Out of Water: Chapter Two

I forgot to mention last week – for those interested in reading about the previous adventures of Erin’s Dream and her crew you can find them here: 

Emergency Surface

Code Red – Part One

Code Red – Part Two

Now on with the story!


Herrigan drummed his fingers on his console, hoping his nerves didn’t show. Of course, the Aussie group probably didn’t know him, or docking procedures, well enough to tell how much nerves was typical for the situation but he couldn’t help but feel very transparent at the moment. But not telling the Australians about the Trench’s buried communications network had been his idea. So had assigning Tank to go out in a salvage sub to connect and disconnect Erin’s Dream from the network during the approach run instead of doing it himself like usual. That didn’t mean he liked the results.

Part of it was the usual feeling of worry over having his dive crews out when he wasn’t with them. Tank was a good salvage driver but he wasn’t the best pilot on the boat. But with Herrigan on the bridge to create an illusion of normalcy and Drip, the boat’s other top Waldo driver, out of commission until he could get a solid psychiatric evaluation Tank was the best qualified for the job on board. Mostly, he just missed seeing the city as they came in.

Third Ward clung to the side of the Trench, well below the early construction that had been put up when Alcatraz was still officially a penal colony but not quite as deep as the geothermal plant Second Ward had built to serve as the colony’s primary power source as it grew larger. On approach in a Waldo salvage sub you could see almost the entire colony glowing softly in the dark, like a jewel half-buried in the ocean’s shifting sediments. It was beautiful and a little wistful and, for Herrigan, the sight was synonymous with homecoming. As much as he loved Eddie, her bridge wasn’t even on the outer hull and she wasn’t equipped with external cameras so that would be one sight he would miss out on this time.

On the other hand, he did get to hear Ambassador Sudbury negotiating with the Chief Executive as they made the half-hour trip down the trench, through the perimeter minefields and into Alcatraz home waters.

Alcatraz may have originally been populated by hardline political groups but that didn’t mean that the colony had fostered political niceties and the clash between Sudbury, who’d struck Herrigan as deliberately obtuse when they’d first met, and Holman, who had the typical blunt spoken nature of most Alcatraz executives, had been… informative. The two were still on the line, hammering out the details of how and when Sudbury would meet with Third Ward’s Operations staff.

Lauren had been doing her best to eavesdrop on the conversation but, since the ambassador was wearing Oscar’s headset, there wasn’t any way for her to hear both sides. Finally she’d given up and left Sudbury and Hathoway debating details by the captain’s station and moved the few feet back to his console. Gwen looked up long enough to give her a friendly nod but kept her attention on her screens.

“I don’t get it,” Lauren said, her attention still mostly on the ambassador. “How can you run a colony as complex as and experimental as this without a central governing body?”

“We got one. Sudbury’s talking to the head of it right now.” He leaned back in his chair as much as it would allow, which wasn’t very much. Eddie wasn’t built with comfort first in mind. “Thing is he wants to talk to all the Chiefs. That’s gonna take time. They don’t like talking to each other much. Getting all of them to agree to talk to a total stranger is going to be worse than herding cats.”

“Do you even have cats?”

“My niece has a cat plushie. I bought it for her fifth birthday.”

Lauren gave him a patronizing smile. “You must have been uncle of the year.”

“Don’t knock plushies. They’re good for lots of uncle points down here.” Herrigan spared a quick glance for his board and then went back to the conversation at hand. “Thing is, Alcatraz isn’t really a nation, per se. It’s more like a county with a bunch of small, bickering cities scattered around in it and no county council to mediate.”

“That’s the part I don’t get. How could you be around for so long and not put some sort of council in place?”

“Never needed one. After the U.S. abandoned Ellis platform and left us to our own devices the districts – which is what we had before separate Wards were built – were release valves for all the differing viewpoints that had been jammed into one place. People gravitated to the district they were most comfortable in and didn’t want anyone telling them they had to do work with the other districts if they didn’t want to. So no one ever tried to get them to work together.” Herrigan paused for a moment as his status board lit up to let him know Tank was safely back on board. He cleared the message and glanced over at the ambassador, who was now talking about something with Oscar. Tank had to have disconnected Erin’s Dream from the network before he docked so apparently plans were now in place. Hopefully Oscar would clue him in on what they were before they happened.

