Tag Archives: technology

Nine Worlds: Space is an Ocean

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If you’re writing the kind of story where spacecraft are a central feature then you probably want to put some thought into their design. But even if they’re just serving as a location or backdrop, you can jar your readers’ immersion with a spaceship that contradicts their expectations too badly.

Space travel in science fiction often draws parallels with the sea; fictional spacecraft often feel a lot like ships; to the point where that’s entered the popular consciousness. We’ll talk about some of the aspects naval architects consider when designing oceangoing ships, and how you can use them to invent spaceships that feel like they match the feel of your setting.
Speaker: Dr. Nick Bradbeer

This talk was given by my dear friend Dr. Nick, who was a little concerned that there wouldn’t be much of an audience as it was the first session on Sunday morning after the late-night disco. There was, of course, standing room only. Silly Dr. Nick. 🙂

Is Space An Ocean?

The developing design of spaceships in fiction can be directly linked to our changing perspective of space. We originally thought of space as being basically a bit like air, and all the spaceships looked a little like planes or rockets. That changed in the 60s with the advent of Star Trek (correlation, probably not causation), when we started to think of space as more equivalent to water. (Disclaimer: this is purely in literary terms. The scientists continued to be factual about it.) That shift in thinking fundamentally changed the way we talk about spaceships in our stories. For a start, they became ships. They gained large crews, decks, command centres on the bridge, and cannons. Laser cannons, sure, but still.

This was, I think, the underlying point of the talk. Spaceships of the kind we write about in SFF aren’t possible – at least, not yet – so you as the writer get to decide the medium you’re designing them for. You build your own rules, however close to actual physics they end up being, and follow them. 

Designing Your Rules

Technology has four distinct phases, and you need to decide which phase your spaceships are in:

  1. Experimental: ridiculously expensive. The world can afford to build one of these. (e.g. International Space Station)
  2. Governmental: very expensive, affordable only by governments and mega-corporations. (e.g. space programmes)
  3. Commercial: expensive, but within the price range of most corporations. (e.g. planes)
  4. Personal: affordable by the average individual. (e.g. cars)

Your setting should have some form of technology at every phase of development, otherwise the setting won’t feel developed or developing.

You also need to consider the Mohs Scale of SciFi Hardness. How far do you want to bend physics? If you’re ignoring real physics, it’s still good to have consistent rules of fake-physics within which your technology operates. (Otherwise, just call it magic and be done with it.) Dr. Nick is a fan of the One Big Lie approach, wherein most physics is normal but one law is breakable or one piece of technology is impossible, such as the FTL (Faster Than Light) drive which makes it actually possible to travel between star systems.

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Physics, schmysics

Form & Function

Generally speaking, the more mature your technology, the more aesthetic freedom you have in design. When the tech is experimental, the aesthetic tends to be quite function-driven and practical. As it moves towards the personal, freedom of design creeps in. There’s also a correlation in Sci Fi between aesthetic freedom and soft science: the less applicable real-world physics is to the setting, the more freeform the spaceship design tends to be.

There are, however, several aspects of function which will impact design:

  • Role: what is the payload and performance of the ship? Does it need to be fast, durable, stealthy, carry cargo, carry crew, etc? Is it offensive or defensive? Does it carry smaller fighters? (More on that below.)
  • Sizing: this is the balance of weight, space and power. Again, more on this below.
  • Layout: does it take off vertically or laterally? Are there lots of internal subdivisions (the ability to compartmentalize air is often useful)? Does it need to be cramped into as little space as possible, or is this completely irrelevant (like Star Wars Star Destroyers)? Do you want to separate your living areas from your engine areas, or not? What is the traffic flow of people like?

A note on fighter carriers: these only work if the fighters are actually useful, otherwise you’re putting a lot of resources into something unnecessary. Fighters are useful if they carry out a function the carrier can’t, like operating in a different element such as a carrier ship with fighter planes. In space that isn’t applicable, so the fighters need to have a different difference to the real world. For example, as long-range scouts if the technology for scanners is only short-range, or for torpedo delivery if weapon tech is at a level where torpedoes are a sensible battle option.

