Tag Archives: Science Fiction

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.

 

 

The Antarctic Snow Cruiser

The Anarctic Snow Cruiser
The Anarctic Snow Cruiser

The Antarctic Snow Cruiser was a massive vehicle designed by Thomas Pulter in the late 1930s. Intended to facilitate transport in Antarctica, it was a failure: its smooth wheels were unsuitable for gaining traction in the snow and the vehicle’s weight caused it to sink 90cm into the snow. Ironically, the wheels produced more traction when the vehicle drove backwards. The snow cruiser was then used as shelter for the expedition before being abandoned. The start of World War II prevented further funding.

The snow cruiser was rediscovered twice; once in the 1940s – when it only needed air in its tires to become operational – and once in 1958. The fate of the snow cruiser is unknown; it is likely buried deep in the ice or sunk to the bottom of the ocean when the ice shelf it was left on split.

Use of the Snow Cruiser

The snow cruiser is an excellent gimmick for any type of campaign or story:

  • Discovering the Snow Cruiser could be an event/encounter in an Antarctic hex crawl. Wild animals or monsters could make their home in it, and perhaps some useful items were left in the vehicle.
  • Like the original, it could make the core of a makeshift base; it could even be used to hide the entrance to an underground base.
  • A working model may be used by secret agents in a Bond style adventure
  • Vehicles similar to the Snow Cruiser could be used on other planets in a Traveller science fiction campaign, presumably it would especially work on smaller, low gravity worlds.
  • In a steampunk or weird science setting, the snow cruiser may be even bigger than it actually was.
  • According to rumor the original Snow Cruiser was taken by the Soviets. This is almost certainly not true, but in your adventure or story this could very well be the case – Especially if some sort of classified information was left on board, or a secret technology used in the construction of the vehicle (perhaps a new type of nuclear battery or miniature fusion power plant in a Sci Fi context).

Have any Snow, Winter, Arctic themes or ideas to share? Take part in February’s Blog Carnival on The Icy Embrace of Winter!

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.

FranchiseGenreLocationTimeAliensFocusProtagBase of OpsAntag
Star WarsSpace FantasyOther GalaxyPastCountlessWarSoldiersShipEvil Empire
Star TrekSpace OperaOrion spurCenturies in the futureCountlessExplorationSoldiersShipEvil Aliens
Babylon 5Space OperaOrion spurCenturies in the futureManyWarSoldiersSpace stationEvil Aliens
FireflySpace WesternDistant systemCenturies in the futureNoneCrimeCriminalsShipEvil Empire
FarscapeSpace OperaDistant regionPresentManyExploration, EscapeFugitivesShipEvil Empire
Eve OnlineSpace OperaDistant clusterMillenia in the futureNoneWar, Economy, ExplorationVariousShipEverybody else
Mass EffectSpace OperaMilky WayCenturies in the futureManyWar, ExplorationSoldiersShipEvil Aliens
TravellerSpace OperaOrion spurMillenia in the futureManyExploration, EconomyVariousShipEvil Empire
Known SpaceSpace Opera40lyCenturies in the futureSeveralExplorationExplorersPlanetsVarious
Battlestar Galactica (2004)Space OperaMilky WayPastNoneWarSoldiersShipRobots
StargateSpace OperaMilky WayPresentSeveralExplorationSoldiersEarthEvil Aliens
Doctor WhoSpace ComedyMilky WayPresentManyTimetravelSpecialShipRobots
AlienSpace HorrorClose to EarthCenturies in the futureFewHorrorSoldiersPlanetsEvil Aliens
Warhammer 40kSpace HorrorMilky WayMillenia in the futureManyWarSoldiersPlanetsEvil Aliens
Dune?Orion spurMillenia in the futureNonePoliticsNoblesPlanetsEvil Empire
PiperSpace OperaMilky Way GalaxyCenturies in the futureSomePolitics, ExplorationVariousPlanetsVarious

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.

 

Frontier Transport, Version 2 WIP 1

I spent way oto much time on this. Desining spaceships is hard work. Maybe once I get a bit more practice…

shipdesign-actual04

I like this new version quite a bit more than the old one. However, I am well aware of some problems with the design:

  • Need to work out bow design
  • Ship is veritcally unsymetrical – this moves center of mass “up” and will probably look shabby in 3D
  • 96 TEU cargo plan would mean that anybody who wants to pass through the cargo bay has to go through the passenger/crew level. Not a big issue, but seems inefficient.
  • How/where does the landing gear retract?

There will be more problems once I work on this again, I am sure… But well, anyway, I thought I’d share and see what you guys think.

 

 

Poll Results and a New Poll

Thanks to everybody who has voted in the poll where I asked what topics I should cover. In total, I received 116 votes.  The results were not that much of a surprise; you guys voted mostly for what I have been posting about anyway:

pollresults

It’s easy to explain that – if a certain type of post is common, the people who are attracted by that will vote for more of the same type. Still, it’s good to know my readership.

As a consequence of this poll, I will retire the plot-a-day series – it’s been mostly plot-a-quarter anyway, and I haven’t quite been happy with them anyway. They’ll stay in the archives, but don’t expect any more of them.

The one true surprise is that Game Design received so many votes, considering I have not posted much about it, especially lately. I have heard you, and I will pick up my efforts to design a game system again. Just give me a little while to get some other stuff out of the way.

As for genres, science fiction was the clear winner over fantasy, but again, I have been posting a lot of science fiction stuff. I won’t alienate those of you who enjoy it that way, so no worries, but I will provide more fantasy posts as well because I believe it’s underrepresented. The site, after all, is called Enderra.com after my fantasy world, and it’s a shame that there is so little material on, well, Enderra here.

The New Poll

The new poll is even more blatant: With this I wish to find out which of my settings are actually interesting to you guys! Let me know – and I will give you what you want… 😉

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.