Monday, October 24, 2011

The Crystal Portal vs. Wizard of Oz, stories in contrast

Yesterday I had a book signing event for my novel, The Crystal Portal.  At one point a church friend (Larry Schmetzer) asked me what the story basically was about.  I found myself struggling to answer concisely.

I suppose that's because the words for my story flowed more from my subconscious self than my planning mind.  I created characters and a setting and to a certain extent let them interact according to the natures I gave them and voila--a story formed.  While I did have certain specific plot events in mind when I started writing, events I steered the characters toward, I did not know what the story would wind up becoming when I first began to write it.

I hadn't begun with a full understanding of the reasons I wrote what I did, nor had I after writing completely analyzed the tale in order to sum it up quickly.  I'm trying to fix that here.

You see, of familiar stories, my story is most like The Wizard of Oz.  In that classic tale, four main characters are united in a common quest to find the wizard because each of them perceive there is something wrong with himself or herself.  The lion seeks courage; the tin woodsman emotion; the scarecrow intelligence; Dorothy wants to go home.  Through their voyage, they are opposed by the Wicked Witch, who seems unbeatable more than once in the story.

But in the end the Wicked Witch is a sham, defeated by a bucket of water.  The real enemy of the characters in The Wizard of Oz is self-doubt, or as President Franklin Roosevelt said, "The only thing to fear, is fear itself."  The lion really can  be courageous; the woodman already has a big heart; the scarecrow is full of wisdom; Dorothy can easily go home.  "Believe in yourself and your troubles will evaporate," says the story in a feel-good, humanistic message, one that is profoundly secular but is innocent enough that no one really argues against it.

In The Crystal Portal, four main characters are likewise united in a common quest because of something wrong with each of them.  But in sharp contrast to Oz, my characters really do  have something going wrong--it's not in their heads, a shot of self-confidence will not cure them.  Injustice strikes at each of them, challenging their happiness in a way that won't be dispelled by clicking heels together three times and saying, "There's no place like home."

The source of the injustice rests mainly in the villain, Sargon of Balal.  Sargon is no sham of an enemy; he openly challenges God's justice and seeks to replace God as the ruler of the universe.  He delights in humiliating and inflicting suffering on the heroes, but ultimately seeks to have his way first and always, caring more about his own glorification than anything else.  Elements of his character resonate with all three of the Biblical enemies of the Christian, the world, the flesh, and the devil; but of the three he is more Flesh than anything.  He is self-will, scheming to control, hungry to feed the basest impulses.  He attempts to bring two of the four characters (Lehkahn and 9.06) over to his side by overriding their willpower in their moments of weakness.

The other two characters, Zachariah and Princess Agata, suffer hardship outside of what Sargon deals out, so the suffering of the story goes beyond Sargon and his plans.  To triumph, the characters in my story must endure hardship without giving in to despair--this resonates with the quest of the characters in Oz, but is also profoundly different, because while fear is an enemy, it is by no means the only thing to fear.   Three of my heroes openly pray for God's help and all are delivered  by a force operating outside of self:  Zachariah by following Yeshua's commands, by not giving in to fear, puts himself in the place where the providential actions of others will save him. Agata and Lehkahn by facing their fears likewise are rescued by the providential actions of other characters--the hand of God not directly revealed, but strongly implied.  9.06 is rescued from subservience to Sargon by his internal programming--his conscience--which drives him to protect Zachariah.  The message of my story could be summarized as, "Don't give into despair and God will deliver you."

In the end of The Wizard of Oz, all of the characters find resolution for their struggles.  Dorothy regrets leaving Oz in part because she found it beautiful but mainly because she will miss her companions in her quest--only to discover that she has a similar companionship waiting for her at home.

At the end of The Crystal Portal, all the characters find a measure of rest and restoration, but the quest is not yet over, since Sargon has yet to be brought to justice.  And three of the characters are permanently scarred by the battles they fought.  This is completely unlike the ending of Oz, as is the message and tenor of the story as a whole, which is as deeply Christian as The Wizard of Oz was secular.

Ugh.  I just realized what I wrote above still doesn't qualify as a quick summary.  But it's closer I suppose.  I shouldn't despair...

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Carb Loading for Superheroes--Comic Book Sci Fi and Fantasy Physics

Superheroes are often viewed as a subset of science fiction.  I'd say they're more fantasy, because the ordinary laws of physics that limit you and me usually get ignored in superhero stories.

Take the Law of Conservation of Matter--when Bruce Banner transforms into the Incredible Hulk, the cells of his body are supposed to expand to a massive size as he becomes the giant green monster.  The problem is that according to conservation of matter, he'd have the same amount of total mass in his body even as his cells expanded--the Hulk would then weigh the same as Banner himself, though being a lot bigger, his density would have to be significantly lower.  If Conservation of Matter were obeyed, the Hulk's physique be a lot more like the Stay Puft Marshmellowman's than like, well, the Hulk...

