World Building: Axe Cop’s World

August 13, 2010

(Wow, first post in a loooong time over here.)

Have you ever wondered about the world of Axe Cop?

I mean, obviously it comes from the mind of a six-year-old. But that’s not what I’m driving at.

In Axe Cop’s madcap world, superpowers can be exchanged or changed through the thinnest of excuse/reasons. Powers often come in the form of “attacks”, (even if it makes no sense to call them that) and are also often completely absurd power-ramps (AXE COP FIRE!, for instance).

Just why things work this way in Axe Cop’s world is made clear by several comments from an interview on ComicsAlliance about the creative process-Malachai (the aforementioned six-year-old) plays a lot of video/computer games, and this contributes to it.

It does explain a lot, too-video/computer game abilities are highly modular (easily added and subtracted), often in the form of discrete attacks, and/or radically alter major aspects of gameplay, such as making tough enemies easy to beat.

There are plenty of other things-for instance, (SPOILER) the recent conversion of the zombie inhabitants of Zombie World into superheroes by effectively pushing a button, the incredible freqency of magical stuff, the complete lack of conventional economics, and the sudden and inexplicable appearances of massively powerful enemies for no reason-which also seem to come from games, but an exhaustive list of them would be very time consuming.  Suffice it to say, Axe Cop’s world is very video gamey.

-Signing off.

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World Building: Time Travel

July 2, 2010

(I had hoped to simply continue the space ecology material as an uninterrupted series, but for whatever reason, I don’t have the energy for that, and I do have the energy for this.  Probably has something to do with a book I read recently.  That, and the fact that I’ve recently been re-watching one of my all-time favorite cartoons.)

Time travel is a difficult thing to do right in fiction.  It’s a good thing, too-if we knew enough about it for us to know true consistent rules for it, we’d probably be leading pretty messed up lives.

That aside, time travel always presents the sticky question of paradoxes.  How does it work?

Sticky Possibility #1: The timeline has always included the events caused by the time traveler.

While this version neatly excludes paradoxes, quite frankly, the philosophical implications of this are rather disheartening.  Why?  It takes the possibility of free will out of the equation (at least, it can be seen to).  In the Beast Wars Transformers series, the character Dinobot had a huge psychological struggle over the question of whether his choices were really his if the timeline worked this way.  (It being a cartoon, the time flow didn’t work that way, and things got serious.)

Sticky Possibility #2: The timeline isn’t stable, and changes wrought by a traveler have the possibility of causing severe, even irreversible changes to the timeline.

You’ve seen it in Back to the Future.  You’ve seen it in tons of cartoon, comic books, etc.  The question is always “if you can do this, what the heck?”

Back to the Future‘s version of this (and to some degree, the version of it used in the Beast Wars cartoon, incidentally-for which I forgive it, because the series would have lacked much of its urgency and tension with any other model) is patently absurd.  If a time traveler is directly affected by the changes s/he enacts regardless of time period, then the paradox is self-correcting, and time travelers should merely be disintegrated with a grisly pop anytime they try to fool with things.  More logical is the possibility that a time traveler becomes disconnected from the “native” timeline, and the timeline that s/he has arrived in is a new, different timeline.

There are two ways to interpret this, as well.

Messy Alternative #1: The “new” timeline replaces the “old” timeline, overwriting events from after the arrival of the traveler.

Lots of people have a major paradox problem with this one, and with good reason-where did the time traveler come from now?

Messy Alternative #2: The “new” timeline “forks away” from the “old” timeline, becoming a parallel world.

This can be seen, to some extent, in the Marvel comic book universe.  Since there have long been references to parallel worlds of all kinds in Marvel stories, this is the neat answer in this situation:  Choices make new timelines, and time travel is  merely a type of choice as far as this system is concerned.

There are still questions; for instance, some philosopher disliked the idea of branching worlds because this philosopher (the name, if I ever knew it, escapes me) believed that God would only “follow” one branch.  (And I have to ask, how does that follow?  But that’s getting off the subject, so I won’t go there.)  However, it neatly cuts out the paradox as well.

