he doesn't actually use, but I feel fits his description of most zombie movies) come from the fears of the ruling class (predominantly white, anglo-saxon and rich)? Are these futures presented to us because that's the future the elites fear, one of rapidly reduced power and prestige? 

Robert quickly back-tracked from his question on whether or not dystopias are ever written by the under-privledged. Of course there are, from all over the world. There are also plenty of writers from conservative or elite backgrounds more than happy to churn out their own brand of utopia (see Ayn Rand and Orson Scott Card). But I want to give Robert credit where credit is due, sometimes the value of a question is not whether or not it can be answered but whether or not it provokes interesting ideas.

Now, if you've been reading my blog this week, you know that I have a thing for Star Trek and its vision of a future. There's conflict and disagreement and tragedy but the series embraces an irrepressible optimism on the course of the human development. Star Trek believes in a brighter future, a utopia of explorers and scientists and dreamers pushing out into the stars, free of most material constraints, simply looking for new worlds. It's an appealing vision but never an unchallenged one. Before The Next Generation was even over, reactions against its pieties and perspectives were already appearing. In many ways, Star Trek Deep Space Nine functions as a rebuke of the universalist, relentless humanism of The Next Generation. Still later, Firefly would cast utopian world builders as the enemy, as assimilators and imperialists of limitless hubris.

Could we see the pendulum swing? Culturally, this year has more, not less, post-apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction in store. From Oblivion to After Earth to World War Z, the culture still seems in the thrall of dark, discouraging visions. Even Star Trek seems to be toeing the line, the title of the sequel of 2008's re-boot is "Into Darkness," after all. But I, for one, am just about done with apocalypses and grungy, down-rent futures. I have no idea if a dystopia is more reactionary than a utopia, but I do know one thing.

I'm bored of them. 

It may be tougher to construct interesting utopian fiction but it's not impossible. It's even been done before.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

It's the second act, time to debate the Prime Directive

"When you've gone, will this world continue to exist? Will my wife and kids still be waiting for me at home?" Lt. McNary to Captain Picard in "The Big Goodbye."

Stories need conflict, the tension between what might and might not occur. Some conflicts are immediate and visceral, others are abstract and harder to quantify. Different genres seem to reflexively reach for certain conflicts, certain stereotypical problems. Horror and suspense stories are about danger, unseen threats and fight/flight responses. Romance stories often explore the tension between interpersonal love and societal expectations. People read thrillers and fantasy novels to see super-competent people struggle through unbelievable adversity, their hair consistently un-mussed.

Science Fiction, set on alien worlds, surrounded by mind-bending technology, is well positioned to handle questions of transcendence and the limits of human potential.

Abraham Maslow coined the term self-actualization as part of his Hierarchy of Needs, a sort of linear organization of the motivations behind people's actions. Maslow arranged his system so that each level of the hierarchy needs to be resolved before an individual moves on to confronting issues in the next highest level. So once an individual has enough to eat and drink, is secure in his or her environment, feels love and acceptance from others and is able to excel work and life, Maslow felt he or her might still need to confront larger, transpersonal considerations such as morality, self-fulfillment and problem-solving. Leaving aside questions of whether Maslow's assertions are supported by research, I've been using this model to organize my own examination of conflicts in the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation. 

In particular, I like using this model to explain why Star Trek TNG, compared to other television shows, focuses so much on the abstract. Whether debating the morality of terraforming, the possibility of interfering with an alien culture, or the nature of reality itself, the standard view we have of the show isn't a star ship swooping through a star field, or an away team firing phasers or even bizarre alien costumes (although each of these appear, obviously) but rather a group of people sitting around a conference table, hashing out problems in a meeting. One of the episode recap websites I enjoy even keeps a running count of how long it takes each episode to get to a "meeting scene;" spoiler alert: it's never very long.

Why meetings? Why so much talking? The short answer, probably one of the best, is that's what the writers wanted. At its best, Star Trek exists to debate and consider weighty issues. Ultimately, TNG would find a comfortable groove, balancing action and philosophy within a single episode, but the 'head' of the first season is still very much at war with its 'heart' and 'gut.' The writers can't seem to figure out how the most powerful starship in the sector can be the setting for interesting stories once deprived of phaser fire and interpersonal conflict. Hence, lots of episodes about god-like beings and technologically backwards aliens where the resolution revolves around a deus ex machina.

