We’ve Moved!

Hello!

It’s been a while, I know.  There is a reason for that, though if it’s a good one or not you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Basically, I’m trying to get my house in order as far as marketing.  Part of this means getting a twitter account.  Another part is finally doing something that I’ve been meaning to do since I first started this experiment: moving the blog onto my own server.

And, as extra good news, the move does come with an added perk: the long delayed THIRD part of Plotting Along – “That Star Trek Movie”

So, if you’re interested, feel free to hop on over to www.jjreinemann.com to see the new improved blog: “Writing Backwards”.

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Plotting Along – “That Star Trek Movie” (Part 1)

Look at that title.  You know which one I mean.

There’s no question that among Science Fiction fandoms, the Star Trek contingent is a force unto themselves.  They are frighteningly passionate, opinionated, and fractious.  And yet there are a few things that they can agree on.  Namely: that some of the movies are pretty bad.  And among the bad, there is one that stands out.  One which, as a followup to the previous masterful film, was disappointing enough to dash the hopes of everyone who went to watch.  And that film is:

Star Trek: The Final... Oh dear god no.
Star Trek: The Final… Oh dear god, does he WANT to be flamed into oblivion?

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What’s In a Name? What’s NOT?! (Also: Upcoming Sale!)

First off, the boring stuff: There’s going to be another Single’s Awareness Day sale!  And this time it spans the entire weekend, because after last year’s embarrassing debacle I elected to play it safe.  So if you’re looking to find a deal on Probable Outcome or grab a free copy of The Trap, head over there now!

And now that we’re done with that…

What I am about to say may shock some of you.  Particularly readers of my books.  I know it may be hard to believe, like some kind of cruel joke, but I assure you it is the shameful truth.  And that truth is… I suck at naming characters.

…Hey, HEY!  Stop laughing and start staring in shocked silence, damn it!

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Signs You’re Trapped in 90’s Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk in the 90’s was a special kind of madness.  Technology for mobile phones, the internet, and robotic prostheses was just starting to take off in a big way.  Everyone seemed certain that virtual reality and cybernetic implants were just around the corner.  And, best of all, none of those technologies had matured enough for people to realize that the ideas they’d always had about what those things would look like were batshit crazy.  The result was a pastiche of techno-babble and nonsense that has never quite faded away.  Which unfortunately means that there are probably still people trying to figure out a way to make the insane concepts that characterize 90’s cyberpunk into a reality.  You might want to keep this list of signs that you’re starting to slip into that insanity handy, just in case…

  1. Cybernetic augmentations are so cheap that even the poorest mugger on the street will have a dozen internally mounted switchblades.  Guns that don’t erupt out of one’s elbow are surprisingly rare.
  2. It’s common knowledge, even publicly admitted, that every corporation, government, and private citizen is corrupt now that all of the old laws have been swept away.  That said they will still kill anyone who tries to hack into their servers.
  3. Internet use now is a full body sport with a very real risk of death from cyber-crime that is carried out either through use of expensive full body immersion gear or cranial implants.  And no one really sees a problem with that.  Or a keyboard.
  4. Possibly because browsing Reddit now requires one to fend off no less than a dozen virtual ninjas and trolls, computer nerds have become the most beefed up hardened warriors one could find.  Most are familiar with at least three styles of swordplay in addition to being crack shots.
  5. You lost your left eye about the same time you lost your last baby tooth.
  6. When you lost your left eye, you immediately had a replacement grafted to your skull.  It glows red and makes loud whirring, clicking noises whenever it’s dramatically convenient.
  7. You or those you meet will never, ever shut up about how losing your left eye is just like the Norse god Odin trading his own left eye for wisdom.  In fact, you’re probably named Odin.  Which says some horrible things about your parents.
  8. Speaking of parents, at least one died under tragic (most likely violent) circumstances when you were young.  If there is a survivor, they work two jobs and may have forgotten they have a child altogether.
  9. God is dead.  Thinly veiled allegories to god, however, apparently live forever.
  10. Black leather.  Black leather EVERYWHERE.
  11. Sunlight is a thing of the past, unless of course it’s a few pale rays fighting their way through the choking cloud of pollution that casts you into eternal night.  The only people who have even seen the sun are the corporate fat-cats living in the over-city.
  12. The line between playing a video game and taking twenty hits of acid is now more or less gone.
  13. Everyone’s online.
  14. The online community is so small that everyone knows each other.
  15. No one sees the contradiction between items 13 and 14.
  16. Everyone over the age of 25 is dead inside, and can be dispatched without remorse by the hero, because they know what’s REALLY important.
  17. Sewer-dweller is a viable career choice.
  18. Everyone under the age of 18 is either an innocent cherub, or a hardened sociopath.

    And finally, the last sign that you’re trapped in 90’s cyberpunk:

  19. Cellphones are an expensive luxury reserved only for the ultra-rich.

I Love Deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by…

For anyone who may be wondering, no that’s not my quote. It belongs to Douglas Adams, a far wittier man than I.

And what does it have to do with anything?

Well, it’s my way of acknowledging that my original release date for The Trap (sometime mid-to-late February) was hopelessly optimistic. As it turned out the piece still needed a lot of work before it was something I was happy releasing. But, fortunately, that work has been completed.

Yep, Shadows of Time: The Trap is now available for sale in both printed and digital formats! The former was somewhat unexpected, as I honestly didn’t think the story would end up hitting the 50 page mark back in February. But if history should have taught me anything it’s that I’m really bad at predicting the length of any project I’m working on.

Anyway, The Trap is now available for sale on Amazon, which you can reach by clicking on the picture below. Currently only the e-book has been released, but the print version should show up in the next week or so. Enjoy, you three people who actually read this blog!
Wait, four now?
Wow, I’m moving up in the world!

The Trap

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 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.