Writing Scifi – That’s Me Trying

Originally posted this over at Reddit, but I want to capture the whole thought here. Feedback is floating in about my novel is floating in, and yes it looks like I’ll be re-drafting Mesh. Not too crazy. The consensus seems that Mesh is ‘good,’ and now I should focus on making it ‘great.’ I can live with that.

My professional author friends are (rightly) asking structural questions about Mesh: does this character *have* to be this way? Does this thing drive the story? I’m taking their feedback with care, and thinking deeply about what they mean. After all, I need to care about Mesh and its characters if I expect anyone else to.

One person challenged me to think about why Roman – my protag – is the way that he is. Is it right, is it necessary for Roman to be a disabled kid? Why is he Mexican? Am I doing this to say ‘Yay, diversity and accessibility?’ My kneejerk answer is “It’s important,” but that’s an insufficient answer. Those are fair questions to ask, and I’ve been thinking hard about the answer.

If there’s one beef I’ve had about popular science fiction over the years, it’s been that the main characters are two-dimensional, unrealistic, and insincere. Think about how wooden most scifi protags are, especially at the beginning of a movie, where Captain Perfect of the USS Flawlessness approaches Planet Hypothesis to learn a new form of human postulation. We’ve improved over time, seeing new character depth (Hello Stranger Things and Next-Gen), but we still have much progress to make.

So, here’s Roman, my protag. How will I make him an authentic, genuine person that you care about? As Pixar tells us in their ‘Storytelling Rules,’ we admire a character for trying more than we do for their success. So Roman has to be trying, but what will he be trying to do?

This is where the personal part of Mesh comes in. Roman’s journey isn’t about saving the world, it’s about not letting the world destroy him. His life is complicated and difficult, like mine and many others. His family suffered some tremendous losses (the car crash that disables Roman also kills his sister – try living with that when you’re thirteen) and he has to learn to carry on. So every day he gets up, lives his life, and does the best that he can – that’s Roman trying. He’s trying to make it work, and that’s why I admire him as a character. His journey through Mesh shows that resilience, ingenuity, and spunk are still valuable skills to have in the 21st Century.

All that being said, how close am I coming to addressing these structural story issues? Does it make sense that I’m trying to make ‘good scifi’ that helps push back against the soulless, money-driven, bottom-line-only stories that suck the life out of us?

When I asked people what they thought on Reddit, I got some different ideas. The consensus seems to be that I’m on the right track. Stories should be character driven, with a strong focus on making sure the people in the story look, feel, and act like real people. I’m still trying to figure out what that means. For now, this is as far as I’ve gotten. Now it’s time to get busy, and get writing.

In closing, here’s what William Shatner sounds like when he’s trying. One thing about trying is that when you aren’t clear about what you’re trying or why, you can come across as insincere. Fun fact: This song was written by Nick Hornby.

 

One Thousand and One Nights – Historical Scifi

Since I love since fiction, I’ve been doing some research about its background. Sci-fi is often viewed as a modern genre, but did you know that science fiction story elements date back as far as the 14th Century? It’s true. Sci-fi stories have a deep, historical background. In fact, they’ve been around about as long as The Canterbury Tales, and their birth took place during the Islamic Golden Age.

One Thousand and One Nights, AKA Arabian Nights contains many story elements we recognize in modern sci-fi. Wikipedia has more detail:

Several stories within the One Thousand and One Nights feature early science fiction elements. One example is “The Adventures of Bulukiya”, where the protagonist Bulukiya’s quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, journey to Paradise and to Hell, and travel across the cosmos to different worlds much larger than his own world, anticipating elements of galactic science fiction; along the way, he encounters societies of djinn, mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, and other forms of life. In “Abu al-Husn and His Slave-Girl Tawaddud”, the heroine Tawaddud gives an impromptu lecture on the mansions of the Moon, and the benevolent and sinister aspects of the planets.

You can continue reading about those fantasy and science fiction elements here.

The main takeaway from all of this is that science fiction has been entertaining people for many years, perhaps over a thousand if my math is correct. Anytime a nerd complains about ‘tired story tropes’ in 2019, just know they were probably doing the same back in 1019.

