How Not To Worldbuild: Ep. I, The Phantom Mess.

So, I realize it’s a little late to bash on Star Wars, Ep. I, The Phantom Menace, but I have a good excuse; I have three children. So upon discovering that the prequels existed, which they did by the subtle and clever ability of knowing how to count things in a sequence, they asked me if I would please, please PLEASE check out the prequels from the library so they could watch it despite my wife’s and my strong moral position of not having such filth in our house.

These are the struggles facing those of us who dare to parent responsibly and with discipline.

But yes, I caved.

And I am proud that one of the first questions my son asked was pretty much: “So what’s a blockade, and how come the Trade Federation can just do that?”

Which of course, was one of the questions that Lucas should have asked himself before penning this godsawful mess. See, in the opening crawl, we are told that the whole mess with Naboo stemmed from the taxation of “outlying trade routes” being “in dispute.” Which led to the Trade Federation imposing a supposedly “perfectly legal” blockade of Naboo because…

Because why? Because it was Freak-Out Friday? We know that Naboo and the Trade Federation are both member states of this Galactic Republic. I mean, ignoring the fact that a blockade is pretty much always an act of war, and ignoring the fact that I can’t even THINK of a historical precedent for a polity that would legally allow one member state to straight-up blockade another member state, what possible advantage does this confer to the Trade Federation? Senator Palpatine later says that the “taxation” of the trade routes issue began in the Galactic Senate, but never says who was taxing what, or why, or how the Trade Federation blockading Naboo makes sense as a retaliatory measure.

As a side note, I think the only thing that makes remote sense is that somehow, Naboo refused to pay the taxes, and the Trade Federation retaliated with a blockade. And when Chancellor Velorum sent the Jedi to negotiate, Sidious ordered their deaths and the subsequent invasion of Naboo to prolong the crisis. Of course, this is pretty funny when you realize that the whole thing relies on the Senate being just fine with ignoring the invasion of Naboo, AND YET ready to remove the Chancellor for IGNORING the invasion of Naboo, AND THEN replacing him with the Senator from Naboo, who will not ignore the invasion of Naboo.

Now, I suppose one can always say that that’s a hell of a lot of backstory that’s not very interesting, but that ignores the fact that the original Star Wars painted a completely logical picture of the Imperial Government with just a few sentences in passing:

“Holding her is dangerous. If word leaks out, it could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate.”

“Send a distress signal. Then inform the Senate that all aboard were killed.”

And later…

“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.”

“That’s impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?”

“The regional governors will now have direct control… fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”

In five sentences, we have a complete and coherent picture: The Emperor is consolidating control over the relatively-new Galactic Empire, and using the equivalent of nuclear weapons to do it. He and Vader are keeping the inflammatory arrest of a Senator for treason quiet until the Emperor can dissolve the Senate, and the Death Star is ready to back the power play. All of this is reasonable, and it takes maybe three minutes of dialogue. That’s excellent worldbuilding.

Twenty years later, in its place, we have far more dialogue that gets us exactly nowhere. It’s like he just didn’t care.

Where Stories Come From: When The Fleet Comes

I think it’s safe to say that the most popular story I’ve written is “When The Fleet Comes” (which you can buy at the link to the right for only $1.00). It was for months the best-selling short story for Digital Fiction Corporation, and for all I know, still is.

“Where do you get your ideas” is a classic question to writers that has become a cliche, and most of us respond with something like “where don’t you get ideas,” because seriously, they’re everywhere. Contrary to many assumptions, writers never run out of ideas. They just run out of ways to execute them properly, which is a lot harder. But this one, I remember.

So many of my ideas for writing stories seem to come from me being tired of reading the same old plots again. The core of the story — that the Earth is destroyed — is a very old one, going back arguably to religious prophecy. But those stories always seem to end in one of two ways: humanity escapes to a new world and/or achieves revenge on its destroyers, and starting anew as masters of their own fates (When Worlds Collide, Titan, A.E.) or it’s entirely a memento mori tale (On The Beach, I Am Legend).

And yet history is replete with the stories of people whose tribes were almost wiped out, leaving them with no home to go to, no new frontier within their reach. The Native Americans, the Tibetans, the South Vietnamese, and too many others to count were left with the choice to live under an alien dictatorship, or to flee into exile and live with aliens. And they had to go on, and build new lives in cultures that would never be theirs, and preserve parts of themselves to pass on to their children, knowing that it would never be more than parts.

There was no one moment that inspired me to write the story. I just wondered how people from my own heritage might deal with the loss of their entire social and cultural framework. And so I considered Sean, the orphan adopted into alien culture, never really considering “his” people to be his. And I considered Amanda and her father, George, trying to, in their own way, continue the human race on an alien world, and finding their own, flawed answers to the question, what is important? What do we remember? What do we do to survive? What makes us… us? They do it by turning inward, but also by accepting a grim necessity. And I also considered Sean’s alien wife, Ajna, and her well-meaning naivete that hurts him, but nevertheless holds a degree of insight into his pain.