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Magic tech: where form and function completely ignore each other

Size Does Matter

When working out the balance between weight, space and power, there are certain weight groups that need to be considered. These include structure, drives, personnel, power and heat, and payload.

Structure refers to both the external hull and the internal integrity. Is it shaped like a ship or a rocket? Does it need reinforcing ribs internally? Ribs make things look solid – they’re often used in spaceship design where they aren’t strictly needed because it’s such a strong aesthetic.

Drives refers to the method and speed of propulsion. Does your ship have a small thrust and build up speed slowly (microthrust), or lots of thrust which builds up speed very quickly but is far more fuel-intensive and potentially painful for your crew (torch ship)? The speed of travel is really important for your wider setting – it impacts politics, interplanetary communications, warfare, cultural spread, and a host of other things. In the RPG Traveller, for example, radio waves can’t travel any faster than ships, so everything works in the same way as it did in Earth’s Age of Sail. Ships are relied on to carry messages, and no communication can outrun the fastest ship.

Personnel refers to the number of crew on a ship and therefore the amount of space they take up. Technology miniaturizes but people don’t. They need places to eat, sleep, wash, exercise and breathe (yay, life support). They also need to be shielded from the radiation typically found in space.

Power and heat refers to the amount of heat given off by the engines and various other systems, which will vary depending on the ship’s function. Venting heat into space is super-important if you don’t want your ship to explode, so external radiators are an important and often-overlooked feature.

Payload refers to the weaponry. Does it need fuel of some kind? Does it need ammunition? Does it need recoil space? How big is it, how many people are required to operate it, what is the range capability?

Defying Gravity

How are you creating artificial gravity? It isn’t something you can just turn on with the flick of a switch – it depends on your ship’s drives and style of propulsion. If you have low-thrust drives, they will only create a weak gravity. If you have really high-thrust drives, they run the risk of flattening your crew.

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Most sci fi ships create gravity by spinning in some way. Either the whole ship spins on it’s lateral axis (or, more excitingly, the vertical one, known as the Tumbling Pigeon), or the habitation part of it does in a ring or compartments around the ship’s core. If none of your ship spins at all, the creation of artificial gravity might be the One Big Lie in your setting.

And Finally, Air Ships

Ships are dense. Air is not. It requires a LOT of air to lift a very very small, very very light ship. Get the proportions right. The airships in the 2011 Three Musketeers movie need not apply.

Dr. Nick has kindly shared his slides here, and is on Twitter here.

Next week: how to horrify your audience.

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Nine Worlds: Classical Monsters in Popular Culture

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Greek and Roman mythology has given us some of the most memorable monsters and creatures – centaurs, harpies, the Minotaur, etc. But what do those monsters mean when reused in modern popular culture? What can we say about how they are depicted? These questions and more will be discussed by three experts on classical monsters.
Panellists: Dr. Tony Keen, Dr. Liz Gloyn, Dr. Amanda Potter, Dr. Nick Lowe

I heard Nick Lowe talk last year and thoroughly enjoyed his style, so I was keen to see him in action again. I have to confess, though, that I didn’t stay to the end of this session – partly because the room was freezing, and partly because the conversation wandered off into the realm of Monstrous Barbies which is distinctly less interesting to me. There were some good ideas before I left though.

The Evolution of Monsters

Monster Theory states that they are a personification of contemporary fears. The trouble with that otherwise-attractive theory is the pervasive popularity of classical monsters like Medusa, the sirens, etc. They can’t be called contemporary by any stretch of the imagination, so why do they persist?

The panel likened monsters to orchid root systems – something that goes underground and spreads, surfacing in receptive environments. They then adapt a little to those new environments. This requires less evolution than if they remained culturally pervasive and changed constantly. It also means that you get a wide range of regional variations on what is essentially the same monster.

They theorized that it’s not really the monsters which are changing – it’s what they’re being used for. In classical myth, monsters were there as something for the hero to overcome – they weren’t creatures of horror stories, but of action stories. It’s only in recent times that we’ve given them a metaphorical role. Basically, the Monster Theory is a new idea that only applies to new interpretations.