“So basically Alcatraz has no central government because you’re a bunch of stubborn crooks?” Lauren asked.

Herrigan just shrugged. “And isolated from the outside world something fierce, but yeah, basically.”

“Why do you people even worry about protecting this place again?”

He grinned. “Give us a second to get docked and you can see for yourself.”

——–

Lauren followed Harry and the rest of the bridge crew back through the ship’s living section and into what the trenchmen called “the launching dock.” Really it was just a large hold where the six miniature submarines the crew used to cut up salvage sat when they weren’t in use. The massive hydraulic lifts that dropped the subs into sea locks for launching loomed almost all the way up to the catwalks they walked on, giving the room a dreamlike quality, almost like a forest of iron. As they moved towards the exit hatch Lauren caught a whiff of sea brine, which didn’t make any sense because the subs hadn’t been launched since before Erin’s Dream made port in New Darwin.

Of course the whole ship was as humid as a rain forest so it could have been her imagination. Either way, thoughts about humidity and strange smells left her entirely when she climbed out onto Eddie’s top side and got her first look at the port.

Erin’s Dream was a cramped, damp, gray place, built for pure functionality. Not an inch of space was wasted and the only decoration in sight was the garishly bright colors of the jackets the crew wore. Oscar had warned the group that the rest of Alcatraz wasn’t built like the sub but Lauren hadn’t been prepared for just how different it would be. After all the time aboard the dull, claustrophobic ship her brain had a hard time focusing on any one thing so it locked on to the first thing that got its attention. The docks were green.

Or rather, she realized as they clanked across the gangplank to the dock, the piers were built out of some kind of clear plexiglass that allowed light from the ceiling far above to filter down into the gently waving mass of seaweed in the water below. The docks appeared to be much the same except fernlike plants rose up in mounds about chest high, probably contained in planters of some kind and laid out to create lines of traffic. Every so often a lamp pole rose up out of the ferns, the pole and the cross piece near the top covered in a hardy green moss that hung like Spanish lace. Trenchmen moved up and down the docks everywhere, their brightly colored clothes giving the entire place a tropical air.

“Remarkable,” Sudbury said, sounding just as amazed at the docks as Lauren felt. “Are all your docks like this?”

“Docks and most of the other common areas. Now in First Ward,” Oscar gestured vaguely at the ceiling in what Lauren guessed was the general direction of the ward in question, “they used to mandate this kind of stuff everywhere. Most places still have it, although industrial zones cleared it out real quick once they could.”

Hathoway snorted. “I’ve never heard of a place that liked gardening so much they made green thumbs a legal requirement.”

“They just liked breathing,” Herrigan said, sounding a little testy. “Population was outstripping mechanical oxygen supply at the time so we bred an organic supply.”

And just like that the wonder of the situation was gone. Lauren shook herself to get her mind back in the game and said, “Sorry, Harry. We’re just impressed, is all. We’ll try and keep gawking down but you have to admit that we’re kind of fish out of water, here.”

“No. You’re not.” He said it very decisively.

Oscar jumped in as Herrigan seemed to have said his piece. “It’s probably for the best if you don’t use any idioms about water down here. They probably all mean something different than what you’re used to. Let’s get up to the lockmaster’s and you can meet the Chiefs.”

The Australians dutifully followed their native guides, Lauren wondering the whole way what other unexpected landmines they might stumble over on their way.

Out of Water: Chapter One

The hull of Erin’s Dream groaned as the tired salvage sub sank down below the edge of the Marianas Trench. Lauren Cochran watched as the ship’s salvage commander, Herrigan Cartwright, wiped the condensation off the shoulder of his bright yellow jacket and threw it on the floor. It was a practiced, unconscious movement, one she’d realized was something between a dismissal and a curse. Barely two feet to his right the ship’s XO, Gwen Bolton, mimicked the gesture. Apparently the ship’s crew didn’t like the noise any better than she did. Lauren knew Erin’s Dream had suffered a hull breach before making port in New Darwin but the repairs had all been cleared by safety inspectors before it headed out to sea again.

Of course none of those inspectors had been told its final destination was a half forgotten prison colony built near the bottom of the deepest chasm in the world.

