Star Wars VII Thoughts Revisited

Continuing from last week, there are a few other things I’ve been thinking about regarding Star Wars VII.

 As people have mentioned, there are a lot of similarities between Episode VII and Episode IV. I think a lot of these similarities come from both movies fulfilling the same phase of the Campbellian cycle—the point where the hero is identified, the call to adventure is given, the call is rejected, and the call is eventually accepted. Likewise, in this phase, the mentors, helpers, and villains of the cycle are introduced. So, they certainly fill the same function, in that respect. However, I think the two movies are used for different purposes, despite their similarities. A New Hope is, in addition to its Campbellian role, an introduction to the world and the story. It starts in the middle, but it really brings viewers into the world Lucas has created. On the other hand, The Force Awakens serves as a bridge, connecting the original trilogy and (chronologically) second incarnation of the cycle to the third trilogy/cycle. And there is where we see the homages to IV-VI, creating the links between different iterations of the Campbellian cycle.

 The other thing that came to mind is objects. This could be due to my recent reading of Patrick Geary’s Furta Sacra, but the questions of Luke’s lightsaber (given to Reye) and Vader’s helmet keep coming to mind. Obvious questions about how Luke’s saber reappeared arise, given that the saber discussed is Luke’s first (and Anakin’s), the one lost on Bespin.

 I, perhaps because of Geary, started thinking about these objects as something akin to religious relics. On one hand, the lightsaber could be a fake, from some random pre-Empire Jedi or a fleeing Jedi who sold it off for passage out of the Empire’s sphere of power. However, these explanations don’t fit the epic tone or story. Rather, my practical side suggests it fell into a shaft like Luke did and some Bespin maintenance ugnaught picked it up and sold it. Taken in the context of relics, though, the saber must be saved and returned for worship.

 Likewise, Vader’s helmet needs to be recovered from the Endor pyre, either by Luke (as a reminder of what could be) or by Ren as a relic of worship. It takes on a powerful symbolic role, and received devotion on the part of whoever recovered it.

 Alternately, Luke’s lightsaber could be seen as fulfilling the role of magic swords throughout Earth’s legends. In this way, it could be a sort of unnamed Durendal or Excalibur, the symbol of the Chosen One or the “True Hero” (moving from Anakin to Luke to Reye as appropriate). There is certainly a counter argument regarding Anakin, unless we recall that he gave up that particular saber/sword when he joined Palaptine, thus becoming the villain and rejecting his role as a hero of the Clone Wars. It then must pass to Luke, the hero of the Rebellion, “destined” to rebuild the Jedi Order. Then to Reye, the one who appears set to combat the villain Luke accidentally created (much as Luke defeated the villain that his own mentor, Kenobi, accidentally created).

Star Wars VII Thoughts

It’s been over a week since seeing Star Wars VII, so I think I’ve processed enough to write up some thoughts.

First, I like the movie. It felt like a mix of V and VI, in many ways. I think it is a good addition to the series. The casting was good, the performances were good, and the writing worked. I liked the fact that they minimized the use of CGI, even if it sometimes looked like a few alien heads (Mon Calamari & Sullustan) were disproportionately big.

The off screen history seemed logically consistent, from Luke’s new Jedi to the original trilogy characters’ reactions to loss/failure. On the latter: Luke follows the only models he has–Yoda & Kenobi, both fail and run off to self-imposed exile; Han goes back to his pre-Rebellion path, a sort of muscle memory; Leia does the same. Chewbacca obviously follows Han, that life debt; 3PO & R2 stick with Leia, where they were at New Hope’s start.

Over all, there was a good balance between homages to the original trilogy and new material. From the trench run to the desert planet and lost droid, the homages worked well to provide continuity with IV through VI. They also hint at the cyclic view of history & reality that is so central to the Star Wars universe. This has happened before and will happen again.

The cyclic element is something inherent to the Star Wars universe and comes out well in VII too. From Lucas’s reading and incorporation of Campbell’s heroic journey with the original trilogy to its expression in the later movies, this journey cycle is inextricable from the series. We see the Campbellian journey on three levels with the series. On the microcosmic level, every movie in the series includes the hero journey element, ex. Luke’s call to adventure, refusal of the call, acceptance, assistance from mentors, success, and return with enlightenment and gifts for society (the rejuvenation of the Jedi). Moreover, each trilogy to date has a more macrocosmic level version of the Campbellian journey whether Anakin’s evolution from slave boy to villain (Campbell does note that the hero who doesn’t die young often becomes the next generation’s villain) or Luke’s journey from backwater farm boy to galactic hero.