There’s been a couple of other takes on monsters, aside from horror:

  1. Rationalized – they aren’t monsters, they’re aliens / humans acting horrifically / exaggerations of what actually happened
  2. Sympathetic – we misunderstand the monsters’ drives/nature or they are cursed and therefore pitiable (and potentially rescuable)
  3. Eroticized – this applies particularly to female monsters, on which subject a bit more later
Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909 (oil on canvas)

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper, 1909. Sirens were creepy bird-women, Herbert, not sexy fish-women.

The Portrayal of Monsters

Nick Lowe pointed out that there’s very few canonical texts which deal with actual monsters, or put them directly on the page. They exist on the fringes of literature, especially in the Greek epics, where it’s just heroes retelling monster stories or vague references to challenges overcome. This may well be where the horror element first crept in – as soon as you can see the monster, it ceases to be scary so it seems logical that much of its power to horrify came from its original vagueness.

When media became visual, monsters had to change as a result. Ray Harryhausen, the movie SFX stop-motion pioneer, completely transformed the way we see monsters. For a start, he domesticated them. Universal’s monster films in 1960s America, combined with the popularity of Dr. Who in the UK, sparked renewed interest in monster culture and presented them in stories targeted at children. The narratives weren’t there primarily to terrify, but to entertain. In a way, it was a return to the monster’s original role.

Technology has driven the way monsters are seen in modern narratives, moving from make-up and suits, through stop-motion animation and puppetry, to CGI. The monsters with enduring power are the ones all forms of tech were able to portray convincingly. And as the tech has evolved, so the power to terrify has returned. Visual media is very powerful for getting inside our heads, and glimpses of a CGI predator are way more terrifying than glimpses of a bad prosthetic in a Welsh quarry.

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*hides from irate classic Whovians*

The Gender of Monsters

The majority of classical monster are female in some way. Charybdis, of Odyssey fame, was a whirlpool – notably lacking in either gender or genitalia – but she still gets firmly defined as female. This is a result of the classical framework of the world, whereby civilization was considered male and the wild was female. There’s also a whole bunch of things around power dynamics, which the panel didn’t touch and deserves its own blog post at another time.

Modern problems with gender characterization of the monstrous has encouraged us to make monsters more sympathetic (but not, you’ll note, to change their gender). There’s also ways of talking about gender issues that express themselves through sympathetic monster origin stories – such as the rape of Medusa – which has resulted in a certain amount of reclaiming the female monster. Examples cited included Maleficent and Wicked, where a central message is that ‘it’s alright to be yourselves’. This has led to reopening the discussion on defining what is monstrous – something Mary Shelley began with Frankenstein back in 1818.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, still ahead of the curve 200 years on

And that’s where I got too cold to stay. Next week: women write about war

 

Virtual Reality: Storytelling in REAL Fantasy Worlds

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A few weeks ago I had a really interesting chat with Patrick Collister, Head of Design at Google, who talked to me about the evolution of storytelling as Virtual Reality technology has progressed.

As this is primarily a writing blog, rather than a tech one, I’ll very quickly give a run-down of some key terms:

  1. VR – Virtual Reality. Creating digital spaces that you can walk around in. This is different to computer games because the space stays still even when you move the device you’re looking at it through. Imagine you’re standing in a room, looking at it through the camera on your smartphone. The room doesn’t swing around as the phone moves – it stays still and you see different bits of the room. Exactly like that, except the room is wholly digital.
  2. AR – Augmented Reality. A digital overlay on real stuff. Pokemon Go is Augmented Reality.
  3. MR – Mixed Reality. Still in development, currently. This is basically like AR, but projected directly onto the eyeball rather than viewed through a device.

Making the Reader a Protagonist

I want to talk about VR because that’s the stuff really making waves in storytelling. Google have been doing all manner of cool things with it, and Patrick pointed me towards a particular video on their VR YouTube channel which demonstrated some of what he was talking about.

See, if you’re standing in the virtual world and a story’s unfolding around you, how do you a) interact with it if it’s just a video, and b) ensure you’re looking at the right place to see the crucial plot points? Both these questions are solved in the same way. Google 360 structure the story in very short chapters. Each chapter is triggered only when the viewer is looking in a specific direction. So you don’t miss anything but, more importantly, nothing happens if you don’t look at it. You’ve got the time to look around because the next chapter will wait for your attention.

