Monday, November 23, 2015

The Force Awakens - The (Potential) Story Problems

I’m writing this a month before ‘The Force Awakens’ opens. Like most Star Wars fans, I’m giddy with anticipation. Unlike most, I’ve read an early treatment of the film, and understand the story in broad strokes.

Here’s my biggest concern: Episode VII “The Force Awakens” is a loose retelling of Episode IV “A New Hope” (and a bit of V: The Empire Strikes Back) in much the same way JJ Abrams retold “The Wrath of Khan” in “Star Trek: Into Darkness”. I hope it fares better than his WoK remake.

Why do I say this? OK -- let’s begin.

WARNING - Spoilers Beyond here.

1. Hidden McGuffin in a Droid
ANH started with 2 droids crash landing onto a desert planet. The bad guys were seeking something hidden in these droids -- the plans to the Death Star.

TFA starts with The First Order shooting down Poe Dameron’s ship. His droid BB-8 escapes when the ship crash lands on a desert planet. Hidden within the droid is what the bad guys are looking for -- Luke Skywalker’s light saber.

2. Hidden Skywalker
In ANH, the McGuffin ends up with the farm boy Luke Skywalker, who is in fact related to one of the most powerful and people in the Galaxy -- Anakin (Darth Vader) Skywalker, despite living on a backwater world with no idea of his heritage.
Rey finds BB-8 on Jakku.

In TFA, the McGuffin ends up with the scavenger girl Rey Skywalker, who is in fact related to one of the most powerful people in the Galaxy -- daughter of Luke, and niece of Leia.

3. Bad guys resort to torture to find the McGuffin
In ANH, the bad guys (Darth Vader) resorts to torture to find out where Leia hid the plans

In TFA, the bad guy (Kylo Ren) resorts to torture to find out where Poe hid the light saber

Poe Dameron is tortured by Kylo Ren who seeks the missing McGuffin

4. Hidden Skywalker finds mentor who understands history
In ANH, Luke finds Ben Kenobi who knows the truth about the past -- the fall of the republic, the clone wars etc.

In TFA, Rei finds Han Solo, who knows the truth about the past -- the fall of the empire, the Jedi, the Sith. “It’s true. All of it.”

“It’s true,” says Han “all of it.” - talking about the “stories about what happened”

5. Bad Guys demonstrate doomsday weapon to prove a point
In ANH, Tarkin blows up Alderaan as a ‘test’ of the Starkiller weapon.

In TFA, Hux blows up Yavin IV as a ‘test’ of the Starkiller weapon -- watch the theatrical trailer at 1:02, and you see the impact of a star exploding on the planet. Also the reason for the chaos on Yavin IV that we see in the trailers -- the Rebels/Resistance need to evacuate. 

6. Mentor dies saving our heroes.
In ANH, Ben Kenobi gave his life to give Luke time to escape

In TFA, Han Solo gives his life to give Rey time to escape

Rey cries over Han’s dead body

7. Bad guy ends up related to our MC
In TESB Darth Vader was revealed to be Luke’s father.

In TFA Kylo Ren will be revealed to be Rey’s cousin, the son of Han and Leia after killing his own father.
Han and Leia find the destiny of their lost son -- Kylo Ren (Kylo = sKYwalker + soLO)

8. Hero finds a new mentor, previously hidden for his protection
In TESB, Luke finds the incredibly powerful, hidden, Jedi, Yoda

In TFA, the movie ends with Rey finding the incredibly powerful, hidden, Jedi, Luke.

Skellig Michael in Ireland -- filming location where only Mark Hamill and Daisy Ridley shot scenes. It’s the epilog of the film where Rei finds her mentor, and father, Luke.

9. Fake Script?
In November 2013, a script leaked onto the internet that was rapidly denounced as a fake. It’s a fun read, and a very different story. Even if it is a fake, there are some interesting coincidences

  1. Luke has a daughter called Rei Skywalker! She’s also described as looking as if her mother was Asian, or the SW equivalent of it.
  2. There’s a Starkiller Weapon -- but it’s a bit of a surprise reveal
  3. The bad guy -- Lygion -- is obsessed with Luke Skywalker, and the entire point of the plot is to capture him and turn him to darkness
  4. The ‘Neo-Empire’ is very like the First Order -- emulating the empire in every way.

There’s an interesting theme about the motivations of the Neo-Empire in it. It makes me wonder if the First Order have the same motivations…

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Better no diversity than lazy diversity

#WeNeedDiverseBooks is a very important trend, because we really do need diverse books. In fact, we need diversity in all media, not just books, but because books are the best medium to get you into a character's head -- and thus learn from them -- then I would argue that diverse books are an absolute necessity.

