Friday, June 26, 2015

Star Wars Countdown I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars is a classic of classics. When A New Hope was released in 1977, it revolutionized the entire genre of science fiction. It was soon followed by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. These three films panted a deep love of science fiction into many people, including myself. Then, the cinema went dark for sixteen years, until finally Star Wars graced the screens again with The Phantom Menace, followed shortly by Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. After this, it seemed like that was the end of the line for Star Wars movies, as an extensive Expanded Universe, now called the Legends Universe, had been built up in novels, comics, and video games, and another set of movies would not have fit the lore. However, When Disney bought the franchise, they found a work-around: to retcon everything that was not found in the movies and the animated TV shows and reimagine the galaxy’s future. Thus, one and a half years ago, humanity was blessed with the announcement of a third trilogy, beginning with The Force Awakens, to be released this coming December. In anticipation of this new installment, I have taken it upon myself to watch one Star Wars movie per month up to Episode VII’s release and discuss it here on A Scientist’s Fiction, starting today with Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Notable music introduced: "Duel of the Fates"

Much anticipation awaited The Phantom Menace, as it was the long-awaited prequel to the world-rocking Star Wars trilogy. However, its release left many people with mixed feelings, and many others completely disappointed. As a seven-year-old I loved it, watching it every day for weeks with my younger brothers. Eventually we got tired of it, and stopped, and until this month I did not see it again. So now that I have matured enough to understand the plot and critique its elements, let’s take a look at some of the reasons The Phantom Menace may or may not be a good movie.

First off, we already knew what was going to happen before it began. Being a prequel, we knew how it was going to turn out, but it is more than that. There was only one surprise; most of the movie was completely predictable. It is obvious that George Lucas spent very little effort on this aspect of the movie, as illustrated by Darth Sidious, the mastermind behind everything, appearing in only the second scene. The whole theme of the movie was that there was a mystery, but knowing how it plays out before it begins kind of defeats the purpose.

The plot felt more like a checklist than a story. Manipulation of the Galactic Republic politics by Senator Palpatine aka Darth Sidious? check. The Jedi discover Anakin Skywalker? Check. Anakin does everything his son does in episode IV, but better and at a younger age? Check. Anakin meets a girl with whom he can later have said son? Check. Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel? Check. Okay, we’re done. Much of it seemed forced, brought about by a string of incredibly unlikely events that had to have played out exactly the way they did, or Anakin would not have become a Jedi and Naboo would not have been saved. When everything that happens is a little too convenient, it loses the sense of genuineness that comes with the randomness of real life.

At the climax of the film, when the main characters are taking back the capital of Naboo, the Jedi are sidetracked by a menacing alien Sith named Darth Maul. But who was this mysterious adversary? He was given only one line in the entire movie, and absolutely no back story or reason for existence, except for the rule that there must be two Sith. For all practical purposes, he was just a bad guy with horns and a full-body tattoo. As far as villains go, Darth Maul was really pretty boring, existing only in fulfillment of his part of the checklist.

And everyone can agree that Jar Jar Binks should not have existed. Enough said.

But as I was watching, I noticed something. I felt a great sense of wonder revolving around the Jedi and the Force, amplified by the soundtrack, and I have to ask a question: should we judge this movie by standards it was not trying to fulfill? The Phantom Menace did not focus on storytelling, but rather had a different purpose altogether: apply a spiritual spin to a sci-fi world. With the Force as a mystical energy that can be used to influence reality, it starts to make sense how all of those incredibly convenient coincidences can happen. It was not supposed to feel realistic in this way. The Force is a mechanism for destiny, a recurring theme throughout all of the Star Wars movies. Darth Maul was meant to be a mysterious face of evil instead of a fleshed-out villan. He was supposed to be felt, not understood. And we must not forget to mention the soundtrack, which is every bit as epic as the original trilogy’s. All in all, I found myself taken in by the galaxy’s mystical and fantastic nature, and I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I thought I was going to. Maybe Star Wars Episode I does not deserve all the hate given to it, as it does what it intended to do—show a world permeated and guided by a mysterious Force—very well.