So, when people have said that we’ve seen VII’s story before, they’re absolutely correct. And that’s a core element of the Star Wars universe. It also fits Campbell’s theory that the hero’s journey is a never-ending cycle (the third level mentioned above); when one journey ends, another hero’s begins. In this case, rather than becoming the villain, Luke inadvertently creates the next generation’s villain, much as his own mentor did. Thus, he must mentor the next generation’s hero on her (Reye) own journey against the villain that he created. Meanwhile, there is the parallel Campbellian journey being played out by Finn as he follows the same arc, much like Han did parallel to Luke’s in the original trilogy.

Sci-Fi Top 10

After some conversations, I’ve decided that this week and next, I’ll post some of my top 10 (and then some) lists for books (and a couple stories).  None of the lists are in any particular order.

To kick it off, Sci-FI:

1)      Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

One of the top cyberpunk classics, following the adventures of the (aptly named) Hiro Protagonist as he navigates a world of corporate enclaves, private security, and mafioso pizza delivery. Mixes high tech, cyberspace, ancient Babylonian myth, and linguistic theory into an enjoyable ride.

2)      Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein

YA adventure novel charting a class of survival students training to lead interstellar colonies. In many ways a response to Lord of the Flies, although Heinlein cheats by giving the students prior survival training and gear.

3)      Foreigner-series, C.J. Cherryh

Space opera following Bren Cameron, diplomat between the “invading” human minority and the alien majority on an alien world. The series evolves from Cameron’s work as a glorified translator into a major mover in the alien society.

4)      Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Classic collection of short stories set on Mars. My personal favorite is “Usher II”, a piece against censorship.

5)      Demolished Man, Alfred Bester

Classic about a telepathic detective that inspired J. Michael Straczinski’s Babylon 5 psi cop Bester.

6)      Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick

Classic better known as Ridley Scott’s film adaptation Blade Runner. Much more complex and philosophical than the adaptation.

7)      Dune, Frank Herbert

Classic epic of politics, genetics, religion, betrayal, redemption, and empire.

8)      Gather, Darkness!, Fritz Leiber

A relatively unknown novel about a society in which the church governs society and is opposed by “satanic witches”, both apparently using magic. In fact, each side employs concealed technology in their fight for control of society.

9)      A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller, Jr.

Classic post-apocalypse piece following the monks of St. Leibowitz who attempt to maintain some semblance of civilization in the apocalyptic landscape.

10)  Stainless Steel Rat-series, Harry Harrison

Interesting series that mixes sci-fi crime drama with military sci-fi as the title character is brought into government service as spy and military officer.

An Elf is an Elf. Of Course. Of Course. Or is it?

I wrote previously about the advantages of single species settings. This week, I’ll take the opposing point and look at having many species. Obviously, once a writer has determined how many sentient races will exist in a setting, there are a variety of pros and cons. I’ll hit what I think are the highlights.

The first consideration is: what races?

By this, I mean, will traditional Earth species be used (drawn from folklore, legend, and myth)? Or will traditional fantasy races (dwarves, elves, orcs, etc.) be used? Or will they be entirely original races?

With the first two, there are some definite pros in that they’ll be immediately obvious to readers and won’t need major exposition about appearances, for instance. On the other hand, making them stand out can be more difficult. But, there are ways to do this. Consider Pratchett’s Elves, Rowling’s Goblins, Ilona Andrews’ vampires, Steven Brust’s “Elves” (Dragaerans), or Naomi Novik’s dragons.

In sci-fi at least, virtually all aliens are original to one degree or another. Sure there are bugs, cyborgs, robots, and catfolk in really broad terms, but nothing to the same degree as elves, dwarves, and halflings in fantasy. This obviously requires more time describing the species’ appearance initially.

