I just heard on the TV news (which I don't normally watch, but it was on during breakfast at the hotel) that a private California company has cloned some human embryos. It chickened out and destroyed them when they were about 10 days old. According to the story, it was a private company using private money, and therefore unaffected by the federal funding ban for cloning research.
Is this another fake, like Hwang Woo-Suk or the Raelians? Or is it for real this time? I'm having trouble finding anything about it on the Web. (I don't consider anything on the TV trustworthy until it's been corroborated by Slashdot or Wikipedia.)
The mother hens on the TV morning show were all clucking about the news and about unspecified "ethical issues". "Of course human cloning raises serious ethical issues... um... we're not sure what these issues are exactly, but we're sure there are some and we should all be very worried about them.". I hate TV.
Actually, I don't see that cloning humans raises ethical questions. A clone should have exactly the same rights as any other human being, period. A clone is nothing but an identical twin, potentially separated by some years.
The laws about parenthood might have to be reworded slightly, since a clone doesn't have parents in the normal sense; the donor of the tissue could be considered both mother and father. That's nothing that the laws of a well-adjusted society can't deal with. The birth mother's relation to the clone is vague in exactly the same way as the birth mother's relation to an embryo conceived in-vitro from a donated egg; her rights could use some clarification, but that's been true ever since in-vitro fertilization became a reality. I repeat: no new ethical questions here, just old ones.
That is, assuming that anybody ever creates a clone with the intention of raising it to adulthood. Most people will see no point in creating a clone when they could just have a baby the regular way. I think even infertile couples would rather have something as close to a regular baby as the technology makes possible. We might see one or two cases of clones growing up (and these clones will be instant celebrities), but it's not the main use case.
No, the main use case for clones is harvesting their stem cells.
This is where it gets interesting, because this is the one place where a cloned embryo is more useful than some random embryo. It is therefore the only real reason you'd want to make a clone at all. Clone an embryo from your own DNA and you can harvest stem cells perfectly compatible with your own body: a source of replacement tissue for any of your organs. In theory, there's almost nothing that this couldn't cure. It could be the largest advance in medical science in human history. It could cure previously incurable diseases and even extend lifespans.
I stand by my statement that cloning raises no new ethical issues: it merely complicates an existing one, because the debate over stem cells is already in progress. Is it right to kill an embryo — which is either a human being, or merely a chunk of tissue with the potential to develop into a human being under the right conditions, depending on who you ask — in order to save the lives of others? This is something we need to argue about, whether we can clone humans or not. The difference is simply that a cloned embryo is a far superior source of stem cells than a random embryo, due to their genetic identity with the patient. We're taking an existing ethical dilemma and adding a great weight of effectiveness to the pragmatic side of the scale.
I happen to be one of those who thinks that an embryo is not a human being. Because I don't believe in souls, I think that humanity is all in the brain, and therefore an embryo becomes a human as its brain develops — no sharp dividing line, but a gradual transition. I'd favor the negotiation of an arbitrary cutoff date of X days after conception, and then making all experimentation and/or therapeutic use of harvested cells prior to that date good and legal. I also think that the potential benefits of clone-based stem-cell therapy far outweigh the costs. So I'm all in favor of it. But I understand that there are legitimate reasons to disagree, so I won't try to push this belief on anyone. It's going to be a controversial topic for a long, long time.
One final thought: It might get interesting when some bereaved person decides they want to make a clone of a dead relative. I hope that we'll be able to talk the bereaved people out of this foolishness, but it might happen anyway. If it does, everybody will discover why real-life cloning isn't like Hollywood cloning. The clone, at ten years of age, will look like the dead relative did at ten years of age, but it won't be the same person in any other respects. The family going to be highly disappointed. And the clone himself/herself is going to have a pretty messed up childhood, what with all the relatives expecting him/her to live up to their image of some dead person. That would be really weird.
All the more reason that we have to educate people about how cloning works, starting now.
Thanks to Jake for linking me to Breakfast of the Gods, an epic, gritty, violent, noir-ish drama about breakfast cereal mascot characters. Seriously. The main villian is Count Chocula, who has cowed the populace into submission with kidnappings and torture; opposing him are a world-weary Cap'n Crunch and a battle-scarred Tony the Tiger; the first scene opens with the funeral of the Honey-Nut-Cheerios bee. And it's mostly all played straight. I'm not sure what else to say except that you should go read it right now before the artist gets sued off of the Internet by General Mills.
In the realm of comics-in-book-form-that-cost-money, I've been getting a thrill out of Y: The Last Man. The gimmick-o-riffic premise is that a mysterious plague instantaneously kills every male human -- in fact, every male mammal, along with every sperm or fetus with a Y chromosome -- except for one loser from New York City named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand. With a setup like that you know it's going to be either thought-provoking speculative fiction or exploitative schlock. Lucky for us it's the first thing!
It's mostly about the survivors cope with losing their sons, brothers, husbands, etc. and how they try to put society back together after the sudden death of half of the population and most of the government and industrial infrastructure. (The Secretary of Agriculture is suddenly promoted to U.S. President because everyone before her in the chain of succession was male and therefore dead.) Yorick is a walking McGuffin because whatever kept him alive might be the key to saving humanity from slow extinction. The Israeli army wants to kidnap him (Israel had the best-trained female soldiers in the world, and are now therefore a freakin' military superpower); there's a cult of feminazi bikers called the Daughters of the Amazon who want to kill him; there's geneticists who want to study him and his congresswoman mom who wants to keep him locked in a bomb shelter. All Yorick wants is to find his way back to his girlfriend, last seen in Australia.
So, yeah, it's a great book. The writing is really good, and new twists keep coming up, and it's doing exactly what good science fiction is supposed to try for. Can't wait to get the rest of the series!
Hey guys, speaking of comics, what about my comic, huh? Well, I'm halfway through penciling on the next page, and I have layout/dialogue for the page after that. It's been slow going since I've been traveling so much on top of my normal workload. It's not over yet! Tomorrow I'm flying to California again, and then from the 12th through the 21st of December I'll be in Sweden.
..maybe I can get some drawing done on the plane...
When scouting out Tohoku on Google Maps, I noticed this weird-looking area in Akita prefecture:
Here it is closer up;
I remember seeing this circular-river looking area on sufficiently large maps of Japan while I was living there, too. It looks so... weird and unnatural. What the heck is it?
Well, I looked into it a bit, and the name of the area is 大潟村, Oogata-mura (mura = village). I found their website, which explains that it is the result of an enormous land reclamation project. Apparently, it was originally the Hachirogata lagoon, the second-largest lake in Japan. Then, over the span of 20 years and at a cost of 85.2 billion dollars, finishing in 1977, they lowered the lagoon water level with pumping stations to convert the lagoon bed into an enormous stretch of flat, fertile farmland, and then built a planned community on it. I guess they decided to do this because flat farmland is so hard to come by in such a mountainous and densely populated country.
I am both very impressed and slightly disturbed. Dude. It's just so... science-fictiony, don't you think?
I knew this was going to be bad. I only watched it because I was bored on the plane and I wanted to see just how bad it was.
Everybody in the world already knows that Matrix: Revolutions is bollocks. I'm writing this post just to satisfy my desire to rant. It will contain spoilers.
First Matrix was good because it was built around such a simple, surprising, and flexible metaphor. The Matrix is the mass media, or it's religion, or overreliance on technology; whatever allegory you like. It's the unquestioned life, the false paradise, sugar-coated slavery. The real world is a war-torn hellhole where life is short and full of struggle and suffering. You are offered the choice to live in the Matrix or to join the fight against it, the easy thing or the right thing, the pleasant illusion or the unpleasant truth; what do you do? That's powerful stuff, man. Mythic. Woven together with this are themes of fate vs. free will, the nature of humanity, man vs. machine, etc. Plus inverted cyberpunk tropes, scary robots, and cool martial arts battles. Hooray!
Oh ho, here comes a sequel (Reloaded + Revolutions is really a single sequel story spread across two movies)! Are you excited? Are you ready to outdo the first movie? Expand the universe, put the characters through the wringer, reveal all secrets and destroy the matrix forver? Ready for it? Here we go! This is what happens in the sequel, boiled down to the essential plot points:
The evil robots are drilling down to Zion with a giant drill to kill everybody. Agent Smith goes rogue and starts turning everybody he can find in the Matrix into more copies of him, because he's, like, a virus or something, I don't know how he got that way.
Then Neo goes to the machine city and talks to the boss robot sea-urchin-with-a-face-made-out-of-swirling-mini-robots, points out that Agent Smith will take over the whole Matrix and then infect the machine city, and offers his virus removal services in exchange for Not Killing Everybody Please. Then Neo has a really long, fake, Dragonball Z style fly-around-and-punch-each-other-through-buildings fight with one Smith while the other Smiths just watch. He wins, so the boss robot calls off the giant drill. The end.
That's it? That's it. No character development, no new philosophical themes or even deeper exploration of existing themes, not even a satisfying resolution to the plot. Will the sky ever be cleared, will the Matrix be destroyed, will the machines find an alternate source of power besides humans, will the human and machine civilizations learn to live in harmony, can the rest of the humans adapt to life outside the Matrix? I sat through almost five combined hours of sequel and I don't know the answers to these questions any better than I did after the first movie.
