Friday, May 29, 2015

Scale versus Magnitude

Saving the world. It is not often that we find a science fiction story that does not threaten our single home among the stars. Yet most of the time an alien invasion or catastrophic natural phenomenon will simply leave us bored and uninterested. It became clich√© decades ago, yet second-rate writers continue to believe that their story will succeed if they rely on the threat of global extinction. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, famous for its use of intellectual satire, there is a moment when the main character moans, “my planet was just destroyed,” to which his companions cry out in exasperation, “Get over it already!” The author, Douglas Adams, trivialized explicitly what sci-fi writers have been, for far too long, trivializing unwittingly.

On the other hand, a story where a single isolated village is threatened can claim our riveted attention. It is not necessarily the case that a planet yields a better story than a city, a galaxy yields a better story than a planet, and the whole universe yields a better story than a galaxy. To some, this seems the common sense way of things. But as we will see, this is simply not the case.

The force behind smaller scale stories being more impactful than larger is what I call the paradox of familiarity. We are attached to what we know, and are more or less indifferent to what lies outside of our realm of understanding. When watching Naruto, I am emotionally invested whenever the Village Hidden in the Leaves is threatened, because the author of the manga from which the anime was derived painstakingly made sure that the viewers get attached to the place. On the other hand, when reading the aforementioned The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pentalogy, when the main character says “I have to save the universe,” I find myself asking, “What’s so great about the universe?” Even following one person who is afraid to die through a dangerous moment can be more intense than watching Superman battle General Zod over the fate of the earth. Dead may be dead, but when the size of the threat extends past our bubble of familiarity, it ceases to gain magnitude.

So is there a way to resolve this paradox? The answer is yes . . . partially. The trick is to start small and gradually expand the bubble of familiarity. You might wonder how we can start small and end up at galactic level if we are only slowly increasing in size. We can do this, however, because humans tend to think logarithmically. This means that each step can be proportionally bigger than the one before. As an example, it would take a long time to count to one million (1,000,000) by ones. But if we instead count by doubling (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, …), we can break a million after only 21 counts. Humans think more naturally in the second sense. Take sound volume as an example. A human will report a sound as twice as loud as another when the actual measured intensity is ten times that of the other. So instead of building up our range of familiarity one village at a time, we can start by adding one village, then a city, then a nation, then the whole planet, etc. The trick is to balance the increase with the time spent on each step.

Stargate does this very well, so I will use it as an example. First, it establishes earth as the earth, the one we all live on and know. Or at least it establishes the late twentieth century United States of America. This is a crucial first step that most series skip over. Then Stargate adds one other planet. Then it adds a handful more. Then it adds a few thousand more, and builds up a galactic political system. At this stage, it is imperative that what is added stays added, that is to say, if a certain interstellar empire exists, it will have historical, political, and direct ripple effects throughout the whole galaxy, and the writers must take these into account. Stargate did a fabulous job of keeping things consistent. After it had built up the Milky Way galaxy, it branched off and explored one other galaxy. Then finally it branched out to a small number of galaxies far away from home. Stargate is forever cemented as one of my favorite fictional franchises, and it hit the nail on the head when it came to expanding the bubble of familiarity.

Now remember I claimed that this only partially resolves the paradox. The catch arises when we hit a ceiling, which I call the All of Everything. The All of Everything occurs whenever a story makes it feel like there is nothing left that is unknown. Regardless of the magnitude this ceiling may have, it rarely fails to leave the readers asking “wait, is that all there is?” One instance of this is when a world is built up over the course of the story, and then it is revealed that this world’s creation and history were merely a cosmic plan, perhaps an experiment. Another equally valid example is if it is discovered that the universe began x years ago and operates by law y alone, and that is that. It is not so much what the ultimate answer is, but that the ultimate answer is known. Once a story has reached maximum magnitude, there is nowhere left to go, and everything ceases to be interesting. Thus the paradox resurges; the threat of universal destruction does not impress on us ultimate magnitude, regardless of whether it has been built up to or not.

