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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Predictions and Information Overload
I'm currently reading Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Childhood's End, and I found this passage funny:
...there are too many distractions and entertainments. Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder people are becoming passive sponges — absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!
I don't think Clarke was really attempting to make a firm prediction in this statement (which is essentially made in passing), but it's amusing to think how much he got right and how much he got wrong. Considering that he was writing this book in the early 1950s, he actually did make a pretty decent prediction when it came to average viewing time per person. In the US, the number is more like 4-5 hours a day (I'm betting that this will be in decline, especially in this year of the WGA strike), but worldwide, it's probably down around 3 hours a day. On the other hand, Clarke drastically underestimated the amount of content made available and also the effect of so much content.

The United States alone has 2,218 stations, which is over 4 times as many stations as Clarke had predicted hours. If we assume each station only broadcasts for an average of 16 hours a day, that works out to be over 35,000 hours of programming (70 times as much as Clarke had predicted for both TV and radio). And this doesn't even count things like On Demand, DVDs, and newer entertainment mediums like the Internet (which includes stuff like You Tube and Podcasts,etc... in addition to the standard textual data) and Video Games.

Which brings me to the other interesting thing about Clarke's prediction. He seemed to think that when that much entertainment became readily available, we would become "passive sponges — absorbing but never creating." But in today's world, the opposite seems true. Indeed, content creation seems to be accelerating. To be sure, Clarke was right in the general sense that massive amounts of data do indeed come with problems of their own. Clarke is certainly right to note that you can only really experience a tiny fraction of what's out there at any given time, and this can be an issue. Ironically, a google search for "Information Overload" yields 2,150,000 results, which is as good an example as any. On a personal level, I don't think this goes as far as, say, Nicholas Carr seems to think, and as long as we find ways around the mammoth amounts of data we're all expected to assimilate on a daily basis (stuff like self-censorship seems to help), we should be fine.
Posted by Mark on July 30, 2008 at 07:06 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Anathem Details
Not sure when this happened, but there's a new video on Amazon's Anathem page that features a 4 minute interview with Stephenson, who explains a few things about his new book. Most notably and despite Stephenson's best efforts, it appears that the book has developed it's own vocabulary and will feature a glossary (similar to Dune, though I get the impression that his planet won't have quite as much in the glossary). I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but my initial impression is that it's a good thing. The story is supposed to be set on an alien planet, so it makes sense that there would be concepts and vocabulary that would require explanation. One of the things that always bothered me about alien planets in fiction (particularly in TV and movies) is just how homogenous they are. When you look at the history of our planet you see a ton of variety surrounding life, society, culture, etc... and you rarely see any of that kind of depth in SF stories. Again, this is more evident in TV and film, where you see things like a multitude of humanoid races (not that humanoid aliens can't exist, it's just that humans developed and evolved to survive in a distinct environment - to assume that most aliens would develop in almost the exact same way (except with some strange bulges in their forehead) is ludicrous - and besides, we know humanoids, humanoids are boring, give us something new and interesting, like the Alien) or overly simplistic environments like "the ice planet of Hoth" (Star Wars seems particularly willing to simplify planets by endowing them with a single ecological system that covers the entire planet). Books seem to be a little better suited to establishing a fictional world anyway, so I'm hoping that Stephenson will be able to do so effectively.

I've actually been reading a lot of SF recently (which I guess you can tell, from the recent SF content that's been posted on the blog recently) and will probably be posting a recap of several recent reads, but one book that really caught my attention with it's depiction of a non-humanoid alien race was Vernor Vinge's excellent A Fire Upon the Deep. There are actually several interesting alien races in the book, but the primary one is called the Tines, which basically take the form of packs of dog-like beings. I don't want to spoil the book, but the way Vinge handles the Tines is fascinating. In some ways, they're very similar to humans, but in other ways, they are dramatically different, and Vinge does a good job extrapolating from those differences. I can't tell yet if Stephenson's novel will feature humanoid aliens or not (are they even aliens?), but he does mention that their history of ideas runs roughly parallel to our own. Again, I'm not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I don't want aliens that are exactly the same as us, but on the other hand, there needs to be some similarities or else we won't be able to relate (nor would it be realistic to expect Stephenson to conceive of something like that). Indeed, Vinge's Tines had a roughly parallel history of ideas as well, except that they were stuck in a medieval state that, for physical reasons, they could not transcend (until aliens land on their planet, of course).

