Category Archives: Inspirations

Stargate: Universe

If you’re a sci fi geek or even any sort of regular fellow who watched blockbusters in the 90s, you know the premise of Stargate: A network of ancient portal devices has been left on various planets by an ancient race, and can be used to travel from one planet to another with ease.

It’s a high concept setting, but not quite as original as one may think. Tunnel in the Sky comes to mind as an obvious source of inspiration, but that doesn’t matter so terribly. There are no new ideas, as they say, anyway.

Like most people, I did watch the movie and then watched some of the TV show (Stargate: SG-1). Didn’t follow it for too long and never really watched any of the spin-offs until a year or so ago. Stargate: Atlantis seemed very silly, and I never even heard of Stargate: Universe until long after it got cancelled. After watching it, I felt quite mixed about the show but eventually decided that it was overall a fairly decent effort. Much like my post about Star Trek: Enterprise, I thought I’d offer some notes from a world builder’s perspective.

SPOILER WARNING – Some plot details will be mentioned in this post.

The Premise In Short: Earth discovers a special stargate – one that leads not to another planet, but to a star ship that has been traveling for aeons. Due to an unfortunate incident, a group of unprepared soldiers and civilians is stranded on this ship, with no way of getting home.

The Setup: The series seems to have been Star Gate’s take on the Star Trek “planet of the week” premise. On a fundamental level, it’s about humans and their relationships and conflicts in an extreme situation (cut off from Earth) and exploration (of strange new worlds).

The Worldbuilding: I have an okayish understanding of Star Gate lore, and SG:U doesn’t really expand it all that much. The idea of an ancient starship travelling towards an unknown destination is a pretty cool one – and one I must steal at some point – as long as you are willing to accept that your audience’s suspension of disbelief will be a bit strained when your ship inevitably arrives at its destination during the show’s run on TV. Talk about cosmic coincidences, right?

I’m definitely amazed that anybody in their right minds thinks that something like the Stargate project could be kept secret for decades, to the point where Earth has hyperspace capable spaceships of their own. I guess the show creators simply didn’t want to tackle the implications for Earth’s society – nor spend the money on the sets and cgi necessary for anything that does not look like “present day earth” – but it’s still bad worldbuilding.

This becomes a real immersion breaker when the Lucian Alliance bombs Stargate HQ/Pentagon/whatever in one episode. If you want to damage Earth’s government and you have access to spaceships – just land one in a public place and hold a press conference. You’re safely off based elsewhere in the galaxy; the governments on Earth suddenly have a big problem on their hands.

Lessons learned: Don’t do it if you can’t explain it. In the case of SG:U’s unchanged earth, even a short piece of dialogue could have helped. “How did you manage to keep all this secret,” Eli asked. Lt. Gen O’Neill shrugged. “Really tight security. Luck. Most people who get involved realize that there’s a lot of dangerous stuff out there and we can’t simply open the floodgates. We’ll go public when we have a handle on things.”

It’s not perfect but better than the NDA in the pilot. Of course an even better way to do it would have been to just not show Earth much at all.

Consider the implications of changes you introduce. They never stay confined to your group of protagonists – earth-shattering revelations have a tendency to shatter earth. Don’t use them unless you can deal with the consequences.

The Plot: The writers of the show had clearly no plan of where they were going, and were incredibly bad at handling the situations they wrote themselves into. Without checking for script credits, I have to assume that writers changed constantly and were each responsible for a handful of episodes at most. There was also quite obviously no-one on the show’s staff who cared for consistency or the show’s plot arc.

There is an arc, but it’s so jumbled together that it would have been better to just throw it out the window completely and go with the “Captain’s Log – today we find ourselves in orbit around a hitherto unknown class M planet” of Star Trek tradition.

This is most apparent in season two where, when faced by a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the form of berserker drones, the only solution the authors could come up with was “Well, let’s just leave the galaxy”. Cancellation, it seems, is a logical consequence of such a weak showing.

But this is not the only example. Another problematic one: The castaways don’t know how to control Destiny at first, which, combined with their need for information and supplies, is great if you want to run a “planet of the week” show. The crew found Destiny’s control center when the writers wanted a more “star ship combat” show, which ruined the planet of the week setup – the crew could always just jump away – and indeed required artifice when they did want to create conflict. Why not just go FTL? Because technobabble reasons. It’s the science fiction equivalent of modern day haunted house horror movies: Why wouldn’t the characters just call for the cops on their mobile phones once bad things happen?

