Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Hunting for Inspiration I: Better Stories Than Mine

The last part of setting building is research, and I'm going to break this up into two parts, starting with the other works of fiction from which I can draw inspiration for my setting.  I originally intended to dedicate a week to this, because I think there's a fantastic amount of stuff we can look at, but I'd rather finish sooner than later, so let's do a whirlwind tour.  As we go through the actual setting, I'll bring up sources and ideas from these original elements as necessary.

Obviously, the biggest inspiration is Star Wars itself, but we can gain additional inspiration from that which inspired Star Wars, that which Star Wars inspired, and whatever else I happen to find interesting.  Star Wars itself is much bigger than just the films.  Particular things that I often find myself referencing again and again

Pulp Space Opera and Planetary Romance

I should really include Lensmen in this series, but alas, I have yet to actually read or watch anything related to it, though I did start Triplanetary but never managed to finish it.

I've regularly talked about pulpy space opera all throughout Psi-Wars and pointed out how older sensibilities infect Star Wars through and through, from how they treat aliens to how they treat robots to how gender is treated in Star Wars.  You can definitely overstate it, as Star Wars was also a child of its era, a creature of the 70s, with Lucas turning some of his most beloved tropes on their head, just as Psi-Wars is going to toss out or deconstruct some of Star Wars' most beloved tropes.

I'd particularly like to draw your attention to Tales of the Solar Patrol for this abbreviated tour of space opera.  I find it a considerably underrated work, and I particularly appreciate how it breaks down what this genre is really about. If you have a copy, join me starting on page 4.

First, Tales of the Solar Patrol argues that pulp heroes tend to be young, that they're strapping, clever and virile, no split between jock and nerd here, but a young pulp hero tends to exemplify both.  This does certainly seem to be true of the original Star Wars, which features a very young cast taking on the entire galaxy.  The obvious reason for this is to appeal to a young readership, and Star Wars definitely caters to a very teenage crowd, as you can see from the number of eager Google+ posts or Youtube videos discussing which Jedi is really the most powerful.  But it serves an additional function: the pulp genre joins wuxia and shonen anime as largely being about students learning to be masters.  The typical pulp hero is often a student, or someone who just left his schooling, and must put what he's learned to the test.  This isn't always true (John Carter just shows up on Mars, and proceeds to kick a ton of ass, basically non-stop), but even in such works, you usually have a kid somewhere who will later grow up to fill the original heroes shoes, as seen in the John Carter family tree noted above.

Tales of the Solar Patrol further argues that pulp features moral clarity.  This is definitely obvious in Star Wars, and is one of the elements meant to appeal to youths.  The world is terrible and frustrating, but the solution is so obvious, because what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong, and someone brave and heroic and strong just needs to punch evil in the face.  In Star Wars, this is represented by the Evil Empire and the Good Rebellion, by the Light and the Dark of the Force.  Even so, I would argue that Star Wars is a little more nuanced and self-aware than pulp might be.  While the choice between Light and Dark are clear, its relationship to people are not.  Darth Vader isn't necessarily totally evil, and Luke isn't necessarily totally good.  The Emperor is the rightfully elected ruler of the Galaxy, while the Rebellion vies against that rightfully elected leader and uses people like criminals and smugglers to do its dirty work.  Bits of hypocrisy and shades of grey have crept into Star Wars, something I'm likely to explore, but it should be noted that while people are complex, Star Wars rarely presents issues in that morally grey way except for the fall of Anakin, where it attempts (at least for awhile) to blur the lines and create a sense of tragedy where his righteousness and love leads to his fall (which promptly falls apart when he "kicks the dog" in Revenge of the Sith).

Tales of the Solar Patrol also features "a Populated System."  Everything worth seeing has people in it, and you can generally walk around in shirt sleeves.  This is definitely true of Star Wars, and it's why I've told you not to bother with gravity or atmosphere rules.  In Tales of the Solar Patrol, Venus is a jungle world and Mars is a cold, desert world, and neither are instant death to ill-equipped humans.  Furthermore, they feature a multitude of sapient species (and dinosaurs!  And psychic overlords!  And warrior-cat-people!), but I want to especially draw your attention to the Vithaani on page 18: They're literally just humans.  They're also an obvious call-out to Barsoom, but note that they have no template, that they're explicitly able to interbreed with humans, and just have some window-dressing culture that will certainly encourage them to wear very little and fight in crazy gladiatorial battles.

