Tag Archives: Storytelling

Let’s Talk About First Officers

This month’s Star Trek post is a collaboration with fellow contributor Rose B. Fischer. We’ve seen a lot of misinformation floating around about Starfleet’s first officers, so we’re here to spread some knowledge!

Space operas like Star Trek are drawn from westerns, swashbucklers, and naval/maritime epics. So the captain is a combination of tropes from those genres. Usually, it’s one part maverick, one part wandering hero, and one part charismatic leader. Star Trek adds a heavy dose of diplomat, since Starfleet is committed to peaceful exploration rather than conquest, intractable optimism and strong humanistic values. Those are Star Trek‘s defining characteristics and the captain is the show’s mouthpiece, so it makes sense that the character would also be the embodiment of the Federation’s mores. The captain’s first love is the ship, and every relationship is either built around or overshadowed by the siren song of space.

Headshots of Kirk and Picard.

The first officer shares the captain’s love of space, and is a composite of the same tropes as the captain. The first officer is supposed to be qualified to command to ship in the event that the captain is unfit for duty, and has the potential to be captain in their own right, so the two characters will have a lot of similarities in terms of skills sets, moral composition, and affinity for space. They’re meant to be complementary opposites, so their personalities and skills will usually mesh well and benefit the crew as a whole.

The captain’s personality informs the shipwide culture while the first officer’s function is usually to provide balance by meeting the needs of the ship and crew where the captain is less proficient. In TOS, Spock’s knowledge of science and ability to process information are assets to Kirk when the Enterprise encounters new life forms. His adherence to Vulcan logic makes him more apt to advise drastic action when the lives of the crew are at stake, while Kirk’s reluctance to engage in violence usually means the ship gets drawn further and further into trouble. In the end, it’s almost always a scientific edge that helps the crew out of hot water, and a lot of the solutions are facilitated by a combination of Spock’s knowledge and Kirk’s stubborn ingenuity.

"Insufficient facts always invite danger." -Spock

“Insufficient facts always invite danger.” -Spock

I see a lot of TNG critics (and fans) saying that Picard and Riker amount to nothing but a role reversed version of Kirk and Spock. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Riker was meant to be the more physically active of the pair, leading away teams and generally being in the position of the young, handsome hero, but his role is pretty different from both Kirk and Spock. Aside from leading away teams and a tendency to romance alien women, Riker is about as similar to Captain Kirk as I am to a sponge. He’s often shown managing crew assignments, is more approachable, and has a more casual way of interacting with subordinates than Kirk does. His job is as much to relate to the Enterprise crew and manage day to day operations as it is to lead away missions. Captain Picard has the crew’s respect as a leader, but it’s often clear that Picard himself isn’t comfortable with personal interactions where Riker excels. The TOS crew may not have always understood or related to Spock, but unlike Picard, Spock was not shown to be reluctant or uncomfortable with the crew. He related to them on his own terms, as a Vulcan.

"Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody." -Riker

“Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody.” -Riker

The contrast between Spock and Riker especially stood out to me (Hannah) in my grand rewatch, because it’s such a distinct change. They’re very different characters — like Spock and Data are very different, despite constant comparisons — but they also show the transition between TOS and TNG. TOS was more conceptual, and there was less interest in showing a spaceship’s daily operations. Spock’s job as first officer was essentially to advise Kirk. He was technically second in command, but most of the time they were off on the same missions anyway. His role as science officer was much more important, and correlated to his role as the intellectual part of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy soul-mind-heart trio.

When TNG came along, narrative styles were changing, and the show was more interested in daily life. I love the more stylized TOS characters, but this step toward more-realistic ones is a huge factor in why Star Trek has had such longevity. Riker balances Picard’s skills, but he also seems to have a distinct function on the ship as first officer. He doesn’t have an additional role like science officer or anything else. The most obvious thing is that he leads away missions instead of the captain and first officer both endangering themselves, and he advises Picard as needed, but especially in the first season, the captain and first officer almost function like two departments of the ship. They’re advisory to each other, with the captain in charge of decisions, but the first officer in charge of personnel and planning. It makes the ship seem bigger, and gives them both something to do in these stories that include logistics as well as moral dilemmas.

Still of Ferengi and Captain Picard from "The Battle."

“The Battle” is a great episode for captains and first officers.