That said, the first season does offer some stand-out episodes concerning morality and self-fulfillment and even the shoddier episodes strive to work out the implications of Roddenberry's philosophy.

"Symbiosis" is one such flawed episode. The Enterprise rescues the crew of a decrepit space ship before it disintegrates in the atmosphere of alien world. What they find are two separate species engaged in a conflict over a shipment of medical supplies, a drug called felicium. The Omaran need the medicine to treat a fatal plague on their world, but the Brekkians refuse to give them the supplies because the payment was lost in the destruction of the space ship. The twist is that the Omarans are not actually suffering from a plague but rather withdrawal symptoms from felicium, which is actually a powerful narcotic. The Brekkians are essentially interplanetary drug dealers, the Omarans their only market. This is a rather clumsy allegory and the episode thuds through a rote series of conversations until Picard finally solves the problem by doing what he always intended to do anyway: follow the Prime Directive and not interfere. However that does pass over a fine debate between Picard and Crusher over the Prime Directive. It's a somewhat lop-sided argument but still manages to prefigure the better explorations later in the show. Crusher represents the natural disgust the audience might feel for the Omarans' exploitation, while Picard is the rationalist voice of experience. "The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous." Picard allows the Omarans their narcotics but not the engine repairs that would sustain their economic system into perpetuity.  

Picard, himself, often serves as an example of what Maslow might term a self-actualized individual. While he is certainly a flawed character, the focus is on enlightened problem-solving. He might not always be correct, but he nearly always expounds an upbeat and optimistic course within the stories. He is a pragmatist and a realist about the capabilities of his crew. He seems to seek out solitude and quiet contemplation but is also capable of appreciating new experiences simply for the opportunities for learning they represent. A good example of this happens in "The Big Goodbye," an episode referenced above. Looking for a respite from the arduous task of memorizing a complex greeting to the Haradans, Picard enters into a Holodeck simulation based around a Chandler-esque detective mystery. He is fascinated by the automobiles outside the windows of his office, exchanges quick banter about his incongruous Starfleet uniform and is so enchanted by the whole scenario he can't help but talk it up at the next staff meeting. But Picard is not without the ability to appraise the ethical concerns of a simulated reality. After McNary's plaintive question, Picard answers only with what he is certain: "I don't know…"

This phrase is echoed later in the season when the crew is confronted with a life form radically different from any they had encountered before, "Home Soil." While investigating the death of a terraformer engineer, Data and LaForge discover a tiny blinking substance. They return with it to the lab and go through a series of tests to figure out if it fits the criteria of life. What makes this interesting is the sincere approach to this question. They ask computer what it makes of the phenomena, they ask each other, and finally make a reasoned deduction. This is life, albeit one different from one they have encountered before. While the episode eventually becomes a rather generic (for Star Trek anyway) higher power versus the Enterprise conflict, this is one moment of pure scientific tension. Here is a mystery and a puzzle, how might a genuinely curious investigator resolve it?