I had a lot of fun killing Jabba the Hutt. They asked me on the day if I wanted to have a stunt double kill Jabba. No! That's the best time I ever had as an actor. And the only reason to go into acting is if you can kill a giant monster.
-Carrie Fisher

Finally, the section closes with a comment on gender roles, noting that pulp space opera tended to treat female characters as victims or decorations or plot devices.  Pulp space opera wasn't aimed at women, it was aimed at men, and it often featured beautiful, scantily clad women in desperate need of a hero to rescue them.  Not all of them did this, though.  Dale Arden, from Flash Gordon, inspired Princess Leia, and while she was definitely a character who got kidnapped a lot, she was also the sort of character who showed spunk and fire, who was at Flash's side, rather than sprawled at his feet.  You see more of this sort of thing in a variety of pulp works and quite some science fiction, especially as attitudes began to change (and sci-fi authors liked the idea of being "progressive" and often subscribed to ideologies that included feminism).  Star Wars, of course, expanded beyond its origins and now, in the Force Awakens, a female character is the main lead and she regularly rescues the male character.

I personally think that's a bridge too far: It's one thing to try to expand your audience, and another thing entirely to begin to antagonize your target audience, but I personally think Psi-Wars needs to be the sort of setting where in space knights rescue space princesses or where scantily clad alien dancers sway on book covers to entice 13 year old boys to buy them, but it's definitely just as in genre to have a tough, sarcastic female character who doesn't need anyone to rescue her.

A final, critical element not discussed in Tales of the Solar Patrol in great detail is that it rarely features technology that substantially changes human society, and that characters must win the day with their own wit and strength, not by relying on the power of their technology.  This is an element you'll see again and again in every piece of fiction I cite.  Everything here, ultimately, is adventure fiction, and they all share roots, at some point, with space opera.

Thinly Dressed Space Opera

Still from Prey 2
Today, people are even more genre-savvy than they were in yesteryear, and film-makers and video-game developers can afford to just show you a few cheap tropes and that alone tells you're in a sci-fi universe.  Often, especially for TV-shows, the result is a very cheap set (justified by being set "on some run down colony") and a few slightly dressed guns that have a little CGI and some sound effects when they fire, and some people with interesting, but not too-expensive costumes.

The net effect is that the studio can afford to tell you a familiar story in a completely new way.  This is both very cheap and easy (the same principle behind which pulp novels worked), and also extremely liberating.  It allows the writer to jam whatever stories he wants together, and often we get crazy kitchen-sink stories.  Consider Dark Matter (not listed above, because of my poor opinion of the show), which features both cyberpunk hacker stories and samurai-inspired dynastic politics and heroic rebellions all just jammed together.  Or consider Firefly's obvious cowboy story that adds geishas and ninjas and psychotic monsters (Reavers) while featuring a character clearly inspired by Han Solo.

The point in these things isn't space or technology.  In fact, the main character may have some wild gadgets and the setting may feature crazy stuff, and the end of the day, the stories being told are familiar.  The point of the story isn't to explore space or science for the sake of space or science, which is why this sort of genre is often disdained as "not really sci-fi", but rather, it uses it as an excuse to justify whatever crazy elements the writer wants to introduce into the story.

Thus, we have (space) cops fighting against (space) gangs in cool shoot-outs featuring (space) guns, but one of the maverick (space) cops goes too far and his (space) chief asks for his (space) badge back. Or a (space) knight is sent on a quest (into space!) to rescue a (space) princess from a (space) dragon, and he returns to find that his (space) king has been killed by the (space) vizier, and he mounts a rebellion.  We know these stories already, but this genre allows us to tell them more cheaply, and with more freedom for how we handle the tropes (our space dragon can be a giant bug, and our space gang can trade in psychic crystals, etc)

I would argue that Psi-Wars is more this genre than Star Wars.  It's less about giving you Star Wars and more about giving you a modest Space Opera game that you can run your favorite Action game in, that happens to have some Jedi expies in it.  Prey 2 and Killjoys, in particular, should be perfectly possible with the Bounty Hunter template, for example.