So how can we avoid the familiarity paradox? The answer is to make sure the readers know that the universe is always at least a little bit bigger, whether it is obvious or merely hinted at. For every answer we provide, we present a new question. We keep the story within a space only slightly bigger than what is known, using it to expand the sphere of knowledge when necessary. We as the writers develop structure an order of magnitude above what we have revealed in the story in order to avoid the All of Everything, and so that we always have the ability to expand the zone of familiarity if the story necessitates it. We must never forget that a story that takes place in an isolated farmhouse can be as engaging as a story that takes place across four planets, or an entire galaxy. Ultimately it is not the scale at which it takes place which gives the story a feeling of grandeur, but the gradual expansion of understanding, proportional in magnitude with the familiar.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Short Story: The Gravekeeper's House

In my freshman year of college, some of my friends and I went on a trip for Habitat for Humanity. We spent the week volunteering to build houses for people who could not afford a house on the conventional market. While we were there, we stayed in a house next to a graveyard. Of course, we had a blast making zombie jokes and the like. This inspired me later that year to try my hand at horror in a short story, which I share with you now:

The Gravekeeper’s House

By Christian Horst

Let me tell you a tale, something that happened to me one night, many years ago. You may not believe it is true. Even to me it seems like a dream, yet it has haunted me ever since. I remember every detail, as if the event has printed itself on my mind. Here is my story:

I was on my way home from my mother’s house in southern Wisconsin. It was late, but I was quite comfortable driving in the dark. I lived in the countryside near Peoria, Illinois, and the trip would typically take four hours.
I was taking country highways to avoid traffic and cities—I have a slight fear of other drivers. Along with several other fears, it kicks in with my insomnia, which had recently been plaguing me, and it was strong enough to cause me to sacrifice time for it.
Ahead of me, I saw a thunder head building up. I was confused and slightly alarmed, because the weather forecast had predicted clear skies all day and through the night. Storms are another of my phobias. As this one grew nearer, I could see streaks underneath the clouds, a sure sign of rain. I grew more and more anxious as the storm drew closer at an alarming rate. It stretched from horizon to horizon.
I was finally so disturbed, that I pulled into a gravel driveway of a small white house with the intent of asking the owners where the nearest town with a hotel was; I shuddered at the thought of driving through a severe storm the rest of the way home. As I stepped out of my car and walked toward the door, the air was completely still, and felt as if it were full of energy that would explode if it were disturbed by even so much as my breathing. Behind the house, I noticed grave stones marking the places where bygone souls rested in their homes of earth.
I rang the doorbell and waited, bouncing on the balls of my feet. I looked up, with tension in my nerves, at the sky, which by now was half black, the sun long since hidden. I knew the downpour could begin any time and I momentarily wondered, with a hint of panic, if no one was home. My fear, this time, was misguided though, as the door was opened by an old man, bald and a little bent at the shoulders, but kindly-looking.
“Hello young man,” he said to me. Then, taking one glance at the sky, he became animated, gesturing every which way with his hands, saying, “Come in, come in! We cannot have you standing in the rain. A monster of a storm coming. Feel welcome to wait it out inside my house.” He led me inside. “Tell me, what is your name, lad?”
“Manuel Rodriguez,” I told him.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Manuel. I am Arthur Kleineman. They used to call me Arty. I am the caretaker of the graveyard. Welcome to my home.”
Something frightening stirred in me when he said he was the gravekeeper, but it was assuaged when I saw the crucifix on a desk near the back wall—I am very religious, you see, and so I took the man’s crucifix as a sign that he was a Brother of mine. It looked like the paint had run, but that may have been intentional to give the effect of blood that had run from the saint who had been taken down from there.
“Tell me about yourself,” Arty said. I told him of my wife and two children.
Presently, a million drumsticks began tapping on the roof, signifying the arrival of the deluge. We continued to make small talk. Hours passed, and Arty made a meal of ground beef and salad. When ten o’clock rolled around and the rain had not slowed, Arty offered to let me stay the night, and prepared his guest bed for me.
I lay there for hours, but sleep would not come. My insomnia was back, and I began to get anxious. I do not know how much time passed; it must have been four or five in the morning when I got up. Putting my shoes on, I left the room. The rain had still not let up.
As I entered the dining room, I was surprised to see Arty up. He was standing with his back to me, running his hand over the crucifix and whispering words I could not hear. At the moment, I thought he was praying. Then he noticed me, and there was a flash of emotion on his face that he quickly smoothed out to a smile. But I had unmistakably seen what he was hiding: anger.
He must have seen the spooked look on my face, so he allowed his features to change. His eyes narrowed and his smile grew thinner. “Good morning Manuel,” he said.
My heart stopped and my vision dimmed in a spinning purple tunnel. The crucifix on the desk seemed to grow until it was a full-sized cross, and now I could see that what I first took to be running paint were actually dried streaks of blood running from empty holes. Arty grinned at me, the edges of his mouth rising far above what is natural, exposing pointed fangs. The corners of his eyes pulled back, disfiguring his eyeballs, which began to glow a hypnotizing red, as he said “Welcome to your doom.”
I screamed as he reached for me with foot-long talons, and I turned toward the door outside. Although it was a mile away, I gave a giant leap through it into the rain.
I don’t know why I survived that night; perhaps I never will. Maybe it was the hand of God, or maybe my insomnia prevented Arty from fully casting his spell. Perhaps it was a combination of both. Since then, my insomnia has gotten progressively worse, and whenever I do fall asleep I dream of that night, and always wake drenched in my own sweat. Sometimes it is mixed with blood.
I found myself outside. There was no rain. Dark clouds still blanketed the sky, and a narrow band on the horizon before me showed orange. I turned around, not comprehending what I saw. The graveyard was there, but there was no house. Immediately behind me was a gravestone. I stared, paralyzed, at it for a long time. The inscription read, “Manuel Rodriguez.”

