Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Couldn’t you have written Patriots without the space elevator?

Q: Couldn’t you have written Patriots without the space elevator and all that? I mean, why not just stick to Warp Drives and the stuff we’re familiar with?
A: Once a novel is well underway, changing a part of it is a bit like pulling on a loose thread in a tapestry: You might unravel the whole thing. So, I’m not sure if the essential story of Patriots could have been written inside a framework of Star Trek technology.
This is a legitimate complaint, though. Although science geeks love to complain about the extreme liberties taken with science by Star Trek and Star Wars, an argument can be (and often is) made that ‘we will overcome’. Meaning that the obstacles keeping us from the stars today will not be obstacles tomorrow, as technology marches on, and we don’t have to know how this will come about - only that it will. Fair enough.
However, I see a gap between Star Wars fantasy and the 2001/Mission to Mars/Andromeda Strain/Close Encounters genre of reality-based sci-fi. (To whatever degree we can agree that those films were actually grounded in reality, that is. At least it may be argued that they strove for a technologically contemporary setting.) There’s a place to build a world somewhere in-between those extremes, where the tech is beyond today’s reach yet still not so far removed that it becomes painfully obvious that the technological rules in force exist primarily as a convenience for the story. This is the sweet spot where films such as Minority Report live.
To me, the fantastic framework of the Star Trek or Star Wars worlds eventually serve to distance the reader from the plights of the characters inhabiting them. Those worlds eventually become rather useless baggage, or at best a curiosity. I expect this would also become true of the worlds of The Matrix or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter if those stories were being extended beyond their original arcs (but obviously they’re not).
I think what happens is that readers accept those worlds (if they’re reasonably well-made, as all of those I mentioned are) if they become invested in following the character through his adventure. And the nature of those worlds inform that character and his(her) adventure, making them unique and special.
But Star Trek and Star Wars are franchises owned by corporations. (George Lucas, at this point, is a corporation.) The way they see it, those worlds are gold mines, and endless stories can be wrung from them.
I believe that’s the wrong POV in terms of fan satisfaction, and I think time has proven this out. The owners of Star Trek, for example, attempted to spin it out past the initial adventures of Kirk et al, and wound up with series (The Next Generation, Voyager, etc.) in which there was less and less interest as time went by. (Eventually, J.J. Abrams instinctively sussed out the core problem and created the most successful Trek in years, simply by recasting the original characters and taking them back to their maiden voyage. Insightfully, the film was called simply ‘Star Trek’.)
Lucas did a similar franchise extension with his Star Wars, and once again each attempt beyond the original three-story arc drew diminished interest and rising criticism.
That’s not to say that new Star Wars or Star Trek adventures are incapable of generating new revenue, since clearly they are. But it does suggest that the real excitement and interest in these worlds lies in an ‘organic’ marriage of story, world, and character. Once they drift apart, you’re tugging on that thread in the tapestry.
While writing this, I came across an episode of The Big Bang Theory (from 2011, titled ‘The Russian Rocket Reaction’) in which one of the geeky/nerdy characters says “I think I’ve outgrown Star Trek”. He hasn’t really, of course (if he did, there’d be no more show), but I thought that idea had resonance. I suspect that many of the people dressed as their favorite character at Comic Con conventions are actually signaling their readiness for that Next Great Thing, and are very wary of products that are little more than calculated copies of the Last Great Thing. By which I mean there’s an odd dichotomy at work: Just because someone’s dressed like Darth Vader, that does not necessarily mean they want more Star Wars. But it does mean they are open to something that excites them the way Star Wars did when they first encountered that world and that adventure.
This goes a long way in explaining the tremendous and almost immediate success of Harry Potter. His character was compelling, was set in a world uniquely his, and was faced with a special journey which required numerous books/films to fulfill. 
I should also add that the world Ms. Rowling created for Harry was inspired and pitch-perfect. Children spend much of their time at school, and they all wish they could attend a school like Hogwarts. It’s not so much that they want to cast spells or make potions, though for sure there is an element of that, but mostly because the school looked out for them with loving concern, dispensed just rewards and punishments, and offered vast opportunities for freestyle exploration and self-directed learning. (I wish I could go there myself!) Harry’s readers also wish they had an extended loving family like Ron’s, and (sadly) identify with Harry’s mistreatment at the hands of his acting step-parents. It’s quite telling how the tone-deaf imitators who arrived after Harry (you know who they are, I won’t name them) completely missed the central source of appeal of those books, and therefore failed to even come close to his sales figures.
[As long as I’m off on this tangent [Muggles=the divide between kids and adults. Brilliant, and probably a completely subconscious, uncalculated choice on the author’s part. [Wizard world - kids - attempt to understand Muggles - that’s Ron’s father’s job after all - but reverse does not happen. Nature of relationship to Muggle world changes, but tone is set in first book and that is what matters.]
In terms of Patriots, then: To set Josh and the boys off in a world with technology borrowed from, say, Star Trek‘s culture and confront them with problems inspired by other space adventures would not have made for much of a story. That story would not have been worth my writing, nor your reading. The characters, the story and the setting should be married in a fitting and special way. (Would Frodo have been as sympathetic a character if he had come from anywhere but the Shire?) 
And that’s why many things in this book work rather differently than they do in many other sci-fi books or films you’ve seen.

from F.A.Q.

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