Other examples include the Rush-Young drama, the Lucian attacks, the mystery aliens, the silly time travel stuff, and the Novus colony.

Lessons learned: If you create a series, it’s not only important to have a cool setup – you also need to know what your destination is. This applies to the overall arc as well as minor arcs. “Cool, let’s throw berserkers at them” should have immediately been followed by “…and their weakness is xyz and that’s how they are eventually defeated”. This goes for all your major conflicts, really. Even if it’s not in the scope of what you are doing now, know where it’s going. Say your show or series is set to the background of a civil war. Who is fighting, and why? Who will win, and why? If you know this, you’ll know what events will happen in between. You’ll need to show the world’s background sooner or later, and it simply helps you to stay on track and consistent. It’s fine to have one-off’s, but you should stick to your show’s general theme.

Technology: The technology used by the characters is all “present day”. They use notebooks, flashlights, guns, mobile phones appropriately – though they gloss over how they charge them and ignore the difficulties in hooking any of these things up with the Ancient technology of destiny. The actual “sci fi” technology is just “magical”. The communications stones are a particularly bad design: Not only do they work by magic, they also result in characters swapping bodies. Unfortunately, this allows the Destiny folks to just bring in the world’s greatest experts on any subject unless they add artificial barriers that prevent the stones from working.

Now, one could argue that not having them also limits the type of problem the castaways can encounter and thus lessen the diversity of plots. But if your protagonists can’t deal with a problem at hand, you’ve got a classic case of deus ex machina. And that’s been crappy design for thousands of years.

Lessons learned: Larry Niven famously pointed out that it got hard to write for the Known Space setting because of all the wonder technologies he had introduced: Indestructible hulls, super-intelligent Protectors, longevity drugs, super-fast hyperdrives and antimatter fuel. The communication stones, as presented, are such a technology. Always consider how anything you introduce could short-circuit your story down the line. Plan for it or don’t use the magic technology or whatever it is.

Characters: Oh, what a dysfunctional bunch. Character design in SGU is mostly good, with some exceptions. The good part is that they clearly designed the characters as a group – pretty much everybody has a foil, for example. Some characters are way over the top, which in itself isn’t necessarily bad. I felt that the Rush-Young conflict escalated too much, for reasons that were too flimsy, and wasn’t ever really resolved properly. It just seems that after some point everybody got tired of writing for it, and their near-civil war dropped to occasional insults.

There is an obvious problem with the cast in that – as mentioned above – they had to constantly bring minor character on board destiny to solve this crisis or that. In my opinion this severely detracted from the protagonists. They also thought it necessary to bring Lucian Alliance (“terrorist”) soldiers aboard. My initial thought was that they did this to add characters that might appeal more to their target audience, but that wasn’t the case; it was probably another subplot-gone-wrong.

A minor nitpick is that even after two seasons, there were still chubby characters on the ship. Everybody survives on tight rations that are almost entirely vegetarian – no candy, no surplus; everybody should have slimmed down considerably.

Lessons learned: Design your protagonists well. Don’t just design them as people, make sure they are capable of dealing with their environment and the conflicts you throw at them. That doesn’t mean they always succeed – and not all of them will survive; it’s quite acceptable to kill off characters. But don’t make it a habit to magically introduce someone who was never mentioned before and then goes on to solve the problem in a significant way.

If you do have a situation where contact with the outside world is limited, write up a complete roster of characters. And I do mean complete, if you are looking at, say, 100 or so characters at most. Not everybody needs a full bio, but at least note down name, age, profession, appearance if you are working in a graphical medium, and a reason for why he is where he is. A few words suffice. Some ties to other characters – colleagues, love interests, etc – are a nice bonus. You can flesh them out later or change details, but if you need, say, a cook, you know who in your roster fills that slot.

The same, by the way, goes for equipment in such a situation, though you can always have crates of unspecified items. Just, for the sake of all that is good and holy, don’t have your characters unpack an item that could have been REALLY useful in last week’s episode. They would have taken a stock and known about it.

Aliens: There are few aliens in the show, which fits well with the human-centric setting. There are a few nonsentient species; a species of tiny swarm creatures that shows at least rudimentary intelligence; the berserker drones mentioned, the Novus colonists (a really dumb subplot), and two alien races that use spaceships.