With eight people crammed into a space that couldn’t be more than twelve by twelve, plus the control consoles and station chairs, the bridge was cramped and tense. Given the distant attitude the crew had shown them so far she wasn’t sure why the small Australian delegation had been invited to watch the ship make port at Stalag, the Third Ward of a prison colony turned self governing state calling itself Alcatraz. For that matter, she wasn’t entirely sure why she had been sent with the delegation at all. She was an assistant harbormaster, not a diplomat. Her only qualification was the amount of time she’d spent around the crew since they got into port and even on that count she was sure Ambassador Sudbury had her beat. He’d spent a lot of time with the ship’s owners during the weeks it was laid up for repairs.

“All engines stopped,” the XO announced. “How’s her back, Graham?”

“Hull looks fine,” Gwen’s brother replied from the ops station, “but give her a second to get her feet under her. It’s been a while since Eddie was this deep.”

Herrigan pulled a headset out from under his console and put it on. “I’ll call in and let the lockmaster know we’re coming.”

“Lockmaster?” Sudbury asked.

Captain Duffy leaned back from his work station to give the ambassador his full attention. “He’s somewhere between a harbor master and an engineer in charge of keeping the sea locks in working order so subs can get in and out of the Ward.”

“Did you rename everything in your society?” The grumpy man asking was the Sergeant in charge of the small Australian army detachment – really just two people – sent along to keep Lauren and the Ambassador safe. Most people seemed content to attribute his generally surly attitude to the fact that he felt dangerously understaffed for his responsibilities.

“We didn’t rename anything. We just didn’t feel any need to borrow from existing surface societies when inventing entirely new things.” Herrigan was the one exception to the spirit of good will Lauren had noticed, perhaps because he was kind of the opposite of Sergeant Hathoway. Both men had spent a fair portion of the trip watching each other suspiciously and not talking much. He was friendly enough with the rest of the delegation but something about Hathoway seemed to rub him the wrong way.

“What happened to calling in?” Gwen muttered.

Ambassador Sudbury stepped in to break up the tension. “I thought your subs maintained radio silence as a way to stay hidden.”

“Once we’re in the trench we have relays that let us talk to Alcatraz without risk of detection,” the captain said. “Without real time contact we’d have a hard time navigating the hazards between us and home.”

Lauren suppressed a shudder. “What kind of hazards do you have down this deep? Predators?”

Gwen laughed at that. “Nothing big enough to hurt Eddie, even with the bad shape she’s in. There isn’t enough for something that big to eat, assuming we weren’t past it’s crush depth. We have smaller fish, crustaceans and jellyfish running around but nothing like monster sharks or kraken or stuff like that. Most of the dangerous stuff comes from us.”

“What kind of trash do you leave laying around down here?” Lauren asked. “I thought Alcatraz sent out salvage subs because it couldn’t afford to leave stuff lying around.”

“It’s not trash,” Herrigan said. “It’s other things.”

Before Hathoway could ask what he meant Herrigan keyed his headset and said, “Hello, Alcatraz control. This is the Erin’s Dream, requesting an approach lane and permission to dock from Third Ward’s lockmaster.”

——–

“I told you your cousin would be fine.” Randal hopped down stairs two at a time trying to keep up with Sam as his friend clattered down towards the lock levels at full tilt.

“I wasn’t worried about him. Herrigan’s tough as nails. But Aunt Martha practically went gray this month and the family’s been hopping trying to keep her spirits up. He shouldn’t be worrying his mother like that.” Sam shot Randal a look over his shoulder. “This is personal business, Chief. Don’t you have other things to be doing? Like getting a campaign in order?”

Randal chuffed a laugh out in between deep breaths, trying not to show how much the pace was taking out of him. “I’ve spent four and a half years of my life as the Third Ward chief executive, that’s long enough thank you. Not sure why I wanted to be a politician in a colony full of stubborn political prisoners, it’s worse than wrangling cats.”

“You’ve never seen a cat before. We don’t have them here. How would you know?” Sam was sounding a bit winded himself, although at nearly ten years Randal’s senior he had a decent excuse.

“I’ll concede the point if you’ll quit trying to talk me into running for office again.” After six flights of stairs, going down or not, both men were glad to reach the door that let them in to the control room that overlooked the main sealock control center. Half a dozen faces swivled to look at the two with curious expressions. Randal grinned. “Quarterly inspection, folks. We’re here to make sure you’re parking the boats right.”

