How I Learned to Get Over Myself and Learn to Love Quantum Physics

There have been a lot of advances in theoretical physics since the end of the 19th century when the first examples of what I would consider “modern” time travel stories were being produced by Mark Twain and H.G. Wells. One of the best of those in my opinion is the multiple worlds theory of quantum physics, largely because it finally offers us a chance to break away from the constraints of the paradox that have plagued science fiction for so long.
In the universe of the Shadows of Time series, there are no temporal paradoxes to contend with. This is because it is flat out impossible for them to exist. The main characters exist within a 11 dimensional omniverse where all possible outcomes of their time travel are accounted for. Now, as individuals who exist outside of the normal flow of any single universe, they do have the ability to flit in and out of several different universes as they see fit. But it is beyond their power to create anything truly new. The law of conservation of energy dictates that their ability is inherently finite.
Furthermore, the Guardians themselves are not unique. The very nature of the setting demands that there be innumerable copies of them all running around simultaneously, operating in near ignorance of each other simply because of the fact that as many versions of them as there are, there are far more possible destinations for them to be shunted to. And while there may occasionally be things that look like paradoxes where they are reacting to something done by themselves in the future, they’re actually the result of other iterations of them taking action. So not only is there no paradox, but oftentimes they’re left stymied by the fact that these other iterations made different choices than they would given the same circumstances.
I’ll admit that when I first decided to go this route for my books, I was hesitant. While the idea of being able to write in a universe free of the decrepit specter of temporal paradoxes was appealing, it seemed at first that the omniverse posed just as many problems. There seemed to be an inherent nihilism to the concept that I found to be abhorrent. After all, with constant reminders that there were near infinite other copies of my protagonists making different choices and living (or dying) under different circumstances, what incentive would my readers have to care about what happened to the one group I chose to follow? Furthermore, how would I address the concern of dual occupancy? After all, with so many near identical Guardians operating with impunity, surely it was inevitable that eventually two or two million sets of them would decide to go to the same universe.
So my initial response to the problem was to cheat, and basically try to fudge the logic a bit by elevating the Guardians as being somehow special. In the early drafts of Shadows of Time the Guardians were unique because there could only ever be one set of them at any given time. All the other iterations that existed were simply held in reserve so they could be rotated in as needed when one of them ended up dying . I don’t think it was an entirely bad concept. In fact I adapted it into another unrelated project later. But it still ended up causing too many problems for me. Every time I asserted this in the book, a little demon in the back of my head would pipe up and ask “So, does that mean that whenever they make a choice, there are an infinite number of universes where they simply vanish all of a sudden? And doesn’t that also mean that the starting point of the universe would have to be defined as the point where they became Guardians?” and so on.
I ignored the demon for a long time until I suddenly one day had an epiphany. There’s a reason that time travel remains such an appealing concept for us, even after it’s been demonstrated that a practical application will likely forever be out of our reach. It speaks to feelings everyone has experienced at some point in their life: guilt and regret. It offers a chance to go back, to correct our past mistakes, and basically just have things turn out the way we wanted them to. A key part of the human experience is the eventual coming to terms with the fact that ultimately there’s no way for us to do that.
Time travel offers us a way to cheat that. Now, I’ll admit, highlighting this is one thing that the paradox approach has done rather well. It dangles time travel in front of our noses, always whisking it away at the last second because our past is just that. The problem is that this really doesn’t work for an ongoing series where I have characters repeatedly going back to different eras.
By embracing the problems of the omniverse I found they stopped being problems and started being stylistic elements. In the face of that pseudo-nihilist existence, there really is no way for the characters to fool themselves into thinking they can make their own lot better by meddling in their own past. They can tweak history all they want, but at the end of the day they still have to go home to live with the choices that they made. The ultimate promise of time travel then is revealed to have been a cheat all along.
Now some might call me on this by pointing out that in some cases this is exactly the same kind of message that writers seek to convey through the paradox mechanic. However I still maintain that there is a difference. The conventional paradox story always at some point presents the audience with something that is wholly nonsensical and tries to pass this off as complexity. In this way it is very similar to some philosophers I’ve known who, when losing an argument, have attempted to undermine their opponents position by claiming that the concepts they are quite eloquently explaining are simply too far beyond human comprehension for anyone to understand.
The omniverse, however, does not have this problem. Furthermore, by placing several existing paradox stories within an omniverse, many of the problems with said stories can be resolved, and in some cases even made more interesting by the shift.
I present as an example one of the single worst offenders in recent history: Star Trek Voyager. During her seven year stint as the Flying Dutchman of starships, Voyager was responsible for the absolute worst time travel plots that the Star Trek franchise has ever seen. What’s even worse is that the writers seemed to be aware of it, often having the characters point out all the plot holes they were creating only to have another character chuckle and say in a sage voice that time travel is supposed to be complicated.
To which I say: bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.
Let’s consider one of the worst of the bunch: the episode Time and Again. In this episode Kes, the resident quasi-Q (every starship seems to have one in the 24th century) detects the death of an entire planet. When Voyager goes to investigates Janeway and Tuvok are accidentally sent back to the same planet a few days before the cataclysm that will ultimately destroy every person on its surface occurs. Horror of horrors! Since they have nothing better to do, the two decide their best bet is to prevent the explosion from happening. This seems rather easy, as they’ve traced it back to a particular power generating MacGuffin which is apparently known to wipe out planetary populations when someone sneezes on the controls. That seems to be a bit of a design flaw to me, but I bet it’s got a great carbon footprint.
Meanwhile in the future, the rest of Voyager’s crew is working on trying to figure out how to get Janeway and Tuvok back. They come up with a system involving some kind of wormhole (though they wrap it in newer sounding tech talk) and start opening up portals everywhere just a few seconds too late to catch them. At the climax of the episode, Janeway is inside the power plant trying to stop a terrorist group from sneezing the wrong way and ending the world. A bunch of people, including Tuvok, are dead because she was trying her hardest to keep them out of this place. Only she suddenly discovers that the terrorist group is not, in fact, genocidal. They know full well that blowing up the power plant would end the world. Then the wormhole opens up behind her and starts moving in a menacing fashion towards a conduit. This being Star Trek, the conduit is apparently lined with C-4 and absolutely vital to the safe and non-explosive operation of the entire facility.
Janeway suddenly realizes that it was the rescue attempt of her crew that caused the explosion in the first place, not this bunch of loonies. She adopts her best “Captain face” and fires on the wormhole, blowing up the device on the other end and probably killing most of her command staff. This doesn’t matter though, because suddenly a bright white light sweeps over everyone and everything, and we cut back to Voyager going on her merry way. Kes wakes up again, then calls the bridge and declares that everyone’s fine. Which has got to be really, really annoying to everyone up there who is now probably thinking that Kes has been growing some really good space-weed in her hydroponic garden. The episode ends on a message of… what, exactly?
I know this is a little low, but this episode is a perfect example of all that is wrong with time travel stories these days. If Voyager was the cause of the explosion and had no reason to visit the planet in the first place (which, by the way, it didn’t) then the explosion never should have happened, and Kes never should have woken up in a cold sweat. That kind of absurdity should be reasons to can the script right there. And yet the episode revels in it. In fact, there really isn’t anything else this episode is about. There’s no attempt at a greater message, no attempt at any kind of commentary on humanity, society, or bad science fiction tropes. Even the somewhat interesting premise of eco-terrorists accidentally ending the world because they’re just as reckless as the people they’re trying to stop is nullified in the end because, what do you know, they’re arguably the only sane ones here. All there is to the episode is forty five minutes of self-indulgence where the writer tries to brag to the audience about how clever they are by being able to warp their minds like that. Sadly, even that falls flat.
Now let’s apply the omniverse model. In this version, the planet is destroyed by something (like, say, someone coming in sick and sneezing on a glowy thing or two toilets being flushed at exactly the same time) and Voyager comes to investigate. They get caught up in the after effects, Janeway and Tuvok get sucked in, etc. Finally, at the end of the story, Janeway fires on the rift and closes it, killing most of her command crew in the process. Yay, we’ve reduced the senior staff to a hologram who is still about a season away from becoming awesome and Harry Kim.
Of course, the problem is that Janeway has now basically ensured that the universe she now occupies will never become the one where her Voyager is currently in orbit and Harry Kim is wondering how he’s going to break it to the crew that he’s the captain now without causing a mass scramble to the escape pods. Are you honestly going to tell me that she isn’t making more of a sacrifice here? That the conflict isn’t more interesting, more worth exploration, than the original anemic version? You could even tack a happy ending on it by having Voyager show up in orbit, perhaps end on a close-up of the other Janeway watching this new universe’s version of her and her crew and shedding a “single tear™” of joy before turning away and setting out to build a new life for herself on this world she has saved. Or take it a step further, have her sent even further back in time, and have Voyager arrive after she’s lived a long full life on the planet’s surface. Sure, it’s still a bad episode. But at least now it’s one that features some form of lasting character development.
And really I can’t think of anything that could do a better job selling this idea than that. Adopting the multiverse brings consequences back into the equation. It requires the characters live with their choices, however they turned out, rather than wiping them away in order to return to the status quo. And why wouldn’t we want that? Choices should always matter in a story, otherwise you might as well just drop the whole thing.