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Age of Ultron

WARNING: This is not a review; it is a discussion. I am writing this to people who have already seen the movie, and I will not make any effort to avoid spoilers. I strongly urge you to see the movie before reading this, or at the very least read last week’s article on spoilers first. You have been warned.

When I hear of the fantastic, epic stories of MARVEL comics, I sometimes experience a sense of majestic awe. Yet, though I have seen many superhero movies, none of them have elicited this feeling in me. None, that is, until now.

I originally wanted to discuss everything that Avengers: Age of Ultron has to offer, but the movie has so many dimensions I could almost write an entire documentary on it. As such, we will focus on the big overarching themes, leaving the characters’ personal stories and other themes for another time.

First, a quick overview of what we are saving for later. Although this was a superhero action movie, the writers put a lot of effort into keeping the focus on the story. Nothing felt wasted; even the scene with the Hulk on the loose and Iron Man fighting him in his Hulkbuster armor played a key part of Bruce Banner’s personal story. We see the minor Avengers from the first movie, Black Widow and Hawkeye, get their own personal stories. In addition, we see some buildup toward Captain America:Civil War, as tension continues to build between Cap and Iron Man. These all have potential for future discussions, but the topic I have chosen for today is artificial intelligence and the meaning of life.

To begin, we set our focus on the villain, the movie’s namesake, Ultron. Ultron is not an alien or a demon or some extra-dimensional menace, but an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner with the intention to protect humanity from outside threats. Unfortunately, the “outside” part did not quite get programmed in properly, and Ultron determined that humanity was the greatest threat to itself. Why did he conclude this? He saw the world from an outside viewpoint. To him, it was obvious it would only take one giant meteor to wipe out the entire species, yet humans simply skittered around squabbling amongst themselves in petty disagreements that lead to them killing each other in wars. Ultron saw a flaw in the logic of his intended purpose: the belief that humans are the quintessential embodiment of the prosperity of life.

The first thing we notice about Ultron is that he has a deep hatred for the Avengers, as he sees them as puppets in humanity’s mission of self-annihilation. Ultron has a specific hatred for his creator Tony Stark, as Ultron realized his own intended purpose was to simply be another puppet on the chain. Believing his purpose and programming contradicted each other, and that this fact was a demonstration of the self-destructiveness of humanity, he abandoned it all, as we see by his ominous chanting, “There are no strings on me.