But what do we mean by diversity? All too often, it's simply to have more people of color, or more women, and then declare victory. That's too simplistic, and I would argue is more damaging, in the long run, than having no diversity at all.

Why? Well, first of all it denies the user from having the rich viewpoint that a person of different color, gender or orientation can give them. Think about it -- does making a character black, for example, without bringing their viewpoint really do anything for your story?

Consider the following examples, from related TV shows. First: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Image from Wikipedia
As the third Star Trek TV Show (after the original series, and then The Next Generation), it needed to mix things up a bit. One way it did this was by having an African American in a leadership role: Benjamin Sisko. The writers didn't take a Captain Kirk or a Captain Picard and just make him black. They built a real character, a creole chef from New Orleans, whose perspective as a black man resonates in his overarching compassion for the Bajorans -- recently freed from subjugation and slavery by a cruel overlord. It's no co-incidence that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is commonly seen as the best of the shows, and the participation of a diverse viewpoint such as Sisko's is no small contribution. Watching the show over it's seven year run he became a role model to me, and a character who has influenced the way I think. That's diversity that works.

Contrast this to other Star Trek TV shows -- such as Star Trek Voyager or Star Trek Enterprise.
These shows launched with a fanfare about how diverse their casts were. Voyager, in particular, launching alongside Deep Space Nine tried to repeat the formula of having diversity in the leadership role, and had a female Captain Janeway, brilliantly portrayed by Kate Mulgrew, but whose character could have easily been male. Being female brought nothing to the table except a feeling that somebody checked a box somewhere.

Similarly, the second in command, Chakotay, played by Robert Beltran, was the first time a Native American character played a major role in Star Trek, and, to be honest, the first time I had seen this in any TV show. Then there was the Asian, Ensign Kim, played by Garret Wang. And finally a black Vulcan, Tuvok, played by Tim Russ. None of these characters brought any kind of memorable viewpoint of their race to the show. Indeed, I remember some backlash about Tuvok on the early Internet when the show launched. The question was asked: How could green-blooded Vulcans have black skin? The character (and the actor) were put in a bad position from day one.

In my opinion, the ultimate issue here was lazy diversity. Throw a black character, an Asian, a Native American and an empowered woman in there and declare victory. Is it any wonder that this show is generally seen as one of the weaker Treks, and not even close to DS9 in terms of quality? There was so much opportunity to expand the experience and engagement of the viewership by bringing a real exposure to Korean, Native American and Black (Vulcan) culture, but instead we had cookie cutter characters who were no different despite the rich racial heritage the character could bring to the table

So, as you think about diverse books, and about the importance of diversity, remember this: Lazy Diversity is worse than No Diversity. Bring us characters with richness of experience - richness earned because they're black, asian, female, alien, gay, transgender, disabled and so much more. Make our world better with this diversity, because that's what good books do.

And that's what I've tried to do with Space Cadets. I hope you love it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Fermi's Paradox and Water on Mars!

At the heart of the story of Space Cadets is the concept of the Fermi Paradox. As the story continues through the sequels you'll learn more about this paradox, and how it fits into the overall story universe of Space Cadets.

With the recent discovery of water on the surface of Mars, the paradox comes into much sharper focus.

The Fermi Paradox is the argument made by the physicist Enrico Fermi about the apparent contradiction between enormous estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations, and the complete lack of evidence for those civilizations. In other words, if the Universe is teeming with life, how come we haven't actually met any yet?

Aisha Parks - From Space Cadets by Laurence Moroney
Consider this -- in the Milky Way galaxy alone, there are an estimated 200-400 billion stars. If life occurs on only a tiny percentage of these, there would still be a huge number of planets supporting life. So, for example, if it were only on 1% of them -- that would mean that there are 2-4 billion star systems containing life in our Galaxy alone.

Given that we've found water on Mars, it's paramount to go there to see if there's life. If there is, than that 1% number would probably be much greater.

It's also safe to assume that if there are 2-4 billion stars with life, that we aren't the most advanced. Split the difference, and you would say that there are 1-2 billion that are more advanced than us. Of those 1-2 billion, surely some of them have conquered interstellar travel.

So where are they?

One answer could be that the light speed barrier is insurmountable, and we're all trapped within our solar systems. There's no warp drive. There's no hyperspace. There's no folding space. Recent technological developments suggest that this is not the case, and that we might be closer to faster than light (FTL) than we think.

In Space Cadets, I've taken a different route. What if interstellar travel was easy, and we discovered it. Then what would happen, and in particular how could we then explain the Fermi Paradox?