Isn’t it Time We Stopped Using Paradoxes?

(NOTE: I wrote this article a few years ago, so some of the references may be a bit old.)

                As a writer of fiction which involves time travel as one of its core elements, I have had more than my fair share of questions from friends and readers regarding the question of paradoxes.  Usually I make a habit of avoiding blanket statements as to my own authorial intent or future plans for anything I write, as I have a disturbing habit of proving myself wrong more often than not.  On the question of paradoxes, though, I have no problem in making my opinions clear.  I don’t use them.  Nor do I ever plan to.  Ever.

                To some this may seem vaguely heretical.  Paradoxes and time travel have been linked so closely over the years that it’s practically become an essential part of the genre.  Everyone who dabbles in time travel has had their take on it.  Some even argue that fiction about time travel is really all about paradoxes.  To these kind of people, the omission of such a vital part of the narrative is a mistake comparable to forgetting to include a protagonist: it simply isn’t done.  Even TV shows like Doctor Who, which is ostensibly about a protagonist who does nothing BUT meddle around in history, have had their token episodes warning of the dangers of unleashing a paradox on the world by some small mistake or change made by one of the well meaning protagonists.  These kind of stories seem to establish that, while it may not be something we’re constantly presented with, the paradox is a constantly looming threat that may strike at any moment.

                Unfortunately the problem is that it’s usually crap. 

                Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there has never been a good paradox story written.  I’ll admit that I did get a sort of guilty pleasure out of watching the most recent Doctor Who paradox episode, wherein the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler destroys the universe by saving her father.  It made little to no sense in the grand scheme of things, but it did allow for some great character moments and some absolutely brilliant acting on the part of the show’s leads.  But the sad fact is that these are the exception rather than the rule.