To avoid problems, I advise the following:  Pick a method.  Then, use that method.  Do NOT pick a new one later.  Do NOT change midstream.  (Do NOT pass go, and do NOT collect $200.)  Be consistent, or you’ll drive your readers and possibly yourself completely insane.

Oh, yes, and here’s a good reason why time travel won’t be mucking up the real world anytime soon:  There are actually four theoretical time machines designed by physicists (the number may have changed up or down, depending on advancements in the field in the past decade) which could work, provided one has absurdly advanced technology and tremendous amounts of matter and energy at one’s disposal.  (At the very least, you’d need an advanced spaceship just to use them, and you’d need a lot more than that in order to build them.)  All of these time machines have one significant limitation:  They cannot take you to a time before they were built.

Stephen Hawking once remarked that the clearest evidence that time travel is impossible is the decided lack of time traveling tourists; this might be another explanation.

-Signing off.

Space Ecology: A Primer

June 11, 2010

Lots of fictional universes have some small degree of what I call “space ecology.” Space ecology involves an actual space-based ecosystem with at least some entities that fit one or more of the following descriptions:

  • They can be found on multiple planets throughout the known space of the setting.
  • They travel between worlds, possibly on a regular basis.
  • They live in space.
  • They may cause massive ecological damage to planets by visiting them, sometimes to the extreme of actually “eating” the planet to some degree.

Many fictional universes have at least one creature in it that qualifies for at least one of these descriptors, even if the creature in question is simply a human or sapient alien species.

If they bother, each universe has its own explanation or explanations for each of these features.

Found on multiple planets: These entities, which I will refer to as panplanetary, are typical planetary life. However, for reasons which may be glossed over or gone into deeply, they exist on numerous worlds rather than a single native planet. Reasons for this can range from the simple “well, they’re useful/likeable, so we imported them” or “they stowed away” to the nonsensical “it was parallel evolution ‘k?”

Travel between worlds: These entities, worldhoppers, are occasionally ordinary non-sapient creatures; however, the idea of a non-sapient worldhopping race is rather implausible if they don’t have adaptations for it. Generally, such a creature would prefer to live in a planetary environment, but is capable of brief to somewhat extended jaunts through space. However, and this is key to distinguishing the more extreme cases from those that live in space entirely, they must at least occasionally touch down on a world for some reason.

Living in space: Beings that are pure spacelife are presumably immensely durable by our standards, as they would have to be able to withstand the types of things that our spacecraft merely endure for their entire lives. Conversely, such beings probably couldn’t survive in atmosphere, as they would spend their entire lives in microgravity and airlessness-the very idea of trying to swim through air with a fixed up and down would probably be too alien for them to stand. (Note: For the purposes of this essay, a living thing that existed in an airless environment on a quasiplanetary surface, such as the Moon, is planetary life, despite seeming like “spacelife” to us.)

Harmful invasive visitors: There are many potential categories of this type, ranging from space locusts to world devourers. The crucial point is that they deliberately travel from world to world to feed in some way, and hypothetically could be as innocuous as space plankton (though that’s rarely the case).

Over the next few weeks, I hope to go over these types in a certain amount of detail. Why? If for no other reason, then because it’ll be an exercise in thinking things through that should be interesting.

-Signing off.

Writing Techniques: Alien Language Tips

May 14, 2010

I won’t attempt to write nearly as extensive an essay as my sister’s guest post from a while back, but I will make a few simple remarks and addenda about language.

A being with a radically different anatomy would probably have some words that were difficult to translate back and forth into English.  Consider the following:

A cat has, like a human, a number of different positions or postures it can take.