There is a YouTube video by Belated Media titled “What if Star Wars Episode I was Good?” where the host presents a version of the movie as if he had been an editor and George Lucas had submitted the script to him. I agree that his version would have been better. You can check it out by clicking here.

Star Wars Countdown:
The Phantom Menace

Friday, June 19, 2015

Flashing Lights, Giant Robots, and Explosions

Note: this was written before I started downloading and re-uploading the pictures I use, so some of them have gone away. Hopefully I will get around to fixing this soon.

Look me in the eye and try to tell me with a straight face that you weren’t at least a little excited when you saw this post’s title. There is something within us that starts growling, building up into a roar in response to fast motion and chaos.

If I didn't put something like this here, it would be false advertising.
Picture by Alon Chou,

Of course, I am not here to talk about metal men shooting missiles at each other simply because it lends to an adrenaline rush, but rather to examine why such content is put into stories, and what purpose it serves. More generally, I’ll be talking about anything that can be put into a story to entice the audience. There are many different possible instances of this, targeting different emotions and audiences. There is action, designed to spike an adrenaline rush, igniting a flame of battle. This is what explosions, weapons, and fighting robots are used for. The audience also will get a rush with the appearance of a beloved character or actor, as well as when presented with romance, sex, tight clothing or exposed skin, and plenty of other things.

It'd be hard to imagine a movie called The Princess
Bride without a scene like this.
All of the above can be used for the sole purpose of stimulating the audience. This is called fan service. Fan service is feeding the audience something they want and are expecting, like a car chase in an action movie, a kiss in a romance, or an actor reprising his or her role from many years ago.

I have stated before that I find value in fiction in its hypothetical exploration: how the characters respond to the unusual situations they are put into, philosophical ideas that can be explored, moral dilemmas the characters have to face, etc. In fact, I used the exploration of the hypothetical as my only defense against the social stigma against fantasy, seeing it as sufficient on its own to justify immersing oneself in fiction. From this point of view, is there any significant purpose to fan service, or is it no more than fodder for our ape-like instincts?

There is one obvious purpose for fan service: it makes for eye-catching trailers. Anything that hopes to be classified as an action movie needs to have an action-packed trailer with at least one fireball explosion. Trailers are movies’ number one attention-grabbers, and the only reason they grab our attention is because they are entirely fan service. A trailer’s sole purpose is to shout, “Hey you! Look, you’ll like this movie. It will entertain you, keep you on the edge of your seat, and fill you with thrills.”

Mad Max: Fury Road went all-out with an action-packed trailer.

Now it becomes important to clearly define the boundary of what counts as fan service: material that’s sole purpose is to entice the audience. Notice that by this definition, a huge battle or a sex scene does not count as fan service if the presentation of the story or theme is more significant than it would be without. Thus, there is a very meaningful difference between fan service and non-fan-service stimuli. As biological creatures, we humans need stimulation in order for a movie to keep our attentions for the whole two or three hours. As an example of good stimulation, take a scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron (minor spoiler alert). We could have seen Bruce Banner sitting brooding in a corner while Tony stark tells the team that Hulk has just gone rampaging through a city. Instead, the Hulk’s fury was shown onscreen, no stops pulled, and we saw Iron Man in his Hulkbuster suit trading powerful blows with the green monster. This high-intensity action sequence was not simply for the audience to see big things smashing each other and the environment, though that certainly was part of it. Rather it provided an empathetic understanding of Banner’s struggle with the monster within, as well as give us perspective on one of the overarching themes of the movie, whether the Avengers are really good for the world, or if they are ultimately harmful and destructive. (end spoilers)

Used in this manner, the flashy aspect of movies can also act as a catalyst for those who go to them for entertainment, exposing them to the themes and ideas. There is a high demand these days for entertainment; people want to be stimulated, and most want to see a movie that has action or romance. Of course, most people would also claim that they care more about the story and characters, but the entertainment factor is clearly a major priority. In light of this, we see there can be value found even in movies and shows that incorporate copious amounts of meaningless fan service (ahem Doctor Who) as a means to draw attention to the themes being explored in the work. And sometimes it is okay to make fan service allowances just because. After all, the best writers are fans of themselves too.