Where are they?

Perhaps Soo-Kyung Kim, from Space Cadets has the answer. Here's an excerpt from the book where she discusses it:


Theres something that still bothers me,said Soo-Kyung. Lets get on a local closed channel. The others touched helmets with her to establish the channel. When they were ready, she gave a thumbs up. 

Seamus, as always, was looking out for her. Whats up?Concern in his voice.

We keep talking about going out to the stars, about exploring. But if its so easy to go interstellar, why havent we encountered others?

We discussed this--

I know, and Im not satisfied with the conclusions. The odds are, if space travel is so easy, that there are many civilizations that would have discovered it thousands of years ago, maybe even hundreds of thousands of years ago. So where are they? Why havent they conquered the galaxy by now?

Aisha thought about it a moment. What are you driving at? Do you think it doesnt work? Do you think we cant travel the stars?

No,came the response. I think it can. I worry about--

About what?

Have you ever seen those videos of the bottom of the ocean? About the fish that are camouflaged so well that theyre indistinguishable from rocks?

Yeah, theyre pretty cool.

They camouflage like that because there are predators who will devour them. Yet we are here screaming our existence out into space, and now going out to explore further. To perhaps poke the proverbial sleeping dragon.


Why else do you think were going out there well-armed?


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Diversity in Space Cadets: North Korean Soo Kyung Kim

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on twitter is a very important one. But I have to wonder, when people ask for diverse books, what are they really asking for? I've seen some folks simply be satisfied by having more characters of color, or more women in Sci Fi.

But that's not enough.

It's my honest belief that we all need the diverse viewpoints that people from other cultures, countries, political systems, histories, races, genders and ages can give us.

Why? Let me start with a story about why I went with a North Korean character in Soo-Kyung. It starts with China. I've spent a lot of time there, and I've taken my kids there. Back when I was plotting 'Space Cadets', my daughter came to me, frustrated.

She had been sharing her experience in China with some of her friends. How much she enjoyed the street food, the shopping, the overall atmosphere. They, being cliched, white republicans couldn't accept it. To them, China was Communist, and full of people wearing uniforms, carrying little red books and riding bicycles. When she showed them photographs, it wasn't enough. She must be mistaken. That can't be China. Because, to them, all their life, China was something else. And in the face of contradicting evidence, they still denied her experience.

The best books are those that have characters whose heads you can get into, who you will love, whether or not they are the type of person you can know in real life. And this is why we need diverse books -- for people like my daughter's friends, wouldn't it be great if they could fall in love with a character whose experience is so different from their own that they can learn from it, not make assumptions about a culture they don't know, and be better people for it?

And that brings me to North Korea. You can get on a plane today, go to China, and see and learn for yourself what it's like. You can't do that with North Korea. As such, with its 'hermit state' nature, it's easy for stories to flourish about what it's really like in that unusual country. It's easy for us to jump to assumptions about the average person on the street, because of what we've heard about the regime.

I spent a lot of time in South Korea, and visited the DMZ between the countries. What struck me most starkly about it was how people from there spoke about the North. It was very different from how we talk about it here in the USA. While we focus on the regime, they focussed on the people. Women in South Korea are exceptionally beautiful, yet the men there always spoke, in hushed tones, about the beauty of the women in the North being far superior. And while they didn't support the regime, their admiration for the people was palpable.

And while I didn't get to visit the North to see what the average person was like for myself, I got as close as I could. From this, the character of Soo-Kyung Kim was born. Someone who has been through the worst life has to offer, both in peace and in war. Someone who is exceptionally beautiful both inside and out. And someone who looks at the world outside, the way we look at her hermit kingdom inside -- with her own biases. In essence, someone who is real, and when we look at people closer to our society through her eyes, then maybe we can learn something about ourselves. And maybe we can learn something about how to look at her culture, and other cultures, that we may not understand.

I hope you love her as you read this book. She's very much a supporting character, but as the story grows and matures through the sequels, so will she. She has a wonderful story arc, so please, stay along for the ride, and look beyond the flag on her shoulder.

For more on Space Cadets, visit Also check out #SpaceCadets on Twitter!

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Science of the Space Elevator

In the early chapters of 'Space Cadets', Aisha and SooKyung travel into orbit on a 'Space Elevator'. This isn't a fictional construct, but based on real science.

Maybe someday we'll have a real space elevator!

There have been lots of theoretical methods for building one, including this recent patent that was granted for an inflatable one!

Here also is a NASA concept for a space elevator, including a wonderful demonstration video!

Finally, check out Michio Kaku on the Space Elevator, which was a huge influence in writing the book!