The lockmaster grunted and went back to his console. “Interested in one boat in particular, I’ll bet.” He waved absently towards one of the other technicians. “I think Frank’s on the line with Erin’s Dream right now.”

As the two men approached Frank’s station he hit a key on his control screen that switched his audio from his headset to speakers. “-coming in for final approach and requesting docking instructions.”

Herrigan’s voice came over the speaker and Randal saw Sam smile out of the corner of his eye. In spite of what he said Randal knew the Cartwrights were a close family and had been worried as Harry’s ship got more and more overdue. “Eddie’s two months overdue, Cartwright,” Frank said, pulling up the current docking assignments on his screen. “Her usual berth’s taken. Get your ship in sooner if you want her resting easy, I’ll have to see what I can scrounge for you. Guess you got a full hold of scrap after all that time out there, at least.”

There line was quiet for nearly a minute, long enough for Sam and Randal to exchange curious looks, before Herrigan’s voice came back. “Some scrap, control. Also, perishables.”

The sealock controller sat back in his seat and scratches at his head. “Perishables? Did you find an intact medical shipment or something?”

“No. It’s foodstuffs. Mostly vegetables. A few head of livestock. And four passengers.”

Sam leaned forward and cleared the docking assignments from Frank’s screen, leaving him looking at the sonar profile for Erin’s Dream, as if that would give him some kind of insight into what was going on. “Where did he pick up that kind of stuff?”

Frank’s thoughts must have been running along the same line because he said, “How did any of that stuff survive salvage depth? It’s well past crush depth for any of it.”

“We picked it up in Australia. Long story. Look, the four passengers are a diplomatic envoy from Canberra and they want taken to our leaders or something. Have the lockmaster call the Chief Executive up and let him know what’s going on then find us somewhere to park and order a repair crew. Eddie needs her hull looked at.”

Frank switched off his headset and gave Randal a questioning look. Randal looked around and realized that everyone else in the room was mirroring it. A huge mess had just landed in his lap. There weren’t rules for receiving diplomats, no one had ever really anticipated it being a necessity. He wasn’t even sure the other Chiefs would be able to agree on a way to deal with foreign negotiations, they had a hard enough time agreeing amongst themselves. And given that everyone in the room had just heard that contact with the surface had been reestablished keeping that little fact under wraps was now a pipe dream. For a moment Randal stood stock still, trying to juggle variables and figure out what they should do next.

Naturally, the first thing he asked was, “Think they brought any cats with that livestock?”

Out of Water: Opening Thoughts

There’s a lot of talk these days about what we can and cannot talk about. Colleges clamp down hard on “hate speech” and create “safe spaces” where only approved ideas can be discussed in ways that (supposedly) make things fair. There’s a lot of deferring to people based on who their parents were or how much money they have (or don’t have in most cases). There’s not a whole lot of talk about whether that’s good or bad for societies. It wasn’t always that way in America.

Consider the case of the National Socialist Party v. Village of Skokie, ruled on in 1977. The Nazis wished to hold a march there, the town wanted them to go away. The legal issue of the case was whether displaying the swastika in a town where one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor or direct relative of one constituted an attack on those people. The debate ran round and round the Illinois court systems and went to the United States Supreme Court briefly before being sent back to the state and ultimately resolved by the Illinois Supreme Court. The ruling was that the Nazis could march with all their uniforms and symbols intact, because doing otherwise would be a violation of free speech.

The Jews of Skokie fought back by planning a counterprotest, although the Nazis would eventually wind up returning to their preferred march site in Chicago when the ban against their meeting there was lifted. The community of Skokie then pooled their resources and built a museum to remember the Holocaust and inspire their descendants to work towards the prevention of such atrocities in the future.

Consider a different case. In modern Europe a sort of self-censorship called secularism has fallen into place. People believe whatever they want but they never share it in public venues. Religion or the lack thereof is only discussed with people of like minds. But now a large number of immigrants have entered Europe and they hold strongly to Islam. They do believe in discussing it in public, in fact they believe public life should be ordered by Islam and not secularism. This has caused a lot of social (and occasional violent) conflict in Europe.