The takeaway here is that all these things are just a subset of unlimited tools writers can use. It is up to the writers to decide what they are trying to convey by their work, and to stay true to that point throughout. Sometimes excitement works into the story really well. Sometimes giving the fans what they want works, and so it is done. And sometimes writers will make a point by blatantly avoiding fan service, like how in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear Kvothe glosses over his trial at Imre, which the Chronicler had been anticipating the whole time, how in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy the main character turns out not to be the hero of ages, and how a blogger can write an entire discussion on fan service without including a picture of anime panties. It’s up to the writer to decide what his or her work is going to convey, and then use the tools at his or her disposal to make it so.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Social Tabuu

In the course of life of every human being, there comes a time, usually in the mid teen years, when they begin to feel the disapproving eyes of society resting upon them. A pressure arises—the pressure to give up the spirit of imagination and be fully assimilated into the real world. It feels as if they have the moral obligation to grow up, to stop wasting their time on frivolous creative activities and to set their sights on something useful: a career, a family, putting to rest their fantasies for the good of society.

Nowhere can this be felt as much as in the realm of video games, the constant target of society’s optical derision. One game, though, takes up the challenge and fights back. This game is Super Smash Bros Brawl, in which many characters from all over the various Nintendo game titles come together and duke it out. In this game, there is a hidden, symbolic lore which has been speculated about since the game’s release in 2008. When loading up the game, as well as the two preceding installments of the franchise, it appears that the playable characters are toys, and that the child who owns the toys is bringing them to life with his imagination. After several minutes of battling each other, the toy characters must battle Master Hand and Crazy Hand, the hands of the child. These hands represent the creative and destructive forces of imagination.

Brawl adds another page to the mystery with a story-driven campaign called the Subspace Emissary. In it, a mysterious dark force from outside the realm of imagination invades and seeks to turn all the characters into trophies, static and motionless, never to be touched again. This represents the disapproving gaze of society on those who are old enough to be considered responsible, yet still play video games. At first, the mysterious force appears to be led by Master Hand, but it is eventually revealed that Master Hand is confined by puppet strings, held by an imposing, cross-armed, adult-shaped figure called Tabuu. The creative force of imagination Master Hand rebels against Tabuu, but is struck down almost immediately, and it is left up to the players to keep Tabuu from turning everyone into trophies, to fight the digital personification of the societal pressure to give up imagination. The ensuing boss battle is much harder than anything that has been thrown at the players so far; Tabuu is relentless, and can often knock the player out with a single strike, reflecting how heavy the pressure to conform can feel to the player. Defeating Tabuu is tantamount to taking a power stance and stating firmly to the specter wearing the guise of society, “I reject your stigmas, your prejudice, and your arrogance. I choose to live my life as myself, not as you would have me be.”

Although Tabuu specifically represents the stigma against video games, the principle applies to all forms of creativity—stories, especially fantasy, being the most relevant to me. I have personally felt this pressure many times. When I was working with a team of groundskeepers at a campground, my boss would ridicule us for talking about movies. In college once, when the physics department was socializing, I brought up the fact that I was using the knowledge I gained for the creative purpose of science fiction. One of the professors suggested I focus instead on science fact. The pressure is real, and can be difficult to stand beneath.