There is a cost to such commitment to enlightened exploration, however, one that serves as the subtext to "We'll Always Have Paris." Picard is troubled to learn a distress signal comes from a renowned physicist Paul Manheim, revealing only reluctantly that his wife is an old flame he had stood up a long time before, while waiting for his first Star Fleet posting. Confronted with Jenice Manheim and the consequences of a decision from his youth, Picard immediately becomes nostalgic and wistful. Jenice asks him why he never showed up and Picard says with candor, "because I was afraid." Jenice doesn't want candor however and first has him try a few of the conventional excuses, 'it was raining,' 'I forgot what day it was.' Why does this moment happen? I think to highlight the age and experience of both characters. It would be one thing if Picard was a much younger man, facing events only a few years previous, but he is not a young man. As we already know from "The Battle," Picard is already nearly a legend, with a battle maneuver named after him. So for a man obviously in the prime of his life, confident of his abilities and outlook, it is all too easy for him to look back at his younger self and admit failings. Picard never claims to be a perfect person, but he does center his self-esteem on the wisdom he's acquired over time. So what is he afraid of? Eventually Picard admits to the fear he still struggles with, his terror of an ordinary life: a wife, children and a sedentary life. The show doesn't really resolve the question of whether or not Picard made the right choice at the cafe. Paul Manheim is famous is his own right, sees beyond the confines of this dimension, and yet spends his life at the center of a barren planetoid. Would that have been Picard's fate? Would that have been a bad choice? What's important to understand here is that the story isn't a conventional love story. Picard doesn't rekindle anything with Jenice by the end of the show, the tension revolves around a smaller issue of whether or not Picard can escape the regrets of his own actions. Because he's Picard, even as he bids goodbye to his old flame, we sense genuine ambivalence. On one hand he has deprived himself of the love of an obvious partner and companion, on the other, his position as captain and problem-solver allowed him to save both Jenice and her husband. 

Relevance to Craft:

Of all the conflicts I've outlined this week, I believe this is the hardest to pull off effectively. Putting characters into danger or having them wrestle with personal demons are fairly immediate sources of drama. Making an intellectual debate over a cluster of blinking lights compelling is tougher. So do these shows offer any suggestions for doing it successfully? Or do they only serve as cautionary examples of what not to do?

Let's concentrate on the positive. When considering whether or not to include moralistic conflicts in a story it's probably good to remember a few obvious pointers from the examples above:
  1. Do make sure the conflict is genuine and immediate. Having characters debate the nature of reality in an episode works a lot better when the episode is set inside of a holographic virtual reality. The action of the story should reinforce, not distract from the debate.
  2. Do handle the conflict with sincerity and transparency. What makes the inquiry scene in "Home Soil" work is the tone: the characters are invested in the mystery, the process they used deftly detailed, and the end result doesn't seem preordained.
  3. Do aspire for the unexpected. If you put two characters with a previous romantic history in the same room, and your reader expects them to fall back in love. In "We'll Always Have Paris," that doesn't happen. Both Picard and Jenice are secure in their own identities and their own lives what's really important is whether they can make peace with that fact. This might not be as satisfying a conclusion to the episode, but it's fresher and more honest to the characters.
In a broader sense, this advice is true for any conflicts. Conflict works when it works in the story. The most exciting gun battle, debate or seduction is meaningless unless it serves the story. The story is all, conflict is a tool to that end. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Conflict of Competency

Characters have a need to feel competency. Once all of the other basic needs have been met - enough to eat and drink, a sense of security, and acceptance from peers - it is natural for human beings to seek out opportunities to feel good about themselves. To feel important and clever. In literature, this type of conflict is difficult to describe because it tapers away to questions of love and acceptance on the low end and issues of ethics and morality on the upper end. Also, I think many people have a mixed reaction to obviously talented people having those abilities tested. On one hand, professional sports wouldn't exist if we didn't, on some level, enjoy watching talented performers push themselves in competition. But on the other hand, we tend to mock or revile those people who seem too proud of their own accomplishments or too flashy in victory. "Don't spike the football."

This is a tough balancing act for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Put simply, every single character comes off as incredibly arrogant at some point in the first season. Whether it's Picard's deliberately unironic reading of Hamlet's "Piece of Work" monologue, Riker's high-handed treatment in "Angel One" of the Matriarch Beata, or Wesley's smug little smirk, these are characters existing in a state of high self-regard. Of course, this is one of the most common complaints about the beginnings of the series, how the characters are bland and complacent to a fault. To the show's credit, that changes and there are some entertaining challenges to the crew's arrogance later on.

A central motif in the Star Trek universe is an attraction to competency. Although flawed, the members of the crew, from the earliest episodes, clearly represent the best of the best. Picard is the premier Star Fleet captain and Riker is an ambitious and impressive first officer. Data, LaForge, and Worf are all unique individuals with, presumably, glowing resumes. Perhaps that's why the crew comes off as remarkably intolerant in some of the earliest episodes: repulsed by the Ferengi, patronizing to the Ligonians, and dismissive of Angel matriarchal oligarchy. The two basic types of threats in these earlier stories are either godlike in potency or significantly more primitive. There's not much for the crew to test their mettle against.