                The first problem with paradox stories these days is that, when it comes down to it, they’re basically just a slight retooling of the old trick where the main character wakes up at the end of the story only to realize that it was all a dream.  Every great story centers around conflict, which drives the main characters to action and eventually ends up changing them or the world around them.  And yet the standard fare of paradoxes these days seems to take pride in flaunting that old tradition by completely nullifying any change that occurs.  It’s the cheapest of tricks, and is generally the first thing that any writer is told to avoid.  I suspect that the reason they keep doing it is that a lot of writers have tricked themselves into believing that this is in fact making some kind of profound philosophical statement, and that their readers (or viewers) will be walking away from the experience shaking their head and thinking deep thoughts.

                Which brings me to my second problem with paradoxes as a plot device.  They’re not profound.  Not at all. 

                I think part of the problem is that the very idea of paradoxes were first raised by philosophers before being co-opted by science fiction writers.  Writers, myself included in most cases, are usually laymen playing at being experts.  They learn just enough about the subject their writing about to establish a veneer of credibility.  But when it comes down to it no wholly sane person really expects a diagram from a Star Trek technical manual to work in real life.      But philosophers, well, they’re experts in paradoxes.  They get paid to sit around and make sense of circular logic and complex ideas.  And so, automatically, they get more attention when they say that something bears consideration.

                The problem is that most of these philosophers were raising these paradoxes as reasons for why the time travel stories being presented to them were patently ludicrous.  Their inclusion in so much of time travel fiction wasn’t so much a move towards verisimilitude as it was putting up a huge flag saying “THIS NARRATIVE IS IMPOSSIBLE!”  And in trying to make the stories work anyway, they only ended up creating a whole lot of confusion.  Ultimately it seems this confusion was mistaken for some kind of greater meaning.  And, being writers, most of the group simply decided to run with it.

                Which brings me to the third and final point I’ll raise as to why temporal paradoxes simply don’t work for me.  As a matter of course, the audience is requested to simply sit back and accept that what they see in front of them is possible in the odd sort of hyper-reality that fiction operates in.  For the most part I would say that suspension of disbelief is a good thing.  No one can every get every detail right in fiction, and if they spend too much time trying to get the minutiae nailed down the narrative usually ends up suffering for it. 

                The problem comes in when you consider that the very label of paradox highlights it as an impossible thing.  To fully suspend your disbelief regarding a paradox, you essentially need to stop thinking.  And while that does work very well for some forms of entertainment, in science fiction this is equivalent to suicide.  Sci-Fi has always been a genre relying very heavily on allegory.  When done right it casts familiar human characters into a vastly different set of trials and tribulations in an often unfamiliar setting, and thus works to strip away the influence of the real world to more fully explore who we are.  And you simply cannot interpret this allegory if you are being requested to not think about it.

                Many writers have tried to counter this problem by giving complex explanations of how paradoxes aren’t supposed to happen, but cause a great deal of damage if they do.  Thus, they explain, it’s vital that you try to stop these paradoxes whenever they rear their ugly head.  And they inevitably do, creating millions of new paradoxes without even a second thought.  I’ve yet to hear one good explanation from one of these writers as to how you deal with the problems of conservation of mass or energy when you’ve got molecules existing in two places at the same time.  What’s even more infuriating is the fact that they all tend to use the same explanations anyway, leaving the audience with nothing they haven’t seen a hundred times before.

                Once upon a time, long ago, the idea of a paradox was a new and challenging concept.  It offered writers a chance to experiment with a new kind of story, one where the ability of man to truly control his destiny was constantly being challenged, and all our heroes humbled.  But that time has passed.  And every time I see a writer spit out another repackaged paradox story I can’t help but feel like we are becoming more and more creatively bankrupt.  It’s time we put it to rest.  Fortunately, despite the common misconception, there is more to the concept of time travel than how we can kick physics in the groin and steal it’s lunch money.  In my next installment, I’ll explain to the few readers still interested at this point how I choose to do it.

Plotting Along – The Phantom Menace (Part 3)

Darth Maul really got a pretty raw deal.
I know, I’m hardly the first person to say this, but it bears repeating nonetheless. Consider the marketing that lead up to the release of this film. Darth Maul was freaking everywhere, glowering down at filmgoers in a grim promise of how uncompromisingly awesome he was going to be. The guy had a cadre of devoted fans before the movie even opened.
Given how it turned out, I sometimes have to wonder if perhaps they went so far overboard with the marketing as an apology to Ray Park for how little screen time he actually ended up getting.

Unfortunately, I can also see why it happened. Darth Maul’s not actually the villain of the film. Palpatine is. Darth Maul’s just an enforcer. And he actually fills that role pretty well. Audiences don’t expect the two hundred pound gorilla who serves as a bouncer/bodyguard for the mob boss to be a richly developed character. But, like Boba Fett before him, Darth Maul looked really cool. Thus everyone really, really wanted him to be more awesome than he actually was.

So how do you fix this? Basically, you do it by almost completely cutting Palpatine out of the film. Which you may be surprised to hear I almost hate saying.

Now, I am a big fan of Rod Hilton’s machete order for viewing the Star Wars films. If you haven’t read the original article yet, go there now. It’s worth a look, and is an excellent demonstration of how making relatively minor changes to the plot structure of the story as a whole can actually improve both trilogies. And one of the things that he highlights in it that makes the whole concept work is the fact that Palpatine is actually a really freaking scary villain in the prequels.

Think about it: the guy not only managed to engineer a war, he managed to engineer it in such a way that he was actually leading both sides. In addition to that he managed to get the Jedi to break their long-standing prohibition against getting actively involved in military conflicts, leading to the corruption and ultimate destruction of the entire order save for a few stragglers who went into seclusion, and he did it all without ever being so much as suspected of being a Sith. Even at the end when he was revealed it was because he flat out admitted it to a Jedi. This is the villain we really wanted. But sadly many people rejected him because, well, he was an old guy in a robe. He didn’t look cool, and no amount of awesome evil voice work was going to sway people’s minds in that regard.