Between the two sequels there's maybe 30 scattered minutes of interesting new content. The intriguing suggestion that Zion and the rebellion against the Matrix are part of the Architect's even larger plan (so even by fighting the system you are still part of the system) was raised but then dropped and never mentioned again. The battle in the Zion dock between the human mecha pilots and the invading squidbots is kinda cool (though it really bothered me that the mecha design leaves the pilot completely unprotected).
I'm having trouble even remembering what filled up the rest of the running time of these movies, so inessential was it. Pointless filler plotlines and video-game style fetch quests involving keymasters, gatekeepers, the Source, the Trainman, the Merovingian (lamest villian ever) and so on ad nauseum. The not-particularly-interesting concept of "rogue programs" in the Matrix is introduced and driven into the ground; said programs get more screen time than most of the human characters, and the the humans still trapped in the Matrix (remember them? the ones you're trying to free?) are forgotten completely. Trinity is killed, then brought back to life, then killed again in an insultingly anticlimatic way, then gives a dramatic death speech that goes on so long it becomes self-parody. Secondary and tertiary characters we don't care about are introduced and then killed off. The Oracle drops vague hints. There is a lengthy rave sequence. A lot of people jump around in slow motion while shooting and/or kicking each other.
Most of all, there's talking. Not philosophy, not character development, just... talking. A lot of drivel about whether A knew B was going to do C, or whether W was fated to happen, or whether X already knows the anser to question Y deep in his heart, and whether or not he's ready to know Z. You may remember the theme of "fate vs. free will" from the first movie? The sequels don't do anything new with that theme, but they do erect giant flashing neon signs around it, in case we missed it. Also the movie makes damn sure we know that Trinity LUVS Neo A Lot and Neo LUVS Trinity Too and they are B.F.F. and in fact Trinity LUUUUVS Neo so much that she doesn't even care if she dies! They tell us this over and over again, and yet it remains unconvincing. (This is why the idea of "show, don't tell" was invented.)
Most offensive of all is the fawning adoration for The One. Much screen time is devoted to having all other characters remind us that Neo is The One and talk about how darn SPESHUL he is. Every character who agrees with and believes in Neo is vindicated, everyone who disagrees with him or doubts him is shown to be foolish. He can see without his eyeballs, shoot real robot-killing lightning, and go Super-Crucifix-Saiyin, and the only explanation is that he's Just That Special! All the other people are worthless compared to him. When they die, it's OK, because The One is the only character who matters, and the rest of them were just there to take bullets for him and inform the audience of his Specialness.
Seriously, Wachowski brothers, we GOT that you were recreating a messianic myth the first time; you didn't have to go all third-century Christian apologia on us. And you certainly didn't have to forget about everything that made the first movie good and replace it with a double-length pile of wanky Neo fanfic.
...will always be this: Before we could get off the plane in Pudong airport, they made us wait while these white-shrouded-and-masked health inspectors came on board the plane and walked up and down the rows, taking the temperature of every passenger by SHOOTING LASER BEAMS AT OUR FOREHEADS. I am not making this up. They had these little handheld guns that they would point at each person's forehead, and four little red laser dots would appear there, and they'd have the temperature in a few seconds. I was not aware this technology existed. It's very science fiction.
The three people who were found to have fevers were told to leave the plane first, so they could be put in quarantine. Or "strongly encouraged to put themselves into quarantine", whatever that means.
The reason for all this was because China is taking the Swine Flu menace very, very seriously. (Unlike America where everybody was scared for one week and then forgot about it because of Mark Sanford's affair and Michael Jackson dying. The American news media: bringing you a world where only one thing can happen at a time.) China is still jumpy from SARS and doesn't want any of more scary germs coming into the country; travelers from the USA are particularly suspect because China thinks we've been lazy about screening our own borders. Which is probably true.
I just finished the first volume of Iron Empires, a military science fiction comic by Christopher Moeller. It was... OK, not great. Very nice painting-style artwork, generic plot, no character development, setting and imagery very strongly reminiscent of Warhammer 40k. As in, power-armored elite warriors with heraldry painted on their enormous shoulder pads jump out of dropships and blow stuff up with fusion pistols and power swords; heretic cults prepare planets for sinister alien invasion; theocracy. Stuff like that. 40k is all recycled tropes anyway, so who cares; it's just funny that Iron Empires uses virtually the exact same recycled tropes.
I first heard about this series because of the Burning Empires roleplaying game based on it. Burning Empires is a spin-off of an earlier fantasy roleplaying game called Burning Wheel, which I own but haven't yet played. (Burning Wheel + Iron Empires = Burning Empires, get it?)
Burning Empires is an intimidating game. From what I've read about it, it sounds interesting and innovative and well-designed, and you know there aren't many good science fiction roleplaying games, and I do like the idea of roleplaying in a real serious space-opera campaign... and Bankuei kinda pitched it to me last time I visited him...
but on the other hand, Burning Empires, like Burning Wheel, is really really complex and crunchy. More crunchy than I generally like my RPGs these days. Playing it would require a lot of commitment, to spend time learning the system, making a character, and playing a campaign to a proper conclusion. Is it worth it? I guess that comes down to how excited I am about the setting. That's why I decided to give the comic a read.
Well, now I've tried the comic, and I'm still kind of ambivalent. It didn't make me jump up and shout "I MUST ROLEPLAY THIS" but it's not bad, either. With the right group, if we brainstormed up some character concepts that grabbed me the right way, I think I could get excited about it.
(Can anybody who's read the comic tell me if it's worth getting the next volume? Does it get more interesting?)
I've started watching Heroes with Sushu. Yeah, I know, I'm like 4 years late to this party. I have heard that Season 1 is good but after that it gets sucky, so we'll probably watch all of Season 1 and then move on to watching, like, Rose of Versailles or something. Some brief observations:
1. This show is almost a Prime Time Adventures game. Look at the way the show is composed: a short punchy scene that takes a single spotlight character through a single personal conflict related to their issue, then CUT! Next player's turn. It's totally PTA. Even though each character has their own plotline, they all weave together into a greater whole, thanks to recurring side-characters and events and themes that connect one character to another even if they've never met each other.
Next time I'm talking to a traditional GM who's still hung up on the idea of keeping "the party" together, I'm gonna point at Heroes and say, THIS is how you have a game with no "party". This is why you'd want to have a game with no "party".
2. Of course Hiro is my favorite character. How could he not be? If Heroes was a PTA game, Hiro is like the exact character I would be playing. He's so unabashedly dorky, and so damn excited about being able to bend the space-time continuum. His enthusiasm is infectuous. He never even stops to think about what's going to happen after he teleports somewhere. He's a complete innocent.
Heroes's version of Japan is... almost right. It's not quite exactly the real thing but it's head and shoulders above most American TV attempts to portray Japan. The main thing that makes it seem off is that all their pop-cultural references are American. Hiro and his friend are always quoting Star Trek and Marvel comics? Really? Not, say, Ultraman and Space Battleship Yamato? I mean, I guess they wanted references their primary audience would be familiar with. It just makes Hiro come off like the inverted version of a crazily Japan-obsessed American anime otaku, which is probably not what they were going for but it's pretty amusing anyway.
2. Hiro might be my favorite character, but Niki's story was the one I found most gripping, cuz it's so scary-tense and uncertain; the threat is always just one step behind her. Also, something about single working mothers raising gifted kids and fighting the school system to get them a quality education; I don't know why, but that speaks to me.
Niki does have my Least Favorite Superpower, though: Super Unconsciousness! The one where the character (almost always female) is always waking up to find out she kicked copious ass and doesn't even remember doing it? Agatha from Girl Genius has the same thing. It bugs me a little because it robs the character of agency. Niki didn't decide to kill those goons; the plot took over and made her do it. Paul Czege would say it's "Deprotagonizing".
3. I do rather like Mohinder's monologues. They're hella corny and overblown and full of the kind of thing that a college sophomore taking their first philosophy class would think was, like, really deep, man, but Mohinder delivers them with such conviction and starry-eyed wonder that I can forgive all that.
What I can't forgive is that he keeps making the damn Teleological Fallacy with regards to evolution, i.e. thinking evolution is a ladder with an up direction and a down direction and thinking that creatures are in some sense trying to, or being driven to, reach the "next rung". In real life, whatever adaptations make something more likely to survive and reproduce are the ones that get passed on, and sometimes the best way for a species to adapt is to get smaller, dumber, or less complex; that doesn't mean they're going down a rung on the ladder, because there is no ladder, there's just changes that help you survive and changes that don't.
TV and movie scriptwriters LOOOOOVE to make the evolution-as-ladder mistake, but biologists know better, and Mohinder is supposed to be a biologist, right? He shouldn't be asking whether the super-mutations are "the next step in human evolution", he should be asking whether they are an adaptive mutation or a detrimental mutation.
The story thus far would seem to imply detrimental.