Easily the most daunting thing about presenting a lot of races is developing cultures. We want developed cultures to know where characters in this new race are coming from. On the other hand, this need not be too daunting. After all, we do not need to create every race’s culture from the beginning. We can develop them as they appear in the story, at least beyond the window dressing role. Consider Star Wars and Star Trek. Based on the SW movies, what do we know about Wookiees, Ithorians (Hammerheads), Rodians, or Shistavanen wolfmen? These are four “core” SW races and we really don’t know anything about them until up to a decade or more after they appeared (many as window dressing or minor roles in the cantina scene). Likewise, from the show and movies, what do we know about Andorians, Gorn, or Rigellians until ST:TNG or Enterprise? Not much. Even Vulcans and Klingons are relatively undeveloped until later in the series. Additionally, I’m pretty certain Pratchett did not think, thirty years ago, about how he’d include orcs and igors in the Disc, but he did eventually.

There’s also another approach, one I’m exploring with my aspidochelone setting. Basically, this approach says there are potentially hundreds, thousands of races from a potentially infinite number of worlds. Therefore, there may several varieties of dwarves, elves, vampires, catfolk, ogres, etc. present, such that national culture overshadows any “racial” culture, particularly if said family of elves has been living in the area for many generations. Sure, some little traditions may remain, but if the community of immigrants (willing or accidental) was small then not much of the home culture may survive (look at strains of immigration to the U.S., particularly fourth generation or beyond). This also opens opportunities for multiple members of a race to display significantly different abilities and disabilities.

Urban Centers Fiction & Reality

Writers of urban fantasy, near future sci-fi, even mystery, historical, and other genres have an important setting decision to make: real or fictitious city? The answer to the question offers a variety of opportunities and potential problems.

There are several benefits to choosing a real city as a setting. First and foremost, the city is already named. Real cities also have maps, politics, locations, notable people, and histories already “pre-made” as it were. This can be great for writers as it saves a lot of the creation process. All the writer has to do is personalize the city to fit his/her worldbuild and genre (e.g. add magical sites, intervening history, tech modifications, fictitious agency offices). Additionally, real cities, particularly famous ones, have reputations, a feel, and form preconceptions in the readers’ minds: compare expectations of New York or Las Vegas to London or Beijing. William Gibson made especially good use of the city’s feel in his foundational cyberpunk works, employing Tokyo his primary inspiration. Ilona Andrews’ magic post-apocalypse Atlanta works well in this respect as well.


On the other hand, using a real city requires a significant amount of research and even a number of visits or long term visits to the city. Invariably, if a real city is chosen, there is going to be at least one reader who lives in or is very familiar with the city. Said readers will jump on errors in description of places, the city’s feel, and the like. Michael Scott and his Nicholas Flamel series is a great example of the level of research necessary, as he explicitly states that he repeatedly visited San Francisco, Paris, and London before writing his series (the vast majority of which occurs in the three cities). Using a real city can also open the writer up to a certain amount of ridicule, depending on the plot and genre. Case in point, the number of jokes circulating the web about the most recent run of Dr. Who and its use of London–ex. a Time Lord can travel anywhere in space and time, but he seems to spend an awful lot of time in early-21st century London.

Fictitious cities have the benefit of being tailored to the writer’s wishes and needs. The writer is not limited to a real place’s history, politics, or geographic limitations. Nor are there reader preconceptions. Fictitious cities also allow for secret societies and hidden communities, such as Eureka’s town Eureka and Sanctuary’s Old City. In both cases, the writers are given free rein to do whatever they wish with the city, in terms of initial design.

On the other hand, fictitious cities take a lot more work in some ways. They have to be designed from the ground up, including mapping, history, businesses and other sites, politics, famous people, cultural feel, everything. Even woth fictional cities, many writers take short cut by borrowing from real cities for some elements, or being inspired by real cities. This even comes into play with maps, ex. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, where he mapped his city by taking NYC and giving it a quarter turn. Another effect of fictional cities can be ambiguity of location, which can be a pro or con depending in one’s perspective. Case in point, Charles de Lint’s Newford, which American readers generally think is Canadian while Canadian readers tend to think Newford is an American city. De Lint says it was inspired by both, but tends to use U.S. laws.

How Many Sapient/Sentient Species? (Part 1)

Choosing to limit a setting to only one species (say, Humans) has some advantages.  The biggest is that the writer doesn’t have to develop multiple species but can still explore different cultures.  On the other hand, the choice can limit variety somewhat and reduce the effect of cultural exploration.  With multiple species, certain cultural traits can be exaggerated in a way that would be comical or grating if the species was Human—imagine the Vulcans, Klingons, or Hutts as Humans.