By letting Darth Maul have Palpatine’s (or more accurately Darth Sideous’s) scenes and lines though we achieve two goals. The first is that we are no longer disappointing fans looking for a scary and awesome looking villain. The second is that Darth Maul can now actually be present in person at Naboo, running things directly. Which is greatly preferable to just having Sideous sending instructions via hologram the entire time. There’s a reason Darth Vader always lead from the front, and it has everything to do with how the audience reacts to seeing a menacing super-powered badass ready to step in when the army of useless stormtroopers inevitably fail.

So would this change diminish Palpatine? Well, maybe. Frankly though I think it would be worth it and possibly only serve to make him more threatening in the second and third films if you mostly cut him out of the first simply by letting the threat of him loom a bit. After all most Star Wars fans knew he was the emperor going in. Letting him be there but apparently not doing much would set everyone wondering just what plans he might have in place, or even if he was actually a sith yet. It would also help close the plot hole formed when the captured Trade Federation leaders didn’t immediately turn around and announce that, yes, they were taking instructions from a creepy guy in a cloak who referred to Darth Maul as an apprentice, and could we please not get shot now? In fact you could even capitalize on it by having a scene where the Jedi are questioning them about Maul trying to find if he was the master or the Apprentice. All of them say that he was running the show, except perhaps for one who offers an opinion that he thought Maul might have been getting instructions from somewhere else. Or if that’s too much just give him some last words, perhaps a barely coherent plea to his master for help. In short, give us a little bit of mystery here as to what the balance of power is.

And with that out of the way, that only leaves the side characters… oof.

So first off, R2-D2. In an early draft he was actually supposed to be the POV character, recounting the history of the Skywalker family from his own experiences to an advanced being hundreds if not thousands of years after the battle of Yavin. And, even though that was dropped, he actually fills that role really well. He’s the perfect fly on the wall character – always present yet usually ignored. To paraphrase the awesome HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic, “Droids are like furniture. No one thinks much about them. Which makes it the perfect surprise when the lamp in the corner pulls out a high powered blaster combine and liquidates them.” So how does the quirky little astromech do?

Actually, pretty well. R2-D2 is more or less perfectly handled in The Phantom Menace. This time he’s brand new, and obviously a bit more capable as a result of it, but frankly what else did we expect? I imagine he’s pretty far out of warranty by the time A New Hope rolls around.

And C-3PO. The overly polite slightly prissy protocol droid who really has no business being in a war. In this movie, he’s presented to us as a naked do-it-yourself project in some kid’s bedroom.

And again, I really don’t have a problem with it. I actually think it’s kind of a good twist on the character that 3PO, who always made a point of bragging about the features he had to everyone he met, was actually cobbled together from spare parts and junk. As for the alleged plot hole of why Vader never recognized him… should he? How often did they actually interact in the original trilogy? And, if you think about it, how many identical protocol droids are out there? The fact that C-3PO and R2 were able to pretend to be droids belonging to the Death Star in a New Hope suggests that there were probably quite a few gold-plated protocol droids and blue astromechs on board the station, so seeing a droid that was identical to C-3PO was probably a daily occurrence.

Which leaves… which leaves…
(sigh)
Jar-Jar.

Okay. Well, first off we should be asking a very important question: does he even need to be here?

No, he doesn’t. At no point are his actions vital to the plot. Taking them to the Gungan city? Naboo has been populated for long enough that I’m pretty sure that the humans know the Gungans are there. Leading the Gungan forces? We’ve already got a Gungan officer character who can do that. Comic relief? You do realize you have a naked C-3PO in this movie, right? And a sarcastic snarky Obi-Wan? Enough said.

So yeah, my thoughts (unsurprisingly) is that this is a character that simply does not need to be here. If you really wanted to keep him though, I would actually suggest taking a page from the Clone Wars series currently wrapping up on Cartoon Network. There they make the simple change of having the disaster that follows in his wake due not to him being mind-numbingly stupid and cowardly, but simply profoundly unlucky. In which case you could make his introduction more the result of the Gungans trying to snub Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon by offering them a guide that they feel will be a hindrance. But honestly, the movie would be well served by just getting rid of him completely.

Shadows of Time – Probable Outcome now available in print.

Yes, it’s finally done! After months of revision, proofing, art redesign, formatting, proofing, last minute edits, etc. the print version of Probable Outcome is now available. And, as promised, anyone who’s actually reading this and wants a copy can pick one up at a discount for the next week. Just go to this page, add the book to your cart, and enter code CHW8C3E3 at checkout to receive 15% off your order. Or, if you want to save even more money, grab the kindle version. Or, you know, both. I certainly won’t stop you.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to writing new material. It feels like it’s been ages…

PSA and a quick update

Just wanted to warn everyone who may have visited the main series site at http://www.shadowsoftime.info that the page was apparently hacked a couple of days ago and had some malware installed. It doesn’t appear to have been anything serious and the problem’s already fixed, but you may want to run a quick scan of your computer just in case. I apologize for any inconvenience there – I try to run a clean site. You may still be getting alerts from Google for a few days though if you do decide to drop in until it’s reviewed by their staff. Visitors to this blog don’t need to worry about anything, as it’s hosted on the wordpress servers instead of mine. Why? Well, because theirs run the program faster and I’m impatient. Plus it’s handy for situations like this.

In other news the final proofs for Probable Outcome should be arriving by the end of the day – which hopefully means that you can start placing orders by the end of the week. Watch this space for possible discount offers for anyone wanting to get an early copy.

Plotting Along – The Phantom Menace (Part 2)

So tweaking Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon was really mostly an exercise in fine tuning. While there may have been a few areas where the script stumbled, their characters were actually handled pretty well. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Anakin Skywalker, aka the reason everyone was watching this mess of a film.