For the first season then, most of the conflicts revolve around the one character still attempting to define his abilities, Wesley Crusher. This is a tricky statement because Wesley also fulfills a more odious function in the first season: a convenient deux ex machina. Is an enormous gob of glowing star barf heading towards the Enterprise? Wesley fixes it. Is the ship marooned in a swirling, gossamer fantasy mist at the end of the universe? Wesley fixes it. The list of examples where Wesley saves the day at the last minute is depressingly long. But that's not really an example of an ego conflict. A better moment happens in the episode "Coming of Age." Here Wesley is attempting the Star Fleet admission test, competing against three other applicants, all demonstrating impressive amounts of knowledge and talent. One section of the test, challenges the applicants to solve a series of engineering problems. One of Wesley's competitors, Mordock, loses composure and Wesley, perhaps empathizing with the other's struggles, talks him through to a solution. The situation is sort of obvious, but I like it nevertheless as an example of ego played against a need for acceptance. From an earlier encounter between Wesley and Jack, we see Wesley feels uncomfortable with his talent, embarrassed by outcompeting his friend. So again he is confronted with the tension of surging ahead for himself or pausing to help someone else. He helps his new friend, allowing Mordock to win, and losing a few crucial points.

I think this is the same basic conflict that appears in the psych test later in the episode. Here, Wesley is confronted with an apparent explosion at the test site. He rushes in, attempting to bring two trapped personnel to safety. He is forced to physically drag one free from an impending explosion, and is unable to convince the other to leap through a jet of noxious gases to safety. Ultimately Wesley chooses to save the injured man, leaving the other to his fate. Informed that the whole situation was the psych test, Wesley shows remarkable self-control. Instead of grabbing the nearest phaser and blasting his way out of the Skinner box, Wesley realizes his central problem is a fear he could not choose one life over another or withstand the pressures of responsibility. He fails to win his way into Star Fleet, but the test has given him some measure of confidence in his own abilities.

I honestly feel this is one type of conflict under-used in speculative fiction. Skill and talent is typically taken for granted in stories. An uber-competent hero cuts a wide swath through swarms of cannon fodder until he meets his only one true challenge in a story, the principal villain. The rivals match swords, guns, wits or giant mechs in a pitched battle until one of them wins, roll credits. I'd like more examples of conflicts where a competent character has a central talent truly tested in a convincing and interesting way. Perhaps, that conflict has to look like what I've described above, the need to compete versus a need to help others. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Love and Androids

So far this week, I've looked at the two most basic types of conflicts for characters in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation -- physiological needs and concerns over threats and safety. Pressing forward, it's more difficult to make sweeping generalizations about such and such an episode, we have to focus on individual characters and their motivations.

The simplest and most general type of psychological motivation revolves around acceptance and love. Human beings are social animals, and even our fictional creations seek relationships and affection. For the most part, the crew of the Enterprise is presented as a surprisingly well-knit and supportive work place considering that initially most of them are strangers to each other. However, there are tensions that pull the characters away from each other, a reoccurring theme in first season "character episodes."

 Sometimes you can almost guess what's written on each index card for the main character's motivations. Tasha Yar: gain measure of peace with troubled childhood. Worf: reconcile Klingon background with human upbringing. Wesley: stop getting treated like a kid.

Data is the character with the most obvious tensions over acceptance and one of the clearest character arcs over the course of the season. Even more than the truly alien Worf, Data represents a challenge to his friends and crewmates. Data simply does not get people and his attempts to blend in typically serve only to highlight this point. Very early on in the awful "Code of Honor," episode, Data attempts to tell LaForge a joke, failing spectacularly. A running gag in the first season is Data initiating a conversational info dump only to hear, "Thank you, Data, that's enough." By the second season, even the main computer gives him lip.