Most episodes understandably focus on ideas and characters over explaining the finer details of how Starfleet works, but it’s really super impressive how well they balance those story roles with ship functions as the show progresses. Plus the role of first officer is about to get even more interesting, since the main protagonist of Star Trek: Discovery is going to be the first officer. But no matter which show, keep an eye out next time you watch, and let us know what you think!

Realistic vs. Romantic Literature – Throwback Thursday

In many ways, I feel like this was where the whole series I had been writing on the Definition of Science Fiction (and Fantasy) got good. Sorry I missed getting this out last week, but here we go! Also, to note: this one got pretty long…


Hello my readers, time again for me to touch on a series of posts I’ve written over the course of the blog so far. It all started out from a definition of science fiction I read in a book, which led into a blog post exploring that. Then, for comparison, I explored a definition of fantasy based on a quote that’s floated around social media. So between the two, I had pitted Frank Herbert against J.R.R. Tolkien. Then, for another look at it, I compared Star Trek and Star Wars. I still really like my genre exploration there.

And then I listened to George R.R. Martin on the Nerdist Podcast, and it got me thinking that all this work of putting things in genres, and holding one over another or pitting them against one another, was wrong; and I was working on coming up with new terms or new ways of thinking about the differences, of trying to really articulate what I was trying to say.

That’s when I got a comment back on that first post, questioning what I meant about science fiction, making me really think about what I was saying. The commenter – who had the opportunity to interview the author, Paolo Bacigalupi – recommended and discussed The Windup Girl. So I felt I needed to read that first and consider it. And to consider what it is I have been trying to articulate, to think of the terms and groupings and ways that we talk about these sorts of stories, and so that is where I am coming from with this post. Let me know in the comments what you think!

Continue reading

Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

So this is the show that I need to find a way to watch. Everything that I have read about it makes  me want to watch it, but unfortunately right now we do not have Hulu. We ended up switching to Netlix because there were more original shows that we were watching and Hulu lost access to the CW. At the same time the question is will The Handmaid’s Tale become available to purchase somewhere else eventually or will it only be available on Hulu for such a long time that I want to just watch it there? It isn’t really like much can be given away because it is based on a book, but sitting around seeing these gorgeous visuals and hearing about the performances of some amazing actors and actresses just makes me want to watch it even more.

Actors

So the main character is played by Elizabeth Moss who everyone says is amazing, which I do not doubt. It sounds like much of her acting is about silent subtle facial expressions while her voice over tells the audience her true underlying feelings. That alone makes for such an interesting way to tell the story. In a world where saying anything against the ruling people could mean death our thoughts are the only way to rebel. Now Moss is joined with Samira Wiley, Alexis Bedel, and Ralph Fiennes all whom I have loved in other things. The little I have seen of clips and trailers all of the actors look incredible in their scenes.

Timely

There is an amazing timeliness to this series coming out now. When we see some groups who would probably be willing to see women no longer working and men should be in control it is hard not to imagine a world where this is possible because it happens. It is good to look at these dystopian futures and remember the perseverance, but also know that we do not want that to happen. These stories are important warnings about what has happened and what could happen. The ideas of many dystopias are not far off from things that have come before. People have turned a blind eye to small changes before until finally the world is on fire and they wonder how it got that far.

Hulu or Not Hulu

So the big question though is that do I want it enough to possibly pay for Hulu again. Now we could just plan for a month to try and watch the whole series, but do we really want to do that? If we get hooked then that means that we will want to pay again for the second season. The other option is to wait until it potentially comes out on DVD or to purchase digital and basically take the risk of just buying it. I am already watching so many shows, but this one just seems so poignant and the rave reviews just make it seem like a show that needs to be seen.

What do you think?

Science Fiction versus Fantasy – Throwback Thursday

Next up, after pitting Star Trek versus Star Wars, I decided to do some more direct comparison between Science Fiction and Fantasy. It helped to have some comments by George R.R. Martin to start from. At this point, I started working on new terms to maybe replace the old genre titles – more of these to come!


I have given a definition of both Science Fiction and Fantasy before, and I love both, so I care. If you look back at our Liebster Award nomination, I said that one of the more important things to me is Science Fiction being taken seriously. And I think I would happily include Fantasy in that as well. There are a lot of other causes out there, and things to be done – I’ve talked about Geeks and Charity as well – but the discussion about Science Fiction, and its place in thought, in learning, in the classroom… That seems like something I can influence a bit, right?

