Kado, The Right Answer

Science fiction is about the politics and societies of the future. There’s no better example of that than one of it’s landmark works, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which focuses on those topics exclusively. But in its focus on these two subjects the genre very often gets distracted from the thing that makes questions of society and politics important: the individual. After all, it is the individual impact of these questions that drives people to consider them at all. While many people will set aside their own concerns of health and happiness if they think it’s for a greater good; without a clear statement of how deprivation might serve the greater good it’s unlikely any will make such sacrifices. Conversely, if you want to prevent people from giving of themselves the simplest way to do it is to convince them there is nothing greater than themselves worth looking for.

But beyond all that, there is another question science fiction is often interested in. Namely, what is the nature of individual?

Kado, The Right Answer is interested in all three of these questions. Sadly, it’s not always adept at answering them.

The basic premise of Kado is scifi gold, beginning with a bizarre extradimensional object intruding into our world over an airport in Japan, absorbing an airplane and making itself at home. Most of the first episode is devoted to the Japanese government trying to figure out what they’re dealing with and ends with a passenger from the plane appearing on top of the object as an ambassador for the entity within. The second episode gives us events from the passenger’s perspective. The rest of the show is about what the entity wants and how humanity will react to it.

Kado plays with many of the wonderful hypotheticals futurists like to dream about, like limitless energy and the impact such technology might have. But it doesn’t explore any of them with a great deal of depth, as the story plays out over a matter of a few months, not nearly enough time to examine the deep changes that might result from a power source that theoretically anyone can create. By the same token even more fantastic technology is introduced in the second half of the show and given freely to humanity by the entity from beyond but what that might mean for humanity in the long run is never really unpacked.

The political ramifications are explored to an extent, with the UN becoming involved and Japan facing everything from threats of sanctions to prying business executives. While the Japanese government plays around these things in gutsy and amusing ways the real depths of these political machinations aren’t deeply explored either.

Finally, two thirds of the way through the season, the question of human nature and what it might mean in the face of life altering technology and beings from other dimensions is introduced. Unfortunately, Kado has been more interested in it’s clever technologies and shallow machinations than in developing its characters. There were hints of who the people dealing directly with Kado and it’s enigmatic passenger were but not quite enough to move them beyond fairly one dimensional characters. While Kado never disrespects it’s characters or treats them as props to a poorly conceived plot it never quite manages to let us get to know them enough to be invested in the existential crisis that Kado’s appearance ultimately provokes.

With twelve full twenty minute episodes plus a prequel it might seem like Kado wasn’t pressed for time to unpack it’s ideas but the show felt overstuffed, like it might have been able to make more of its high concepts if only there had been time to play around with them. Many interesting side characters never developed beyond a single note and the main trio are sketched well but without nuance. And, as I already said, none of the futurist ideas that the story introduces are explored with any depth. I wanted to like Kado, the Right Answer more than I did, and if you’re a sucker for scifi in general or first contact stories specifically you’ll probably still like this show. But casual scifi fans or the general public should give it a pass.

Physician Heal Thyself – Dr. Who On the Brink

Two topical posts only one month apart? What could spur this on?

Well, mostly the brain melting stupidity of people who have to partake in Pharisee level moral grandstanding at every opportunity. But more importantly, the incredibly toxic environment these people create around beloved stories and characters and why creators need to be very careful not to feed this particular brand of troll. You shouldn’t feed the trolls at all, but in this case it’s doubly important.  Before we get into that I want to address something important.

I do not like Dr. Who. I tried to watch one episode of it once and my eyes pretty much rolled out of my head. It’s campy and cheesy and basically like an episode of the classic Star Trek but without forty years of aging poorly as an excuse. This was an episode from the first or second season of the modern run, I can’t tell you much more than that because I didn’t watch it for very long and I don’t really care to go back and try it again. There are just better uses for my time. I don’t know who any of the Doctors are, this new female one included, and I don’t really care. Anything I know about the franchise I’ve absorbed through general geek osmosis.

I don’t care that the new Doctor is a woman. The character is basically reincarnated ever couple of seasons and is an alien with nonhuman biology and chromosomes so why not? More than that, I don’t care much about who the Doctor is at all because I’m not invested in his story. (Or her story, as the case may be.)

What bothers me is the determined efforts to convince people that some large, amorphous, hard to find portion of the Jews fanbase consists of toxic scum. When the female Doctor was announced there was an almost immediate push on social media to condemn sexists in the Dr. Who fanbase who didn’t want a female doctor. The only problem was, I haven’t seen any of these elusive sexists. There may be a few here or there, especially on Twitter, that bane of all online discussions. There were likely a few people who called this pandering as something of a knee jerk reaction, since the press made a point to constantly point out that the Doctor was female in all their headlines in a pretty pandering way and act like it was some kind of victory. There are even some woman complaining about the choice for reasons I’m not quite clear on. Possibly because it makes organizing the Whovian Shipping Fleet that much more complicated. Doesn’t that happen with every new Doctor though?

But by and large the two primary reactions have been, “Eh, okay.” And, “Excommunicate the sexists!”