Baroque Space Opera of an Epic Scope

Dune is probably the most seminal of these works, but I'm positive that George Lucas was inspired by both Dune and Foundation in writing Star Wars.  Hober Malo reminds me of Han Solo, Trentor definitely inspired Coruscant, and the whole idea of retelling Roman History in a sci-fi story definitely came from Foundation.  Tatooine is almost certainly inspired by Dune, with its moisture farming and its desert people that ride single file to hide their numbers.  Later works, like Endless Space and Warhammer 40k probably owe more to Dune and Foundation than they do to Star Wars, but I think you can still see some Star Wars in them.

Like "Thinly Dressed Space Opera", these use Space Opera tropes as an excuse to retell ancient history, often with a mystical twist.  Because of this, an author might, say, totally rip off the life of a WW1 war hero, set it in space, and win accolades!  All of them feature an ancient galaxy that's sweeping in scope.  Because it's so huge, the author can afford to just drop entire new worlds or powerful factions into later novels (like Ix in Dune) without making a splash.  Because the galaxy is ancient, it can afford to have already interesting worlds full of ruins and ancient civilizations with ancient customs for our heroes to explore, and to fight, rather than fussing over geology and biology and boring science.

But this genre usually goes further than most space opera.  If it's going to have a huge, epic scope and ancient history, it often tries to at least explore some of those implications.  I think Warhammer 40k is, for me, the most notorious for this. Whenever I read the setting, I can't help but read a conversation between an enthusiastic space opera fan and some cynical realist explaining why none of it could happen, followed by the space opera fan exaggerating everything until it actually sort of works ("You wouldn't actually invade planets when you can just burn them to ash from orbit. Unless, I guess, there was something on the planet you really needed." "Great!  That's why they have space marines!" "But do you know how long it takes to get places?  Even with FTL, it would have to take literally years to cross the galaxy." "Okay!  The civilization is ancient and often out of contact with its worlds!").  Baroque space opera often embraces some of its crazier implications and pushes them to an extreme.  If Thinly Dressed Space Opera is D&D, Baroque Space Opera is Game of Thrones (or the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

These settings typically feature more nuanced morality than general space opera.  Good is good and evil is evil, of course, but it tends to feature the universe as it is, rather than as we would have it be.  Perhaps the villain will win every once in a while, or perhaps the hero will have to make compromises, or even engage in something sinister for the greater good.  There's much more deception and hard choices here, because in many ways, this genre goes for something more "real" than basic space opera: a more cohesive setting, more authentic politics, deeper thought into what such a civilization would actually be like.

Note that most of my inspirations here aren't books or movies, but games, usually strategy games. That's not a coincidence, I think, as RPGs and strategy games must necessarily explore more about their setting than a movie has to.  Star Wars is pretty sparse on the ground when it comes to, say, logistics (despite a dreary economic discussion in the Phantom Menace) or when discussing worlds that aren't directly plot relevant.  Baroque space opera, on the other hand, is much broader in scope and richer in detail.  It serves Psi-Wars by offering us much more material to work with!

Wild and Wooly Euro (Comic-Book) Sci-fi

Alright, fair enough, Guardians of the Galaxy isn't really euro sci-fi, but all the rest of these either come from France or from the Czech Republic, and a lot of these are relatively new to me; this is a genre I'm still exploring.  In fact, I only discovered Metabarons when someone commented, back when I was writing up Communion, of how much it reminded him of the works of Jodorowsky, and thus now I have a copy of Metabarons in my bookshelf.

The majority of these either started off as, or explicity were, comic books, and in a sense, they carry on the tradition of space opera in that there's seldom a detailed exploration of space or science in them, but instead, a veneer of space tropes over a more mundane story.  The big difference between the thinly-dressed space opera and this euro space opera is that the veneer is very very thick, so think that it becomes the point of the experience.  The Fifth Element is a pretty basic story of good vs evil and the hunt for the macguffin, so much so that, by itself, it hardly stands up.  The point of the film isn't to see the resolution of the plot, but to see towering stories of flying cars, or ridiculous space stewardess outfits, or to watch an alien diva sing, or to watch Chris Rock's ridiculous performance.