That said, even in a Humans Only setting, it is possible to have variants.  If the technology is advanced enough or the magic is capable, genetic modification can occur (SJGames’ Transhuman Space).  Or there’s parallel evolution (Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think).  Biomodification (after birth; biological version of cybernetics) or cybernetics could effectively create different (mostly) Human sub-species.  Mages and/or psis could even be genetically different enough to be considered a variant species.  Or super powered mutants (Marvel, I’m looking at you).

Our folklore and legends are filled with Human variant species—such as Elves, Dwarves, Giants, Brownies, Blemmyae, and Cyclopses—as well as human-based hybrids—including Centaurs, Cynocephali, and Satyrs.

This sort of expansion of species, while technically being limited to one, has the benefit of providing multiple species to work with but keeping them all humanoid.  There are similar drawbacks to multi-species settings in terms of culture (if the variants create their own cultures).  The question of cross-breeding also arises and can be a thorny area.  A final drawback, that could also be a benefit for some, is that many of the traditional Human variants have been used by more than a few writers in the last century or two.  This has made them familiar (a potential benefit) but also stereotyped and cliché (drawback, perhaps).

Multiverse, or I’ve Created a Monster!

Due to my current world building project, I’ve been thinking about the question of multiverses lately.  Actually, they seem to crop up in almost every world building project I do, so I guess I’ve been thinking about them for a while.

A little background: My current project started as a cross-dimensional shopping mall and turned into an ultraverse (see below).  Thus, the title of this post.

There are, obviously, pros and cons to the multiverse idea in fiction, too many to really hit here.  I will put a few brief thoughts though.  On the con side, there are potentially lots of worlds to build, but this is not too different from an epic SF/sci-fi novel or series.  It is also easy to get overwhelmed by the scope, or potential scope.  Likewise, there’s potential for concerns regarding continuity that are probably worse than elsewhere.  On the other hand, there is considerable room for variety and exploration.  Both can help the writer maintain interest in the setting (especially if the plan is to produce a considerable volume of work).  It can also be helpful for multi-author concepts and aid in continuity of such projects.

In my recent thinking, I’ve classified five different types of multiverse in fiction:

1) Alternate Universe/Reality Multiverse (AUM/ARM)—Basically a collection of alternate histories/Earths that may or may not allow travel between them.  One important consideration is the effects, or lack thereof, of meeting one’s alternate self.  Examples include: Star Trek’s Mirror Universe, Stargate: SG-1 (a couple AUMs), Terry Pratchett and Steven Barnes’ Long Earth, Sliders, and the Marvelverse.  This is also, pretty much, the modern scientific view of multiverse, based on quantum physics.

“Unless this is the one where K forgot to leave a tip.” –MiB 3

2) Artificial Multiverse (AM): Basically, a multiverse of pocket dimensions, or mini-dimensions.  Often these are man-made (or created by someone).  The shadowrealms in Michael Scott’s The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series partially fit this type.

3) Infinite Multiverse (IM): This multiverse contains unlimited (or theoretically unlimited) dimensions.  It differs from the AUM/ARM, which can also be infinite, in that each dimension is a different world, not an alternate history.  Examples include: Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series (in many interpretations), Robert Asprin’s MYTH series, John De Chancie’s Castle series.

4) Limited Multiverse (LM): The LM is an IM with a set number of dimensions.  Like the IM, they are distinct worlds rather than alternate histories.  Examples include: the D&D multiverse, Steven Brust’s Dragaera (might be an IM, he’s purposely somewhat unclear here), and, arguably, most real world religions (Heaven, Hell; Nirvana; Valhalla, Hel; Olympus, Hades; the Celestial Court; any other transcendent plane of existence).

5) Ultraverse: I am tentatively defining an Ultraverse as a combination if IM, AUM/ARM, and AM.  That is, an Infinite Multiverse in which there are also pocket dimensions and alternate realities.  Moreover, every one of the infinite dimensions (distinct worlds) has its own, theoretically, infinite number of alternate realities.  (Here’s the “I’ve created a monster!” bit since we have infinity x infinity + Y worlds and mini-worlds.)  Examples include: GURPS Infinite Worlds (3rd and 4th edition) setting and, perhaps, the Marvelverse.

Piers Anthony’s Adept series could be either an AUM or an LM, but it’s been a few years since I last read it so the books aren’t entirely clear in my mind.

Literature, Fantasy, and Issues (Very Brief)

(Sort of dusting off an old blog post from a few years back and updating it.)