Unfortunately, the self-censorship of secularism has left Europeans with weak skills in discussing religion. They barely understand how they think about religion (beyond that they should not talk about it) so they can’t understand how these newcomers think about religion. Many Europeans believe that living in Europe’s wealthier, freer culture will eventually win out over the religious training of Muslim immigrants. This is condescending and insulting, like offering a bribe to a man of strong principles. Europeans need to make the case for their culture in a context Muslims can understand and accept or there will never be a breakthrough.

Unfortunately after years of a culturally agreed upon censorship of religious discourse Europeans not only don’t have the rhetorical skill to engage in this debate, they’ve actually atrophied to the point where most of them can’t even see the kind of debate that is going on. Censoring free speech has left them too mentally impoverished to engage with the world around them.

There’s no doubt the people of Skokie hated the kind of free speech they faced on their own doorsteps. But by countering it with their own free speech the message of the National Socialist Party was rebutted and remains in ill repute. A lot of people in Europe got tired of the free speech of religious bodies and so they all agreed to censor it. But that left them vulnerable to a cultural conflict they now have no idea how to deal with it even as it grows ever more violent around them.

The Divided Futures started as a way for me to ruminate on political ideas in weird ways. I didn’t seriously think at the time that a penal colony for political dissidents was part of the future of American politics. In the last couple of years I’ve started to wonder. Who knows? Perhaps in a few years writing this blog will be enough for me to get thrown to the bottom of the ocean. In the meantime, I continue to support free speech in the hopes that the more people speak their mind the more bad ideas will be called out and the more all thinkers will grow and be ready to debate their ideas once again.

Kylo Ren – In the Shadow of Greatness

In 1977 Darth Vader walked through an airlock, over the bodies of his enemies and into cinema legend as one of the most recognizable villains to ever grace the silver screen. He projected menace and power, crushed his enemies and nearly pulled a hero from the path of righteousness. His silhouette alone is instantly recognizable. To bring him to life required the towering presence of a bodybuilder, with a stunt double to fill in for his lightsaber battles, two separate costume designers, one to build his suit and another to craft his skull-like helmet, the boneshaking bass voice of James Earl Jones and a sound design team to add in the uncanny rasping of his breath. Any character portrayed in film is a mix of multiple contributors but Vader combined the parts so thoroughly, made each piece so much a part of the identity, that to remove one would be to destroy the character in his entirety. Like a chimera or Frankenstein’s creature, Vader is many parts stitched together into a single whole. His very existence is somewhat monstrous.

Every other villain to share the screen with Vader faded into the background. Even Grand Moff Tarkin and the Emperor were defined primarily by the fact that Darth Vader, the biggest bad guy in the room, deferred to them. Other villains in the franchise that had a role similar to Vader’s were carefully crafted to be distinct from The Man himself. Darth Maul was lithe and exotic, and very much a loner where Vader was comfortable with authority. General Grievous was wiry, shifty and stooped over. Count Duku was refined, polished to the point of being borderline greasy, and charismatic. Care was taken to make sure these characters wouldn’t have to compete with Vader, to make sure they could have a strong impact on the story and catch the attention of audiences.

Then along came Kylo Ren.

Unlike other Force using villains in Star Wars lore he is a deliberate attempt to homage Vader. But the problem is he doesn’t actually homage Vader.

He wields the Force but still has some strange sort of inferiority complex. He has incredible power but he comes across as largely ineffective and silly. Where Darth Vader was a villain who was a credible threat even when he failed and barely displayed visible power in the first film, Ren couldn’t even come out on top of verbal sparring with Poe Dameron even after stopping a laser blast with the power of his mind. If the intent was to create a villain to continue Vader’s incredible legacy of villainy on the silver screen then the movie failed entirely.

It seems to me that the point of Kylo Ren was to show a person aspiring to greatness and finding the model for that greatness in a force of incredible evil. There’s nothing wrong with watching a person aspiring to great and/or good things and slipping into evil along the way. If done right it’s both a beneficial lesson and an entertaining show, as anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad can attest. One of my favorite video game villains, Kefka, started life as a humble official and steadily undermined others until he was the chief political force in his nation and, ultimately, the greatest physical power in the world as well.