True to comic book form, all of these offer idea after idea, either through issue after issue, or because that's what inspired them.  The writers don't really put that much thought into the feasability of what they propose, so much as work like a factory to crank out as much sense of wonder as they possibly can.  For an audience so jaded on space tropes, you either have to brush them aside and work on your story, as thinly dressed space opera does, or you have to assault them with a constant barrage of tropes so amazing that it blows past their cynicism, which is what these do.

The risk of this genre is that it's often weird for the sake of weird, but they typically get around this by grounding you with a very human character, sometimes even an Earthman, who acts as us, our view point to which all the crazy can be explained, if it's explained at all.

Metabaron Family Tree
The genre also resembles baroque and epic space opera in that it often has a very sweeping scope and a sense of legacy.  Metabarons details a dynasty of super-powered warriors (as does Coraabia, with its Ibar dynasty).  The Fifth Element emphasizes the ancient lineage of the priests that guard the Fifth Element.  Even Guardians of the Galaxy makes our heroes parentage an important plot point (as well as the family of Drax the Destroyer, and the kingship of Groot).

Again, like with baroque space opera, the sheer volume of material gives us a lot to work with, and I think it re-emphasizes the silliness of Psi-Wars, not in the sense that it's necessarily comical, but that it's going to be very comic-book-like, full of super-powered heroes and badasses and wild and crazy aliens.  Psi-Wars should be all tropes, all the time, with only the thinnest of excuses for them.

Shonen Space Opera Anime

A lot of anime drew its inspiration from Star Wars, which is understandable, as Star Wars drew a lot of inspiration from Japanese culture.  I personally find it hard to pick my way through shonen anime to highlight just a few, since some are a little too Star Wars, and others don't seem particularly Star-Wars like at all, but do feature themes I want to touch on.

The things I want to draw from these aren't setting material as such, though there's certainly some I can steal, but rather, I want to draw your eye to core themes within these.  Most of them feature young kids (just like pulp) who are in the midst of learning to be something more.  They often have a legacy that they must live up to, or they explicitly lack  that legacy, but will find that their actions tie them into the greater historical thread of their civilization.  Also, while all of these always feature grand stories of epic, historical and sweeping scope appropriate for baroque space opera, they always zoom in on our heroes at some point.  The fate of the galaxy usually rests on the shoulders of some hot-headed kid.  This theme explains my approach towards Mass Combat: in Psi-Wars, the actions of armies must be a backdrop to the actions of the heroes, which are what really matter, ultimately.

Anime tends to feature a wide variety of interesting characters as well, typically larger casts than I'm used to seeing in a Star Wars film, and these are usually (like pulp) targeted towards young men.  The result is that we get to see a wide variety of interesting characters, races and setting elements, with a male character usually as the central element and plenty of eye-candy.

Anime also doesn't always take itself as seriously as some of these other genres (though I would argue that while Euro-sci-fi doesn't explicitly laugh at itself the way anime often does, I'm pretty sure the authors are laughing behind the page at their most over-the-top elements).  Personally, I think the ability to laugh at your own work is important, and the more serious your story is, the more a little levity can emphasize the intensity of the work.

Anime, finally, is much less likely to take a warm view towards institutions.  Inevitably, the organization behind the hero is ultimately corrupt.  Morality blurs here: there's an underlying core that's absolutely good and absolutely evil, and you can totally save the day by punching evil in the face, but picking out who is evil is often a lot harder, with beautiful villains and ugly heroes, with corrupt presidents and benevolent dictators.  Often, there's buried conspiracies lurking beneath the surface, and thus the story is as much about ferreting out information as it is about kicking bad guy butt, which makes it something of a thriller, and thus very appropriate to Psi-Wars.

Action Movies

Psi-Wars uses the pulse of Action Movies as its core engine... which means we should understand action films, how they work and what they're about.  Several of the above are actually, properly, sci-fi, but they definitely have the pulse of action movies.