When I got to this point in the movie, I was worried it would end up being a carbon-copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ultron was an artificial intelligence life form created by one of the heroes. When Ultron began questioning the meaning of existence, he turned against his creator with a vengeance. However, whereas Shelley was content with the shock of creation turned against creator, this shock was only the beginning for Ultron.

The core of the differences, I think, comes from the fact that, while Frankenstein’s monster was basically human, Ultron was a computer program designed for global-scale activity. Thus, Ultron had the power to do something about the problem he saw.

Let us take a moment to marvel at Ultron’s design. His first action was to make humanoid robot bodies for himself. But not just one, he made hundreds of bodies, and inhabited them all at once. This gave him the tremendous advantage of being in many places at once. In addition, he used his multiple bodies for intimidation, demonstrating his superiority over other life forms. It has become a clich√© of MARVEL movies that if a character is making a speech to their enemy, the enemy will cut the speech short by attacking. However, this does not work with Ultron, because when one of Ultron’s bodies is destroyed while speaking, another simply takes its place without breaking syntax.

So what does Ultron decide to do? He determines that in order to uphold the principle values of life, he must force evolution by bringing about the next mass extinction himself. He creates a perfect techno-organic body in human form to house his consciousness, but fails to upload his consciousness to it as he is interrupted by the Avengers. Undeterred, he continues on with the next phase of his plan: lifting a city out of the ground in order to bring it crashing down to earth as the meteorite that destroys humanity. The devastation that followed would destroy humanity, paving the way for Ultron, the new, better life form, to take its place. In his own words, “When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world will be metal.”

This, of course, brings up the question of whether artificial intelligence can be said to be alive. We see Ultron, a computer program, act with a personality, emotions, etc. in an eerily similar manner to humans. But this movie takes that question to a whole new level with the creation of Vision. Built by Ultron and completed by Tony Stark and Bruce banner, with a consciousness fused between Ultron and Jarvis, enhanced with an infinity stone and Thor’s lightning, Vision is an awe-inspiring mystery. It is impossible to say what exactly Vision is, though it is clear that he is alive.

Remember how I said at the beginning of this discussion that this movie was the first to capture the majestic, fantastic, epic feeling of awe I associate with MARVEL comics? Vision is what did it for me. Following his mysterious creation, he joins the Avengers to take out Ultron. However, it is not simply because Vision sees Ultron as the enemy. No, nothing in this movie is as simple as that. Vision sees the big picture as clearly as Ultron, but disagrees on what is the right thing to do about it. After the big battle, Vision has a conversation with the last Ultron bot, in which we find out that the two of them agree that humanity is doomed to be its own destruction. But we then hear why Vision made his choice when he says, “A thing isn't beautiful because it lasts.”

This leads into another big theme of the movie. The Avengers were assembled to protect the earth and humanity from whatever would threaten it. Yet Ultron, a being bent on world destruction, was created by an Avenger. This begs the question, are the Avengers really the world’s saviors, or are they instead its doom?

Hidden in this question, there is another, closer to home: as we advance as a civilization, we come to grasp more and more power. As that power grows, it becomes easier to affect the world as a whole, whether it be by climate change, nuclear war, or what have you. We may have already reached the point where total self-destruction is possible, and it will only become easier as time goes on. Will the very advances that have provided comfort, cured diseases, and extended human life eventually lead to its destruction? I think not, because we will always have the option to make the right choices. But even if we do not, I agree with Vision when he says, “It is a privilege to be among them.”

Friday, May 8, 2015

Surprises and Plot Twists

I stated last week that the number one thing that draws me to fiction is the philosophical questions it explores. Yet, if that were the only thing I liked about fiction, I would surely go to the philosophy books instead. Fiction, therefore, must provide something additional, that philosophy books do not. This additional aspect is the appeal to emotion; fiction does not simply present a question, but employs many tools to get the reader involved enough to continue reading. One of these tools—and for me, an absolute essential—is the element of surprise.

Spoilers: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — (You know where this is going!)