For the three people in the world who don’t know how this turned out, Anakin Skywalker in the Phantom Menace is the most adorable cherub of a future despot ever born into slavery. The only reason he’s not constantly highlighted as the film’s greatest mistake is the fact that he so often shares screen time with Jar Jar Binks.

Now I get what George Lucas wanted to do here. He wanted us to see that Anakin was a good kid, that evil can come from anywhere, etc. And you know what, he’s right, it was important to establish that. With subtlety. This Anakin is about as subtle as driving a screw with a sledgehammer. So how do we address this issue?

First off, and this should have been a no-brainer, Anakin needs to be older. Making him so young was a huge misstep that ended up making every single character who meets him into a horrible person. The responsible Qui-Gon becomes a self-centered mess of an adult willing to endanger a kid at the drop of a hat so long as he can get something out of it, Padme becomes uncomfortably pedophilic in every romantic scene that she has with him, and Obi-Wan ends up looking like the single worst Jedi Master to ever pick up a lightsaber for somehow managing to turn the living personification of cuteness and light into Darth Vader. Even R2-D2 takes a hit for letting the kid fly straight into what is essentially a suicide mission.

Adding another ten years or so would have immediately fixed so many of the problems with Anakin’s characterization that I’m almost tempted to stop there. But that would be ignoring the other problem with him – namely the fact that he’s got to be the most cheerful slave child ever shown on screen.

Slavery in the Star Wars universe has always been a bit of a sticking point with me. Not only because it’s just casually there, but because even the people we are supposed to view as the enlightened good guys are perfectly happy keeping slaves in the form of droids. And yet this is never confronted in the movies. And given that, I feel that making Anakin a slave was actually a rather brilliant move, both because it explains where Anakin’s fall began and provides the perfect excuse to finally confront this massive elephant in the room.

Anakin as he is does neither. He and his mother, slaves of a master who’s shown to be rather poor, live in a home that seems rather nice by Tatooine standards and apparently have enough disposable income to share food with whoever happens by and build droids and pod racers in their spare time. Lucas’s version of slavery doesn’t seem that bad. I trust I don’t need to explain how monumentally screwed up that is.

Anakin needs to be damaged. He needs to have been shaped by his experiences. In short, he needs to be angry, resentful, and what’s more the audience has to see that he has good reason to feel that way. And you can’t do that if you’re not willing to show the ugly side of slavery. If you’re not willing to show that, you really are better off just dropping the entire slave premise.

My Anakin would be much closer to Vader from the start. Show him as brash, overconfident, and fully willing to abuse the tremendous power he’s discovered he has to try to right the wrongs he’s seen in his life. Let him have grown up hearing stories about the Jedi from his mother, about their supposedly magical abilities and dedication to justice. This way it’s not a innocent boy that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon discover, but a young man who is already trying the hardest he can to be a Jedi even if he is getting so much of it wrong.

As for his mother… honestly I wouldn’t change much. In fact I’d even let her keep her house. I’d just explain that the only reason she has it is that Anakin basically mind-tricked her master into setting her up with a more comfortable life. Let her be the idealistic good hearted woman we saw on the screen, seemingly the one person on that miserable dustball who still believes in the Force and the Jedi. Because this, ultimately, would be the redemptive element for this darker, more dangerous Anakin. The woman who serves as his moral compass and initially inspired him. Only take it further.

The Shimi I envision is part prophet, part social worker. Show her taking care of the rest of the slaves, tending to their wounds, teaching them about the light side and goodness. Bringing hope that they desperately need. Basically just commit to the virgin Mary allegory they fumbled with in the original script. A woman who’s already experienced a miracle and knows that her son will go on to do even more. Which gives her the perfect reason to stay behind when Anakin goes off to become a Jedi.

These changes would not only help this movie, but the following ones as well. Having Anakin already powerful and knowledgeable in the force even before his formal training began gives a reason for his arrogance in Episode II, and having been raised on idealized stories of Jedi nobility would explain his disillusionment with the order by the time Episode III rolls around. And it gives a legitimate reason for the Jedi Council to show hesitation at training him.

From their perspective he’s already started down the path to the dark side, too set in his ways to ever fully embrace the Jedi code. Perhaps even have them conclude that while it may be his destiny to bring balance to the force, he will do so as something other than a Jedi. At which point the story could go one of two ways. The first would be if Obi-Wan, young, supremely confident, and willing to believe that anyone can be redeemed steps forward and announces that he will train him. Not Qui-Gon, which robs Obi-Wan of the responsibility for Vader’s fall. This moment would not only restore agency to Obi-Wan, but also give added weight to his warnings to Luke in the original trilogy that Vader may be beyond redemption. The second option is that he stands back, holds his silence, and then after Qui-Gon’s death comes to Anakin and offers to train him in secret. Ideally after a scene where Qui-Gon suggests to him that there is more to being a Jedi than being a member of the order.

I can see advantages to both sides, and honestly am torn on which would make for a better story, but I find myself more drawn to the latter approach. Having Anakin trained in secret would have the advantage of explaining why his name wasn’t common knowledge in the time of the original trilogy. It would also further establish him as an outsider with perhaps an overly idealized vision of what the Jedi were, one they ultimately failed to live up to. Finally it would give him an out for his relationship with Padme. As he was not a member of the order, the requirement of celibacy was not imposed on him, thus he could pursue the relationship without compromising his vows, only to have it become a point of conflict for him later when, as an adult, he is recognized as a Jedi and properly inducted into the order.

And that’s pretty much it for Anakin. Only one more part now, focusing on the Villains, the side characters, and the most challenging thing of all… Jar-Jar.