All action movies, of course, feature hyper-competent individuals locked in lone (or small-team) conflict with some much larger organization, all of which has already been built into Psi-Wars.  But action movies also feature a pulse of information and danger, where the heroes struggle to unravel a conspiracy, peeling back its layers one bullet at a time.

Action movies also tend to be set in the cutting edge present, or the day after tomorrow.  They feature top-notch technology that is not generally in the hands of the common people (matching Thinly-Dressed Space Opera, in that technology doesn't change our day-to-day lives very much).  It's set in a complex modern world, full of conflicting factions and hypocritical leaders.  Morality is a confused gordian knot, and it's the job of the action hero to cut through that knot and reveal the truth to the light of day by, of course, punching evil in the face.  Evil might wear a mask, or might not be what you first thought it was, but once you figure it out, then you punch it in the face and the world is definitively a better place.

The key lesson of action movies is that we need complex organizations (though we don't need to fully explore them so much as give the impression of great bureaucracies), secret conspiracies, enemies who will use our own organizations against us, and that our setting needs to match the modern world.  We need to make something that players can instantly grasp: GURPS Action lacks one thing that every other Campaign Framework has, which is a book detailing the setting (like monsters or places) that you can find in other Campaign Frameworks.  That's because you already know that world.

This creates a tension in Psi-Wars, as the more obvious we make it, the less wondrous we make it.  The clearest solution for this is to make the core familiar, a thinly dressed space opera that follows action movie conceits, and the farther you get from the core, the crazier and more baroque everything gets.

Wuxia and Chambara

I could include a lot more here, and I could probably even break this out into several sub categories This is perhaps a rather varied category that include some elements that could be placed elsewhere, but I've gathered them here for a few reasons.

First, it includes "Oriental themes," which is an oversimplification that's obvious today, but in the 70s, the idea that the whole of East Asia was some sort of mysterious, unified block, so of course George Lucas mashed Chinese and Indian philosophy in with samurai swordsmanship, because why not?  Thus, in a sense, it makes sense to mash them in together as well.

That said, most of these do feature a different cultural view than Western fiction, and it's grounded in that alternate culture, because these are written by the Japanese or Chinese for the Japanese or Chinese (or Korean, increasingly). Star Wars is surprisingly respectful of that: the Jedi philosophy is not portrayed as some crazy, alien, remote philosophy conjured up by inscrutable orientals, but fundamental and central to the setting.  In Star Wars, we are all Jedi (and thus we all subscribe to this psuedo-oriental philosophy).  I'd like to keep that in Psi-Wars: rather than depicting foreign Earth cultures as foreign, I want to ground them in humanity.  That's not to say I won't draw inspiration from various Earth cultures, but I don't like the idea of "Europe" being "Human" and "Japan" being "Alien."

Most of these feature a strong student/master relationship, with a deep study of an ancient art or technique, the mastery of which is vital to the success of our quest and to saving the world.  This fits nicely with the themes of young heroes in the process of learning, typical of both Anime and Pulp as well, and suits the antiquity of our Baroque space opera.

The student/master relationship often involves a deep sense of legacy: the student might become the master and train his pupil and so on.  Family is also often very important in these (your father  may or may not be your master as well, or he might object to your training, and this is usually plot-relevant if he does: note that Uncle Owen objected to Luke going off in search of a master in the form of Kenobi), and wuxia especially grounds a character in a long lineage of heroes (if the character is an orphan, he'll later learn that his father/mother was actually super important, and was usually assassinated).

Finally, most of them involve an exploration of complex morality (they might be deeply philosophical), a look at organizational hypocrisy, and often involve uncovering a conspiracy that might stretch back quite some time.  This is usually done to protect the status quo (the "Mandate of Heaven" or the "Sanctity of the Emperor"), but sometimes this itself turns out to be a lie, and the hero instead overthrows it.

If the themes seem similar to Action movie themes, I doubt this is an accident.  Wuxia and chambara are very similar to the swashbuckling genre (which I could absolutely include here), and the action genre is, in a sense, a continuation of the swashbuckling genre.
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