But these characters were interesting villains because they grew into their roles and became steadily more and more dangerous as time went on. Kefka was left eating the heroes’ dust at first but he quickly graduated to murdering towns, regicide and attempted genocide. Kylo Ren starts strong when he orders the death of a village but quickly stumbles when he can’t hang on to his prisoners or win any of the following ground battles he participates in.

The worst bit for Kylo’s character comes when he is saved from total defeat by Rey entirely because of happenstance. He didn’t have a clever way out, or force a draw by pulling up some deep reserve of power we’d seen glimpses of throughout the film, he was bested in an arena he was trained and experienced in by a complete novice. In short, he looked pathetic.

And yet, all of this would have been acceptable. Except everything about the character was designed to cause comparisons to Darth Vader.

There’s a phenomenon where you deliberately back yourself into a corner, where you make grandiose claims in order to spur yourself to greater heights, with the catch being that failure makes them look like an idiot. Kylo Ren’s deliberate comparison to Vader was the storytelling equivalent of backing oneself into a corner. It created such high expectations for the character that failing to meet them basically doomed the character’s effectiveness as a villain.

Now it’s possible Ren isn’t meant as a villain for future movies, that he will be redeemed at some (hopefully early) later point. But if that’s the case then so thoroughly and obviously ruining his ability to serve as a villain in the future still served to reduce interest in him and what he could become since he pretty much can’t work as a good villain anymore.

The hard truth is that villains need a certain amount of menace to them in order to work as villains. It doesn’t have to be a physical threat, the Mean Girl archetype works in school settings because they can threaten social ostracization for example, but all villains are somehow threatening. But when you implicitly invoke a certain level of threat then you have to bring that level of game or all ability to look threatening is lost. And that’s the problem with Kylo Ren. He’s not a bad villain. He just has too much to live up to.

You can’t always avoid standing in the shadow of greatness. You can even try to own that fact. But in the end that’s a double edged sword, so be careful. If it comes back to bite you it will do so twice as hard as if you’d downplayed the fact instead.

——–

On to other matters – we started this run of nonfiction posts on Star Wars heroes and we end on Star Wars villains. Next week look forward to the start of a new story set in the only place we know less of than outer space… Yes, that’s right. Our favorite salvage sub is back in action. See you at crush depth!

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems

I don’t make much of a secret about my Timothy Zahn fanboy status. I’ve written approving reviews of several of his novel series and stand alone books. Today we look at something different but still decidedly Zahn. Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of short stories and one novella.

In spite of the title, Pawn’s Gambit is not unified by a theme of strategy to the stories. They are, by and large, just fun stories that touch on the idea of point of view. The title story, Pawn’s Gambit, is something of the exception as it is exactly what you’d expect from the title, especially as written by this author. The narrative revolves around a man kidnapped by aliens as part of an experiment to work out how humans think by watching them play strategy games against alien players. It sounds like the perfect job to me but it actually carries a fairly sinister hidden purpose and, in the end, only one player gets to go home.

But as I said Pawn’s Gambit is actually the odd story out in the collection. The centerpiece of the novel, Cascade Point, is a Hugo winning novella that revolves around a space captain who works with a faster-than-light drive that lets him see into alternate timelines and has to grapple with seeing the possible outcomes of his decisions on a day to day basis. The question of what could have been is a more literal one for him that it is for most people and it turns out glimpsing the answers can be worse than not knowing.

Stories like The Price of Survival and Hitmen – See Murderers revolve around what we know, when, and how it distorts our decision making process. Reality may be objective but our ability to grasp it is pretty limited. Likewise, stories like Protocol caution us about our limited understanding of others and The Giftie Gie Us reminds us that even our understanding of ourselves can be limited.

Whether the protagonist is a telepath who thinks to find the truth about human nature but is foiled by his own id or a wizard who’s magic carries a terrible price that paradoxically drives him to use it all the more, Zahn’s stories are simple, effective and engaging. What’s more, unlike much science fiction, they don’t speak to the intricacies of culture, science or progress but rather delve deep into human nature and the limits we will undoubtedly face no matter how advanced we think we’ve become. And that makes Pawn’s Gambit more than worth your while.

Genrely Speaking: The Mockumentary

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking and wow it’s been a while since we did one of these. Partly because of the schedule I’ve been working on and party because the list of genres I feel qualified to talk about has been steadily shrinking. Today we’re going to look at a characteristic genre that is actually quite new in many respects.