Here's my attempt at making some character artwork in a 16-bit sprite style for "Beneath an Alien Sky". Done from scratch by hand in Graphic Converter, not really based on anything except the general aesthetics I tried to lay out in my previous post. Shown here at 4x the size it would appear in-game.
She's, like, a Space Marine, or some other kind of Macho Space Babe. I dunno exactly what the character classes are in this game yet.
I also don't know how she intends to fit that hairdo inside that helmet, but meh, it's anime, what are you gonna do. Speaking of helmets, I'm thinking that player characters have both an in-spacesuit display mode used when they're out on the planet surface, and an out-of-spacesuit display mode when they're inside a pressurized environment (i.e. a "town").
She's got a darker skin tone because I'm trying to go against the prevailing whiteness of visual science fiction media. (e.g., the whitewashing of Wizard of Earthsea in the TV version.) Hopefully by whatever futuristic year this game is set in, the concept of race as a way to divide up humanity has dissappeared outside of history books; to convey that without being all heavy-handed and preachey about it, I plan to make white people a minority with most people being various shades of brown (as is already the case if you look at Earth as a whole!) and just have that be so normal that nobody bothers mentioning it. Not that this is going to be a utopia or anything; the future is going to have plenty of problems, just hopefully they're different problems.
While I'm at it, you know, Islam is arguably the fastest growing religion in the world, so it would be interesting to make the future humanity primarily Muslim. Maybe it's some kind of semi-secularized "Reformation Islam" interpretation invented in the 22nd century that leaves behind the more vehement tendencies and is more willing to syncretize with other religions and cultures.
And what's the dominant language? Some kind of Spanish/English/Chinese pidgin? Fun times.
Back on the original topic of this post... I welcome criticism on how to improve my sprite artwork!
GM: Your ship has been hit with a nuke! You must choose between losing (roll roll roll) half of your fighter docking bays and maneuvering capabilities, or losing (roll roll roll) 85 crew members!
GM: You have 10 seconds to decide, or you lose both!
Player: OK, I'll lose the crew members.
GM: Great! 85 irreplacable human beings with hopes and dreams die a horrible fiery death. You can hear their screams over the intercom as they are sucked into the vacuum of space. Their grieving family members blame you personally. Your underlings question your judgment and accuse you of being a Cylon sleeper agent.
Player: This game sucks.
(Note: I found out after writing this that there is a BSG RPG, but it sounds disappointingly generic, like the designers were unaware that a system could be anything other than GURPS/D20 Modern.)
The cover on the new edition of I, Robot makes me sad.
Not even that it was a bad movie, but that it was an almost completely unrelated movie. I surmise it was one of those dealies where the only reason the movie was called "I, Robot" and used the Three Laws was because the studio noticed a similarity between their original script and an unrelated novel, and decided to buy the rights and slap them on, rather than risk any kind of lawsuit. I heard Starship Troopers happened the same way.
Some of my coworkers (the few who aren't on vacation) were gushing about Avatar: The One Without The Airbender today.
Meh. Judging by the trailer and reviews, I think I've already seen this movie, and it was called "Fern Gully". Except I doubt it will have Tim Curry as a demonic singing oil slick, so it's not going to be as good.
Whether the native culture is tiny fairies or CGI Na'vis, the basic plot is still "White Liberal Guilt: The Movie". It's like, "Hey, obvious Native American analogues! Your culture is all wiiiise and myyyystical and totally grooovy! It sucks that the evil colonialists / white guys are taking your land with their superior technology! Wouldn't it be great if there was a heroic white guy who joined your side thanks to (magical shrinking / dubious telepresence technology)? He could spend a few montage sequences learning the ways of your culture and then somehow be way better than you at all your own traditional warrior skills that you spent a lifetime practicing! Then he could save you all cuz you're too incompetent to do it yourselves! Whoops, totally didn't mean to imply that he's better than you since he's from the colonizing race. Um, anyway, in summary, we love your culture or at least our close-to-nature stereotype of it and we totally feel bad about kicking you off your land so please don't hate us. Bye."
I've seen that movie (see also: Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves) more than enough times already, thanks.
It also annoys me that people keep raving about the special effects technology being some kind of revolution in filmmaking. What revolution? We've had green screen since the 40s, 3D since the 50s, and shallow, flashy special-effects-driven blockbusters since the 80s. A revolution in filmmaking would be a science fiction movie that put more effort into the plot than the visuals. Wake me up when Hollywood does one of those.
P.S. "Unobtanium"? Seriously? You literally called it "Unobtanium"? Why not set your movie on Planet McGuffin and have a secret weapon called Chekov's Gun while you're at it?
Since Hollywood isn't involved, it might actually stand a chance of being decent, unlike say the Speed Racer or Astroboy movies.
This trailer set off an interesting discussion about the apologia-for-Japanese-fascism which lurks barely concealed in many scenes of Space Battleship Yamato. I get the sense that Leiji Matsumoto was a man who never got over the fact that Japan lost WWII, and was forever torn between wanting world peace everlasting, and wanting to rewrite history so Japan could win. Maybe that's why the stuff he writes is all tragic and "War is Hell" and yet at the same time it glorifies obedience and self-sacrifice and people who are willing to die for their country planet. It's fascist and pacifist, or "Pascist" as Ben called it.
Like the race issues in Lord of the Rings (fair-skinned men = noble, swarthy men = invariably in league with Sauron)? or the implications in The Incredibles that if you're not born a superhero you shouldn't try to become one? I can recognize the messed up messages in a work of fiction but still enjoy it for other reasons, right? I hope so.
But I think the Star Wars prequel trilogy is really something special. These are no ordinary bad movies, to be watched once, laughed at, and forgotten. These movies are way beyond that. They had everything going for them - the story George Lucas was supposedly dying to tell for 20 years, unlimited budget and CGI technology, tons of time and fame and reputation and even love went into them, and they had a built-in audience of fanatical fanboys...
... and with all that, they weren't just, like, mediocre-bad. They weren't just not-as-good-as-the-originals bad. They were fundamentally screwed up at the most basic level of storytelling competence.
The prequel trilogy needs to be saved and passed down to future generations as a monument to human folly. Anyone who wants to learn about writing and how to tell a story, especially in science fiction (and I know I do) should study these movies in order to learn how to avoid their many mistakes. We should maybe even thank George Lucas for giving us the Rosetta Stone of bad filmmaking.
It's a total of 70 minutes long (!!) almost half as long as the movie it's "reviewing". It's an epic takedown, a dissection of every mistake. The reviewer barely even wastes time on the surface-level mistakes like Jar-Jar and midicholorians and excessive CG. We already know that stuff is bad; why waste time rehashing it? Instead, the reviewer goes for the deeper structural problems in the story, like the fact that it has no protagonist, the villain's plan makes no sense, and nothing is at stake in any of the battles.
The reviewer also takes on a bizzare persona, talking in a "creepy old man" voice and dropping hints that he is a serial killer who does whatever his Pizza Rolls tell him to do. Eventually the police come for him. (This is how you make a 70-minute-long review stay interesting: give it a plotline of its own...) He also splices in behind-the-scenes clips to support the thesis that everyone was too scared of Lucas to challenge his ideas.
So, check out this post on The First Draft of Star Wars. It quotes extensively from the very first draft, from 1974 of the first Star Wars movie. It's... very different from what ended up on the screen. It's also amazingly, hilariously bad. It starts on the planet Utapau, Luke Skywalker is over 60 years old, the main character is "Anakin Starkiller", there's a space fortress that gets blown up by Wookies, and a major plot element is a belt of test tubes containing liquid scientist brains. I am not making any of this up. There's way too much clunky exposition of backstory that nobody would care about, and the whole thing just sucks.
For me, that clinches it. George Lucas is rubbish at writing. The only reason any of the Star Wars movies were any good at all was because of the people who forced him to keep revising his original drafts... or who wrote the script for him, in some cases. The badness of the prequel trilogy wasn't because Lucas, like, forgot how to make a good movie. The badness comes from Lucas getting exactly what he wanted, with nobody telling him "no". Exactly what he asked for in his first draft.
Scary, isn't it?
Some other miscellaneous links.
The same reviewer also does some very funny and spot-on takedowns of Star Trek movies in the same fashion. The one for Generations is a good place to start.
I've also been enjoying Darths And Droids, a photo-comic which reimagines the prequel trilogy as the output of a role-playing campaign that jumps off the rails in the first session and never really recovers. The plot makes no sense because the GM is desperately trying to improvise. The guy playing Qui-Gon is an idiot, the guy playing R2-D2 is a ruthless min-maxer, and when somebody's kid sister wants to play they let her create a character... she comes up with Jar-Jar. Everything makes so much more sense this way.
This picture's been going around the web lately - don't know where it came from or who drew it but it's way too cool not to share:
I've been watching a lot of Dr. Who (tenth doctor) lately, and I've been loving it. It was Sushu who introduced me. Actually, first I introduced her to Star Trek (she had only seen the new "Bishonen Star Trek" movie).
I clearly got the better end of that exchange!