Anyway, there also appears to be a PDF of Anathem's first chapter available, though I have not read it yet (and probably won't until the book comes out). No word about whether or not we'll get an accompanying CD with the book (like the advanced copies had). Sorry to keep blabbing about Anathem, but I'm obviously excited for this novel.
Posted by Mark on July 27, 2008 at 09:27 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Link to Someone New: Web Comics Edition
I've recently run across some interesting webcomics, so I figured it was time for another edition of linking to someone new:
  • Abstruse Goose: Another minimalist nerd comic, but it's actually pretty good. Just don't compare it to xkcd (which is, of course, impossible - especially when he creates comics like this). This SETI comic is brilliant.
  • Theater Hopper: Topical, movie-themed comic. The latest one features a rather obscure reference, but most of them are great, and he's apparently been doing this for over 5 years (sooo, I'm a little late on this one, but it's good anyway).
  • Stolen Pixels: Ok, I cheated. I already linked this, but how can I not link to Shamus' new, video-game themed comic? Great stuff so far. Now featuring legitimate webcomic navigation!
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on July 23, 2008 at 08:10 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight
I saw The Dark Knight this weekend, and to be honest, I'm still working my way through it. There's a lot to chew on in the movie, and that alone raises it above most films (not just "Superhero" movies). Rather than do a standard review of the film, which I'm sure anyone reading this blog has already read, I'll be discussing a few topics related to the film and to recent posts on this blog. As such, the following post is about as spoiler free as possible.

James Berardinelli gave the film 4 stars, which is notable since this is the first film that has earned that honor in nearly 2 years. He explains his position in his blog:
Some reviewers hand out four-star ratings like candy. Such is their right. It's their rating and their system. I have always felt that, for a four-star citation to mean anything, it must be handed out on only the rarest of occasions to the most deserving of films. When I dole out a four-star rating, I'm making a statement about the quality of the movie. I'm saying that, for anyone with similar movie tastes to mine, this is a "must-see." For a production to get four stars, it not only has to impact me as I'm watching it, but it has to stay with me afterward, as I drive home at night, as I do my evening exercises, as I get ready for bed, as I shower the next morning, and as I compose the review in my head while cutting the grass… Four-star movies aren't easily forgotten or shrugged off. They demand attention. They are rare. In 2007, there were none.
Steven notes the addicting grail-like quest reviewers put themself through in order to find 4 star entertainment. I don't post star ratings for most of the movies I see, but I count myself among the addiction grail-seekers. It has been over two years since I've seen a new film I would consider 4 stars (That film was United 93). That doesn't mean I haven't seen any 4 star movies in that time, just not newly-released ones. Most recently I discovered Zhang Yimou's brilliant Raise the Red Lantern, a movie that instantly shot into 4 star range for me. That is actually even more of a rarity though. It normally takes a while for a movie to sink in, and as Berardinelli notes, a 4 star movie stays with you long after viewing it. My question after seeing The Dark Knight is, how long is long enough? It will unquestionably be on my best of the year list, but is it really worth the 4 stars? Perhaps this is why I don't post star ratings for every movie I see.

I've always been a bit stingy with extreme ratings; I rarely rate something 1 star or 4 stars. Again, I'm being necessarily vague here because I really don't keep a list, but my most common rating is probably 2.5 stars. The process of compiling top 10 lists (which I've done for 2006 and 2007) has made me even more stingy with 4 star ratings. Nevertheless, I'm still considering The Dark Knight for the honor. It's that good.

Last week, I wrote about the difficulties of discussing genre films, and as if to prove my point, The Dark Knight is an amazing departure from its genre roots. Most superhero movies at least acknowledge their cartoonish nature, but The Dark Knight tries its best to play down those aspects. All that's left are the costumes and the occasional line of action-movie banter. Otherwise, this movie feels like a crime drama that happens to feature a guy who dresses up like a bat and another that dresses up like a (demented) clown. Oh, it still retains a healthy respect for the character and it's clearly a comic book movie, but I couldn't help but think of sweeping, epic, ensemble crime dramas like The Godfather: Part II and especially Heat. Apparently, Alexandra DuPont also noticed those parallels:
It's an ensemble crime drama, and the parallels to "Heat" are blatant: A master criminal and a master detective (the latter with a troubled personal life) embark on a collision course. As in "Heat," detective and criminal even sit down at a table and chat midway through the film. And as in "Heat," the characters surrounding and supporting the two leads get more screen time than you'd expect.
DuPont also notes just how different this movie is to it's immediate predecessor (which was made by the same creative team). Gone are the ninjas, gone are the ancient secret societies and their dopey conspiracies. What you're left with is unnervingly real, with few moments of comic-book-like fantasy. One other thing you don't see in most comic book movies (or crime dramas for that matter) is the laser-tight focus on consequences. This was something I was getting at in my post on Vigilantes, but was never really able to articulate. Vigilante stories, of which Batman is a prime example, are about a fantasy of justice, but often don't shy away from the consequences. With The Dark Knight, the consequences of a vigilante's actions far outweigh the fantasy of justice. Perhaps this is why the movie, which does feature a few outlandish (but exciting!) set-pieces, still retains a realistic feel. Again, it's still a comic book movie, but it's unlike what has preceded it and it's likely to influence what follows.