Data as a character really defines why I prefer looking at the needs of a character over situational conflicts (man vs. nature, man vs. man, etc.) What makes Data interesting, even early on, is this bottomless need to fit in paired with an utter inability to do so. Watching this 25 years ago, I initially figured this part of Data was a programming defect until the "Datalore" episode when it's revealed Data's incomprehension of basic human customs was feature not flaw. Data's creator intentionally created an imperfect android, one less offensive to the other human colonists of his homeworld. The other android created by Noonien Soong, Lore, tells the crew that the colonists grew alarmed by his more sophisticated understanding of human behavior. Although this phrase isn't used, Data is an example of the uncanny valley effect. The closer an android gets to being human, the more jarring the minor difference remaining become.

Actually, in retrospect, "Datalore" functions as a reboot for the character, the true beginning of his quest to be more fully human. By the end of the story, Data doesn't even seem to understand the betrayal that Lore's actions represent. To Data, Lore is a threat and once dealt with, Data continues on as before, alone but incomplete.

A better signpost to where the character is ultimately going happens later in the season in "We Will Always Have Paris," and "Neutral Zone," the season finale. Data has a pivotal role late in the earlier episode, beaming down to a computer lap and patching a flaw in time with a canister of anti-matter. Picard orders him into the risky situation because Data seems to be less bothered by the 'temporal hiccups' caused by the rift. Data, however, at first assumes the captain is sending him down because he is somehow expendable. Patrick Steward is able to provide Picard a moment of being taken aback by the android's clinical observation, a moment that Data seems to pick up on. Later on in the episode, three distinct Data's appear after another hiccup, with only one in proper phase to repair the rift. One of the android's calls out for the captain but it's the middle one that steps forward with a simple, "It's me!" The episode doesn't make a big deal out of this moment, but I actually like it a great deal. It's one of the first clear moments where Data expresses something like an emotion, first confusion and then the exhilaration of self-discovery. Not to beat a dead horse, but this is Data giving himself the measure of acceptance and recognition absent from the other characters with exception of LaForge.

Which is why Data's side-plot in the season finale strikes a chord with me. It's Data who beams over to the decaying satellite and rescues the freeze-dried 20th century passengers. Ryker and Picard seem repulsed by the survivor's behavior and attitudes but Data seems to identify with them.  It's Data who forms a bond with the musician and seems genuinely tempted, or at least curious, by L.Q. "Sonny" Clemmons' offer in the closing scenes. Sonny offers something that Data had not realized he wanted, companionship and the casual acceptance of another. These are themes, obviously, picked up and elaborated on through the run of the show.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Safety First

This week I'm looking at various types of conflict in speculative fiction. I'm using the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation as a source because I just watched the first season and it's still relatively fresh in my mind. I wish that wasn't so, in some cases.

For this post I want to examine the next step up in Maslow's Hierarchy of Need: concerns of safety. Characters need to go about their life free from a constant looming danger, when placed under threat, they work to remove the threat or remove themselves from its presence. This is different from physiological conflicts because a threat isn't actually lethal. I know in these paranoid times, the merest possibility of danger appears to cause injury and property damage but in actuality the only thing being attacked is one's sense of calm. That's not to say the need for safety isn't real, it's just one step more abstract than fighting to stay alive in a blizzard.

Plenty of examples of this appear in the first season. Still trying to figure out how to convert a basically utopian society into the setting for interesting stories, the writers in TNG tossed in a lot of frankly superfluous threats to juice up the tension. In the Original Series, this might be termed a "monster-of-the-week" episode but apparently someone decided that monsters were no longer the thing to do (Skin of Evil's Armus one odious exception). So instead, we get a lot of vague dangers concerning warp core breaches, unstable temporal rifts and odd contagions. I'm selecting a few of the more interesting episodes to highlight this last type.

To start off, it's hard to talk about the first season without bringing up diseases. For a culture supposedly free of headaches, heart attacks, and emphysema the crew of the Enterprise spends an awful lot of time unwell. It's hard to take Crusher's assertions of the power of 24th century medicine seriously when every other episode everyone's dying of the superflu. Contagious diseases appear throughout the first season: water-borne intoxicants, virulent flus, and planet scourging plagues. The advantage of diseases for an expensive series is that they inject danger into situations at very low cost. In "Angel One," a few well-timed sneezes are the only required special effect. 