I remember Next Generation being the high point of Star Trek. But go and watch it now: even the "really good" episodes (e.g. Best of Both Worlds) are really boring. Unless you love wooden delivery of humorless expository dialogue, awkward dead air, and redundant shots of people walking down hallways into hoverlifts. Most episodes you could cut out ten minutes without losing anything.
On the other hand, Next Generation and the original series deserve props, because at the time there was nothing else on TV remotely like them. The past decade has had a lot of surprisingly high-quality TV science fiction -- Farscape, Firefly, the aforementioned Dr. Who reboot, Battlest... um, the first season of the new Battlestar Galactica, etc. ( I'm sure I'm forgetting some; please remind me in the comments.) I don't think any of these shows could have happened without Star Trek and Next Generation to pave the way. The people writing the current shows probably grew up on Star Trek and got inspired to do something better; audiences had to get used to the most straightforward expressions of the genre before they were ready for more interesting twists on the same ideas; skittish TV executives had to be convinced that SF was viable; etc.
It's kind of an interesting example of how genres evolve over time, eh?
I totally want to make a Dalek costume for Halloween sometime, so I can scoot around brandishing a plunger and screaming EX-TER-MI-NATE! EX-TER-MI-NATE! I love how Daaleks sound so pissed off and snotty all the time, like they got up on the wrong side of bed every day for a million years. I love their maniacal metallic screaming, and the fact that they're not robots but war machines piloted by tiny tentacly things.
I love how when you start watching a new miniseries you don't know what genre you're going to get - could be futuristic, historical, fantasy, horror, time-travel paradoxes, who knows! It's a giant grab bag.
I haven't seen the older Doctors yet, only the 9th and 10th doctors from the reboot. I really don't like the 9th doctor, who doesn't have much personality besides randomly being a dick to people while grinning. But David Tennant is great as the 10th doctor; he's got this madcap energy and he pulls of the goofy, slightly-mad genius thing perfectly. You have to watch him in action. Him and Rose Tyler are a great combination; I love the interactions between them and Micky, and Rose's mom. Donna Noble on the other hand is kind of an annoying wet blanket. Martha Jones seems pretty cool but I haven't seen much of her yet.
What makes Dr. Who storylines work? You always know that The Doctor will save the day at the end using his superpower of Knowing The Exact Weakness Of Every Monster Ever, so it seems like there shouldn't be any tension at all, and yet there is.
I think it's because what's really at stake is not the earth being saved, but the relationships between the main cast. Often the earth-saving business comes at the price of the relationship between the Doctor and his companion, or between the Doctor and humanity. This works because it grounds all the crazy sci-fi stuff in a relatable emotional reality, and makes it feel like victory came at a real cost.
Time to get back into roleplaying, after not doing it for several months!
There is a Star Wars PTA (Prime-Time Adventures) game that I'm playing. I'm a wookie jedi fighting for independence for Kashykk! My father, a representative to the galactic congress, has been kidnapped and replaced with a clone who is loyal to a rival political faction, in order to keep Kashykk under the Republic's thumb. (We're playing the Clone Wars, except that we're pretending the prequel trilogy was never made. We're treating only the original trilogy as canon, so we get to decide for ourselves what "Clone Wars" meant. In our game, it's not a war fought by clone troopers: It's a war started because of the discovery that key political figures were really clones.)
Chris has been doing a great job of GMing this (he talks about it on his blog), throwing out really stellar Bangs and then freestyling the rest. I really like roleplaying with him because he has a knack for figuring out the PERFECT situation to hit a character with; things that put the character on the horns of a dilemma while advancing the plot AND resonating thematically. Like Sushu's character's superior officer ordering her on an ethically dubious mission for the greater good. And my fake clone daddy guilt-tripping me about the death toll that Kashykk's rebellion is causing. Later, getting ambushed in a dark alley by my own clone, armed with my own stolen lightsaber-claws. These are the kind of things that make us yell "you BASTARD!" at the GM, but the whole time we're grinning and loving it.
Some observations about playing PTA:
In general I like it but I feel like it moves a little fast for me - it's great that you can get a whole lot of satisfying plot progression done in 3 hours but I always feel like I'm a little rushed, like we skimmed over some stuff that would have been interesting to explore in more detail.
There's a lot of story brainstorming openly going on at the table during the game (this is the same as my previous experiences with PTA). It's common for the producer(GM) to literally ask you "What do you think should happen next? If you don't have any ideas, I've got one..." A couple of possibilities for a scene are thrown out and round-tabled before one is chosen.
It's a constant reminder that we are all making up a story together, which also serves as a reminder that I'm not really my character and that the GM doesn't know The Secrets Of The Universe any more than I do. It makes character immersion hard (in stance terms, you're almost always in Director Stance, seldom in Actor Stance). I like character immersion, but I also like collaborative storytelling. So it's an acceptable trade-off; some games are good for immersion, others aren't.
Giving and receiving fanmail feels really good! What feels bad is when you want to give fanmail but you technically can't because there's no spent budget yet this session. Another bad feeling is realizing that even though there was some amazing scene that deserved it, everyone forgot to give fanmail for it and now it's too late. (I sometimes find myself thinking "Oh no, the producer only has 2 budget left, this episode is going to end too soon unless we burn more fanmail..." Is that bad?)
The card flip resolves the main conflict of the scene, so there's always a lot of discussion about what's really the main conflict of the scene (or if there is one at all). Getting this right is important, but it's also tricky. E.g. I'm in a burning, rapidly collapsing starport and I'm trying to lift some spaceship wreckage so some engineers can escape. The conflict is not "can I lift the wreckage" (of course I can, wookies are strong) or even "do I get out of the starport", but rather "Do I rescue anybody" - because my character's issue (right there on his sheet) is "Morality of war?" and the way that's being expressed in this episode is that I'm trying to find out whether I can be a warrior who saves lives instead of a warrior who kills people. And if I can't rescue anybody, that's going to be a big blow to my idealism. Mis-identifying the conflict can really ruin a scene in this game, by breaking the connection between the scene and your character issues.
The card flip resolves the main conflict of the scene, AND it tells you who narrates (most red cards wins conflict, but highest individual card narrates). That means that you know the outcome first and then, while narrating, you decide the specific events of the conflict that led to that conclusion. This retroactive narration can feel a little bit anti-climactic because when you say e.g. "I shoot one of the police aircars with my grappling hook gun and whip it around a lamppost so it goes off course and crashes into the other one" you already know it's going to work because you see that king of hearts on the table. You're really just showing off with a cool description at that point, it doesn't actually matter what you say.
There's very little in the way of rules about what you can and can't narrate. Generally anything other than the resolution of the main conflict is considered incidental details up to the imagination of the narrator. Technically that means you can have a planet explode as a side-effect of two people having a conflict over who's going to make breakfast; only your sense of story logic and fair play prevents it. Generally people don't go that far, but there's a lot of grey area where it feels like you're cheating a little by getting free stuff as incidental narration details.
When we're playing PTA, we're constantly saying things like "And then there's a close-up on my face so you can see the burning starport reflected in my eyes, and one little tear rolls down my face". It's totally visual description, using the visual language of TV. We describe close-ups, slow-motion, flashbacks, what the background music sounds like, and whether a scene transition uses a wipe (Star Wars is so in love with wipes! It's crazy.) Sometimes we even talk about how cheap our props look, or that you can tell an effect is done with blue-screen because you can see a fuzzy border around the spaceship! All this stuff is, again, kind of the opposite of immersion -- but it's really fun, and it gives you "permission" to be silly and self-aware and abuse TV tropes.
Sushu describes this as "a cheat" - an easy way to get all the players on the same page and give them a common vocabulary for describing things, to keep things flowing smoothly with fewer mismatches of imagination. Even when you're playing a genre that some are not real familiar with, like playing a space opera with non-science-fiction-fans, everybody knows what a TV show looks like and how characters talk on TV so you can sort of fall back on that. Some RPGs, especially ones with weird settings, have trouble getting that level of shared understanding; it's why I've never been able to get into Exalted - I just can't grasp what it's supposed to feel like. I've had a similar problem with Sushu's Jiang Hu game, so of course she's looking for possible solutions.
The scene where I fought my clone was so great. (Speaketh my fake clone daddy: "You'll serve us one way... or another." SO GOOD.) He didn't have my years of Jedi training, so he was fighting with brute force - I knew the weaknesses of my own fighting technique from the beginning of my training and used that knowledge to defeat him. He was at my mercy; after a minute of indecisiveness I decided to kill him rather than leave him alive to cause trouble later. It was a pretty major character development moment: I had played my guy as having some anger management issues and a hatred of clones, but this was my first ever murder-in-cold-blood. Could it foreshadow a turn to the Dark Side? (BUM BUM BUUUUM!)
But right after that scene, this weird thing happened that I want to talk about. I think it illustrates some deeper role-playing issues.
So I was on Corsucant and I had just killed my clone. The obvious next move, in terms of story progression, was pretty obvious -- it was time to track down Fake Clone Daddy in the Senate chambers and confront him, maybe see if I could unmask him publically somehow, maybe issue him an ultimatum.
But I didn't do that. Instead, I stopped to think logically about my situation.