You can see I take the fundamental distinction between science fiction and fantasy as resting in attempting to obey the known physical laws of the universe.  Sci fi to be properly so called tries to obey the laws of physics, while fantasy throws them to the winds.  You could create a sort of science fiction Hulk, but you'd have to have propose something similar to a kind of interdimensional shift where matter existing in the (currently hypothetical) extra dimensions of string theory somehow is pulled into the Hulk's body.  That would maybe give the story different flavor--perhaps Banner would have to be portrayed as a physicist working at particle accelerator which somehow blows a rift between dimensions--or perhaps into another universe--an expanding universe of rage.

Usually I can accept a superhero story for what it is, though inconsistencies within a story bother me.  So when Superman flies around at will, has raybeam eyes, and is vulnerable to very little except kryptonite, I see story elements that essentially hang together as pure superhero fantasy.  Superman is almost like a god from a Pagan myth--he is powerful just because he is; physics simply don't apply.  Iron Man, on the other hand, is supposedly a creature of real technology, so his scientific contradictions bother me if I allow myself to dwell on them.  For example, he flies by jet power from his feet, right?  This is an ordinary technology of course, which maybe could really work in a powered suit--but jet power burns a lot  of fuel.  The F18 carries something like 13,000 pounds of it to be able to fly around.  "Where does Tony Stark have room in his suit to carry all the fuel?" I ask myself.  To fly for more than a few seconds he'd need at least a couple tons  worth...  But then I try to forget about that (and other contradictions) and get back to the story.

Batman and Spiderman are a lot closer than the average superhero to falling in line with science fiction proper (though "average superhero" has to be an oxymoron, right?).  Both are mere mortals that perform acrobatic feats not unlike what an Olympic gymnast does.  The problem is the gymnasts make their incredible leaps and jumps for a few minutes at most at a time and even then you see them trying to hold back serious huffing and puffing while the judges determine their scores.  And these, my friends, are the very best human athletes in the world.  

The fact is that Batman and Spiderman both routinely perform feats of extreme physical prowess for a longer time than any real human being has ever performed them.  We could wash our hands of them for science fiction purposes and simply enjoy the characters as sheer fantasy, but that not necessary.  Spiderman, after all, has a pseudoscientific explanation for his physical prowess--being bit by what at first was a radioactive and in later stories a bioengineered spider.  The spider changed his metabolism, so he is no longer a normal human, the story goes, which isn't unscientific per se.  It's certainly possible in theory to increase the ability of human muscles to process energy and to exceed current output.

But consider this--if Spiderman has super-efficient muscles and a body energy system capable of outdoing the best gymnast in the world, the Law of Conservation of Energy still requires him to put enough energy into his body to fuel his powerful body organs.  If Michael Phelps the Olympic swimmer consumes some 12,000 calories a day in training (a lot of this energy goes to keeping his body warm in the pool, by the way), imagine what Spiderman leaping from building to building for hours at a time would need to consume.  At least  twelve thousand calories a day, right?  Maybe much more.  Certainly far more than the standard 2,000 calorie a day diet.

For Batman to keep up it wouldn't be enough for him to have hardcore martial arts training and oodles of technological gizmos.  He'd also need to bioengineer his body to be able to outperform mere mortals, something Bruce Wayne could easily afford.  But like Spiderman, his caloric intake would have to be pretty huge to engage in the epic fights and leaping acrobatics he does every night.   To fuel himself, he'd have to do some serious carb loading before going out into the evening--imagine Alfred serving him a two-foot high heap of spaghetti--on a silver platter, naturally.

Batman and Spiderman are not my creations, so of course my notions of physics aren't going to change these characters.  But imagine creating a new superhero, similar to them, who has been bioengineered by his own scientific work or others, with enough technological gadgets to enhance his abilities.  And then imagine a story condition in which he (or she) is always  hungry, continually struggling to find enough time to get down all the calories he or she needs to face the next fight, continually a Snickers bar, a protein power bar, or a banana in hand.

That would add an interesting dimension to a character, wouldn't it?  The poor superhero, trying to scrape up enough money for a shopping cart load of pasta every few days?  And by the way, it so happens you'd have crafted a genuine science fiction superhero...

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Monday, October 17, 2011

A Reaction to "The Walking Dead"--Where is the military?

In the two months of this blog I've talked more about zombies than anything else.  You might think that resulted from me having seen the current cable TV series on zombies, AMC's "The Walking Dead." But in fact I hadn't watched it until this past week.

Having seen the series now, which by the way does show zombies eating about anything they can get their hands on, including wild animals (which seem immune to the disease), I'm asking myself what should be an obvious question:  Where is the military in all this?