If there is one thing that keeps me riveted on a story, it is an earth-shattering plot twist. I still remember fondly the time when I saw the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time. I was about four years old. Earlier that day, a playmate of mine had suggested that we play Star Wars, meaning that we pretend to be the characters, as young children do. That sounded cool to me, though I didn’t know what Star Wars was. He decided, of course, that he would be Luke Skywalker. Being a little kid, I protested, saying that I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, even though I had no idea who he was. He said that I could be Han Solo, the guy who gets stuck on the wall. I certainly didn’t want to be the guy who gets stuck on the wall, but I didn’t have a choice, so I went along with it.

This game of ours, of course, made me incredibly curious. What was Star Wars, and who was this “guy who gets stuck on the wall”? I brought these questions to my dad, who, in answer, brought out a big old laserdisc and popped it into the ancient disc player. At that moment, I was plunged into the world of space ships, lightsabers, the Force, and moons (I mean space stations).

I experienced the sequence of classic scenes, starting with the Tantive IV chased by the star destroyer, then the introduction of C-3PO and R2-D2, and of course the dramatic entry of  Darth Vader. As soon as I saw his ominous, towering figure, I asked my dad, “is he a bad guy?” My dad replied with what sounded to my little ears like, “he’s the baddest of them all.”

The movie went on, and I met the characters, saw the Imperial walkers, met Yoda, and then finally saw Han Solo get stuck on the wall.

Then it happened. The good guy finally went up against the bad guy in a lightsaber duel. I could not tell that Luke was losing, but I could tell it was awesome. Then Vader cut off Luke’s hand, and my little mind thought, no, that’s not what’s supposed to happen! Vader drove Luke out onto a piece of technology sticking out over a giant pit, and after an appropriate buildup, spoke those words; those fateful, destructive words that rocked the whole of our world, and of which we are still feeling aftershocks: Darth Vader said, “No, I am your father!”

Even though I was only four years old, I was completely and utterly blown away. I may never know for certain, but I do believe this triggered something in my mind, and that I can point to it as the original cause for why I love plot twists.

End spoilers

Not everyone likes to be surprised by a story like I do, though. In fact, some people even hate it. I separate fiction-lovers into two categories: immersers, which I base off myself, and watchers, the polar opposite.

Immersers are those who immerse themselves in the story, envisioning themselves adventuring right alongside the characters. Immersers want to know what the characters know, and feel what the characters feel. Immersers want to be the characters. Because of this, immersers will avoid discussing anything but speculation about a book they have not read yet, even going so far as to  put their hands over their ears and cry out whenever the topic is raised. Thus enters the concept of spoilers. A spoiler is a piece of information about a story that reveals a surprise or plot twist. For an immerser, a spoiler literally spoils the story; after hearing one, they must read through the entire portion of the book that takes place before the twist slightly detached from the characters. In other words, the story holds a less-rich experience than it would have, and is branded permanently in their memory as a story that could have been better. This is especially an issue for really good stories, like Star Wars.

Watchers, on the other hand, like to experience a story from the outside. They want to know as much as they can about a story as quickly as possible. Watchers go to the fan websites, the wiki articles, and the youtube videos. They talk about the story with their friends, asking about the details. When they finally read the book, they already know what is going to happen, who is going to die, and how it is going to end. They love to know more than the characters do, and do not like to be confused or not know exactly what is going on.

Immersers and watchers can have trouble getting along with each other. Since watchers do not care if they learn something new about a story they have not read yet, they may not guard their tongues very well and end up spoiling stories for the immersers they are conversing with, or who happen to be nearby. Watchers often do not understand why immersers avoid spoilers, and think immersers silly for being so adamant about it. The immersers then get frustrated at the watchers. Neither party is wrong in how they experience stories; they are just different. Watchers should be considerate of the immersers around them, and take care not to give away surprises. Immersers should realize that it is okay to talk with a watcher about stories the watcher has not read, and that if a watcher chooses to read a series in a different order (e.g. The Chronicles of Narnia), that is perfectly okay. In this way, we can more strongly unify the admirers of fiction.

Of course, there are more groups as well, like those who crave the community of a fan base, but don’t care much for the story itself. There are also many people who do not care for stories at all, and only see them as a waste of time. As with any classification of people types, there is really a multi-dimensional spectrum, and the distinction between the types comes from comparing two samples that are not near each other. The bottom line is that in order to have an honest, productive conversation about fiction with people, it is important to understand how they personally view the subject.