If a tree falls in a VR wood, and you aren’t looking at it, it doesn’t finish falling.

Suddenly the viewer is critical to the process. They become a protagonist, responsible for making things happen. By way of example, here’s the video Patrick showed me. You can watch it on computer, but watching it on your phone is a WAY better medium to experience this type of storytelling. Because the point is that you move around. Give it a go.

I’m not sure what impact this will have on traditional storytelling structures, if any, as far as the written word is concerned. But it’s early days and there’s no denying video is a very powerful tool to shape how people think. And the trend in digital content over the last few years has consistently been more and more about personalisation. You want to attract people to your creation? Make it personal – give them a starring role.

So far I’ve just been an interested observer, very much on the fringes of what’s going on. Ian Thomas, Director of Talespinners – writer, game designer and all-around storytelling expert – has waaaay more experience than I do. So I asked him what he thought.

Challenges in VR Storytelling – Ian Thomas

Here’s the thing: there are a few groups of people trying to leap on VR for storytelling purposes right now, and at least two of them are coming at it from an angle which isn’t a great fit, and a lot of their problems lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium through trying to apply film techniques. VR is seen as a visual medium most closely related to computer games and film, and to my mind it’s far removed from either.

The first group are film-makers. As you might imagine, the natural inclination of the film-maker when approaching VR is to take a linear piece of storytelling and then to work out how to deliver it in 360 degree surround. Directors are used to having complete control of the action; editors are used to controlling pacing (not to mention being able to cut and have multiple viewpoints, both of which are limited in VR); cinematographers are used to being able to control framing. None of those skills are really of any use in VR, and a lot of lessons are having to be unlearned very swiftly – nearly all the language of cinematography goes out of the window. VR productions coming from this angle tend to be very static, tend to be confusing for the player, don’t take enough account of the player’s presence in the world (being more of a piece for the player to watch, or a ghost train-like experience), and, when they offer any interactivity at all, it’s of the ‘trigger object to continue’ variety.

The second group are game developers – and one of the problems comes specifically from game developers working at the high end. The trouble is that many such AAA developers have spent the last twenty years or so trying to make their games more like films, picking up cinematography techniques (such as ‘frame the important object’), cuts, cutscene pacing and so on. As with film-making, those things simply don’t work – you can’t constrain the player’s head to focus on a specific object, for example. The other issue is that locomotion in VR is completely different from that in most mainstream computer games – walking along a corridor is quite a different experience in VR (and can lead to motion sickness), so you need to find other tricks and techniques; a lot of gaming has been focused around an experience of ‘continuous travelling through a space’, so that needs to be rethought. Again, people are having to unlearn lots of lessons. A lot of early attempts have been experimental VR ports of existing games, which are only really working for the hardcore gamers who are willing to put up with quirks and nausea.

However, games are a better fit than cinema, and there are games companies doing excellent work in this space.  They tend to be people who’ve thrown away their preconceptions and started from scratch and spent a lot of time experimenting and getting to grips with the medium; or even to be people who have no previous background in games and are coming in fresh, with no constraints or expectations. And, in general, games companies tend to get the idea of player agency and embodiment in a way that film-makers don’t.

The fundamental storytelling issue is – a thing happens. How do you get the player to notice? Google’s answer, as you quoted, is to only trigger things when the player is looking in that direction – there are other solutions but that’s not a bad one. However, as you might imagine, pacing is therefore quite different from other media.

But there’s a deeper thing going on here, at least in this stage in the adoption of VR. You’re trying to tell a story. Perhaps an epic tale which will capture the player and sweep them up. At least that’s the intention. But behaviourally, a lot of game creators are finding that the player spends all their time just looking around the room and picking up objects, ignoring your carefully crafted dramatic content. Because that’s where they’re finding the fascination and the fun. Maybe that’s only temporary, because the experience is so new. But in any case, perhaps that should be your storytelling method – just picking things up and looking. In the games industry this is known as environmental storytelling, and existing non-VR games such as Gone Home are great exponents of this sort of experience, allowing players to piece things together at their own pace.