The show is set in the Atlanta region and more than once shows a single abandoned tank in a defensive position, apparently having been overrun by zombies.  Hey, I recognize this is just a story with a certain defined premise and is more interested in looking at the human characters going through the zombie apocalypse than the zombies themselves, but I found the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any story severely strained by seeing an tank abandoned due to a zombie attack.  I mean, really?  Seriously?  Look, even if you ran out of ammo, all you need is diesel fuel and a tank is the ultimate zombie-killing machine.  Maybe a car might be overwhelmed with walking dead bodies pushing on it, especially at a slow speed.  But an M1 tank?  You'd plow through the living corpses like a tractor through ears of corn.

So this brought to mind a new type of zombie story, one yet untold as far as I know:  From the point of view of the military.  I admit that ordinary citizens facing horror in some ways is inherently more interesting, but a zombie hunting military unit with a large chunk of equipment still intact would have a different kind of vibe to it and still would have the potential to be a powerful story.

This would be especially true if the story abandoned the standard, "You have to be bitten by a zombie to become one yourself" mantra, which "The Walking Dead" upholds.  In the military story I propose, perhaps even a tiny splattered drop could spread the blood-borne pathogen.  The unit would therefore face far more cases of their own turning into the bad guys than standard zombie fare.  That coupled with a bit of heightening the intelligence of zombies, enough to allow them to operate weapons and equipment, albeit rather robotically, and you have an altogether different kind of story, one in some ways more like the apocalyptic world of the Terminator movies than what we would recognize as a zombie film.

In this sort of story, a character struggle could resonate along an axis of what to do about the zombies?  Shall we kill them all?  Or should we look for a cure?

I'd steer a story along the lines of a cure being possible but difficult.  Good people in the military unit would be willing to undergo the hardships required to bring back those that seem hopelessly lost, while the more sinister figures would be drawn toward "Let's just kill them all."

I see that sort of axis as having a spiritual application--is it better to destroy our enemies, or to loving bring them over to our side?  Please note which of the two options is easier...

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alien Counterinsurgency Stories

A story setting in which aliens invade planet Earth much as the United States invaded Iraq or Afghanistan is hardly ironic in and of itself.  What I mean by "as the US invaded" is in using the same sort of method--aliens hitting us with technology and precise strikes so advanced we can't counter them, specifically targeting people from far enough away (say high Earth orbit) that there's nothing we can do about it before they destroy our capacity to resist.  The aliens would also be the same in trying to avoid hurting the general populace, eliminating our leaders, and establishing new leaders under new rules.  Alien troops could work side by side with human troops for the purposed of training them to "take over" while they simultaneously work to rebuild our shattered industries along their lines.  Alien forces would continue to fight a human counterinsurgency, as humanity as whole adopts Afghan and Iraqi style tactics of suicide bombings and intimidation.

This sort of setting would be perfect for a story intended as an anti-Afghan or anti-Iraq War commentary.  As in, "Of course insurgents use brutal methods, but we would too if we were forced to do so by superior alien technology."  Empathizing with the insurgents is such a natural offshoot of this setting and using science fiction as social commentary on current events is so common, I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't already half a dozen or more tales that are in effect variations on this type of story.  So obvious is this, that while it might have the potential to be interesting, it's hardly original and certainly not ironic.

But if you take the setting and make it so the aliens really do  have what even honest humans recognize as a good justification for overthrowing our government and taking over, then you have more potential for irony and originality.  You can make the justification whatever you wish, which naturally would shoot out from social commentary.  The aliens could think our leaders are destroying the planet, for example, necessitating their takeover to save it.  Or they could be horrified we allow abortion or fail to vigorously attack the human slave trade or let people starve to death or keep animals as pets or have economic systems specifically geared to benefit an elite minority.  Whatever political issue an author could wish to harp on would be used as a justification, either left-wing, right-wing, or from somewhere in the middle.

Of course, it would be more original and more interesting for story purposes to come up with something that is not a current political hot button issue.  An example a bit off the wall would have the aliens outraged that we don't allow children to vote or hold political office.  Their political new system would systematically work to empower children and outright give them the vote.  Perhaps less off the wall idea would be they object to us passing laws that have not been screened by scientific methods and computer modeling to ensure the laws actually accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish.  How barbaric of us!  How much suffering our foolishness causes!

Correctly done, the alien way of doing things, their reason for having taken over Earth, should be shown as having real merit of some kind, no matter how strange it may seem.  Insurgents would of course fight the aliens nonetheless because they are on our world and don't belong here.  Actually, they would probably also mock the alien reasons, even if most people saw that they worked.  That way, both the alien overlords and the human insurgents could be shown as sympathetic characters overall, with individual villains existing among both groups.

That's the way I'd recommend writing an alien counterinsurgency story.

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