In any case, it seems to have spoken to more people than anything else I’ve ever written, and I think this is one of the things I really value in the SF I choose to read: the challenging of the dichotomies that are so often presented. The cry, “Victory or Death” echoes down through the ages and is a popular theme, but what happens when the first is out of your reach and the second seems unthinkable? If you are one of those who read the story and enjoyed it, I can only say, thank you for showing me that I am not alone in considering these things.

Presenting, Dear Stabby: A Spiritual Advice Column.

By Stabigail Van Burnin

Host’s Note: Like a certain other author who managed access to an older and more personal format of such advice, I cannot provide any information as to how I obtained access to the following entries. Let’s just say they come from someplace that I will refer to descriptively as the Darker Web. I leave interpretation to the readers, and apologies to C.S. Lewis.

Dear Stabby: While researching ways to influence my patients, I came upon the following advice. The source is above reproach, but ancient, and I thought that since here you were running an internet advice column of all things, you might be able to tell me whether this was obsolete or of any practical use.


Fake CSLewis1

Dear n00bilator,

It’s hard to tell whether you’re more interested in being a demon or a troll from the tone of your question. Either way, you plainly need help, because what you’ve managed to do is call attention to your execrable research skills.

This quote is not, in fact, by the esteemed but vanished Under-Secretary Screwtape, but by one of his many imitators, which you would know if you had ever bothered to look at one of those “ancient” repositories of knowledge those of us in the business call “books.”

Nevertheless, in context (which means “understood correctly with all the other knowledge you should have,” n00bilator) the quote is nevertheless good advice for any demon in the process of leading humans astray. The problem lies in isolating the context and in the general sloppiness of human languages.

I draw your attention to the key terms in the quote. They are “fixated,” and “politics.” Firstly, keeping a human “fixated” on anything requires a great deal of careful balancing, with two possible and undesired outcomes. The most likely, but least dangerous, is that you will expend endless and wearying effort trying to keep the wretched creature’s naturally wandering attention on the incredibly tedious business of human power struggles. On the other hand, and far worse: should the creature possess any actual talent for such things, you may have inadvertently encouraged your human to become an expert and acquire skills at the use of power, which he will attempt to use for his own ends, or worse, for those of his fellow human. What you must do is to encourage your human to become a dabbler: one who feels passionately, and does nothing except scream endless abuse against his fellow humans. This odious activity can be excused by giving it the label “activism.”

Closely related to the first point is what is meant by “politics?” The danger, as I pointed out above, is that “politics” can have two meanings. Its true and robust meaning is the understanding and use of power. This can be gained by shrewd observation, and the careful study of economics, history, and law. That is what we must never forget and what you must never allow the humans to discover. Instead, they should be encouraged to think of politics as a kind of social warfare in which battles are to be won by having the purest and most righteous feelings, and expressing them in the most extreme terms possible, for the object of securing immediate and symbolic victories. They should think of every defeat as a glorious triumph over a subhuman foe, and every defeat as a threat to their very lives and offspring. In this way, we encourage them to make the twin goads of hatred and fear the gods around which they arrange their every act. We make the political personal and vital to them.

So it is obvious that when the author says, “keep them fixated on politics” he is correct in that we want to encourage the inhabitants of these democratic republics to behave as little microtyrants over their fellow men: to imagine that they should be able to rule over them at every whim of feeling, and to feel justified in being terrorized at every imagined setback. But we must never confuse that with humans who actually study and learn about the use of power, and devote their lives to mastering it. If they did so, they might rediscover impartiality, which we are finally extirpating from their minds. They might rediscover something approximating evenhanded justice. Better to keep that sort away from politics altogether!

I would also caution you about the false dichotomy expressed at the end of the passage. “Be sure the patient continues to believe that the problem is ‘out there’ in the ‘broken system’ rather than recognizing there is a problem in himself.” As if their puerile systems were not ACTUALLY broken! Of course, there are better and worse systems just as there are better and worse men. If the problem is ACTUALLY in a system, it does us no good to focus their attention on it! No, the core principle is to always push them away from the truth. In bad systems, we want men always trying to improve themselves, and in bad men, we want them always trying to improve the system. Which one they are loudest about improving should give you a fair idea of which one they feel the worst about.



Introducing the Nigh-Hulud 6000X!

I was inspired. Sue me.

Image may contain: 1 person, text

Sandworms make for the most terrifying heavy assault cavalry the galaxy has ever seen, but there’s no denying they come with disadvantages. That’s why Ix Defense Group (a CHOAM division) has designed the Nigh-Hulud 6000X. Unlike natural sandworms, the Nigh-Hulud-6000x can mount a variety of heavy weapons, while simultaneously allowing your jihadi legions to ride INSIDE its armored surface. The Nigh-Hulud 6000X is fully sealed, making it suitable for combat in multiple planetary ecosystems and atmospheres. Also, unlike organic sandworms, the Nigh-Hulud 6000X doesn’t fly into a killing rage when you mount shield generators on it or your infantry. And finally, the Nigh-Hulud can be disassembled for easy transport on your frigates or Guild Heighliners.