Plotting Along – The Phantom Menace (Part 1)

Ah, Episode 1. Possibly one of the biggest disappointments cinema has ever produced. The film that actually made people nostalgic for the days when the most embarrassing things about Star Wars was the Ewoks, and we thought that C-3PO’s lowest point was having his ass handed to him by Salacious Crumb.

And this is the first movie I’m going to do in this segment. Well, I suppose there are weirder ways to find out that you’re an online masochist. I can’t imagine there are many though. Given the enormity of the issues with this particular film, I’ve decided to break it up into a few more manageable chunks. Fortunately the film lends itself rather well to this, as each character is pretty much given a discrete story arc within the movie.

Okay, so, let’s start at the most basic level. The premise. Let’s face it, the prequels are essentially just an origin story for Darth Vader. No secret has ever been made of this. And you know what, it works. I know a lot of people have complained that we shouldn’t know more about Vader’s backstory, but that’s not a view I’ve ever held. There’s some rich character development there. What’s more, Vader’s gradual corruption parallels the fall of the republic perfectly, particularly in the fact that it was the hubris of Obi-Wan, the man who literally first showed the audience what it was to be a Jedi, that allowed it to happen.

Which brings me to the first issue. The Obi-Wan in the film is introduced to us as a padawan. Not only that, but a surpremely humble one. Qui-Gon is the one who takes the center stage here.

Now I have no issue with Qui-Gon. In fact I like him a lot. But the unfortunate fact is that while he’s around, Obi-Wan really doesn’t have much of anything to do. He’s almost reduced to a supporting character, overshadowed by his master.

This problem isn’t limited to Obi-Wan either. Darth Maul, also, is completely overshadowed by Palpatine, which is problematic both because it gives Darth Maul nothing to do and because for Palpatine to act so directly is very much out of character for how he’s presented. He’s a puppet master, yes, but he uses extremely powerful and capable pawns to be his public front. Both can be addressed.

My version of the film would start much the same way with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan heading to Naboo, much the same as it does in the film except for a few changes. First, Obi-Wan is a full Jedi Knight, fresh from his trials, and perhaps slightly annoyed (though still respectful) at Qui-Gon’s presence, as he sees it as a sign that he’s not entirely trusted to handle what should be a simple negotiation. They arrive on the flagship and are taken to a conference room. Only this time instead of being outed by a droid, Darth Maul, already physically present and apparently in control of the blockade, is the one to detect them. As the force is a two way street he immediately orders them killed before they can reveal him, against the protests of his trade federation allies. They then escape, reach Naboo, and rescue the queen. Except this time while Obi-wan goes to escort the queen, Qui-Gon stays behind to try to protect the people of Naboo and investigate Maul’s involvement.

This serves two purposes. The first is to give Qui-Gon a plot that doesn’t require Obi-Wan to wait around on a starship doing nothing. Second is that it sets up a precedent useful for the rest of the series, as Qui-Gon’s investigation of the Sith has the unintended consequence of turning the Jedi peacekeeper into the general of a rebellion – further explaining how the Jedi transitioned into an officer corps by the second movie.

Which then takes us to the next issue in the script: Anakin Skywalker.
Anakin pretty much needs to be redone from scratch. A lot of people have said that he shouldn’t be likeable. I don’t agree. He should absolutely be likeable, otherwise you don’t feel anything when you see him fall. What he shouldn’t be is cute. And that’s exactly what Anakin is in the Phantom Menace.

The Anakin the film needed would be more like Han Solo. Arrogant, brash, and even a little evil from time to time. In a sense someone who is only as good as his surroundings will allow him to be. Next time, we’ll take a look at how the Skywalker family might have been improved.

May the Fourth Be With You!

Hello everyone!

So confession time: I’m not really the biggest Star Wars fan out there.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot about it I like, even love, but at the same time I don’t think anyone who prefers Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan (aka the only really GOOD thing about the prequels) and will engage in long arguments about how Empire Strikes Back was probably the only really great movie in the franchise can call themselves a die hard fan.  Plus I’m a Trekkie, which I believe in some states legally obligates me to shoot Jedi on sight. At least according to Wikipedia.

That said no one, even a casual fan like myself, could possibly have the gall to deny that Star Wars was huge for science fiction, even if it wasn’t really science fiction so much as a fantasy story where technology actually did develop past the middle ages.  Just like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter have made epic fantasy mainstream with their success, Star Wars made everyone sit up and start taking science fiction more seriously.  And that is something that I find worth celebrating.  So go out, grab that ForceFX lightsaber you hide whenever people come over out of the closet, and geek out.  Personally I plan to watch the Empire Strikes Back and puzzle over why Boba Fett has as many fans as he does. 

Finally, as a gift to all sci-fi fans out there, if you head over to here you’ll find the Kindle version of Probable Outcome provided free of charge for the entire day.

Happy geekday everyone.  Yes, it’s predicated on a corny pun, but we’ll take it anyway. May the fourth be with you.

Plotting Along – An Introduction

So I’ve seen a lot of bad movies in my time.  Sadly that kind of comes with the territory for sci-fi fans, which means that most of you can say the same.  And for years one of my primary coping mechanisms has been picking said bad movies apart and trying to figure out where the film makers or, more specifically, the writers went wrong.  In other words, I nitpick, lampoon, and riff mercilessly. 

That said not all of that riffing is negative.  Every now and then me and some friends like to sit down and actually work out what kind of changes would be needed to make a bad movie into a good one.  Usually in unnecessary detail. Which is basically what these bits, so far called “Plotting Along” (yeah, a pun, sue me) are going to be all about.  Mostly because I do want to put something on here other than just endlessly droning on about Shadows of Time.