Alone, outnumbered, in the heart of the enemy capitol, with no idea how to locate my fake clone daddy, let alone a plan for getting past the defenses that he would obviously have, or how to prove to the rest of the Senate that he was an impostor? Meanwhile my enemies know where I am? Dude, that's a terrible situation. I started worrying about having a plan that made logistical sense and getting everything done in the right order, A to B to C - I have to find a ship to get offworld and round up some contacts from the separatist movement who can help me create a distraction while I look up my mother who is a deep undercover spy and get information from her about where I can ambush Clone Daddy...
Of course the game ground to a screeching halt while I ran through all this stuff in my head. I kind of killed the great momentum we had built up.
I'm still not sure why I got into this strange mood where I was all worrying about the logistics. Part of it was that feeling I described earlier, that we were speeding through things that would be interesting to play out in more detail; so I wanted to play a little slower and more thoroughly. But part of it was also that stopped thinking about "what would be cool to see on a TV show" and started thinking "What would I really do if I was in a realistic version of this situation."
I ended up doing a couple scenes where I went off-planet to round up support and then had to sneak back in. And then I ended up confronting my clone daddy in the Senate chambers anyway, and it was an awesome scene! But the thing is, it's exactly the same awesome scene as if I had just gone straight there immediately.
PTA is, to put it mildly, not a game that rewards logistical thinking. It's not like you get bonus cards for sound tactics in this game. I think Ben Lehman sa id something about it working well when you "take seriously the idea that it is about good TV, and don't try to play it like GURPS Lite".
In GURPS, if you said "I want to confront my father's impostor" would be a request for a year-long character-specific sub-quest that would get addressed with occasional scraps of a clue whenever the GM remembered to include one. If you ever did find and confront him, it would be as a result of executing thousands of individual actions involving skill checks and attack rolls and movement. Because the interface of GURPS (along with D&D, etc.) requires that you execute your desires at that level of granularity.
In PTA, "I want to confront my father's impostor" is a scene request. You get a turn to request a scene, and the Producer generally gives you what you request. Something that would take many, many sessions in a crunchy, GM-driven traditional RPG like GURPS is effectively a single turn in PTA.
Because that's the level that PTA's interface works at. You name a place for the scene; you don't have to justify exactly how you got there, or how you knew where it was, or how long it took you, or that you had the right items in your inventory, or that you had enough spaceship fuel, or anything like that. It's TV: you're just like "External shot of the Senate building in Coruscant, night time; then cut to inside, and I'm descending from the ceiling on my grappling hook gun..." and everybody's like "Cool".
PTA and GURPS are more or less on opposite ends of a scale, here. I don't know any games more granular than GURPS or less granular than PTA (with its single-resolution-per-scene). There's a lot of room in between.
It might be a useful thing to think about, in game design: What kind of interface does your game have? What level does that interface operate at? What are the "basic moves" in your game? Is it like a text adventure, where basic moves are very concrete and physical - "Go west; light torch; poke statue with stick" ? Or is it like a TV show, where the basic "moves" are scenes and character confrontations and dramatic choices? Or something else?
And when you know what the interface of your game should be, how do you communicate that to your players? I don't think most games do a good job of explaining their interfaces. I'm remembering the time my mom tried to play D&D and she was confused -- like "I don't understand what are the things I can do in the game; is there like a list?" When I was getting logistical in PTA, I think that was an example of me playing to the wrong interface.
The only "anime" I watched at the con was a an internet parody Stephen showed me called Girl-Chan in Paradise. It's pretty spot-on. The bad-dub voice acting in it is hilarious. ("Why's that Kotobaru-san-sama?" "I used up all my strength using the shi... shinkenpatsu bakumatsu hatsudatsu technique") Worth watching if you like stupidity-based humor, and pretty impressive that it was animated and voiced by like 3 people.
As I've said before, I go to ACEN because it's a reunion for my college friends, which just happens to be at an anime con. Each year it makes me think about anime and how I used to love it so much but hardly watch it anymore.
There's the obvious reasons - the anime industry itself going downhill since the 90s, me not having the free time I had as a teenager -- but there's another factor too: I no longer feel that completionist urge like I used to. Used to be that if I got hooked on an anime I just HAD to see every episode. Now I'm kind of like, watch four episodes, get the gist of it, OK that wasn't bad.
So many anime series, even the ones I like, can pretty much be broken down into formula plot plus high-concept gimmick. You know what I mean? For example...
Formula plot: "Shounen tournament anime"
High-concept gimmick: "They bake bread! (and make lots of puns)"
And it's like, I've seen enough tournament anime to know exactly how this is gonna go down. I don't need to sit through it again. Once I've seen enough to get the main jokes ("the bread is so delicious that when someone bites into it they are transported to outer space in a trippy animated sequence") and understand the character interactions ("this guy's a sidekick who's only in the show to watch the tournament and explain to the audience how amazing the hero's moves are"), a show often doesn't have enough like the characters and the gimmicks.
Especially true since many series have disappointing, inconclusive, or nonsensical endings. The payoff at the end is so rarely worth the effort of watching all the way through, and that makes me wary of getting overly invested in a show.
Is there a decent anime review website out there? Cuz I was thinking, I might watch anime more than like once a year if I had a source of reviews I trusted to tell me what doesn't suck. There was a site I liked back in like 2001-2002 called Anime Jump, but it's long defunct. I've looked at the top Google hits for "anime reviews" and they're all much too fannish and not nearly critical enough. You would think this is an obvious niche; shouldn't there be all sorts of Web 2.0 anime review sites with user-generated content and crap? Where like you can rate a few shows to give it an idea of what you like and then some algorithm recommends stuff?
Well, if I'm going to ask for recommendations... you know what I miss? Science fiction anime. There used to be a whole sub-genre of gritty near-futures, with those lovingly detailed drawings of cityscapes and mecha, with mindfuck philosophizing grounded in at least semi-believable settings. Stuff like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, the movies got me into anime in the first place; Bubblegum Crisis, Macross, the Patlabor movies, the original Gundam, Gunbuster... it's not so much the giant robots as the futurism. Serial Experiments Lain counts, I think. More distant futures, too, like Nausicaa, Galaxy Express 999, They Were Eleven (my favorite anime film nobody's ever heard of). I should probably give Cowboy Bebop another chance. The most recent thing I saw to scratch that itch was... Paprika?
Do they even still make that stuff anymore? I know that ambitious OAV series were a bubble economy thing, but where are all the neon futures, post-apocalyptic deserts, cool motorcycles, and neo-Tokyos? Have they all been replaced forever by pedophilia, shinigami, and goth-friendly lacy frills? Did Japan completely lose interest in The Future sometime in the 90s?
That reminds me of something John Lung showed me at ACEN 2010: the opening animation for Daicon 4, a convention in Osaka in 1982. This was a fan animation done by amateurs who would later go on to become Gainax. (It gets really good around 3 minutes. Electric Light Orchestra for the win!) This video reminds me of a time when anime fandom was a piece of science fiction fandom and you could fit the Millenium Falcon and the Space Battleship Yamato into the same montage. Not really true today, is it? The anime fandom self-segregates and I doubt many of the teenagers at ACEN have ever read an Isaac Asimov novel.
Maybe some of you readers can recommend a review site and/or a decent SF anime?
The main reason I stopped working on Yuki hoshigawa was frustration at my inability to get the story moving. I didn't want to write a plotless slice-o-life comic where Yuki comments on society and feels depressed and nothing else happens. I wanted to write a science fiction story, emphasis on story. But what I wrote instead was thirty pages of meandering introduction, basically.
I made a classic mistake. Combine an initially passive protagonist with a distaste for arbitrary forcing events (aka a desire to have story emerge organically) and you have a recipe for inaction. It's exactly like a role-playing game where the players make characters with no intrinsic motivations and the GM refuses to railroad. Yuki had no reason to do anything besides mope around.
Plot doesn't come real naturally to me. The inspiration for Yuki Hoshigawa (starting almost ten years ago!) has all been about theme and character development and setting, not plot. That's how writing fiction goes, I think: sometimes the plot comes to you and you need to fill in the characters, soetimes the other way around. Ultimately you need all the pieces working together to build an interesting story. I've got this swirling nebula of related themes and character issues in my brain, but I have great difficulty expressing it as a linear series of events, or even describing it to close friends.
Years ago I figured out an ending for what was supposed to be chapter 1. I'd been refining it ever since. But sometime around last summer, I decided to get serious about writing a solid plot. I re-examined my planned chapter 1 and realized it sucked big time. It was an accumulation of scenes that I liked but that didn't have much to do with each other. (I would tear it up and throw it away, but to do that I'd have to print it out first.) I started over.
In January I wrote an outline of a ~20 pages standalone story. But that one wasn't good enough either. It was too goofy, and the action too contrived. Fun, but it didn't feel "Yuki" enough. Writing it was good practice, but it's worth the time I would have to spend drawing it. I filed that one away too, to plunder some of its better ideas later.
Now I'm working on yet another draft, from scratch. My biggest problem is that when I try to think of a climax, most of the scenes that come to mind don't fit the buildup. I know the shape of the hole and now I'm searching for a peg that fits there.