So recently we listened to George R.R. Martin on the Nerdist Podcast. And first off, if you like George R.R. Martin, it was a lot of fun. It was right after he destroyed the guitar (which we talked about before) at Comic Con. He talks Game of Thrones, and conventions, and writing, and, to the point here and now, he talks Science Fiction and Fantasy.

If part of the reason I like the quotes from Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien is because they are the fathers of the genres. However, George R.R. Martin is something of a current crown prince, or some other metaphor, in Fantasy. So what does he add to my thought? And where do we draw the lines?

WHAT GEORGE R.R. MARTIN SAID

If you look carefully, you’ll see that Winter is Coming. Found on http://www.nerdist.com/2013/07/nerdist-podcast-george-r-r-martin/

So, George R.R. Martin was basically of the thought that there are people who take Science Fiction too seriously, that it’s not too different from Fantasy, that there are people seriously considering life and humanity in Fantasy (very true: read some George R.R. Martin…), and that we should maybe not fight between the two.

And really, is that a bad conclusion?

In many ways, it matches reality. I don’t know a lot of people who like ONLY Science Fiction and not Fantasy, or ONLY Fantasy and not Science Fiction. I can think of a few, but they stand out. For the most part, however, how many of us are there watching Doctor Who and Game of Thrones at the same time? How many of us love Lord of the Rings and Dune? Blade Runner and Princess Bride?

Science Fiction and Fantasy often blend, anyway. As I talked about in my post about the idea of the Ancient Alien Race, large Fantasy series tend towards having Science Fiction in their past. And suddenly, the two genres are one. So what do you call them?

It matches our reality at the store, too. Assuming bookstores are still a thing, and we’re not all reading on a Kindle… But bookstores inevitably combine Science Fiction and Fantasy. In part, it seems easy to tell if a book is one of these two, but would take a ton of work to figure out which to put it in. Plus, more importantly – they understand that there’s more money to be made by combining the two. Same audience.

However, here’s where my opinion does come in: Just because we shouldn’t draw so hard a line between these two Genres does not mean we shouldn’t still take their works of art seriously. Just like there is good and bad literature, there is good and bad Science Fiction. And we can debate and fight all day about which is which – but it’s important to think we could have that debate. Instead of it being a given that one, the other, or both of these genres is pointless.

So, let me go on to think of other ways we can consider Science Fiction and Fantasy.

SPECULATIVE FICTION?

One of the terms I hear thrown about for the sort of What-If Science Fiction that might describe the best of the genre is Speculative Fiction. A vague term that could also just be called “Fiction,” Speculative Fiction tries to mean something very specific: to mean fiction that asks a question, and generally, a question about our future, where we don’t know the answer to the question we ask.

This is the good thought experiment of Science Fiction: to ask a question about our future, and try to provide an answer. Sometimes, the ideas and answer are the main point. I see this in stories by authors like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick – a strong question is asked, a strong answer is given, and they link the two with a plot. Then there is more cinematic sorts of fiction, heavier on plot, where sometimes the questions asked and answered happen after the fact – like the sorts of science questions that cropped up around Star Trek and Star Wars after the fact.

That’s about how I remember him. Found on https://www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4pr/20090401

And both are good. One is more high brow, I guess, and ends up looking very different if made into a movie. The other is more escapist – is perhaps a bit closer to Fantasy.

But, if we spread this thinking to Fantasy, then there are Heroic Journey sorts of stories, great epics in the traditions of mythology, and of archetypes. Then there are stories that are more Escapist, are Fantasy fun. I have read over twenty Drizzt Do’Urden books by R.A. Salvatore, and I love them; but have I learned much from them, have they made me think?

Well, a little, if I use that example. Salvatore does a great job of working in the thoughtful, philosophical quandaries of his main character in-between acts. Part of what makes this such a likable and popular character.

So really, I guess my point is, there is a lot to be said for a lot of stuff being done in Science Fiction and Fantasy. That even if the literary writing isn’t the best, the ideas in the book may be sound, or groundbreaking, even. If the writing is fun, there still might be something there to make you think, to bring you out of the story a moment and consider the implications.