Something very disturbing is happening here. It goes beyond “representation in media” if that’s even a meaningful thing. (Research is still out.) It even goes beyond setting up a fall guy in case the project doesn’t turn out as hoped. This is starting to look like a determined attempt to purge wrongthinkers.

When someone tries to institute a new thing and tells you that if you oppose it, or even question it, you must be some kind of Jew sexist that’s a very dangerous line of reasoning. It’s less about the thing at hand and more about training a knee jerk reaction against people who are branded with a specific label. It either results in mindless destruction of the targeted people or a swift collapse of whatever platform this demagoguery is launched from. In the case of media that means either you start cranking out The Birth of a Nation over and over again or your audience just walks away in contempt.

We’ve seen this twice in the last year. First the 2016 Ghostbusters remake promotional efforts dissolved into mindless accusations of sexism and the target audience ignored the film. It may also have been a bad film, I didn’t watch it to find out and I wasn’t the only one. The film did very little at the box office.

Then Marvel Comics announced that it’s sales were in the tank because no one liked the books they were publishing. Marvel Comics, who publish the source material for some of the most successful movies of the last decade. Was it because audiences wanted to see more of the characters they’d seen on screens or been reading stories about for most of their lives and Marvel had stopped writing those characters? No, it was because they were bigots. Don’t watch the Diversity and Comics videos and find out that comic readers never objected to “diverse” characters before all the mainstays they loved got canned. Just believe they were Jews bigots. Makes everything so much simpler. Unfortunately Marvel fans have abandoned them, with sales dropping to 20,000-30,000 per book, a record low for the company.

The reality is that both these moves were very costly for the people who made them. I’ve said it before but audiences are very rare, precious things. Calling them names or trying to use them in some kind of Pavlovian conditioning experiment to establish yourself as a moral arbiter is not, I repeat, not going to get you anywhere. It will cost you money, it will cost you social capital, it will push people away from the very ideas you hope to promote. The creators of Dr. Who haven’t joined in on this doubling down – yet. Hopefully they won’t.

And this is the real key for us if we’re going to be creators. Audiences can handle a message but if that message looks like it’s about how the messenger is a better life form and they need to fall in line it is going to cost you. The BBC can make a course correction here and put Dr. Who back on track to telling… well, whatever kind of stories attracted people to Dr. Who in the first place. They can say they’re going to run with a woman Doctor but focus on telling the same stories people love and they hope the audience will want to come with. Or they can double down, “call out” their audience for sexism in an attempt to look good and progressive then start down the same path as Ghostbusters and Marvel Comics.

You audience is a treasure. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s never going to be everything you want it to be. Some days you’ll wish it would just go away. But without an audience an artist is just a self indulgent narcissist. And it turns out that a self indulgent narcissist posing as an artist will quickly wind up without and audience.

Poe, Satire and Worldbuilding

Once upon a time I set out to write about the future of humanity. I called it The Divided Futures, a title born mostly from my disdain for the notion that humanity will ever unite under a single government (or if it does, stay that way for long) in it’s pursuit of the stars. The entire storyline was a mix of speculative fiction, political theory and sci-fi nonsense. The entire experiment was born out of a desire to mess around with ideas born of the political situation at the time I wrote it and I wanted to satirize some of the responses I saw being proposed to some issues by pushing them to ludicrous degrees.

All this was born out in the rather convoluted future timeline I put together to explain, step by step, how humanity would go from the early 2000s to 2082, the time of Emergency Surface, the first story I would write for The Divided Futures on this blog. (Some aspects of the setting got worked into earlier stories I wrote elsewhere that were unofficially canonized as I was doing the worldbuilding.)  Eventually I lost interest in the series as other ideas took the forefront but it was a thing I wanted to return to at some point. For a while.

But I had a really hard time working up the enthusiasm for it when I finally got around to it thanks to Bill Nye.

Satire was a big part of what I was shooting for when I put together my speculative future of the next fifty or sixty years. But satire presents a problem, typically codified as Poe’s Law. This law states that, no matter how extreme, satire of extreme movements will be impossible to differentiate from reality. One aspect of the political culture of the last decade or so that I hope to satire was the dangers inherent in extreme environmentalism, particularly the fanaticism around “man made climate change.” I don’t intend to delve too deeply into that particular issue here, the main point I wanted to make was that the climate change cult (as opposed to the environmentally minded) sees any disagreement with their point of view as inherently malicious.

I wanted to show the potentially damaging overreaches that could come from that mentality so I jokingly created a penal colony where all the people who objected to future climate change laws would wind up. I put it on the bottom of the ocean because that’s an idea that’s always appealed to me and it seemed like a good, non traditional place to set a near-future scifi story. What I certainly never expected was for Bill Nye to suggest imprisoning political dissidents as a good idea.

Now I get the logic – if you really think the world is going to collapse tomorrow because of a little carbon I can see why you might go to extreme lengths to solve the problem. But you’d have to think that in spite of all the predictions made about disappearing islands and coastlines in the last thirty years that haven’t come true so I just couldn’t see it happening.

Poe trumps Nye, it seems.