It seems pretty clear to me that the comic book movie genre has changed and will continue to grow. Interestingly, this trend looks likely to continue... as demonstrated by a preview for Watchmen shown before the Batman movie. I've been following the production of Watchmen for years, and I think part of the reason it's had so much trouble getting made is that it tells a bleak story... one that I think will resonate more deeply now that The Dark Knight has laid the groundwork. To be sure, I'm not talking about realism here, just the willingness to embrace the darker nature of superheroes. The consequences of a world with superheroes.

In any case, most of the things you're hearing are true. It's a great film that has lived up to the hype (well, so far - I have a feeling the hype is going to go through the stratosphere after this weekend). Heath Ledger's performance is indeed a brilliant and memorable one that could potentially earn him a posthumous Oscar, putting the tragedy of his death in further relief. Indeed, at this point, I can't imagine anyone ever donning the Joker makeup again and probably the worst thing about this movie is that it will be damn near impossible to follow up. My comic-loving friend tells me the filmmakers were hoping to do a Hannibal Lecter type thing with the Joker in the sequels; having him be in Arkham Asylum, but still pulling strings in Gotham City. Alas, such will not be possible. Going into the movie, I thought I saw the villain for the next film pretty clearly, but that turned out not to be the case (this is actually one of the things that I'm still working through).

There are only a handful of films I've seen multiple times in the theater, and the grand majority of those was more for social reasons than because of the film itself. Nevertheless, I think I will be rewatching The Dark Knight in the theater (probably an IMAX theater; apparently portions of the film were optimized for IMAX and I wanted to see it there, but all the IMAX showings for this past weekend sold out a week ago).

Update: My site's host was experiencing issues all night Sunday and thus this post isn't showing up until Monday morning. Sorry!
Posted by Mark on July 20, 2008 at 03:52 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Crest of the Stars: Initial Thoughts
One of the things I liked about Banner of the Stars was the worldbuilding. As such, I questioned my decision to skip the first series, Crest of the Stars. When I finished Banner, I immediately put Crest in my Netflix queue. Well, I've watched the first disc and I loved it. It covers a lot of the things that were hinted at in Banner, and it does a good job explaining many of the concepts (for instance, the 2 dimensional nature of Plane Space) I didn't know about while watching Banner. A lot of stories that are set in an unfamiliar setting have a character in them that has the same knowledge as the viewer. That way, when this character learns something, the audience does too. For example, in Das Boot, the main character is a journalist who has never been aboard a u-boat. The character basically provides the filmmakers with a reason to have the captain explain things he wouldn't normally need to explain (thus the audience gets an insight into what it's like to be on a u-boat). There was no corresponding character in Banner, but Jinto effectively plays that part in Crest. He grows up not knowing much about the Abh and then gets a bit of a culture shock when he meets Lafiel for the first time.

Jinto & Lafiel
Lafiel & Jinto

At this point, if someone asked me, I'd tell them to watch Crest first. There's enough backstory in Banner to allow someone to watch it without having seen Crest, but I get the feeling it would be a lot better if they watched Crest first. It's hard for me to tell, because in the comments of my first Banner post, Steven gave a great overview of the Abh, so I knew more than an average viewer might while watching Banner. Granted, I'm only 4 episodes into Crest, but so far it appears to be setting up the characters so that you care more about them by the time Banner rolls around. Still, I enjoyed some of the subtle character moments that establish the relationship between Jinto and Lafiel - for example, when Jinto asks Lafiel what her name is, it seems kinda strange at first, but then you find out why that moment is important a little later. Good stuff. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

A few more assorted thoughts and screens below the fold... The animation in Crest of the Stars seems to be crisper than Banner of the Stars, which lends an overall better visual effect to the series. My Banner DVD set has only 2 discs with 6-7 episodes on each disc. That's more than I usually see on a single disc, so perhaps those discs are sacrificing quality for quantity.

An Abh Ship
An Abh Ship

When Jinto becomes a nobleman, he gets sent to another planet and secretly schooled until he gets old enough to enter the Abh military academy. When he's leaving his school, his buddy comes to visit him on the space station. It's nice to see that the fist bump remains a fixture in future culture. Also, it appears that Jinto's friend is a member of the X-Men.