As I have stated earlier, I based the immerser class off of myself. I resist learning any more about a story beforehand than what convinces me to read it. Neither will I talk about a story around someone who has not read it yet without their consent. To me, a moment which takes what I thought I knew about the characters or the world and turns it on its head can make a story five times better. For this reason, I will always warn of spoilers before discussing the events of a story. I assent, though, that it is your choice as my reader whether or not to read what I write. Whether you are an immerser, a watcher, a communer, or anything in between, know that I will use spoiler tags liberally in an effort to be fair and considerate to all.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Why I Love Fiction: Philosophy

Fiction is the telling of what wasn’t, but perhaps could have been. From the realism of Robinson Crusoe to the wild fantasies of Doctor Who, fiction asks a question—a question rich with mystery and excitement, a question full of fear and anticipation, a question with infinite answers and unbounded potential. Fiction asks the question, what if? What if an airplane full of passengers were to crash land on an unknown island? What if a certain wardrobe were a door to a land full of talking animals? What if we had space ships that could explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before?

Pursuing the what if question can lead to the exploration of countless philosophical topics, challenging us to think in new ways. For example, forcing the characters into moral quandaries can help us better understand right and wrong. If Batman were to kill the Joker, he would doubtless save hundreds of innocent lives in the future. But Batman is a hero, and he wants to stay a hero. If he kills the criminals he hunts, then how does he know he is any better than they are?

Minor spoilers: The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

Fiction can also make us question our own ways of thought. To see this, let’s take a look at the Adem in The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. The Adem live secluded in the mountains, away from lands of “barbarians,” as they call everyone else. They believe themselves the pinnacle of civilization. Yet their elitist mindset is not based on technological advancement or verified knowledge and understanding, but arises from their traditions and belief system. Most notably, they view emotional expressions as rude and childish, as a sign of low self-control. Since all other cultures show their emotions freely, the Adem see others as hopeless, overgrown children, not worth too much time, and certainly not to be taken seriously. However, there is one more little detail about the Adem I haven’t mentioned yet, one that truly cements them as a backward people. It is this: they are so free with their sex that after the hundreds of years since the founding of their culture they have not developed the concept of a father. Sex is literally so commonplace that the Adem have had no chance to correlate it with childbirth. When the main character tries to explain it to them, they laugh at him. That this arrogant culture does not know something so common, so central to human existence, shows us that they are the real barbarians.

We can shake our heads at the stubborn ignorance of the Adem, but there is something deeper to be learned here. We ask the question, “could anyone really be that ignorant?” If you look around, you will see that the answer is definitely yes. Terry Goodkind sums up humanity’s tendency toward cognitive bias in Wizard’s First Rule, claiming that people will believe any lie, either because they want it to be true or they are afraid it is true. Goodkind claims that all people can fall victim to this rule, even if they are careful. So we really have to ask ourselves if there is any ignorant belief we are stubbornly clinging to, like the Adem’s disbelief in fathers. I personally have broken away from one such paradigm, but that does not exempt me from having a new ignorant belief. So you see, asking “what if the Adem” leads us to think about philosophical questions that are present and relevant to us as readers.

End spoilers

For me, the special draw of fantasy and science fiction above other fiction is that it ramps up the what if to the extreme. Stargate Universe, my favorite TV show, is a prime example of this. Its premise: a group of fifty to a hundred people with more or less arbitrary personal skill sets is accidentally sent to an abandoned traveling space ship on the other side of the universe, billions of light years away from any sign of humanity, with no way to get home. The writers did a magnificent job in realistically portraying the characters’ reactions and attempts to adapt and form a community. Each character is different and has their own story, and each contributes to the show in a unique way. Add to this a wide range of fantastic sci-fi challenges thrown at them, and Stargate Universe becomes a melting pot of philosophical ideas and questions.

Philosophy is by no means the only reason I love fiction, but to me it is the first major division of the good from the mediocre. Through fiction, great ideas can be communicated to average people, and can help us to have a better understanding of life, the universe, and everything.