  • A cat can stand.  For a cat, this is standing on its four legs, as opposed to a human’s standing on two.
  • A cat can lie down.  This description has two meanings for a cat-lying so its feet are all in contact with the ground, or lying on its side or back or curled into a ball.  Note that humans have no direct equivalent to the first type, and it’s not really an accurate description, as this is a ready position for a cat instead of an awkward one.
  • A cat can sit.  For a cat, this is most equivalent to the human crouching position.  (A crouching cat is either equivalent to one lying down, or is standing with a different body orientation.)
  • A cat can rear up on its hindquarters or its hind legs.  These are most equivalent to human sitting and standing.

Note that only one meaning of one English term for a cat’s posture matches the term for the human equivalent!

When an alien has a different anatomy, even in the simple way that a cat does from a human, it can create unexpected linguistic oddities and tricks.

Also, never assume an alien language would use the same terms for different things that your own first language does-in German, for instance, “taking a picture” is “making a picture.”  This is a minor idiomatic thing, but other languages can and do have radically different internal relationships between their words.  This is also why puns translate badly between languages-rarely do two languages have consistent homophonic relationships with each other.

-Signing off.

Some Difficulties

May 7, 2010

As mentioned over at Awesomer Than Thou, there’s a tornado warning preventing me from coming up with content.  Perhaps I’ll post twice next week.

-Signing off.

Writing Techniques: Tone

April 23, 2010

Tone can be a tricky thing.  Getting the right tone for your work can mean the difference between something that nobody wants to read and something incredibly engaging.

Since coming up with an exhaustive list of possible tones would be, well, exhausting, I’ll list a few and give examples of just why these tones work.

Detail-oriented, distracted, tangential:  It’s a common tendency for science fiction authors to go off on absurdly detailed tangents in narration, in order to explain how their worlds are different from the real world.  This is partly responsible for science fiction being such a niche genre at present-these authors often can’t help themselves.  Douglas Adams was able to make this tone, which turns many off, into one of his strengths as an author by making the tangents funny.  Is it important to the story that such-and-such a planet used to have lots of dragons on it?  No, but the way Adams tells us this fact is funny enough that the reader doesn’t really mind the details.

Total deadpan:  While describing things in a funny way can be charming and, well, funny, sometimes the funniest way to present something absurd and comical is to ignore its very comicalness.  Hanging the lampshade can be all well and good, but if you’re setting it up correctly, you shouldn’t need to even wink at your readers.  The danger here, of course, is that some readers won’t get it, and simply conclude that you’re stupid.  (Don’t worry about it; you don’t need readers like that.)

(Obviously, tone is very important if you’re trying for humor.)

Serious:  Getting a serious story’s tone right can be simple.  For instance, many authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, have learned to burn away every inessential detail, and this can make for very effective, economical storytelling.  The principle of Chekhov’s Gun can be helpful:  Don’t mention something if it isn’t important.  On the other hand, economy of storytelling isn’t always the best route-sometimes, heavy description is necessary to make clear what’s happening, especially if there is a room or object that must be visualized by the reader.  (One way to mitigate the matter of heavy descriptions, of course, is to use a variant of the tangential technique described above-make it funny and silly, and the reader won’t mind the brief stop so much.  If this ruins the tone of the story, though, it can be a problem itself.  Of course, I myself think the vast majority of stories and works have room for at least a little bit of humor…)  Overdoing descriptions can lead to what is popularly known as purple prose, which itself can be quite comical and may also ruin the effect.

Neutral:  A lot of literature has difficulty with neutrality.  As a narrative concept, it didn’t even really exist until the 1800s, and of course it’s hardly simple even now.  Many stories try to represent the events they tell in a neutral way, to either let the readers draw their own conclusions or to try to destroy the readers’ preconceptions.  (There was a literary movement, Realism, that tried to help people understand the plight of less fortunate people by demonstrating the tragedies that life often heaped on such individuals; an example of this, to some degree, was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which was originally a dogmatic socialist text before it was edited for mass consumption.)