There are a lot of movies that could be really, really good but for a few missteps.  The reasons for this are generally varied.  Sometimes it is incompetence, but even more often it’s just a lack of necessary resources, be they money, actors, or time, to do things the way the people involved want.  In this case it’s really not anyone’s fault if a film falls flat, it’s just reality.  Which is why before I start I want to lay down some ground rules.

First, this is all in good fun.  It’s what-if musings about how a story might have been tweaked, not an attack on anyone or their tastes. 

Second, this is not necessarily an exercise in real world film making.  A surprising number of sci-fi movies are filmed on a shoestring budget these days due to the cost of the special effects they require.  In the real world scripts get trimmed for budget, dialog gets tweaked by a star’s favorite writer, and scenes get dropped or added in order to hit a targeted running time.  All of these tend to play havoc with the scripting process and none of these factors are ones that will be regularly considered in these articles.  They exist in an ideal world where actors can do every role handed to them, producers write a blank check but otherwise are unseen, and the only schedule the director needs to stick to is “when it’s done.”  Like many of you I have a lot of opinions on these practices, but these aren’t a forum on any issues I have with the entertainment industry.

Third, all of this, of course, reflects my tastes.  And I enjoy a lot of stuff that others dub as overly cerebral or slow.  Obviously the changes I suggest wouldn’t please everyone.  This is not a value judgment or attempt to assess the quality of any particular style or genre, just a reflection of what I like.  So don’t take it personally if I come up with an idea that in your mind would ruin your favorite movie. 

Fourth, by the same token, there are films I like that a lot of people hate.  For example, I have a huge soft spot for Star Trek The Motion Picture, a film that is regarded as unwatchable by many.  I can understand a lot of the objections people have to watching it, I may even agree with a few of them, but I still don’t feel it’s a bad film.  And by and large this is going to spotlight films that failed to live up to their potential in my personal opinion.

And finally, just because the goal is to come up with a better version doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be original.  I know I’m not the first person to compile constructive criticism or alternate scripts.  I’m not setting out to copy anyone else’s ideas, but I have no doubt that a few of the ones I come up with will bear a resemblance to ones others have made public over the years.  If this happens just leave a comment with a link – I’ll try to look at it and possibly even edit the article to include it.  It’s always interesting to see someone else’s approach.  Should I ever actually reference another article on purpose though, it will be credited as such.

And that’s it for now.  First randomly selected movie for revision is… Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

…huh…

This is going to take a while.

Probable Outcome update and preview of Titan’s Fall

Hello everyone! And by everyone I mean those few who are still around.

Just wanted to give a quick update.  The corrected assets for Probable Outcome have been sent in and accepted, so that’s moving forward again.  Even better is the fact that as of today the Third Edition of the Kindle E-book for Probable Outcome has gone live on Amazon.  This one basically just adds all the corrections and minor tweaks to the plotting and prose that were made in the print version so that they match.  The differences aren’t major at all, but there are a few paragraphs of new content in there.  So if you recently picked it up and haven’t started reading it yet you may want to download your copy again to see if you can grab the updated version.

The second thing I wanted to mention is of course the preview. 

The way I work is at times a little, for lack of a better term, schizophrenic.  Generally when I finish a manuscript the first thing I do is launch straight into the next one, allowing the newly finished work to sit for a month or two before I come back to it and begin the revision process in earnest.  By then I’m usually at the point where I’m no longer impressed by my own brilliance and able to see all the areas I royally screwed up much more clearly.

A significant plus side to this has been that I’ve always got a good chunk of material for the follow up already done by the time the book is being released, meaning I can generally throw in a bit of a teaser for the next book in the series at the end.  Unfortunately I decided not to do that this time.

The reason is fairly simple.  Probable Outcome is very long, and manufacturing costs for it were driving up the estimated list price.  As such the decision was made to cut out pretty much everything that could go to keep the page count down, which sadly included the preview.  Overall I’d call it a good decision as it dropped the price by almost $4.00.  We’re still at a higher price point than I’d like unfortunately, but hopefully discounts and the like should be able to address that problem at least partially in the future.

And, seeing as I have this nifty blog thing now, I see no reason why we can’t have our cake and eat it too.  So here’s a quick (spoiler free!) taste of what you can eventually expect in Shadows of Time – Titan’s Fall.

 

Prologue

April 10th, 1912
11:08:19 AM
Coordinates 50°53’31”N, 01°23’53”W
Southampton Docks, England

“Clear the way!”

At least twenty people in the crowd turned their heads at the frantic shout.  The twelve who it was actually aimed at somehow pressed themselves into the mass of humanity around them just far enough to create a narrow corridor for the over laden baggage cart wobbling towards them.  A few stewards suddenly appeared at either side of it and slowed it to a stop, carefully pressing themselves against the bags stacked up to keep them from falling while the man driving it regained his footing.

“Did you let the missus do the packing, mate?”  Someone called out.

The joke elicited some half-hearted laughter but most had already forgotten the incident and rejoined the mass of people making their way towards the gangplanks.  The Southampton docks were never what anyone could consider quiet, but today they were so full as to be positively chaotic.  More than a few people were surprised to find that even in the face of the cool spring breeze rolling off of the ocean they were sweating in their warm clothes simply from the body heat generated by thousands of people all pressed together in one space.  In addition to the passengers and crew normally present the shore was lined with photographers, reporters, and local residents all eager to see the excitement centered on the Olympic-class behemoth currently floating off their shore.  More than a few swelled with pride at the knowledge that the marvel of engineering before them was made possible only by the hard work of the loved ones who currently served aboard her.