A mockumentary is a work of fiction that takes the format of a factual documentary, “behind the scenes” making-of piece or reality TV show. While everything discussed in the mockumentary is fictional the “facts” of the story will presented as if they were just that – facts. (The “mock” in the title has less to do with insult and more refers to being an approximation of reality, although it can mean both.) While mockumentaries are almost entirely done on TV or in movies aspects of the genre can work their way into other media. In fact Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, while not a mockumentary in the truest sense, frequently quoted from a fictional galactic encyclopedia to give a perspective on events. A more recent example of a written mockumentary, one intended to serve as such, is Max Brooks’ World War Z.

The most famous mockumentary in modern pop culture is undoubtedly the sitcom The Office (in both the British and American incarnations) and people will tend to associate the term with comedy, particularly as it satirizes the easy target that is reality TV.

The highlights of a mockumentary include:

  • Interviews with experts and people who were on the scene. These may include characters who lived through the events the mockumentary is documenting, historians who have studied the characters in question a great deal or technical experts who explain the ins and outs of the way things work.
  • Ambiguous characters. A mockumentary is a genre that cares more about characters than about events, but the structure of the story naturally tends to give you a lot of contradictory information about them. Like in a mystery story – and real life – the things people say about themselves and the things other people say about them rarely mesh in a mockumentary. Part of that is differences between the way characters see themselves and each other, part of that is because some of the information you get in a documentary is bound to be false (deliberately or not) and so mockumentaries must be the same.
  • A lot of world building. There’s a lot of chances to slip in tidbits about a fictional world in a mockumentary. Was there an extinct race of elves on one continent of your world? Maybe a major character had an interest in collecting artifact from their civilization, a fact brought up during an interview with a close friend. The audience not only learns about your character’s interest in archaeology they learn the world once had elves. You can be more direct as well. In a mockumentary about deep space colonization you can have an expert on shipbuilding explain why a specific faster than light drive was chosen for an expedition and explain the “science” behind the drive at the same time. The possibilities are endless.

What are the weaknesses of a mockumentary? With ambiguous characters around every corner it can be harder to get attached to them simply because the narrators aren’t trustworthy. In most fiction the reader assumes they’re getting straight facts even if the work is written in the first person. But a mockumentary frequently introduces contradictory narratives to keep us on our toes. Even when the audience gets to see events “as they really happened” they still have to decide whether they trust the personal testimonies given after the facts. Constantly looking out for spin from fictional characters can be exhausting and too much like real life for some people

On top of that, it’s easy for mockumentaries to get caught up in the minutia and lose sight of the story. Too much time spent exploring all the viewpoints in a story, too much emphasis put on worldbuilding details instead of plot progression, and the story can fall apart. Even if the writer does a brilliant job audiences can still get fatigued with all the work needed to track it all.

In short, it’s very easy to overwork your audience with a mockumentary.

What are the strengths of a mockumentary? While characters will undoubtedly come off as ambiguous due to the way they are presented they can still be studied in much more depth in this genre than in most. A mockumentary is as much about the testimony about an event or series of events as the events themselves. What people say about something a simple as a car accident on the street can reveal a lot about who they are and what kinds of priorities they have. Done right, a mockumentary can provide powerful character studies.

I don’t think the mockumentary is ever going to “take off” and become a powerful force in the literary or entertainment worlds. They require a lot of work on the parts of both the creators and the audience, and the kinds of stories you can tell within the strictures of the genre are pretty limited. But that doesn’t mean the genre is bad – in fact, there are few other genres suited to the kinds of stories it wants to tell. The fact that without it we would have missed out on those stories is probably enough to make it a good genre.

The only real question is if it will ever be great. I can’t answer that but I have no problem with watching to see if it can.

Show Don’t Tell: A Nuanced Discussion

I was discussing a film with a friend recently and we had a disagreement over how good it was. I felt the climax of the movie was poorly supported and came off weak. He disagreed, pointing out things that were in the film but that I felt didn’t support the climax very well, because I was told them by the movie, rather than shown. Since “show don’t tell” is such a foundational rule of writing I figured that was the end of the matter. But he asked me a question that made me think: “So does that mean every story needs to be told the same?”