"Haven" could stand-in for all of these episodes. Probably best remembered for the debut of Lwaxana Troi, Deana Troi's overbearing mother, it includes a subplot revolving around a totally separate menacing alien contagion. During the episode, an unidentified ship is detected on the Enterprise's long range sensors. This ship proves full of Tarellians, a race nearly wiped out after the release of a plague during a war. For the most part this is a talky episode, the question whether or not the ship's counselor is truly going to leave the Enterprise to fulfill an obligation she had no part in agreeing to. Apparently someone thought this wasn't really enough for the episode so cue plague ship. Picard tries to convince the Tarellians to find some other planet to settle on, but is unsuccessful. The ship comes closer and closer, its entire stern blistered by a translucent, pulsating boil, before the the whole thing is resolved by a convenient deus ex machina. 

Safety conflicts work best when the characters have something at stake. The easiest solution to a threat is to simply run away, so there must be some compelling reason why the Enterprise would stay in a threatening situation. In "The Naked Now," we get another contagion, this one a variant of H20 that behaves like alcohol, but the true threat is a star on the brink of a nova. When the star explodes, a mass of stellar material jets towards the Enterprise, its engines incapacitated by a intoxicated engineer. For the most part the episode is forgettable and Wesley heavy, but the ending works for the most part. By the last five minutes of the show, everyone is compromised, barely able to see straight, and yet terribly aware of impending doom. Yet, it's believable that a fairly simple solution, pushing another ship into the path of the stellar matter, would resolve the issue. As +Darren Landrum pointed out, these episodes work best with the minimum of techno babble.

Which gets to the episode I judge as handling threat conflicts the best, "Conspiracy." This episode is definitely an anomaly, dark, pessimistic, and intensely violent.  It would be a lot better received in fandom if the threat it introduces actually appeared again and the special effects range from dated to stomach-turning. But I think the show remains a nasty piece of work. From the moment Picard receives a Code 47 message we know something is up. Hints of a conspiracy come from shadowy officers holding weapons on a red, barren world. Picard best friend's is sabotaged and converted into a messy debris field. When the ship returns to Earth, Picard finds familiar faces suddenly turned cold and suspicious. It's the slow build of details that really adds to this type of tension. We see a purple writhing larvae in a case but we actually find anything out about it until the last eight minutes of the episode. We are left to conjecture, to fill in the blanks. Quinn is part of the conspiracy, one of the officers on the mining planet is revealed compromised by the silent invasion and at last, Picard has to confront the possibility that Ryker has been subverted. I think this overcomes the "don't go in that room!" effect because Picard is genuinely skeptical the conspiracy is really as large as it seems, or as dangerous. This also plays into Picard's central flaw as a character, his blithe self-confidence bordering on arrogance. By the time he does know the danger he's in, he is far too involved. He's already taken the bait and we are right there with him. Not a perfect episode and not really Star Trek, but definitely worth a re-watch.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Basic Questions of Survival

Yesterday I talked up the idea of 'need-based' conflicts in stories, including Maslow's Hierarchy of Need. The few examples I gave of each level up on the pyramid strike me as inadequate so I'm going to explore each in more detail.

Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season has a reputation for being conflict free, and therefore boring. As I've rewatched the series, slowly making my way through the episodes, I don't think I agree with that entirely. Even early TNG has plenty of conflict but most of it is higher up on the pyramid and is, frankly, not well executed. I see no need to do an episode by episode review, plenty fine surveys exist online, try Jammer's for sober, nicely executed write-ups. Instead, I'm going to bend a fairly mediocre run of shows to a hopefully higher purpose, namely how can a show set in a nearly Utopian future feature compelling, strong conflicts?