Nerd on!

 

Here’s Why I’m Offline: Broken Guy Stuff

Wow, been three weeks since I posted. Thanks for waiting for an update. I’m not going to bother explaining the why’s, how’s, and what’s. I’m a real person, and my mental stuff is real, too. Things got the best of me and I’ve been dealing with that. You want to know the truth, I thought this video explains my situation pretty well. So, without comment, here is Laina Morris AKA ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend’ talking about her struggles and why they mean she is quitting Youtube.

I don’t want to quit, I don’t want the one thing I do that forces me to work on me to go away. I’ll continue working on me, and I hope you do the same.

Good-bye to Mad Magazine

There is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out. Multiple news agencies are reporting that Mad Magazine is ceasing publication after sixty-seven years. I know it’s not directly related to science fiction, but having to say good-bye to Mad Magazine still hurts. So, it’s worth talking about the satire magazine’s relationship with the science fiction genre.

Mad’s wiki article summarizes the magazine’s impact on American culture. In fact, reading Mad was an introduction for many American kids to satire, critical thinking, lampooning, and humor itself. Silly, without being subversive. Criticizing, without being critical. Mad never hesitated to take on important topics, find something funny to say about them, and challenge us to think on a deeper level.

Science fiction, of course, enjoyed Mad’s loving attention almost from the beginning. Throughout it’s publication history, every single important sci-fi film, book, TV show took their turn being roasted. For lonely, sheltered kids who had no exposure to the world of science fiction beyond whatever their parents brought home, Mad Magazine was a gateway drug to the vast universe of stories out there being told.

Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, Back to the Future, Predator and yes, Stranger Things … we cackled our way through the corny jokes, skewered the plot holes, and ultimately celebrated the victory of another successful science fiction story. We laughed, we kidded, but we loved. In fact, I remember working on a project with a rather talented actor. She said she ‘knew she had made it when she reached the cover of Mad Magazine.’ You can see a picture of Michael Biehn autographing the Mad Magazine that lampooned ‘Aliens’ on the wiki article. ’nuff said.

And look, I get it. I stopped reading Mad years ago. In fact, I think you’re supposed to. It’s sophomoric humor is designed to appeal to the male 12-18 demographic. Gross-out, libidinous humor that’s just this side of acceptable … I graduated from that and moved on, as many others did. In a world of dying print magazines, I guess this was inevitable. It just makes me sad all the same.

Many others are sharing their sadness.  Weird Al Yankovic said on Twitter: “I can’t begin to describe the impact it had on me as a young kid – it’s pretty much the reason I turned out weird. Goodbye to one of the all-time greatest American institutions.”

Weird Al echoes the experiences of several generations of creative, funny people. Mad Magazine’s departure will leave a hole in our collective souls for many years to come.

I originally posted this on Reddit.

The Schöner Machine of ‘Stranger Things’

A phrase in William Gibson’s ‘Hinterlands’ that keeps running through my head as I binge-watch Seasons 1 and 2 of ‘Stranger Things’ in preparation for Season 3. It’s ‘schöner machine,’ or ‘beautiful machine.’ Like William Gibson’s ill-fated astronaut, I can’t help but marvel at a beautiful machine, and that’s why I’m totally in love with this amazing Netflix show.

Stranger Things, above all, is a brilliant story. The Duffer Brothers’ ability to combine Eighties zeitgeist with classic science fiction mysteries and still create a completely authentic, autonomous universe is nothing short of remarkable.

The show drips with rich, elegant visuals that invite you to travel back through all the parts of the Eighties you don’t remember. Beautiful cinematography takes you through thick pile carpets, wooden console TVs, wood-paneled walls, and goofy retro bedrooms straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. You can’t help falling in love with the series for the design elements alone.

Verisimilitude is defined as ‘the appearance of being true or real.’ From the studied detail of the film scratches in the title sequence to ST’s epic soundtrack, all you feel is the reality of the universe. But the show doesn’t stop there. No, Stranger Things is a dense, thoughtful, and action-packed journey through one of the most interesting science fiction mysteries of the past decade.