Condescending:  And as a quick warning-don’t use this tone.  If you talk down to your readers, the only people who won’t notice will be small children, and even a lot of them will pick up on it.  (Some series are accused of talking down which either didn’t or did so less than they are accused of; the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series strikes me as a good example of a series that straddles a line there, mostly because of its widely varying writers.)

These, as noted, are nowhere near exhaustive, but they’re a few good (and bad) examples, and a good place to get started learning about the subject.

-Signing off.

Worldbuilding Tip #3

April 16, 2010

When trying to create any fictional setting, consider the things that have been and the things that could have been.

Any old magazine about technology will present a view of the future that’s at odds with what happened; sometimes, this can suggest alternate lines of development.  (A good example can be found here; other examples here.)

Of course, numerous ficticious species have been based on extinct species in some way (this has probably been happening since the “caveman days”), or on deep-sea species.  Keeping up with current biology news, or looking for obscure creatures, can do a lot to make this more interesting.

(A quick note on that approach:  Make sure, if you intend the creature to be an actual, specific animal that really existed, that you have the details right.  For instance, the animal in this clip could easily be intended to be the giant gorgonopsid Inostrancevia-but its proportions are a bit off.  If it was the gorgonopsid Lycaenops [or perhaps Gorgonops], its proportions would be pretty much dot-on [in fact, I have close at hand a children’s “dinosaurs” picture book that features one that could have been the basis for that clip’s CGI model], but Lycaenops is smaller than a medium-sized dog [Gorgonops is much bigger but still too small].  Oops.

Not that anyone but a huge nerd would have noticed that.)

-Signing off.

World Building: Exposition

April 9, 2010

Building a world is a lengthy endeavor, and often a labor of love.  It stands to reason that anyone who invests energy in it would want to share.

Sometimes, however, doing so is inappropriate.

It might disrupt the tone of your story.  For instance, a horror story often will build its suspense on what the reader doesn’t know.  Telling too much, at least too early on, could ruin the story’s tone.  (Conversely, certain stories can make the revelation of such things more horrible than the reader’s anxiety over the unknown.  Stories such as “The Fair-Haired Child” and “The Autopsy” are both creepy as can be, but we know by the end a surprising amount about the worlds that are within the stories.)

Even worse for a story, of course, is over-exposition.  If you take time out of the story to explain endless minutiae of the world…  Well, you’re probably a popular author, actually (if you get away with it).  Many very successful authors, such as Douglas Adams, Tolkein, and more science fiction authors than can be counted exposit verbosely and excessively.  The key here depends on the author; Adams made his exposition extremely funny, for instance; the popularity of Tolkein’s exposition-heavy work is because it’s actually presented as a history of the realm his big work is set in; and science fiction authors get away with it because their fans are huge nerds.  (In fact, many science fiction stories are about exposition to a greater or lesser degree.)

In-story, you may need to work to keep your world-building itch (assuming you have one) in check, because while there may be thousands of details in your world, only a few dozen of them can be presented in story at any given time without making it a byzantine and gargantuan affair to describe what the characters are having for dinner.  However, if you provide some form of bonus materials, e.g. appendices, glossaries, cast pages, etc., you can often work in aspects of world building that would not have made it in otherwise.  (And as is evidenced by Star Wars and Star Trek, you can sometimes make quite a lot of money on such materials.)

Unless you’re making a short work or series, of course, you don’t have to let world building go to waste.  If you’re creating a long-running series (such as a very long-running webcomic), you can let the world show itself to the reader at its own pace rather than worry about smashing it into the reader’s face.  If you set multiple works in the same world, you can do the same.

Ultimately, of course, just what you do and how you do it is dependent on your style and the story’s needs.

-Signing off.

Applied Worldbuilding: Gaming Vs. Cthulhu

April 2, 2010

Each medium, naturally, requires its own worldbuilding to be approached in a distinct way.

Some things are harder to utilize in some media than others.

For instance, the Eldritch Abomination presents very specific difficulties in gaming.