Jinto and his Mutant Friend Fist Bump
Jinto and his Mutant Friend Fist Bump

At one point, Jinto and Lafiel are traveling in an turbolift (for lack of a better term) and the indicator features a bunch of geometric shapes (instead of numbers or letters). The light moves from left to right as they move. The shapes seem somewhat orderly, but I wasn't sure if they had a specific meaning or if they were meant to approximate the shapes or sizes of the various areas they were passing through...

Elevator Indicators
Elevator Indicators

Well that's all for now. Disc 2 just arrived today and Disc 3 should be arriving tomorrow. I could potentially get disc 4 this weekend too, if I hurry. In any case, I should have one last update on Crest next Wednesday.
Posted by Mark on July 16, 2008 at 07:38 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

More on Genres
In Wednesday's post, I mused a bit on genres (mostly going along with Neal Stephenson's talk.) Well, in the comments, Roy was having none of that. And he has a point. When I started thinking about it, trying to define genres or even fiction in general is difficult. I was reminded of the opening paragraphs of Clive Barker's novel, Imajica:
It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course -- thousands in fact -- but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center. And even this essential trio would not remain intact; or so he taught. It would steadily diminish as the story unfolded, three becoming two, two becoming one, until the stage was left deserted.

Needless to say, this dogma did not go unchallenged. The writers of fables and comedies were particularly vociferous in their scorn, reminding the worthy Quexos that they invariably ended their own tales with a marriage and a feast. He was unrepentant. He dubbed them cheats and told them they were swindling their audiences out of what he called the last great procession, when, after the wedding songs had been sung and the dances danced, the characters took their melancholy way off into darkness, following each other into oblivion.
I'm sure this philosophy isn't anything new (sometimes I like to quote fiction to make a point), but what struck me about it is the way other writers immediately challenged the doctrine. As soon as Pluthero Quexos laid out his grand observation, I'm sure a hundred writers immediately set themselves a task to subvert it. Quexos calls them cheats, but are they? I'd say they probably aren't. The problem is that by talking about genres or even fiction in general, we're trying to put a box around it. However, anytime we put a box around something, especially something as subjective as fiction, it's tempting to think outside the box. Actually, it's fun to think outside the box.

I think this is why I like genre fiction so much. The very premise of a genre is to limit the story to some series of conventions... but the definition of what constitutes any specific genre is blurry, and writers like to play within that gray area. It's fun. A while ago, I wrote about the definition of a weblog, and I basically thought about weblogs as a genre:
A genre is typically defined as a category of artistic expression marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. However, anyone who is familiar with genre film or literature knows that there are plenty of movies or books that are difficult to categorize. As such, specific genres such as horror, sci-fi, or comedy are actually quite inclusive. Some genres, Drama in particular, are incredibly broad and are often accompanied by the conventions of other genres (we call such pieces "cross-genre," though I think you could argue that almost everything incorporates "Drama"). The point here is that there is often a blurry line between what constitutes one genre from another.
A lot of fiction does this even within itself. It sets up a paradigm, and then sets out to subvert it somehow. A great example of this is Isaac Asimov's robot stories. In those stories, Asimov laid out the now infamous Three Laws of Robotics:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Asimov was able to work wonders within the seemingly limiting framework of the three laws. Without going into specifics, he was actually able to have robots murdering humans. Technically, Asimov was thinking inside the box, but by the end of the series, the three laws were completely unreliable (and he'd broken out of the box). Of course, anyone familiar with formal systems is also familiar with the deductive process Asimov used, and the three laws probably isn't that notable of a system except in that it is easily understood by an informal audience (and don't mistake me, that is the brilliance of the three laws). Of course, by breaking out of the box, Asimov cheated a bit, but again, that's all part of the fun.

In any case, I like talking about genres, even though it's probably not possible to be definitive. It's fun anyway, and subverting the genre is definitely a part of that...
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2008 at 07:56 PM .: link :.