I think one of the major things that literature in general and the fantasy genre in particular asks us to do is question and/or redefine our views of how the world works and the definitions we use to make sense of things. This is especially true of an issue as broad and loaded as race and racism. For instance, if we look at Rowling’s work, she has been criticized by some individuals as painting a non-racially diverse world – in our “real world” sense of the term race. That is, some claim she does not make use of non-Caucasian characters. Of course, this is completely false since we can cite Kingsley Shacklebolt, Lee Jordan, Angelina Johnson, and Dean Thomas as being of African descent (the latter two dating Caucasian characters, one of the Weasley twins and Ginny respectively), the Patil twins of Indian descent, and Cho Chang of Asian descent. But it is true that Rowling doesn’t make a big deal about this. Their appearances are mentioned in “racial” terms once or twice and that’s it.

One obvious reason for this lack of concern is that British society/culture hasn’t had the same highly charged problems with racial issues that the U.S. has historically had, especially regarding those of African or Asian descent. As someone said on a message board regarding Dr. Who’s Rose and Micky, the odd thing would be not seeing inter-racial couples in a British show/book, these days. Of course, there are growing problems regarding relations with the other immigrant populations in Britain.

The important reason that Rowling in particular and the fantasy genre as a whole, doesn’t focus on these definitions of race is that they ask us to examine and move beyond such ephemeral definitions. When a society is confronted with even one other sentient, sapient species, definitions of race based on skin tone are thrown into question. These texts/shows then ask us to ponder what exactly “race” is: is it genotype (species)? Is it genetic purity as Rowling’s Voldemort or Dr. Who’s Daleks would have us believe? Is it phenotype (what the being looks like)? Is it something less obviously definable like behaviors or emotions? Is it even worth creating a solid definition?

But, unbeknownst to many, these questions have been asked for centuries. The authors/performers of the medieval romances and Breton lais asked these questions. The writers of medieval bestiaries asked these questions. Renaissance teratologists asked these questions. Even as far back as Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, and Petronius, these questions were being asked. In fact, the questions probably go back well beyond even ancient Mesopotamia, possibly as far back as the early days of shamanic religious practices.

Who Builds Worlds?

Well, all fiction writers (and arguably non-fiction writers, but I’m not going there right now) build worlds.  Every genre, even “mainstream” fiction, is involved in worldbuilding to some extent.  Some worldbuilding is more subtle than others, but it is there regardless.  In part, this occurs because even the most realistic fiction has to make some assumptions or modifications to our world, if only to make sense.

“The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”  –attributed to several authors, including Tom Clancy

I’m going to work with a couple genres as examples, mostly because they’re ones I’m more familiar with and because the worldbuilding is more obvious.

Mysteries, and the numerous subgenres, assume a world in which certain crimes, particularly violent ones, are perhaps more common that usual.  In some cases, they also assume a greater degree of teamwork between different agencies than actually exists.  Or they assume a slightly greater level of technology than real world law enforcement agencies have access to (Bones, I’m looking at you; maybe CSI in its myriad versions too).  They may even assume a greater involvement of civilian detectives (Murder She Wrote, Jonathan Kellerman, Arthur Conan Doyle).  And always remember, if Jessica Fletcher comes to visit your town, that’s a good time to take a vacation yourself.

The action/adventure genre assumes an Earth in which dashing spies, former assassins, and ex-special ops members fight continuous, violent, shadow wars for country, duty, and/or personal reasons.  Most are, obviously, not entirely true to life and take certain liberties in worldbuilding, whether that means the creation of secret conspiracy groups, secret advanced technology, or other variations.  (ex. the Bourne series, the Mack Bolan series, Ian Fleming, David Morrell)

Superhero comics posit a world in which various special abilities exist and impact society, this pretty much goes without saying.  Because they generally look at the impact of superheroism, mutant powers, high tech, etc. on society, they are much more complex than they have typically been given credit for (anything in the Marvel and DC lines, really, a bit of Vertigo among others).  The worldbuilding here is, clearly, more overt.

Finally, the fantasy and sci-fi (or SF) genres and all their subgenres (including steampunk) by their very nature involve some of the most overt worldbuilding to the point of creating entire worlds, galaxies, and multiverses more or less from scratch.  I say more or less here since most F/SF worlds are based to some degree on real Earth societies.  I’m not going to bring up examples here, largely because any I present will be repeated several times in future posts as the genres are my personal favorites, and the ones in which I write all of my fiction.