There is of course the use of such as the antagonist; that’s simple and easy enough.  (Tough antagonists make for interesting games if it’s not too much.)  But what about games where they come under the control of the protagonist?

The nature of games obviously can create significant issues here.  Games are intended to be somewhat fair (in hopes of making them fun and all that), and too much power at one’s beck and call can eliminate the challenge entirely.

There have been games, or so I hear, that cast you as a quasi-Lovecraftian beasty of epic proportions, but they’re still apparently enough of a challenge to keep people’s interest.

Other games have their own unique issues.  For instance, in trading card-based games, you have to work at it if you want to maintain the flavor you’re going for.

A great example of this is in the currently upcoming Magic:  The Gathering set called Rise of the Eldrazi.  In order to give the titular Eldrazi, obviously eldritch beings, enough of a distinct flavor, they had to do something very different.

Brief aside:  For those of you not in the know, the “Magic” card game, the oldest game of its kind and the inspiration for a host of others (probably the most infamous of these are the Pokèmon and Yu-Gi-Oh! card games, from the anime and manga of the same names), features what is known as a “color pie.”  With several important (but currently irrelevant) exceptions, each player must play “lands,” which provide the player with a resource called “mana.”  Each kind of land produces mana of its own particular type or “color,” and thus, choices of what cards you can play are significantly limited by what kind of lands you’re playing.  While playing multiple kinds is possible, this is an unreliable strategy, and thus players are usually required to pick one or two, or at the outside three colors for their use.  With the exceptions of lands themselves and cards called “artifacts,” all cards have at least one color, and there are numerous gameplay aspects that are affected by color.  Giving an exhaustive examination would be more than this blog has the capacity for, and is certainly beyond the extent of this article.  (Note the bolding of the word “magic” is the convention used by the staff of Wizards at the Coast.  I’m merely following it.)

Long story short, at the Magic design offices, they wanted to create a set centered around something very distinct from what they had been doing.  Sure, Magic is full of titanic dragons and demons and angels and otherdimensional invaders, but all of those things still existed within the old color pie (and a few related lands and artifacts).  In order to distinguish the Eldrazi, they decided to do something they’d pretty much decided never to do, and make them colorless without making them artifacts.

That wasn’t all-they also decided that all of the “true” or “serious” (or what-have-you) Eldrazi would also have an ability that essentially “eats” the enemy’s cards en masse when they attack.  While these kinds of abilities would be hard to balance in many games, in Magic they work perfectly, and their flavor (that is, the aspect of gameplay that represents the fantasy battles around which Magic is centered in an evocative way) is flawless.  (For a more in-detail examination of the Eldrazi and the card set that they come from, go here.  The guy who wrote that particular article, Mark Rosewater, has pretty much dedicated his life to the game, it being his job and all, and I daresay he knows more about the subject than I do.  You can also look through his article archive if you want the color pie clarified or something, though it’ll take forever without a good guide.)

Also, this webpage is a brilliant bit for helping to introduce the concept.  (Once you click on the glowing thing in the middle of the big picture, just wait through to the end, it’ll be worth it.  Though you’ll want to scroll back up a bit.  Sure, the animation is kinda cheap, but it’s still hilarious.)

-Signing off.

Worldbuilding Tip #2

March 26, 2010

When trying to come up with a general premise, boiling something down to its basics as deeply as possible can create an interesting concept, even if the original’s intent was completely different.

For instance, “kid superheroes hang out with Universal Studios-style monsters” is the central premise of a mostly forgotten (and admittedly extremely cheesy) show that was actually a Power Rangers-style adaptation of a Japanese live-action series which was just about armored transforming heroes battling villains in rubbery suits.

It was called “Big Bad Beetleborgs.”  Ironically, its Japanese roots actually sometimes detracted from the show, which worked a bit better as a comedy about super-powered children interacting with stock monsters living in a haunted house.  (I’m not saying it was the best show ever.  Simply that it had a surprisingly good formula.)

-Signing off.