Of course, it is important for us to sacrifice a part of our energy to support society, which in turn supports us. This may plant a seed of doubt, causing us to wonder if perhaps society is right. Am I really wasting my life away? Is fantasy really just frivolous and useless? The answer is, like any question of value, a little more complicated than just yes or no. If you sit down to watch a few hours of TV in the evening, then you are certainly not getting the house clean, or reading papers for your research, or anything else that it is generally agreed upon is productive. But on the other hand, as I’ve said in a previous discussion, fiction explores the realm of the hypothetical, and it challenges us to think in new ways that we may not have come to on our own. Because of this, a healthy dose of fiction will help us function better when interacting with people, solving problems, and even doing practical work. In light of these benefits of fiction, if fiction is where you find most of the purpose and meaning in your life, like I do in mine, then it is ultimately counterproductive for society to attempt to enforce the Tabuu upon you. Though it may seem strange to those who do not feel its draw, imagination is an essential driving force for the success, progress, and happiness of both the individual and the human race.

Special thanks to YouTubers MatPat and Conner the Waffle for presenting this interpretation of the Super Smash Bros lore.

Friday, June 5, 2015

My Story of Physics and Fiction

Although I am passionate about stories, I am pushing for a degree in something that might look at first glance entirely disconnected from fiction in every way: a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in astrophysics. I am one year into the Master’s phase, on my way to becoming a world-class expert on galaxy formation, neutron stars, black holes, galactic clusters, etc. (actually probably only a few of these; they get complicated). Physics is the study of space, time, matter, energy, and how they all interact with each other. In other words, it is the study of the basic laws that govern how the universe works. Physics is devoted entirely to what is true and what might be true, while fiction is by definition not true.

Of course, there really is no limit on fiction besides the writer’s imagination. Therefore, fiction is free to dip into the realm of what might be true. In these cases, fiction and physics do overlap in a wonderful genre that enriches both the intellect and the aesthetic sense. In the old days, this kind of fiction was called “science fiction,” though sadly the term has degraded to a stereotype of space ships, hostile aliens, and laser weapons, the science aspect all but forgotten.

A few stories do, however, remain mostly true to the core of science-based fiction, one of which I was enthralled with as I matured into adulthood. That story was Stargate, which ran for seventeen seasons across three shows. In it, teams of heroes walk through wormholes to other planets, meeting new civilizations and fighting evil alien overlords. Its premise is very similar to that of Star Trek, but Stargate’s military perspective and serialized plot arcs make it completely unique. But it was Stargate’s strong attempt at scientific realism that kindled in me the physicist spark.

In addition to Stargate, I read and watched any material relating physics and science fiction that I could get my hands on. Among them were The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss, and Sci-Fi Science by Michio Kaku, in which were discussed the theoretical engineering possibilities of warp drives, invisibility, teleportation, time travel, and many other fictitious technologies.

A scientific analysis of the various
technologies found aboard the USS
When it came time to choose a major for college, I took one glance at the list and chose physics, stating right then and there that I was going for a PhD. I have never regretted that decision. I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the plausibility of faster-than-light travel, and for a while I had my mind set on being the first person to invent a working warp drive. However, I have come to realize that if a warp drive is invented, it will almost definitely be centuries from now. But I have learned to love physics for what it is, not for what I used to wish it would be.

When I started college, I told everyone the reason I chose physics was to write better science fiction. Since then my focus has switched to physics for its own sake, but I have gained knowledge and a mindset that will help me write. With knowledge of astronomy, I can create realistic planets. With an understanding of particle physics, I can invent a system for artificial gravity. With a conceptualization of higher spatial dimensions, I can give my characters a reasonable means of traveling faster than light. Granted, most people probably won’t know the difference, but I care, and I want my science fiction to be enjoyable to others like me.

Physics and fiction do not have to be completely independent. Rather, they can complement each other to make something I see as more beautiful than either is alone. The dynamic between the disciplines is wondrous and complex. What I have written today is just a brief introduction, a teaser; I have a multi-article series in the works on the relationship between science and science fiction, so sometime in the future you can expect to see more Of Science and Science Fiction.

Images taken from Wikipedia.