I'll start by unearthing the rarest form of conflict in TNG: physiological conflicts revolving on basic questions of survival: not enough food, water, air, etc. This is different from the need of safety, or the removal of threat, which appears in this series all the time. The whole point of Roddenberry's form of Space Opera is this is a world free of material wants and diseases. Technology doesn't always work perfectly in this universe but for the most part it's malfunctions are the exceptions, not the rule. Early on in the first season, the Enterprise's chief doctor, Beverly Crusher casually informs Picard that even headaches have been banished by the 24th century. Picard's ship is equipped with holodecks and replicators able to recreate nearly any desired object. This is a post-scarcity economy.

And yet, stories where the conflict centers around basic survival do appear. Restricted to moments where the characters are not just under threat, but actually dying or dehabilitated in some fashion three episodes contain central conflicts revolving around whether or not the character can survive.

For example, in "The Last Outpost," the Enterprise confronts a Ferengi ship that had stolen some piece of Federation technology. The Ferengi prove fairly ridiculous from the first lash of their neon foam whips, draining the episode of most of its tension. However, both the Ferengi and the Enterprise have been seized by an energy draining force field controlled by an ancient intelligence on a planet  below the ships. As the power dies aboard the Enterprise, the crew is forced to huddle together and survive as best they can while waiting for the away team to resolve the situation. This conflict would be better if the crew still had some agency in the conflict. Held as virtual hostages by the fate of the away team, they make do with flimsy looking blankets and lots of shivering. Not very compelling television.

A slightly better example appears in "The Battle," the first of many episodes revolving around some hasty action Picard made earlier in his career. The father of a Ferengi Picard had killed in a desperate maneuver comes looking for revenge. Not content with simply shooting Picard while he was on shore leave, the vengeful father inflicts mental torture through an illegal piece of technology that always looked to me like a demonic lava lamp. The combination of headaches and insomnia eventually drive Picard a little nuts and he ends up attempting to destroy the Enterprise while captaining his former command, the Stargazer. Patrick Steward is an phenomenal actor, and he's able to rise above the unintentional comedy to give genuine life to a person agonized by the past. What makes this a better example of physiological conflict is that pain from the alien technology mirrors the unresolved tension of a nearly-forgotten firefight. And, far from being helpless within its grip, Picard is ultimately able to shake off the torment and clear his head for just long enough to destroy the device. It's a very simple kill or be killed situation but it works for this episode.

My last example is taken from one of the only other actiony episodes in the first season, "Arsenal of Freedom." For the most part this episode revolves around a safety conflict, an automated weapon appears again and again, adapting with each generation as it strives to wipe out an away team. Because the weapon doesn't actually kill anyone, the tension comes from the suggestion of harm, not actual danger. However, after Picard and Crusher beam down to the planet and fall into a pit, the tension shifts. Crusher is badly injured in the fall and begins to slip into shock. Here at last is a truly visceral physiological conflict, made all the better because both characters involved in the scene, Picard and Crusher, have an active role in resolving it. Crusher talks Picard through finding medicinal roots, and Picard, rooting around in the cave, makes an important discovery. The moment reveals aspects of both characters in a believable way and still feels fresh and compelling a quarter century later.

Conflicts around basic survival appear throughout the series, but for a variety of reasons they are very rare in the first season. The lack of physiological conflicts actually goes a long way to setting the tone of the show. Star Trek TNG, from the beginning, was meant to scale loftier heights than questions of simple survival. The relative absence suggests a show eager to tackle more rarified questions. I just don't think the first season writer's had it quite worked out how to finesse Roddenberry's aspirations with the needs of compelling drama. Most of these episodes are god-awful, but they had just enough promise to keep the series chugging forward.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Humanistic Conflict

I've run into a problem. My current story's conflict doesn't quite have the punch I want it to. I've tried a few different methods to figure out what exactly is troubling the main character or what larger issues are in play, but I'm not there yet. While my story stews for awhile, I thought I'd talk about my dissatisfaction with the standard model of literary conflicts. In other words, let's talk shop.

Usually in literature we say conflict comes in four basic types: man versus nature, man versus man, man versus society and man versus self. This is the model I heard in school and this is the model I teach in my own literature class. You could throw in a few other types of conflicts, depending on the genre, conflict versus supernatural beings or conflict with technology. You might even subtract one of the categories due to ideological preference (Ayn Rand disliked the idea that nature had any choice in a story, big surprise). But for the most part these are the types of conflict you hear about. I'm not denigrating the idea of categories or even these particular choices; literature is complex and manifold, having a common language about literature helps when discussing it.