One of them is a race that was in conflict with the berserker drones and lost. I liked the physical design; they were very humanoid and vaguely lemur and corpse like. I am not sure if they were cgi, puppets, or actors – maybe a mix. They didn’t play any sort of major role, interaction with them was minimal and they were killed off once they fulfilled their role as a plot piece. The show probably would have worked just as well without them.

The other race is more involved with Destiny; they wanted to get on board for a long time and failed. Which is odd, since they do manage to get aboard during the show’s first season and kidnap a crew member. Their physical design was less impressive, being clearly CGI in appearance. The conflict with them, too, is left unresolved; that is, it is simply “written out” when the writers got tired of it.

Lessons learned: Just because it’s science fiction, it doesn’t have to have aliens. If you do set one up as an antagonistic species, make sure they integrate into your overall story arc and you figure out how to deal with them properly.

In closing, I see why SG:U was cancelled. It was the right decision; too much was wrong with the show. It’s still a bit sad because the premise and basics were all there to make it a great show. I do recommend watching it – there are just barely enough good episodes to make it worth-while. And it is great as an instructional piece. Pay attention to the characters and their conflicts. Pay attention to the problems the antagonists face and how they solve them. Think of each episode’s story on its own, and how it relates to “mini arcs” and the “overall arc” of the show. It’ll be a really good lesson for your own storytelling.

 

 

Science Fiction Franchises

I spent some time jotting down a few commonalities of various popular Science Fiction franchises. Here’s what I have so far.

Franchise Genre Location Time Aliens Focus Protag Base of Ops Antag
Star Wars Space Fantasy Other Galaxy Past Countless War Soldiers Ship Evil Empire
Star Trek Space Opera Orion spur Centuries in the future Countless Exploration Soldiers Ship Evil Aliens
Babylon 5 Space Opera Orion spur Centuries in the future Many War Soldiers Space station Evil Aliens
Firefly Space Western Distant system Centuries in the future None Crime Criminals Ship Evil Empire
Farscape Space Opera Distant region Present Many Exploration, Escape Fugitives Ship Evil Empire
Eve Online Space Opera Distant cluster Millenia in the future None War, Economy, Exploration Various Ship Everybody else
Mass Effect Space Opera Milky Way Centuries in the future Many War, Exploration Soldiers Ship Evil Aliens
Traveller Space Opera Orion spur Millenia in the future Many Exploration, Economy Various Ship Evil Empire
Known Space Space Opera 40ly Centuries in the future Several Exploration Explorers Planets Various
Battlestar Galactica (2004) Space Opera Milky Way Past None War Soldiers Ship Robots
Stargate Space Opera Milky Way Present Several Exploration Soldiers Earth Evil Aliens
Doctor Who Space Comedy Milky Way Present Many Timetravel Special Ship Robots
Alien Space Horror Close to Earth Centuries in the future Few Horror Soldiers Planets Evil Aliens
Warhammer 40k Space Horror Milky Way Millenia in the future Many War Soldiers Planets Evil Aliens
Dune ? Orion spur Millenia in the future None Politics Nobles Planets Evil Empire
Piper Space Opera Milky Way Galaxy Centuries in the future Some Politics, Exploration Various Planets Various

Now, obviously a few of these entries require  comments:

Dune: Not exactly sure what “genre” this is. I’d say science fiction politics, since the dynastic struggle is a big focus. But then there are also religious/philosophical tones to it. I do have to admit I never could bring myself to finish even the first book, so take this with a grain of salt.

Warhammer 40k: It’s also a space fantasy if there ever was one (Elves and stuff, hello?)

Doctor Who: It isn’t really a comedy, but while it has gotten more “mature”, I still have a hard time taking the show serious. It’s a weird mix, at any rate; it’s kind of a time travel show (though time travel is really only a gimmick), sort of space opera, and sort of zany. The protagonists are The Doctor (a time traveller) who is aided by “everyday people” companions.

Traveller: Did not really have an antagonist per se. The Zhodani work as an “evil empire”. The New Era featured the vampire computer virus.

Known Space: Doesn’t really have an enemy per se. The Pakh protectors, the Kizinti, the Thrint, and so on all count but there is not really one standard enemy. It’s more a series about exploration in my opinion.

Piper: Very similar to Known Space in that there is not one enemy species or polity. The Federation serves as an antagonist in some novels, but is the protagonist in others.

So, what sort of conclusion do we draw from this?