To the passengers, the crew of the ship was almost mechanical in their efficiency as they somehow turned the mass of bodies into neatly ordered lines as they boarded the ship.  But more than a few dockworkers watching might have been quietly snickering to themselves at the strain their practiced eyes observed on the faces of everyone working had they not been equally swamped with their own duties. 

Had it been any less busy someone might have noticed that one of the massive wooden crates being lifted into the cargo hold had a shipping label which was identical to another crate that had been loaded earlier that morning.  The crane operator might have also noticed that for a box that was supposedly filled with machinery it seemed to sway quite freely as the loading crews pushed it into position for the long voyage.  But instead they were thinking of the pile of other boxes waiting on the shore that had to be brought aboard before they could get underway.  The crate was pushed into a corner, lashed down, and quickly forgotten about as they moved to get ready for the next one.

Soon the last of the cargo was stowed and the crew departed to tend to other duties.  No one lingered to watch the otherwise unremarkable box as it began to creak and buckle.  Then there was a sudden crack as the planks making up its structure bowed outwards.  A gust of wind whistled through the surrounding cargo as the crate trembled in place before lapsing back into stillness.  A few moments later the tip of a crowbar emerged from the interior and began pulling at the planks until they gave away to reveal a man cautiously peering out into the hold.  As he surveyed his surroundings his caution quickly turned to elation.

He dropped the crowbar into the crate and took a few small steps into the cargo bay.  He spun in place for a moment as he took everything in, running a hand through his blonde hair which was just starting to thin.

“Come on!”  He laughed triumphantly and spun around to face the crate from which he had emerged.  “Get out of that box and take a look at this!”

One by one, four other figures appeared at the hole in the crate.  A young woman carefully extended a leg out into the cargo bay and jumped backwards into the arms of her nearby companion as she felt the solid deck beneath her.

“It’s real!”  She laughed wide eyed as she looked up into the face of the man cradling her.

He smiled and leaned down to kiss her forehead, briefly caressing the shining untarnished ring on her left hand.  “Only the best for you dove.”

The other two occupants, an elderly man and a middle aged woman, quickly evacuated the crate before the young couple could overwhelm them.

“Of course it’s bloody real!”  The blonde man stomped the heel of his boot against the deck.  “Did you think I planned to take your money and cheat you out of what you paid for?”

The elderly main raised his hand.  “Actually—”

He was interrupted by the sound of the bolts in the cargo bay door sliding back.

“Shit!”  The blonde man gathered the other two up in his arms and pushed them towards the couple fawning over each other in the box.  “Hide!”

The sound of footsteps echoed in the hold as the man carefully rearranged the removed planks to hide the hole in the crate. 

“Hello?”  A thickly accented voice called out.

Everyone held their breath.

“Oi!”  Another voice called from further away.  “What are you doing in there?  Hold’s supposed to be closed up.”

“I thought I heard someone talking,” the first voice called back.

A second pair of footsteps entered the room.  “Don’t see anything.  Do you?”

“No,” the first voice admitted.

The second man sniffed.  “Probably rats.  Little blighters get everywhere.”

“I suppose—” the first voice hesitantly began.

“Good!  It’s settled then.”  The second voice began to recede.  “Now let’s close the hold up and get about our jobs before an officer catches us lollygagging down here.”

The people in the crate waited breathlessly as the footsteps receded and the door clattered shut once more. 

“That was close.”  The blonde man wiped his brow and reopened the crate.

“We should get changed out of these clothes,” the elderly man suggested.  “There was a rigid class structure in place during this period.  We shouldn’t be questioned as much if we’re in the right costumes.”

“Yeah.”  The blonde man nodded.  “That’s a good idea.”

“What do we do then?”  The young man eagerly inquired as the women shuffled their way back into the crate to begin changing.

“Right after the ship leaves there’s going to be a near-collision with another ship called the New York.  There should be plenty of confusion then.  We can use it to slip out and join the rest of the passengers.  If anyone asks, just show them these.”  He dug his hand into a pocket and pulled out a small cardboard envelope and waved it in front of his face.

The old man’s eyes widened as he slowly reached for the envelope.  “Are those real?”

“Of course.”  The man opened the envelope and placed one of the tickets inside in the man’s outstretched withered hand.  “Real is what you paid for.”

The old man stared at the ticket clasped in his hand as a smile stretched itself from ear to ear.  The man withdrew another ticket and handed it to the young man hovering over his elder’s shoulder to stare at the piece of paper clutched in his hand.

“Do you have any idea how much this would be worth back home?”  The young man breathed.

The blonde man frowned.  “Right now it’s worth £30.  Back home it would be worth a minimum of ten years room and board in a minimum security jail.  So keep those little souvenirs to yourselves.  You’re here for a vacation, not relic hunting.”

“Anyone who could afford your prices wouldn’t need to,” the old man mumbled as he slipped the ticket into his pocket. 

“What was that?”  The blonde man demanded.

“What?”  The old man cocked his head to the side.  “I talk to myself sometimes.”

“You’re sure this is the right ship?”  The younger man interrupted.

The blonde man turned to him.  “Sorry?”

“What if this is just another similar ship?”  The man persisted.  “Everyone I went to before you told me that this trip was too risky.  I want to be sure I’m not being scammed.”

“They told you that because compared to me, everyone else is a hack.  I’m the only one good enough at what I do to get away with it.”  The blonde man pulled the planks aside and stepped out into the hold again, waving the young man along behind him.  “Here, look at the shipping labels.  They all say RMS Titanic.  Satisfied?”

The young man nodded.  “Very.”

“Good.”  The blonde man slapped him on the back and shuffled him back into the crate.  “Now stop asking questions and enjoy your vacation.  I’m not going to have my reputation ruined by an unsatisfied customer.”