By the same token, an important event to the future of the underwater colony was fact that the existing United States of America no longer exists, having split in a second civil war in the late 2030s. What caused it? The Supreme Court legalizing the euthanization of children with disabilities resulting in a paramilitary group forcibly removing an eight year old with Down Syndrome from Federal custody. Sound far fetched? Because the Netherlands is considering making assisted suicide for totally healthy people legal and that’s probably a more extreme step.

One problem of trying to predict the near future is that it’s always becoming the here and now – and it does that pretty fast. And in the case of satire it seems that means that, no matter how over the top you were aiming to go, you probably won’t go far enough. If you want to do satire you better do it fast.

Does that mean I’m never going back to my goofy little near future setting? I may poke over there someday. I still think it’s full of fun story ideas.  I really want to write some about colonizing the solar system and ridiculously large mass drivers on Mars. But I think I’m going to phase directly satirical elements out of future worldbuilding efforts. It’s depressing…

Whose Struggle?

In fiction a fight is boring if it’s easy. This may surprise people who have been in fights for real, because no matter how easy the fight is your brain will still dump the adrenaline and kick that cardio into overdrive so you’re ready to fight. It’s exciting even if you win or loose in a single hit. But no matter how invested you are in a story being outside of a fight is not the same as being inside one and some part of your brain never forgets you’re not in any real danger.

All in all, this is a positive thing. The excitement of fighting is hard on the body and mind. But it does make the job of a person (or persons) putting a fight in fiction that much harder.

In essence, in order to make a gripping story you need to create an artificial tension in your audience and, just as importantly, you need to do it without getting caught. The simplest way to do this is through pacing, where a fight consists of a series of ups and downs that switch often enough that tracking them simulates the frantic nature of a fight and keeps the audience invested with seeing how each twist will play out until they reach the end.

A good fight usually starts with the viewpoint character at a slight disadvantage, such as being caught by surprise or facing a much larger opponent, introduces three to five twists that the fighter overcomes through creativity, technique or guts, before reaching a climax where the viewpoint character faces their biggest hurdle yet, digs deep down to make one final push and either comes out on top or winds up losing in spite of it. When done properly the audience is left with a satisfying feeling of vicarious accomplishment regardless of the outcome. Done badly it leaves them scoffing at poorly executed narrative devices.

Great examples of what overcoming obstacles during action sequences looks like are found in the action stars of the 1980s. Jackie Chan is one of the most creative action stars in cinema history, fumbling his way through chases and fights with enough physical humor that it feels improvised and delivering a wonderful ride all the way. Bruce Willis makes his way by grits, digging a little bit more effort out of the depths of himself every time the stakes are raised. His face is practically designed to show grim determination in hard places. Bruce Lee brings us pure technique in every perfectly executed combo move, every moment of brilliant footwork and each brutally hard punch and kick.

But what’s important in each of these things is that we see these action stars bringing their powers to bear during the fight.

I ran into this problem when writing The Face of the Clockworker earlier this year. The Clockworker’s schtick was that he could cheat during every fight because his ability to know future events let him walk into every situation forearmed with knowledge of what the news would say about his battles the next day. The problem was, while magic was a force not even a century’s worth of prediction could fully understand, enemies like Thunderclap were something the Clockworker could come fully equipped for.

When I wrote the fight scenes between the Clockworker and Thunderclap from Sam’s point of view they were very boring. He was fully forewarned and forearmed against what Teddy could do, Sam wasn’t struggling in those moments. He already had his answers in place.

But I didn’t want to write about Sam getting ready for a fight. That wouldn’t be interesting at all and, once Sam pulled a future news report to find he successfully arrested Thunderclap, all tension would go out of the actual fight sequence. I did consider having Sam lose because he got overconfident, in fact that was originally what set up his trip Beyond to meet the Gatekeepers, but ultimately I found the easiest thing to do was just to tell the fight from Teddy’s point of view.

Teddy Clapper was a rookie to his superpower and not a particularly smart criminal to boot. Throw him against a guy with power armor, the ability to predict the future and a better working knowledge of what Teddy was capable of than the man himself and you have a fighter who is at a profound starting disadvantage. It made his struggle against the hero of the story more real, more exciting and ultimately, I felt, more sincere than watching Sam run through a series of carefully planned contingencies to corner a person he already knew he would successfully catch.

There are all kinds of places writing an action sequence can go wrong. They can be hard to follow, too long or too short on top of lacking tension. And good tension will not save an action scene that lacks the other factors. But if tension is what you think you’re lacking, consider changing whose point of view you see the sequence from. Even first person narratives can find a way to put themselves in the shoes of someone else for a little while and letting the audience experience what it’s like to struggle against people they’re used to seeing struggle for a goal can give them a new appreciation for those characters. It won’t work all the time, but sometimes a simple change of perspective is just what the doctor ordered.

Try rewriting your favorite action scenes from the point of view of the other side and see what it feels like. How would the walker assault on Hoth change from the Imperial perspective? Or the lobby shootout from the Matrix if we experienced it as a guard? These kinds of experiments help writers grow, evolve and develop new techniques to make better, more exciting stories.