There are other genres that exist adjacent to Science Fiction and Fantasy as well, which also enter into strongly speculative realms: Urban Fantasy, and Steampunk. The former is imagining our modern world, but with Fantastical elements. The latter is imagining our past, with a Science-Fictional future. Both of these can also have a lot of value, despite – or maybe especially because of – being new.

NEW TERMINOLOGY FOR OUR FICTION?

So maybe we need a new language to talk about these fictional genres. Something to remove the baggage, and get some attention?

I did a post, after looking at the definitions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, pitting Star Wars against Star Trek. Check it out here.

My conclusion was that, based on the definitions I was using, Star Trek is Science Fiction, and Star Wars is Fantasy. But if we’re thinking of a new language to talk about these veins of fiction, maybe these can help lead us.

For one type, call it Exploratory Fiction. Maybe exploring an idea, maybe exploring actual space. You see physical exploration in Star Trek, or Firefly; in games in Freelancer, or Skyrim. But this could also cover Speculative Fiction, and exploring an idea.

For another type, call it Escapist Fiction. This matches more like story-based games, where you are immersing in their story, unlike the free-range games like Skyrim. The heroic journey is the best sort of escape – the quest to become more than we were, and usually save some stuff in the process.Worlds, universes, kingdoms, friends.

So there are good examples and bad examples of these types, but that is like with all things. But this would bleed these genres together, and be more about the type of story they are telling, or the way they are telling it – rather than about whether the story has aliens or elves. And if we move away from aliens-and-elves assumptions about these genres, maybe other people could get into them – and, as my point earlier – they could be taken more seriously as artforms.

Ringworld and Modern Comparisons

Yesterday I wrote a review of Ringworld by Larry Niven. I explored the basics of the plot, and its place in science fiction storytelling. Today, well, let’s go back to the tweet…

I’ll look at two properties that I definitely think were influenced by this book – Halo and Mass Effect. And then, I’ll close out with the thing that annoyed me most about the book – the awkward approach towards women. Spoilers to follow!

Mass Effect

I think I’ll go through chronologically. I went in expecting Halo, of course. But it really was Mass Effect I was picking up on first. And that’s because the similarity here is in the galactic civilization itself.

Humanity is pretty well humanity still: setting up colonies, ranging out from Earth. There was a first contact, with a war-driven society. The whole thing gets kind of saved by the wider galactic civilization intervening.

There’s also an entire species traveling the stars in a migration. Okay, the circumstances (and, it turns out, the vessels) turn out to be different, but the prototype of the Quarians can be seen in the Puppeteers.

However, with a name like Puppeteers, there’s another angle to that species: manipulators. In that regard, they particularly turn out to have been manipulating the evolution of species, the way they turned out. The war-driven species, the Kzin, had a dangerously large population – and through war, lost most of their males. The manipulation here is that the survivors – who live to reproduce – are the less war-like, the ones who for whatever reason didn’t go to war. Definitely a precursor to the Genophage, a virus which made the super-fertile Krogan almost infertile, and the Salarians who created it.

The Kzin, to compare to Mass Effect, kind of become both the Turians – regimented warriors, and a First Contact War with humanity – and the Krogan – with all the manipulated reproduction and almost berserk territoriality and warmongering. The Puppeteers are kind of the Salarians and the Quarians and almost a bit of the Protheans. Still, some of the ideas of the elements that exist in a galactic civilization like this play out in the pages of Ringworld, and are writ large in Mass Effect.

Halo

I mean, the obvious comparison here is the ringworld. Being used to Halo, and the comparatively small ringworlds that function more like moons or satellites (or that meaning of satellites that means moons) than anything else, I was blown away by the immensity of the ringworld in Ringworld. It’s a ring not next to a planet, not around a planet, but around a star. So the diameter is such that it’s wide enough to be at a distance that supports life – so like, Earth distance away (I think they give a more exact figure but I don’t recall).

An unbroken ring around a star at that distance is a surface area that is just massive. The characters compare it at points to various reference points, like more than all the known planets in known space.

I liked a couple of the analogies to think about it. One is that you think of it like a flat topographical map of a globe, all stretched out and on a part of the ringworld. There’s just a whole bunch of them. The second is to think of a candle lying on the ground, and a blue ribbon – standing on end – stretched out in a circle around it at a certain distance. But it’s huge, and the characters spend a lot of time coming to terms with this fact. They spend months in travel time on the ringworld, and never make it to an edge.