A successful space franchise should either have no aliens at all or a whole bunch of them (and in any case most of them are clearly strange humans in strange rubber suits). It’s set centuries or millenia in the future, covers a large volume of space and features soldiers or rebels who use a spaceship as their basis. No real surprises there.

Of course this ‘research’ is very unscientific, I’d like to include more franchises and a measure of success for each franchise (Star Trek is more successful than Firefly – by far – and thus should probably weigh more in the analysis).

 

Star Trek: Enterprise

When it comes to Science Fiction, my two starter drugs were Captain Future – the animated TV show – and Star Trek.

I first saw part of an episode of Star Trek when I was a kid. I think my father was watching it, and I caught a glimpse when I came downstairs after my bed-time. Many years later, my mother bought me the novelization books of the TV show, one book at a time. I think I got the first one when I was sick, and I am guessing maybe 12 years old or so. I read all of the TOS episodes as books before I watched them – and I always liked the books better.

Even though I got started on Star Trek early, I never became a real Star Trek fan. I think that’s mostly because I read so many other, better, SF stories before I ever watched Star Trek. And of course there was Star Wars, too.

Still, I always liked certain aspects of the show. The ship design for example. So iconic! – and let’s face it, for a teenage geek, Star Trek offers good escapism.

I never really got into TNG or DS9 either. I never watched a single episode of Voyger – I think. But one show that caught my eye was Star Trek: Enterprise. I liked its “back to the basics” approach.

I recently re-watched the entire 4 Seasons show, due to a cold that “grounded” me for two days. Since I am currently working on my own Science Fiction setting, I tried to watch Enterprise with a critical eye.

So, what’s my take-away from watching Star Trek: Enterprise over five days?

Continue reading “Star Trek: Enterprise” »

Robert A. Heinlein

One of my favorite science fiction authors, Robert A. Heinlein, died today – twenty-five years ago – on May 8th, 1988. Heinlein was one of the early pioneers and famously a guest commentator for the Apollo moon landing. In other words, he was the star among science fiction writers, and can only ever be surpassed by whoever gets to be guest commentator for the Mars landing, whenever that happens.

Heinlein became successful and famous through several “Juveniles”, books aimed at teenage boys.

I’d say that Heinlein’s most famous books are Starship Troopers – which popularized space marines and powered armor – and Stranger in a Strange Land, which fit right in with the Hippie subculture of its days.

Heinlein’s works are not without controversy; he often dealt with “taboo” topics – racism, nudism, and so on – and got decidedly weird later on, when many of his stories featured excessive amounts of incest and at least borderline pedophilia.

If you are not familiar with Heinlein’s work, I recommend the following reading list:

If you are ever going to read one Heinlein book, make it Starship Troopers – and if you have seen the terrible movie adaption, you must know that the book and the movie have almost nothing in common except for a few themes and character names etc.

I read several of Heinlein’s books before I ever realized they were written by the same guy. The Rolling Stones and Between Planets were among the earliest Science Fiction books I ever read, and especially The Rolling Stones is a great influence on what I am working on (Somnium, Dragonfly). Unfortunately I was too young to ever see Heinlein in person, and had I had the opportunity I would not have been able to have a meaningful conversation with the man. Even if I do not like his later works, I will always have great respect for Heinlein and his achievements.

 

Avatar

I finally watched Avatar, because some people wouldn’t shut up about how great the movie is. I normally avoid mega-hits like this as if they were the plague, but I tried to be unbiased going in. And guess what? It was a terrible movie: Terrible characters, weak pacing, crappy story, bad world-building, predictable plot, and a garbage pop song after the inevitable and totally obvious ending.

Last time I listen to your advice, Internet!

There are some specks of light in the deep darkness that is Avatar, though: The marine Colonel was cool (the actor basically revisited this role in Terra Nova, where he was also one of the few highlights). Some of the visuals were very impressive, especially the landscape. And the Mecha were pretty awesome; use these for a Starship Troopers remake, please.

I gotta say I am in awe that this thing became a blockbuster. Marketing, I guess, coupled with the inherent stupidity of the unwashed masses – the same reasons Harry Potter became a hit.