What has struck me this week, however, is how unhelpful these basic categories are when actually writing conflicts. I'm not sure the notion of man versus man really does much more than describe the participants in a conflict, it doesn't really address what the conflict is about

What is conflict? All stories include descriptions of people, characters, with unmet needs. They can't love whom they wish, they can't get a job, they can't get away from a big scary monster. As the story traces the character's attempts to meet this need, conflicts are the obstacles preventing the character from achieving his aims. These needs can be tangible obviously: food, water, air and shelter, but they can also be more psychological. In horror, a monster is more or less 'real,' in that it has claws or sharp teeth or some other way of depriving a person of their ability to continue living. But as any fan of horror fiction knows, actually seeing the creature is never as scary as the suggestion that something menacing is out there, trying to get in. This is still essentially the same conflict, the character no longer feels safe and seeks someway to address the situation. Usually with an ax or flamethrower.

Those with a few psychology courses under their belts might recognize the basic pattern I'm driving at. Abraham Maslow was famous for describing a humanistic psychology, presenting the needs of individual in the form of a hierarchy. At the bottom are physiological needs: food, water and other basic necessities. Above that are safety needs: an individual seeks to be free of danger or the threat of danger. Beyond that are social needs, an individual should feel part of a larger community and accepted for his or her contributions. Ego needs come next, a healthy individual desires respect and esteem of peers. Finally, at the apex of the pyramid are self-actualization needs, the desire of an individual to become all that it is possible to be, to live to the fullest. 

To me this is a more helpful framework for addressing conflict in a story. What does a character need? What is he trying to get?

At the most basic level a story can be about simple survival. I think this tends to be lumped into the man versus nature conflict in the classical arrangement but the conflict can be more dynamic. People or societies can deprive characters of what they need to survive. A character is attempting to survive by getting something that is lacked. Jack London's "To Build A Fire" is fine example of a survival story set in nature, "The Most Dangerous Game," a survival story against a human adversary.

Danger or menace forms the impetus for a safety conflict. When a character is threatened, he will attempt to remove that threat, either by escaping or directly confronting it. The point here is not that a danger is necessarily lethal but that it removes the basic need for humans to feel physically secure in their environment. Peter Straub's "Koko," a psychological thriller I reviewed last year, demonstrates this conflict masterfully. The killer kills, but the menace Koko represents drives the story forward.

Above that are questions of acceptance. Individuals desire different levels of belonging and social acceptance. Some can be perfectly happy with minimal human companionship, others have an instinctive need to gain the acceptance of the largest number of people possible. When society of a social group withholds this acceptance a character suffers. Ralph Emerson's "Invisible Man" is an  example springing to mind.

A character accepted by others can still have unmet needs if his own self-worth depends on the approval of others. Characters often experience conflict as they attempt to define themselves as a happy, functional human being separate from others. James Joyce's "Portrait of an Artist as Young Man," traces the progress of an individual gaining confidence to use his talents and abilities for his own purposes, showing the obstacles that society, human nature and his own traitorous mind throw in his path.

Finally a story might revolve around the more philosophical questions of what is the limit of an individual. What can a person achieve when all other needs are met? I think this is the most challenging conflict to describe obviously, creating a convincing psychology of a self-actualized individual while still keeping him interesting and compelling. Writers hoping to describe a true utopia face a similar challenge. I have a few examples of this type of conflict, Levin's introspective questing in "Anna Karenina" and also Olaf Stapledon's humanistic future histories: Last and First Men as well as Star Maker.

The point here is that the focus of these conflicts is not just on an individual, but of the idea of personhood as a whole. Humanistic psychology is an optimistic philosophy. People are inherently good, capable of redemption and growth. Literature, even something as humble as science fiction, can point in the direction of resolution and evolution.

In the next few postings I'm going to describe some other examples of Maslow's conflicts and try to work towards some idea of how this type of conflict works in practice.