Equal parts funny, scary, touching … you feel every square inch of Joyce’s torment at losing Will. You feel the boys’ love for their stricken friend. You feel Eleven’s conflicted feelings over her captors, her powers, and her new-found family. Even after you escape the primary story arc, there are other places to go. The show explores other parts of the characters’ lives with care and precision. These things are the hallmark of great storytelling, and Stranger Things has that market cornered.

Then you have the kids. God, I hope they turn out okay. I mentioned two years ago that I admire Gaten Matarazzo for how he’s handled his cleidocranial dysplasia. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: In science fiction, there are no weaknesses … there are only strengths you haven’t discovered.

Every actor inhabits a three-dimensional character that feels like someone you know from high school, your neighborhood, or your job. I’m particularly happy about seeing Winona Ryder and Matt Modine on screen again. The growing cast of child actors are incredibly talented. I hope they have long, safe and successful careers ahead of them.

So in short, I’m a fan of Stranger Things in several ways and for several different reasons. I love sci-fi and it doesn’t get much better than this. Not only that, the production of Stranger Things is a classic underdog tale.

We’ve been on a journey since the Duffer Brothers leap-frogged from short-film producers to pro filmmakers to rubbing elbows with M. Night Shyamalan on Wayward Pines to successfully pitching Stranger Things to Netflix via 21 Laps Entertainment. Stranger Things is the answer to every person who says ‘there’s no room for the little guys anymore.’

As Season Three comes out tomorrow morning and I settle in to binge-watch , I want to take a moment and say ‘Yes!’ Stranger Things is a beautiful machine, and until I started watching I had no idea how much I needed one in my life. I’m betting you do, too.

Makers Gonna Make

Makers Gonna Make

Bummer. The company that runs the Maker Faire abruptly shut down. According to Verge, difficulties with magazines and getting corporate sponsorship contributed to the collapse. They’re still committed to trying again, and that in a nutshell is why one of the central themes of Mesh is: Makers Gonna Make.

Here’s the thing: Maker culture is something that exists outside of a magazine, or an event. Making, creating, building, doing … those are intrinsic human values.

So while Verge seems to think this is a ‘huge blow’ to the Maker culture. I disagree … the maker community still exists, with or without an event. In fact, that desire to create is something that I wanted Mesh to be about, and it’s something I spend a lot of time exploring.

This isn’t an easy path, though. For example, how do you introduce 21st Century kids to concepts like tinkering, electronics, coding? It’s not enough to throw a Youtube channel at them. How will you connect them to the artisans, journeymen, and wrights that shaped human civilization over the past few thousand years? We live in a deeply stratified, specialized world now. It focuses on making as a means to an end, and you rarely hear about the why of making.

So while I see kids being very interested in making things – and all power to them – I feel like they’re missing out on something. There’s a massive history, culture, and heritage that you can’t pick up in a how-to article. Furthermore, maker culture is getting co-opted into a commodity, when one of the central themes of maker culture is that “you are not a commodity.” That mis-alignment, that pressure to make ‘making’ your identity, is turning people off.


Makers are gonna Make. That’s what we do.


Makers Gonna Make

So while I’m certain Maker Faires will still be around next year, and ten years from now, I want to talk about how Makers are gonna Make. That’s what we do. It’s not the only thing we do, it’s not the only thing we are, but we are never going to stop making. Creativity brings us joy, and we want to be happy people. So we make.

Mesh, along with the action and adventure, is a celebration of that reality. Roman, our hero, travels through virtual reality to be with those artisans and craftsmen, learning how people made things in the years before the Internet, before cyberspace. He meets some of those old-school nerds, fiercely independent and thoughtful people. They teach him what it means to be someone who can make amazing things, and what that power means.

So to sum up the issue of ‘Maker culture’ and Maker Faire, the answer is pretty simple. The culture tried something, and it worked for a while but then it stopped working. They’ll look at what went wrong, how to avoid that problem in the future, and then they’ll start over. As Henry Ford said, ‘Failure is the chance to begin again, but more intelligently.’

I’m confident that Maker Media will begin again, and we’ll enjoy what the Maker culture turns into next. After all, tomorrow is another day, another chance to fill 24 hours with 1,440 minutes of imagination.

Makers gonna make.