What I’ve found most powerful in VR so far is the sense of presence you feel when there’s another character in the scene. Even if the character isn’t modelled photorealistically, the human brain interprets them as ‘there’ in a way that I haven’t seen in any other medium – it’s absolutely uncanny. If you play through Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR and are nose-to-nose with the Joker… there’s no feeling like it. It’s something which took me completely by surprise, and it’s the thing I’m most interested in pursuing.

Another important thing to mention is 3D audio. Well-designed audio is hugely important in VR, and again isn’t something that film audio can adapt to very well due to the non-linear way the sounds are encountered or triggered. It’s a lot closer to game audio, but many games still treat audio as of secondary importance. In VR it’s utterly critical, as it underpins and helps define the reality of the space around you. And, where you perhaps can’t rely on camerawork in the way you could in other media, you can absolutely rely on sound and get much more out of it than in other media.

VR experiences aren’t simply translations of existing games techniques. Nor are they simply translations of film techniques. I think the closest thing we have so far is single-audience-member participatory theatre-in-the-round, but no-one’s really drawing on theatre experience yet. But at the root of it, VR is its own thing, and no-one knows quite what yet.

Ian is a games writer, designer and coder who has wrestled computers for a living for over two decades. He’s worked in interactive television, education, puppet-making, film, publishing, live events, and the games industry, where he’s helped bring to life games such as Frictional’s SOMA, The Bunker, and a wide variety of other titles from LittleBigPlanet to LEGO. He’s written action movies, children’s books about Cthulhu, interactive fiction and pulp novels. Most of his time is spent running Talespinners, a story-for-games company that helps games studios deliver their narrative. Amongst other things, he’s currently writing for a VR multiplayer RPG.

Sing, O Muse, the Wrath of Achilles: Roll Initiative

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This week is the blog’s fourth anniversary so, to celebrate, I’m going to combine two of my favourite things: ancient epics and roleplaying games. This is because the common thread between them is part of what the blog is all about – collaborative storytelling.

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Roleplaying games happen when a bunch of people get together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, and tell a story together about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re playing World of Darkness.

Ancient epics were told when a bunch of people got together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, to listen to a story about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters were the heroes, if you’re listening to Beowulf.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Kill Screen wrote a fantastic article about this and you should totally go and read it. What they didn’t talk about is how this is spreading out into a wider culture, thanks to modern technology.

The nature of a public is not one-way. It is not the provision of material to be consumed. The nature of a public is a two-way, three-way, multiple-way conversation that’s reciprocal, that requires listening as well as speaking. ~ Matthew Stadler

Twitter provides fantastic examples of writers who use the online platform to build a dialogue with their readers, as well as changing the content to better suit the medium. Joanne Harris, for example, tells a story on Twitter at least once a month, via multiple tweets, using the hashtag #Storytime and encourages her followers to give her ideas for the next one.

Back in 2014, Neil Gaiman ran a Twitter-based project called A Calendar of Tales, during which he asked his Twitter followers to suggest a single inspiring sentence for each month of the year, selected twelve to write a short story around, and then asked his followers for illustrative artwork. The results were a beautiful anthology, the collaborative work of an author and his readers. Then there’s places like Wattpad, where writers post chapter by chapter and readers can leave comments or feedback. There’s blogs like Andrew Knighton‘s, where people can comment or even request themes for his Friday flash fiction.

And, of course, there’s a rise in mainstream culture of SF&F stories which brings a whole new audience into the conversation. Stories about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re watching Deadpool.

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Fantastical stories are ancient. The Epic of Gilgamesh, with monsters and quests for magic items, is over four thousand years old. Communal story telling existed back when (and because) people couldn’t read or write. When people start to panic about the decline of books in the face of advancing technology, this is the thing to remember. Look how far storytelling hasn’t come. We tell the same types of tales in the same types of ways, and have done for a very very long time. It’s how we’re wired to tell stories. The technology we create will inevitably serve to continue that.

It’s just that, sometimes, there’s also dice.