Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mutare Ludum

It's not just for nerds anymore.

Science fiction, I mean. It's not just for nerds anymore. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of the Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate or the plausibilities of faster-than-light travel, but a lot of the blushing that comes from admitting you like science fiction has gone away. It's become (gasp!) mainstream.

There are no doubt thousands of events that contributed to sci-fi going mainstream (including technological advancements), but I believe two key catalysts were the television shows Firefly (2002) and Battlestar Galactica (2004). These shows were game-changers for the genre.


When Firefly burst onto the scene in 2002 it arrived as a breath of fresh air in the sci-fi for television genre. For one thing, there were no aliens. With Star Trek being the primary example (since so much of science fiction on television was either a spin-off, a rip-off, or heavily inspired by the show), alien culture pervaded every aspect of human life. Hell, even the way humans managed long-distance, long-term space travel was accomplished through alienum ex machina. We'd never have gotten as far as we did without first contact from the Vulcans (er...spoiler alert? Nerd alert?).
Firefly's world-building occurred without aliens or alien technology. And you can really see the manner in which humans evolved in the world they live in. It's not clean, or sleek. It's technological innovation by virtue of necessity. The universe of Firefly is heavily influenced by a mash-up of American and Pan-Asian cultures and then injected with a huge dose of Western genre.  Yup. The Western genre. As in guns, saloons, horses, and the tipping of hats. Only in space.

The idea of Firefly came from the mind of writer/director Joss Whedon, excels at genre-bending ideas. Rather than follow the over-used Star Trek model of "going where no man has gone before", Whedon created a series that went where men and women have always been. His vision of the show was of a universe where "nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today". Then he took that macrocosm idea of the universe and stuck it on the microcosm of a ship of "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things".
Copyright © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
 When Star Trek premiered its first season in 1966 (with actually two different pilot episodes occurring in 1964 and 1965), the year the show took place in was 2266 A.D. At that point humanity more or less had things figured out and was in the process of bringing peace to the rest of the alien universe. Awfully nice of us. Firefly was set in the year 2517, two hundred and fifty years later, and it's obvious there that humans still haven't figured things out. That was a big game-changer. Humans in Firefly weren't just the benevolent protagonists. They were also the antagonists, the apathetics, the collateral damage. They were humans.

What was so amazing about Firefly is that I could recommend the show to someone who did think that sci-fi was just for nerds, and a week later after they blew through the series (and cried through the movie), they were more than just fans. They wanted more. Sometimes, they wanted more Joss Whedon, and the next day they'd be humming a melody from Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog. Other times, they'd be susceptible to reading. I'd loan out a copy of Ender's Game, or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or the Foundation series (depending on what parts of the show they liked the most), and if they found they enjoyed reading I'd move them on to Snow Crash or Neuromancer and really blow their minds.

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica was another big game-changer for another reason: it wasn't a science-fiction show. It was a drama that just happened to be set in space. And it totally destroyed the sci-fi formula.
The vast majority of sci-fi on television was episodic in structure. What that meant was that each episode was a self-contained story. The S.S. Enterprise visits planet A, does action X to solve the problem, episode ends. Only rarely did the actions of previous episodes carry over to later ones. Very occasionally, characters from previous episodes were brought back for cameos. Don't get me wrong, there was character development in these shows, but that development didn't drive the story forward.

Battlestar Galactica differed in a big way. They still had an episodic structure, but it was paired in between two other story arcs. There was a season arc that tied each episode together from first to last. As far as I know that's never happened on a science-fiction show before, certainly not with that kind of success. The other arc was character driven. The characters on the show started episode 1 with their own set of beliefs, morals, psychological make-up, etc which determined how they interacted with each other and viewed themselves. Every event through the season arc and every episode affected these characters. So much so that who they were at the start of the season wouldn't recognize who they became by the end of the season. There was a sense of growth to this show that I'd never seen before. And it changed the rules of science fiction.

The Get Up

For the past couple of months I've been working a 12 -issue comic with several other writers (Marcel Losada, James Ninness, and Joe Pezzula) called The Get Up. This isn't the first project we worked together on, but we wanted to come up with a great science fiction story in the comic book format. It actually was tougher than it sounds, and if it wasn't for Firefly and Battlestar Galactica changing the game it would've been a hell of a lot tougher.
To build our universe and characters we modeled our world-building using some of the same ideas as Whedon did in Firefly. By ideas, I don't mean story ideas either. We invented four distinctly different alien cultures and explored how they technologically and culturally evolved to the "Now" of our story. And while we may not have had Whedon's character modeling specifically in mind, we ended up creating five characters who all looked "into the blackness of space and [saw]....different things". James wrote a bit more detail about our characters on his blog. You should check it out if you're interested. We had a blast writing these characters and this story.
One of the strengths in our story, I believe, is what made Battlestar Galactica so great: It's not just a character piece, or an adventure story using some stock characters and stereotypes. It's a mixture of both. We wanted an intense adventure story that propelled forward with each issue, but we wanted to write it through the eyes of characters you could really care about and watch grow and change with each event in the story that happens. And forget about stereotypes! We demolish those pretty handily.

I know I kind of co-opted the blog to do a little self-promotion, and I hope you don't mind. We're working really hard at trying to generate excitement and interest in our project, and I know people (quite a few, actually) that are resistant to the idea of science fiction and/or comics because they feel it's somehow only for nerds and geeks. So really, I wanted to address that fear a little bit, and if in the process I can manage to spark your interest about a labor of love I've been working on, then that's okay too.

The Get Up is completely written, by the way. Currently an amazing artistic team comprised of Chris Burkheart, James Hiralez, and Benjamin Glibert are hard at work putting together the art for our first issue. Once we have a completed issue we can submit the entire story to publishing companies for distribution, but unfortunately we need to have the issue done. To get the issue done, we need to pay the artists. If I did manage to pique your interest we do have a kickstarter page to help raise the funds to pay the artists. Check it out if you like.