But I'm pretty excited about where it's going. I'm looking forward to drawing again, when I can work from a plot outline that I love.
2. The advice out there for writing comics sucks.
I started reading a lot, looking for advice about story structure and how to craft a plot. There are people out there who make a living doing this and they know how to do it. But good advice is hard to find -- especially for comics.
If you just search for "writing" you hit a lot of articles that assume you're writing a novel, so they're all about paragraph breaks and how to write descriptive sentences and "he said", "she said". In other words, they're about the surface-level presentation of a text format. Completely useless for comics, which have an entirely different surface-level presentation. I want to know about the deeper structure, the stuff that comics and novels have in common -- pacing, character development, dialog, etc.
OK, so I search for "writing comics". Now the results are even worse! Now all the articles you get assume you're submitting a script to Marvel or DC. They're all superhero-centric, they assume a 32-page format, and even worse: they assume that you're writing a script for somebody else to draw. So there's a ton of stuff about the right way to format a script and very little about how to tell a story. A ton of stuff about describing panels and none about laying out panels.
Finally, if you search for "story structure" you get a lot of stuff aimed at people who are trying to break into Hollywood script writing and are looking for the right formula to use to sell their script to a studio. They'll tell you that you need to hit a certain plot point by a certain page in your script and a lot of other rigid, formulaic stuff like that. Frankly a lot of it sounds like superstition - follow these rituals exactly, or else you will anger the script gods!
I've found some helpful material in resources aimed at playwriting and screenwriting. Both of these media have a much more well-developed body of theory and analysis than comics do. (Going all the way back to Aristotle, in fact.) And they're more similar to comics than novels are. Stage plays are all about dialog; screenplays are all about telling a story with images; lessons about either of these things apply directly to comics.
One of the better books I've found on the subject is Story by Robert McKee, an infamous and curmudgeonly teacher of screenwriting. Boring, shallow, cliched, lazy writing offends him on a deep moral level, and he will not tolerate it. Nor will he tolerate people looking for shortcuts to fame and riches. Reading the book is kind of like hearing a grouchy old man rail against the degeneration of modern society. But I learned a lot. And apart from one chapter about script formatting and written description, all the rest of the book is applicable to comics as well as screenplays.
3. Why writing is hard
I had an epiphany today: the space of everything you could possibly write is the real numbers, the space of stuff that's interesting to read is the integers. They're both "infinite" but if you pick something at random, the chances it will fall in the latter category is infinitesimal. (And, um, the fact that I had to use a math metaphor to understand writing tells you a lot about why this doesn't come naturally to me.)
The hardest part of writing isn't having ideas or getting motivated or finding the deeper meaning or making characters believable or polishing dialogue or any of that stuff. The hardest part is deciding what things are going to happen in your story, in what order. Yes. That sounds kind of like "duhhhh" but it's surprisingly hard and nobody wants to talk about it. It's easy to have lots and lots of ideas but hard to know which ones fit together and which ones don't.
You've got infinite combinations to choose from, but your choices must satisfy a gauntlet of contradictory requirements: The chain of cause and effect must be clear, logical, and internally consistent; the pacing must be good, with rising action and tension and relief and no boring stretches; the reader must get enough exposition to understand the situation, but without infodumping; setup must come before payoff, payoff must be worth it; characters' motivations must make sense and character development must be beleivable; it must be the protagonists' choices that drive things and those choices must express the character development and the results of those choices must express the theme; and we should try to do all this without falling back on cliche or being too predictable. Oh, and since this is a comic, the events have to be drawable, visually interesting, and expressable via panel flow.
It's a tall order, all of that together. I used to think that you could just start drawing a comic at page 1 and keep drawing until you got to the last page and the story would emerge as a spontaneous outburst of creativity.
That's... not really how it works. (At least not for me. Maybe there's some insane genius out there who can do it that way.)
Drawing a story that's more than a bunch of random stuff that happens is craft. It doesn't happen by accident. It's a lot of work and planning and rewriting. It takes deep understanding and a willingness to kill your darlings. You don't work from the first page to the last page; you work from idea to outline to rough draft to script to thumbnails to pencil sketch to inking. You try to catch and correct problems as early as possible, because it's much "cheaper" to fix them early, e.g. fill a plot hole or cut out a boring dialog scene before you've spent time drawing anything. The reader never sees any of the work you did prior to the inking stage; what they read is the last stage of a long journey, but if you did it right, it has the illusion of spontaneity.
Chinese censorship can be capricious. Sometimes Wikipedia's blocked, sometimes just certain articles are blocked. Today I can reach the Tiananmen Square Protests 1989 page no problem.
If I do a Google search, half the time it gets routed through Google.com.hk and works fine; the other half of the time I land on some super-sketchy-looking site at http://sh.114so.cn.
Blogger and Wordpress are both blocked, Tumblr gets sporadically blocked or redirected, but amusingly 4chan works fine.
At least I can understand the government's reasons for blocking political content and sites that people use to organize protests. Some of the other things they choose to censor are truly baffling -- like time travel! China has recently banned all movies and TV shows that use time travel as a plot device.
Additionally, you're not allowed to show human skeletons. (They had to redo a lot of artwork for the Chinese version of World of Warcraft.)
I just had the best idea for the ultimate "banned in China" movie: It's about a time-traveling Tibetan skeleton who goes back in time to Tiananmen Square 1989 in order to overthrow the government using secret Falun Gong techniques.
Last night was the final session of our Prime Time Adventures game in which we were playing a 1980s combining-robot anime series called Crystal Armor Resonator. Since it's an 80s anime, the cold war is still going on in the future. I was running. Sushu played Ken, the red pilot (half-American half-Japanese) and Chris played Dmitri, the blue pilot (Russian). This game started early this year, with a three-month hiatus while we were in China. I've almost never had a campaign survive a hiatus like that, but miraculously we managed to reconstruct what was happening from our notes and memories and finish up the series.
In last night's session, Sushu and I had a miscommunication which almost derailed the game. We managed to get it back on track and finish it, but we spent the whole car ride home talking about what had gone wrong and why that one miscommunication had been so awkward and frustrating. We worked through some issues in how we role-play together in general as well as in how we play this particular game that were quite illuminating.
It was Sushu's turn to start a scene. She had just resolved a fairly major subplot in her previous scene (taking down the evil alien clone that had replaced Commander McAllister) and she was at something of a loss about what her character should do next. So she asked me, "Where's Indigo/Zero right now?" (Indigo/Zero = the main villain at this point, a human terrorist leader who hooked himself into some psionic technology to try to gain control of the aliens' bioship larva and became a hideous fusion of human, alien, and machine.)
I thought for a second and said "After he fled the battle in the previous episode, he took off with the splinter fleet of aliens under his control and hid somewhere in the system. Nobody knows where he is right now."
(If you've never played PTA, you should understand this is not a game where the GM prepares the plot. There was no "real answer" to the question of where Indigo/Zero was; it's not like his location was marked on a dungeon map behind a screen, or even decided in my head. He could be anywhere. That's a baseline assumption of this kind of play.)
So, since I didn't know myself and I figured it was something none of the characters would know, I said his whereabouts were unknown.
I wanted that to be a prompt, not a roadblock. It's the last episode of the series, obviously there's got to be a final confrontation with the villain. I want the protagonists to find and defeat him! I don't even want finding him to be a challenge, particularly. This wasn't like a Star Trek type of game where we would focus on the use of science skills to track down the bad guy.
So by "nobody knows where Indigo/Zero is right now" I meant "He could show up at any time to attack you, or you could go look for him and fight him." If Sushu had said Ken wanted to go hunt him down, we would have done that, and we would have made up handwavy explanation for how the pilots find him. I would have accepted pretty much any plan either player offered, or I would have had an NPC scientist suggest one, or I would have had Indigo/Zero conveniently choose this time to come out of hiding and attack. Because the important thing is getting to the next cool fight scene, not the exact in-universe mechanics of how we track somebody through space.
But I communicated poorly, and Sushu heard "nobody knows where he is" as a roadblock: "Nobody knows where he is, therefore you can't go attack him" and she got frustrated. She felt like I was trying to force the game in another direction and steering her away from the plot she was interested in following. She got stuck trying to think of how to get Ken involved in the new plot direction she thought I was trying to push.
In a way this was a version of one of the oldest types of RPG "stalemate" situations - the one I first experienced playing RIFTS with Googleshng back in the 90s, where the GM is expecting the player to offer a direction ("What do you do next?") and the player is expecting the GM to offer a direction ("What's going on right now?"). Each person wants the other one to give them something to respond to, so play is deadlocked until somebody steps up.
PTA actually has a really good system for resolving this stalemate. It tells you exactly what each player is responsible for. In our case it was Sushu's turn to request a scene, so by the rules she was supposed to say 1. whether she wanted a plot-focused or character-focused scene, 2. where she wanted that scene to be set, and 3. what's the general sort of activity going on in that scene. Given those three things, the Producer (me) is then supposed to set the scene, narrating what the audience would see on screen, who's there, what's going on, etc. Then we start role-playing from there.