The answer is no. But there are things that work well and things that don’t and long experience has given writers a pretty clear idea of what is what. When a writer says “show don’t tell” what they really mean is “showing produces a stronger reaction than telling.”

People who read this blog know that I feel the purpose of fiction is to provoke some kind of reaction – usually an emotional one – through their writing. So the best tool in the box is usually showing, because it will give you a stronger reaction than telling. But, like most generalizations, show don’t tell has a lot of nuance to it.

Let’s break this down by looking at the way this idea is applied in the first season of the CW’s show The Flash, particularly in the first season (and a few episodes of Arrow). The showrunners behind The Flash have done a great job with using show and telling to emphasize the important bits of their story. Let’s look the ways this principle plays out. Be warned – there’s going to be spoilers.

The show begins with a flashback to Barry’s youth where we see the night Barry’s mother died. This is the defining moment in Barry’s life and the most important plot point in the first season of the TV show. The climax of the season hinges on the impact this moment had on his life and character. It’s only natural that we see it, so that our impression of the moment is as powerful as possible.

The night Barry’s mother was murdered comes up in the series several times between the beginning and ending of the series’ first season, each time when the emotional impact of the event on Barry’s life will play a pivotal part on the way the episode unfolds. These flashbacks serve to put the incident back in our minds in a powerful way and make us ready to understand the new nuances of Barry and The Flash which the episode’s challenges will tease out, or to keep us in the zone as the mystery of Sarah Allen’s murder is pushed forward. Since the incident is important the show shows us to keep it fresh in our minds.

However, there are two times when Sarah Allen’s murder is brought up without a flashback but the memory is still important to what is happening. Not on The Flash, but on the CW’s other superhero show, Arrow. You see, Barry Allen was introduced on Arrow, and Oliver Queen, Arrow’s protagonist, was initially suspicious of him. Barry explaining his backstory and his reasons for being in Starling, his quest to find impossible things in the hopes he could one day explain his mother’s murder, are part of how Barry earns Oliver’s trust.

A season later, when Barry is a full fledged superhero and he pays Oliver another visit, the two men clash over methods. The still unresolved death of Barry’s mother is brought up again to show that Barry’s no stranger to the hardships of life. In both cases, the showrunners chose to tell, rather than show.

Why? Because these moments were about the conflict between the characters over things in the present, not about how the past shaped them. Yes, Barry’s past was relevant to the choices he was making and he had to explain himself, but the emphasis wasn’t on the events that shaped him. It was on the situation he was in and how people would relate to it. A strong reference to the past would have overshadowed the situation in the present, as the two were not directly connected.

There’s another time The Flash’s showrunners chose to tell rather than show – in the first season Joe West had suspicions about Harrison Wells and the Reverse Flash. They meet for drinks and exchange barbs. At the end Wells gives Joe a name to look up. Later they meet again and Joe tells Wells what he learned – that Harrison Wells’ fiance died in a car accident. Again, there’s no flashback to the death because the point of the moment isn’t to show us how the Reverse Flash took over the life of Harrison Wells or to elicit some kind of understanding of the Reverse Flash.

Rather, the point is to build the mystery around the character and keep us guessing as to his exact motivations and methods. A mystery is hard to maintain when the facts are being presented in the strongest way and the motivations of a character are put full front, so the showrunners chose to tell rather than show, to keep the strength of the presentation from undoing the desired effect.

In the end there are many reasons you may decide to tell, rather than show. But they will almost always boil down to one – you tell instead of showing when showing would create a reaction contrary to the one you desire. A good story is a tightly woven web and it doesn’t have enough space to give everything full voice. The impact of some threads of the story may need to be reduced in order to allow the climax of the story to shine. In those cases by all means tell and don’t show. But make no mistake, the rule to show rather than tell exists for a reason. When you show your story makes the strongest impact. A story that focuses on telling, not showing can work, if mystery is a major theme for example, but that kind of story is going to be fairly unique in its structure and content, not suited to the majority of topics.

Not every story has to be the same in the way it’s told. But if you’re trying to tell a normal story with an emotional climax, with no gimmicks to support the notion of telling rather than showing, then stick with showing. Or be prepared to be regarded as an underwhelming story.