The Nigh-Hulud 6000X: The tactical option for the 103rd century battlefield

The Post-Apocalyptic To Do List For Non-Preppers

What I have learned from a study of post-apocalyptic literature and film.

  1. First and most obviously, you really need lots of guns. LOTS of fucking guns. Get those as quick as possible. If you already have them, you’re ahead of the game, but if you have time we recommend duct-taping a bunch of jaggedy things on them, in case that makes them look more intimidating than, I don’t know, having a GUN! Remember, ammo will be scarce, so ideally you want a gun that makes those motherfuckers wet themselves and faint just by displaying them in a holster. Try one of those chainsaw bayonets the media warned us about last year. There have to be some around.
  2. Keep lots of alcohol on hand. You should be able to do this now: you have guns. Alcohol keeps practically forever, is good for trade and purifying water, and when bottled or pressurized can make a dandy flamethrower or bomb. And, given the shit that’s coming down, you might just want to stay drunk. Except when you’re familiarizing yourself with how the guns work, of course.
  3. Next, acquire a silver nose, eyepatch, or gauntlet that looks like you’ve replaced your hand. That scares the fuck out of people.
  4. Of course, if you’re REALLY feeling hardcore, or are among those of us who are unmuscularly slender or grossly overweight, and who look about as intimidating scantily clad (and you will be scantily clad. Clothes are at a premium, and NICE clothes are now a sign saying “Kill Me For Food”*) as an eight year-old boy flexing in Underoos, go ahead and amputate a limb and replace it with car parts. That scares the ever-living fuck out of people. This is painful, but quick and easy, especially if you aren’t very familiar with your new guns.
  5. Q.E.D. Swear a fuckload more than you do in real life. Otherwise, you’re pretty much volunteering for fucking slavery by virtue of not being intimidating enough.
  6. Really I can’t emphasize this point enough: kill and subjugate those Society For Creative Anachronism motherfuckers as fast as you can with those bullets before you run out. Partly because with their preindustrial knowledge, they’re going  to be your greatest long-term threat, but ALSO because it’s going to be funnier than shit to watch “Duke” Edward, “King” Jason and “Queen” Alicia realize that their twenty years of learning blacksmithing and weaving has uniquely fitted them to be the most valuable and closely-watched slaves in your new Empire Of Terror. And it’s the apocalypse, so you need the laughs.
  7. Don’t worry too much about medicine except for disinfectants (which you’re set for, because you have all that alcohol) and of course, The Plague that is creeping over the countryside, and doesn’t have a cure anyway. No one ever seems to get ordinarily sick after the apocalypse.
  8. Finally, make sure to take the mufflers off your car and install afterburners and as many jagged rusty metal bits as you can. This pretty much guarantees you’ll always find a supply of gas.
  9. Oh, yes, and the films especially suggest that you probably don’t want to make the mistake of being female unless you own Thunderdome.

Happy Hunting!


Reverse Poison: Writing Advice

Chemical weapons are funny things. I remember doing research on them back in high school, and reading about what were called “medical countermeasures.” This meant, basically, that you would take someone who had been exposed to a nerve agent that, say, depressed neurotransmitters, and you would give them a shot of something that would overproduce them. Of course, you really had to be careful with this, because taking the antidote by itself would kill you just as surely as the chemical agent was. Essentially, you poisoned the body in the opposite way it had been poisoned, and that let you go on living. But the body had to have been poisoned that way in the first place.

Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird reminded me of this, especially when, late in the book, she gave the advice that when one is suffering writer’s block, one must “resign as the controller of one’s fate.”

Now, the problem with that advice is that by itself, it is exactly the kind of advice that I-As-A-Beginning-Writer did not need to hear. It sounds like, “Hey, don’t worry about being blocked. Go off and fill yourself with the universe and come back when you are Inspired And Ready To Write.” And by itself, that advice is the Death Of All Writing. Because that feeling is rare and far between, and the only way I have ever found of summoning it with any chance of success is to write when I do NOT feel it.

Now, taken in context with the rest of the book, it’s pretty clear that what Anne means is more along the lines of, “You can’t summon brilliant writing on demand, so you have to abandon that hope and resign yourself to writing what feels like shit for awhile, even if it’s only a little of it, until you push through and it feels good again.” In that context, the advice is extremely valuable, and leads to good results. The problem is that the quote is so., well, quotable that you run the risk of finding it in isolation — or worse, understanding it in isolation — and poisoning yourself by taking the antidote to a problem you haven’t been privileged to have yet.

Wait for the problem of being a disciplined writer first. Then the advice to resign control of the forward motion makes sense.