So by the rules I was expecting Sushu to say something like "I want a plot scene in outer space where we fight Indigo/Zero and his minions." Or, alternatively, "I want a character scene where Ken and Dmitri talk about how to unite the human nations against the common foe" (which happened later). Under the rules, she's got full authority to request that, regardless of where Ken is or what Ken does or doesn't know. It's then my responsibility to make it happen.
But there's a pitfall here. The scene-request system only works when everybody approaches it from the right stance, namely "What would be a cool scene to happen next in this show". It falls apart if you try to think too logistically, or try to think too much in-character. Trying to request a PTA scene from a "What SHOULD I DO next?" stance instead of "What do I want to SEE next?" leads to analysis paralysis.
Last night I think Sushu was constraining herself a little too much to Ken's point of view. She played Ken as a hotheaded, rush-into-things character (He's the Red Pilot, of course!) in contrast to our Star Wars game where Sushu's character was a tactical genius fleet admiral. She pointed out that since Ken wants to rush into things, it's harder to step back and think about the situation on a meta-level than it was when playing the Star Wars fleet admiral. It was easier for her to do top-down scene requests in the Star Wars game because it's closer to that character's head-space. But role-playing Ken, she really just wanted to be pointed at an enemy so she could go rock out.
Technically, in PTA it shouldn't matter if you're playing a genius or an idiot, because it's the player who requests the scene, not the character, and the rules grant all players exactly equal authority for scene requests. If your PC is a tactical genius then I'll narrate the scene you requested as happening exactly according to your plan, whereas if you're playing The Tick I'll narrate the scene as something you bumbled into at just the right time thanks to dumb luck.
But it's really interesting to hear about how the character's personality and your state of immersion can make it easier or harder to make use of certain rules.
Anyway, as producer I should have done more to recognize the in-character/out-of-character dilemma she was stuck in and help coax her out of it. I should have offered some more suggestions and tried to see what kind of scene she really wanted, then reminded her that we can always come up with a way to make it happen.
I know what this feels like; I've been on the player side of this in previous PTA games. E.g. that time playing Gruchakla the Wookie Jedi in our Clone Wars game two years ago. I was in that "I am Gruchakla, what should I do next in this situation?" kind of mindset, so I started thinking all strategically and logistically about what my next move should be to have the best chance of completing my misison. Which is the bread and butter of some role-playing styles, but PTA doesn't support it at all. Everything's way too hand-wavy; all the spaceships travel at the speed of plot. A strategic decision would depend on having solid answers for sorts of stuff that is just not defined solidy in a PTA game.
At the same time, you don't want to completely throw out the coherency of the fiction. You've got the freedom to request any scene, but you want to constrain that to respect what's already been established, otherwise your show becomes an incoherent series of vignettes. So the scene requester has to consider plausibility to some degree. And if you think that some scene clashes against a solid part of the fiction (like, if you think that "the fleet whereabouts are unknown" is a solid thing that you can't push back on) then you tend to self-censor about requesting scenes that would contradict it.
What's solid and what's flexible is highly genre-dependent. In an 80s combining-robot show, who forms the head might be an inviolable plot point, but alien fleet locations are highly negotiable. (Aliens can and should show up any time you need one for a fight scene!)
I think it's the Producer's job to clearly communicate what's to be treated as solid and what's hand-wavy, and I wasn't doing a good enough job of that last night. There was another example: A scene where an emissary from the aliens wanted to negotiate with Dmitri. I was playing this NPC as a someone who didn't understand humans too well, having only recently come to acknowledge them as sentient beings at all. He offered to not conquer earth in exchange for help killing Indigo/Zero (which the heroes wanted to do anyway) ... "Oh, and also we want your warp gate technology."
I didn't really have an agenda for how this should go; I was just playing an NPC. I was thinking of "this is his starting offer, he's asking too much, but maybe make a counteroffer?". Both Chris and Sushu seemed to interpret it as "the aliens will never offer you a fair deal, negotiating is a dead end."
And if that's their decision that's fine, but I think I need to do more to signal "This is a starting point for negotiating, not an end point." I'm the Producer so I have authority over lots of things. But "Authority" doesn't mean "my word is law", it means "the buck stops with me". Just because I say something doesn't mean it's carved in stone! This is an improv game; we're all making stuff up as we go along.
So, takeaways for improving my skills at running PTA:
1. Recognize if somebody is thinking too tactically and remind them it's a TV show. (Sometimes I need to be reminded of that myself -- like when I start trying to bring too much realistic physics into a giant robot space battle.)
2. If somebody's having trouble thinking what scene to request, offer some suggestions, and try to see if maybe they're stuck on something that they assume they can't do for some reason.
3. More clearly express when I'm stating something that's a solid fact in the fiction vs. when I'm offering something as a hand-wave or a starting point for negotiation.
Chris introduced me to a webcomic called LARP TREK. What's it about? I'll let Geordi explain:
It gets better: the setting that Geordi makes up is a Cardassian space station in orbit around Bajor, recently ceded to the Federation. That's right: they role-play as the crew of Deep Space Nine. Hijinx ensue.
It's only 30 strips in, so getting caught up is quite a short archive binge. Thanks to Chris for introducing me to that one.
Reading LARP TREK made Sushu curious about Deep Space Nine, so we went and watched the pilot episode. It holds up mostly better than I expected. Except the costumes. Oh my god. So many weird unflattering shapes and ugly shades of brown.
That reminded me about the hilarious single-topic Tumbler Fashion It So which exists to make fun of stuff like...
...the fact that Romulans on TNG look like sofa pillows with heads sticking out of them.
Next Generation was "my" Star Trek. I remember catching both "Encounter at Farpoint" and "All Good Things" when they first aired, although I didn't watch it consistently in-between.
I went through periods of loving Star Trek and hating it, for its fake science, its hokey speeches, and its terrible plot devices (holodeck malfunction! space-time anomaly!). But looking back on it now, I can appreciate more of what they were trying to do, even though the execution was usually super-clunky.
You realize how unusual Star Trek is for having an optimistic, pro-science future, where a diverse group of competent people work together? It's easy to make fun of their naiive idealism, but in a world where most sci-fi shows are either GRIMDARK or fantasy/horror in disguise, it's nice that at least somebody was trying to show that we could build a future worth looking forward to.
They also tried (not always successfully) to show a future where humanity has gotten over sexism, racism, and nationalism, and in the process they fought against a lot of TV barriers and stereotypes, which is commendable.
This is patently absurd because "space marines" are a common trope that were used in science fiction novels (Heinlein and Doc Smith among others) as far back as the 1930s.
It's also funny because, if you go through the original Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader rulebook you'll find obvious shout-outs to Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Lord of the Rings, Dune, Jugdge Dredd, and probably lots of other stuff. It's a kitchen sink setting of derivative sci-fi and fantasy tropes, made by fans for other fans to enjoy acting out whatever media-inspired scenarios they wanted. And that's great! But how hypocritical is it that after building their company on the freedom to remix common genre tropes, they try to deny the same freedom to others?
40k today is barely recognizable as the same game as that first version - the setting became more defined and unique, it stopped using a referee, they retconned out most of the fun silly stuff, and everything got super GRIMDARK. And of course, little plastic men became a hugely profitable business for them, so the lawyers moved in and took everything over.
This wasn't the first time Games Workshop has acted as a legal bully - they've been known to shut down websites where people posted game stats, even just for discussion purposes.
I'm feeling pretty good about my decision to stop supporting Games Workshop. (Even though my decision was more because the game stopped being fun than because of their corporate policies.) Besides legal bullying tactics, I've also heard GW is quite terrible to their low-level employees. Plus their stores have that weird cult-like atmosphere where everybody's giving you the hard sell.
A couple months ago I boxed up all the Warhammer 40k stuff that was collecting dust in my garage and started selling it on eBay. I've got $900 so far and I've still got the Tyranids to sell. (I love you, eBay!)
Today (a week past the due date) I finally turned in the finished version of "We Can Regrow That For You", a 10-page science-fiction comic, which will be published in the upcoming anthology Sci-Fi San Francisco by Skodaman Press.
This is kinda my first "real" comic, in that it's a finished, self-contained, original story, that is being published in print by somebody I don't know. I'm even getting paid (a little) for it!
Finishing it was an ordeal. My plan was to get it done before leaving on my trip to New Jersey-New York-Connecticut-Massachusetts, but I started too late, had to bring the work with me, and ended up spending almost the entire week desperately trying to finish the comic! I'm afraid I was rather rude to all the people I visited, trying to multitask between visiting them and inking pages with a stylus on my laptop.
It didn't help that I was doing it in GIMP. Screw you, GIMP.
Today was a week past the due date. I really, really should have started earlier. Luckily, it was still accepted.
I still wouldn't be done if Sushu hadn't volunteered to step in and save my butt. Besides proofreading and feedback, she also did the majority of the inking and shading. The actual lines you'll see on the finished page are mostly hers. I asked the publishers to please put both our names in the byline, since it turned into a team project.