Okay, yeah yeah, its a slightly different ringworld, so the setting is the same as Halo. Is that all the comparison? Nope.

I would say that this book, especially from the point when they’re actually at the ringworld, is a very similar structure to the structure of the first Halo. That flow:

  • Crash landing, stranded, on the ringworld. Salvaging what you can of your materials, and heading out to find a way off the ringworld based on whatever you can find there.
  • A lot of that exploration happens in a vehicle, because the distances are actually too massive to get far on foot. The Warthog is better than the flying bubble ships of Ringworld, sorry…
  • There’s an ancient progenitor race that built the ringworld, and you’re not sure why, but figuring some of that out is key – since it’s their old technology you’re hoping to use to get off the ringworld.
  • A pivotal discovery is a map room, where you finally have your bearings and can form a plan.
  • Ringworld is a story of ranging out and heading back, as their goal is to find a way to get their crashed ship back off the planet. I think one of the finer features of Halo – a subtle reason that the campaign was so good – is that it is a game of ranging out and returning. And often, the greater challenges in Halo are in the returning, which is quite different from a lot of video game design (head in, fight boss, get objective).

As a final interesting comparison: the downfall of the progenitor race. In both, it’s a parasite. In Ringworld, their best guess is that the builders  – in choosing what to put on the ringworld – left off things they didn’t want, like bacteria and diseases. However, that’s really hard to do, and likely something evolved, mutated, and caused them grief. I’m not sure they meshed that theory completely with what they found out about civilization collapse – forgotten technology a la Foundation like I talked about yesterday.

Still, it’s interesting to compare this thought to Halo, where the ringworld itself was built – or at least left – as a prison for the worst parasite ever, the Flood. And discovering this secret does not turn out well at all.

Ringworld and Women

The majority of the female characters and perspective in the book is the fourth member of their expedition, Teela Brown, and by the end her entire story and life and existence is tied up in the whole idea of her having been born with genetic, almost telepathic luck. She is effectively an object of this whole thought experiment, and the main things that her luck truly accomplishes for her is a) a sort of coming of age, and b) to find a man.

There’s plenty of sex talk, and it’s the “we’re fine with sex” future, whatever. There’s lots of talking down to her from the main character, but honestly that’s more ageist than anything – and a 200 year old with the physique of a 20 year old man, talking to a 20 year old woman, has probably earned some wisdom points he can cash in.

So okay, there’s some awkward, product-of-the-times stuff wrapped up around her, and Teela also serves a sort of token woman role. And if that were all, there would be nothing much to say here.

However, part of the reason that there aren’t more female characters in the book – and an excuse for a lot of the conversations with the aliens about Teela and women and male/female relationships – is that both of the other alien species have a non-sentient female sex. So the child-bearing sex isn’t a sentient creature, so whatever, they’re just kind of a thing.

WHAT?!?!?!?

Yep, that’s a thing. Just kind of not including female characters? Vaguely forgivable (would it have been so hard, Tolkien?). But literally having the female aliens be vegetables? Ugh.

It’s either lazy or incredibly sexist, and I don’t feel qualified to answer, but neither is particularly good.

And hey, they finally find another female character! An alien, a ringworlder from the age of the creators. She was still alive because she had been on an interstellar trading ship. Since there was no faster than light travel (which was their theory for why you would build this massive ringworld), she and the crew were caught up in all the near-light-travel time dilation problems of science fiction writing. Oh, they also had super-long-life drugs. So they left and everything was fine, they returned and civilization had collapsed.

She gave the breakdown on this ship: 36 total, with 33 men, and 3 men. Yeah, guess what her job was. Yep. Super skilled prostitute.

That this was finally the second main female character introduced, and the first main female alien… Ugh. No thought that some of that “working” crew might be women. Oh, and she basically takes the place of Teela Brown in the story, as she gets separated so they still only have one woman around.

Like, it feels today like there are a few details you could change to make this really easy, to even up some of these numbers, to maybe have along a (sentient) female alien as an excuse to talk about human male/female relations (if that’s still even necessary). But some of these willful decisions to sideline women, to write them out of either important positions or even write them out of intelligence entirely… It was painful. It feels unnecessary today. I wonder how it was received at the time?

Alright, that’s been a lot on Ringworld! Tell me what you thought of the book in the comments below.