Some specifics:

  • The movie couldn’t decisde what it wanted to be, and in the end turned out to be Science Fantasy. You know, a fairy tale. Definitely not science fiction, no matter how far you stretch the term.
  • Unobtanium is a sci fi joke. Don’t make a joke a central plot point, unless you intend to go for silly. It may seem cool at the moment you write it, but the joke quickly wears itself out.
  • Floating mountains? Yeah. Okay. Outland called and wants its pebbles back.
  • If the guidance systems and even simple radar do not work, then how can the electronics needed to connect Sully to his Avatar work? This is a plot hole big enough to fly an entire fleet of those big-ass transport planes through
  • A daisy cutter is an actual bomb, the BLU-82. Why do they have to use palettes of dynamite 140 years in the future, if they have access to pretty much every other toy in the catalogue?
  • None of the Na’vi should have survived the felling of the Home Tree, and frankly, the movie would have been better for it.
  • Please hide your native Americans and their alien horses better next time, or at least don’t claim hitherto unseen heights of world-building if you can’t deliver

Oh well, at least now I can talk back the next time someone tries to coerce me into watching something.

Music

I like music – like most people presumably do – but I am hardly a music geek. I wish I could create my own. But that’s a talent I was not blessed with. For my work, there are really one two modes: Either, I work by complete silence (most of the time) or I work listening to music that’s turned up way too loud on my headphones. The later happens when I am in creative burst mode.

Like right now.

It’s 1:30am and I should sleep. Really. I have to get up at 6am for some #souldraining. But how can I sleep, when I have to chronicle the rise and fall of the Terran Federation?

Anyway, as an aside, I thought I’d post some of the stuff I am listening to while world-building.

Right now that’s the album “Drink the Sea” by The Glitch Mob. Especially “Fortune Days”, “Animus Vox”, “Bad Wings”, and “We Swarm”. My playlist is also looping through some tracks from the “Tron Legacy: Reconfigured” album.

At other times, I enjoyed the music from the Battlestar Galactica series (heavy on percussion, I guess – reminds me a whole lot of Homeworld, but that’s probably just me imagining things). I also have the Homeworld tracks, ripped from my Homeworld game CD which I seem to have lost in one of my many moves over the years. Awesome music – I wish I had as cool a soundtrack for my science fiction universe. Maybe some day.

Of course you couldn’t do science fiction without classical music – Kubrick saw to that – and I once listened to the Blue Danube for an entire day. Holst’s The Planets are another must though I am not a huge fan of the tracks other than “Mars – the Bringer of War”.

I also collect game and movie soundtracks. The music of some of the Baldur’s Gate titles – and sequels and spinoffs – was pretty epic, as is the Guild Wars music. Michael Hoenig and Heremy soule are great! For movies, pick any adventure, action or science fiction movie. Pirates of the Caribbean, The Gladiator, The “Imperial March” from Star Wars, The Mummy, you name it.

The sound track of The Fifth Element has a special place in my heart, as does the movie. “Timecrash” makes me wish I had a decent music setup here that could produce decent base sound (but my neighbors probably appreciate that I don’t).

Some of my world-building can get quite weird. For example, I do have a playlist I call “Mythos Mecha”. That might give you a hint what it was for… it includes Cab Calloway, The Inkspots, the music from Bubblegum Crisis (Konya wa Harikeen is awesome!), “masked Ball” from Eyes Wide Shut, “Love Removal Machine” by The Cult, “Go!” by Tones to Tail, Tesla’s “Last Action Hero”, “Where Evil grows” by Poppy Family, and a whole lot of instrumental stuff from movie soundtracks. Eclectic, eh?

As a final, special tip – you can actually find awesome music on ccMixter, Jamendo, and remix.kwed.org – but you gotta dig through a lot of bad music to find it. Still, how can you not love, for example, Ditto Ditto, or Houdini Roadshow? Or, hell, Sad Robot by pornophonique? What can I say, I grew up on a diet of 6581.

On the subject of The Mythos – Another really good album to listen to – in my opinion, as always – is “Live on the Radio” by White Ghost Shivers. Really great 1920s Harlem Jazz style music.

I posted on this subject before – my playlist for the 2008 NaNoWriMo reads like my approach to music consumption during my ‘work’ really hasn’t changed. Getting old and set in my ways, I am.

 

A bunch of cool YouTube Videos

Roy Prol posted a bunch of fairly cool videos to YouTube, many of them contain fairly cool ideas that could be expanded into entire settings. Check them out:

Anti-Water Device:

Earth with Saturn-like rings:

Floating Gardens:

Clockwork City:

Man-Made Islands of the Future:

As an aside, the City Coaster and Floating Garden videos combined do remind me of Bioshock: Infinite…