The thing I'm least happy about with the finished story is how cramped it feels. Honestly, the idea that I picked was a bit too complex for ten pages. But I didn't have time to think of a simpler one, so I had to go with it. As a result, some pages are overcrowded. Pages 2 and 3 are both nine-panelers, which is seriously pushing it.
Working under a length limit was good for me, though. Spilling over to an eleventh page was not an option. (Good thing, too, given how long ten pages took.) It helped me learn to think of dialog as a limited resource -- you can only squeeze so many lines into a page, and only so many words into a line. But there's so much that needs doing! Backstory exposition, character development, plot advancement, expressing conflict, telling jokes, etc etc. Spread that duty across the limited lines of dialog and every line has to be carrying a lot of weight. Double or triple duty.
I don't think my dialog in this story is particularly great, but at least I've eliminated all needless lines. Dialog is almost always better when it's shorter.
Finish Your Shit
It's not good to go through life with one "master" story you're perpetually "working on". Because then every idea you have wants to get into that story. They have nowhere else to go. All those extra ideas clinging on to the sides of the story like refugees on the last bus out of town, making it unweildly, weighing it down. The story becomes too big to finish, so you're always doing it but it's never done.
Cough, Yuki Hoshigawa, cough. (The irony is that Yuki Hoshigawa was itself originally supposed to be a quick project to do for practice before I got into the big story I really wanted to do, which was my Epic Space Opera.)
It's better to have multiple smaller stories so ideas can go into each one as they fit and no one story gets overly bloated. I only thought of "We Can Regrow That For You" a few months ago, and now it's done! That's a good feeling. I haven't had to give it years of rent-free lodging in my brain.
Me and Sushu are still figuring out how we work together on creative projects. We've tried to do some before which kind of fell apart. But I think we're starting to figure out what it takes to make it work: We have to know which one of us is in charge of the vision. The other one just helps with the execution. In this case, the comic was my baby and Sushu helped me execute. The Chinese learning game got a lot easier to work on once we accepted that it's Sushu's baby and I'm just executing.
Sometimes collaboration creates something mysterious. Sometimes Sushu saw something in my sketch while inking it that I didn't mean to put there. I didn't mean to give the waitress on page 8 a huge ridiculous bow tie, but Sushu thought she saw one, and somehow it works, so there it is. Who created that bow tie? Neither of us did! It's spooky.
Like, duh, right? Fiction is made up. But it still surprises me how fake everything about my story is.
Most of the writing I've done in my life has been nonfiction -- blog posts, argumentative essays, lab reports, expository technical writing, etc. There's a set of facts which are the fixed stars in your firmament; your task is to put them in order and explain them in a coherent and maybe entertaining way.
And when you read fiction, if it's any good, you experience it like a true thing. Like you're peeking into another world where all this stuff is really happening. It seems like there's a fixed set of facts there, and the author is just guiding us through it. And fanfic writers sure do care about getting the "facts" of their canon right.
So there's a misconception I had when I started trying to write fiction that it would be like this: there's a world in my imagination, I open a channel to it somehow, observe events there, gather a set of "facts", and then guide the reader through those "facts" in a logical way.
But no. Everything about telling a story is artificial. Everything. There's no facts. There's no alternate world. There's just me, drawing a bunch of lines, and making a bunch of decisions about what I want my lines to express.
Nothing is sacred. Every time I catch myself thinking of a certain plot point as fixed and necessary, I'm wrong - there's always something else could happen instead. The order of events is flexible. Characters' personalities are flexible. Basic assumptions about the setting are flexible.
It's like sculpting with mist. There's just nothing solid there.
If the end result resembles naturalism, if the reader believes for a moment that the markings on paper represent a consistent alternate world, it's only because the magic trick worked.
This means that the writer's experience is never going to match the reader's experience. The writer doesn't get to have the reader's enjoyment of discovering this world - no more than a a magician can be fooled by a trick while they're performing it.
The Character Just Took Over, Man
Speaking of magic tricks: Sometimes authors talk about a character having a mind of its own and telling the author where the story should go.
I'm not sure what's going on there, man. Maybe if you're writing a new entry in a series and have some long-established characters and you need to stay true to them. But when you're writing a character for the first time? You decide who the character is. Whatever you make them do, that's who they are. For any given character there are infinite possible interpretations, which you narrow down with each word or action you give them.
I do think that sometimes you write a line for a character and suddenly the character clicks, like you just discovered who they are. That's happened to me a lot. With role-playing game characters especially. But the character still doesn't have "a mind of their own". It's just that you discovered a characterization that works for you.
That said, consistent characterization is really fucking important. Nothing ruins a story faster than character motivations that don't make sense, or that are plain missing. Bogus science can be hand-waved, but if your people don't act like people, nothing can save your story. So out of all the magic tricks, "this character has a mind of their own" is the most important illusion to create.
Most of Writing is Rewriting
The reader experiences the story beginning to end, as a series of fictional events. The writer experiences it first draft to last draft -- as a series of decisions to be made, blanks to be filled, plot holes to be fixed, etc.
The story would ALWAYS be better with another rewrite. But at some point you have to call it good enough and start drawing. One good thing about working under a deadline is that the deadline forces you not to be a perfectionist about the rewriting.
My original idea changed a lot in the development. Like, the first draft was just Zach and assorted background characters. Julia and Pedro didn't exist yet.
I rejected my original ending for being all talk with nothing interesting going on visually. I think this was the right choice. Repeat it with me: Comics are a visual medium. If you have a whole page of talking heads to draw, something is wrong with your script.
After I wrote a better ending, I realized I had some empty roles to fill, so Julia and Pedro were invented to fill them. I think it's a way better story with them in it.
The original idea, the inspiration, is what gives you motivation to start working, but don't cling to it. You'll have other ideas. Sometimes the original idea is just a stepping stone to something better.
A lot of story problems are the result of seams between different drafts -- this page will be at revision 5 and this other page at revision 6, as it were, and they don't quite line up. Sometimes a page is full of holdovers, stuff that was needed in revision 5 but doesn't matter in revision 6. Sometimes the holdovers stay in for a while before you notice them. It really helps to have someone else read it over and point out the seam for you.
Like, in the first draft, it was important to show Zach interviewing for the job and getting hired. That took up page 1 and part of 2. The interview stuff stayed there for several revisions before I finally realized that it was a relic. There was no need to see the interview: I could tighten things up a lot if Zach wasjust already part of the company when the story opens. Several panels on the finished pages 1 and 2 were originally drawn for the interview scene and then repurposed -- that's how late in the process I figured this out.
An unexpected benefit of drawing comics is that it makes you look more carefully at the world around you. Because you might need to draw anything. Random everyday objects you've never tried to draw before, that would not usually be a subject of art: there they are in the background of a panel! Better find one and figure out how to draw it.
Walking around town when my brain is in "comics mode", I see things I wouldn't normally see. A person with a cool hairdo that I want to swipe for a character. A neat old building that would look good in the background of a panel. The shape of a tree. Etc.
On Science Fiction
The science fiction that interests me most is what-if stories about social change. Which means you need four parts:
the what-if: the new technology or whatever and the rules for how it works
the society: how does this new whatever do to affect the tangle of unspoken rules and assumptions we call culture
the characters: what do the changes to technology and society mean for the characters
the themes: what are you trying to say about, you know, the human condition and stuff. Hopefully something more interesting than just "oh no, this technology/social trend is really bad". Write a blog post if that's all you want to say
The themes and characters are what the story's about. The what-if and the society belong in the background.
A lot of really shitty science fiction has been written by writing the what-if and the society and ignoring themes and characters.
Balancing themes, characters, and world-building is really hard! It's hard enough to get one of those things right, and when you try to do them together, sometimes they fight each other. Science-fiction fans, including myself, love to nitpick stories where the world-building isn't quite consistent. But trying to do it myself has given me a newfound sympathy. I'm starting to think it's a valid artistic choice to favor the emotional impact of the story over the consistency of made-up science if the two are irreconcilable. Nerd heresy, I know.
Will The Audience Get It?
There were a lot of things I wanted to say in "We Can Regrow That For You". Themes and ideas I didn't have space to explore in depth. So I just hinted at them. I have no idea how many readers will pick up on the hints, but they're there.
Readers hate being bashed over the head with something obvious, right? I figure it's better to hint at things and let the reader feel smart when they figure it out. Instead of telling the story directly, you describe the edges of a story-shaped hole and let them fill in the blanks.
That's what "Show, Don't Tell" is about, right? It's really more like "Show them one thing by telling them another thing"
The story, in my head, is a cloud of marvelous possibilities. I hope that in the reader's head, it becomes a cloud of marvelous possibilities as well. But in between, it has to be flattened to pass through the narrow, limited, linear medium of scratch marks on paper, that can only hint at the story I imagined. I can only hope that whatever story the reader creates in their head, inspired by my scratch marks, is meaningful to them.
Looking over it again, my biggest regret is that it feels too rushed. Ten pages was a little too short for this story idea. As a result, the art and the dialog both feel a bit cramped. I'm pondering maybe doing a "director's cut" where I expand it to 14 or 15 pages, just to give it a little more room to breathe and develop.