Stolen Pixels
I'm sure most of my readers also read Shamus (of DM of the Rings fame), but in case there are some who don't, I'd like to point to Shamus' new comic, called Stolen Pixels. So far, the comic has been lampooning the Unreal Tournament games, but he says he'll be covering other games as the comic progresses. I imagine these will resemble the little comics he's done on several of his posts a few months ago (for instance, see this comic on Sins of a Solar Empire...) So far, there are only 2 comics, but there are 2 new comics published a week (on Tuesdays and Fridays). I'm looking forward to more!
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2008 at 07:23 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Genres and SF
Neal Stephenson recently gave a talk called The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture at Gresham College. It's an interesting talk, and one of the things he talks about is how genres have evolved over time. Fifty years ago, there were a lot of fairly well delineated genres. He gives some examples like Romance, Westerns, and Crime. Westerns have basically disappeared. It's still a genre, but anything produced in that genre happens in some exceptional way (I think the genre survives because it has a rich history; otherwise it would have disappeared completely). Romance has more or less merged with all the other genres. Sure, bookstores still have unabashed romance sections, but you don't see much of those stories elsewhere in movies or television. Instead, you see romance merged in with just about every other genre. Most movies feature some romantic element these days. There are exceptions, of course, and there are sub-genres that are more romantic than not (i.e. romantic comedies), but for the most part romance on its own is pretty rare in movies. In a way, romance has become so ubiquitous that it ceases to be its own genre. Similarly, crime stories have become so commonplace that it's barely retained itself as a grenre. This is especially the case in television, and I can guarantee that there are at least 3 or 4 separate episodes of Law & Order and/or CSI playing on television right now, as I write this entry. Stephenson goes into more detail for all of these genres, and it is quite interesting.

A while ago, I linked to an article that featured a bunch of SF authors attempting to define the science fiction genre. I didn't talk much about my thoughts at the time, except to say that I favored a more broad definition than most of the authors, and part of the reason I did that was because of Neal Stephenson. He became famous for novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, obvious and unabashed science fiction, but his later works have curiously moved into more of a historical fiction. Crytponomicon takes place partially during WWII (with the other plotline being in the present day) and The Baroque Cycle takes place entirely in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both stories feature a lot of science and/or math, but they aren't your steriotypical SF. There's nothing futuristic about them, they don't take place in space, they don't feature aliens (well, we don't exactly know what Enoch Root is, so perhaps I'm wrong about that - then again, I don't think I ever want his character to be explained). Basically, a lot of the more strict definitions of SF would exclude those books. As such, I've always been curious to see what Stephenson's thoughts were, and perhaps unsprisingly, he seems to hold an extremely broad definition of what constitutes SF. He seems to embrace the notion of SF as meaning Science Fiction but also Speculative Fiction, which opens the doors to a lot of seemingly non science fictional things. For instance, he notes the way that science fiction and fantasy are often conflated, and he also seems to include anything influenced by comic books, video games or martial arts films as well. He also quotes Bruce Sterling's hilarious definition of "thrillers" (which funnily enough, involves science fiction). Is his definition too broad? Perhaps, but I think it's also a part of his larger point, which is that genres are kinda meshing together.

It's an interesting talk, and Stephenson goes into a lot more than just genre talk here, including stuff about vegging out and geeking out (which is something he's written about before) and the way most people seem to have become geeks in one way or another (geekhood no longer seems to be limited to computer enthusiasts).
Posted by Mark on July 09, 2008 at 09:23 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Banner of the Stars: Worldbuilding
I finished watching Banner of the Stars today. Spoilers ahead...

The last several episodes depict the Abh's defense of the Aptic system as it is set upon by a United Mankind counter-attack. The battle itself was riveting, but I actually think the ending was a bit anti-climatic. I'm assuming that the long-term plot arcs will be expanded upon and resolved in the sequels. There were a few things I was expecting that didn't come to pass. I would have liked to have seen some of the fabled "spectacular insanity" of the Bebaus brothers and was expecting something right up until it became clear that their fleet was no longer in any condition to contribute to the battle. Still, the concept of the Bebaus clan fascinated me, and I wanted to see more of their genius/insanity (I suppose taking a bath in the middle of a battle could be considered insane, but it winds up not mattering much either way). Instead, Admiral Bebaus seemed to proceed on a decidedly conventional course of action. Not that he commanded his fleet poorly - it was obvious that he did a good job despite being overwhelemed by a numerically superior force. I was impressed with Admiral Spoor's quick read of the situation though, and she is another character I would like to know better. None of which is to say that the series isn't satisfying, and indeed it's focus on Lafiel and Jinto are what's really important here. I have to admit that I was surprised by the fate of the Basroil, though it does make perfect sense (and again, I assume the sequels contain more on the long term story).

Admiral Spoor orders an attack
Admiral Spoor orders an attack

So I enjoyed the series. I have to admit that I don't have much to add that hasn't already been stated at great length elsewhere. Steven Den Beste's long comments in my first post give an interesting overview of Abh culture and royalty (indeed, at this point, I think he may have written more about the series in his comments than I have in my posts!) and he's written previously on the military aspects of the show, which are also well thought out.

As has been noted in previous posts, Banner is set in a well thought out universe. The author, Hiroyuki Morioka, has made various changes to physics, military and political systems, then systematically thought out the impact of said changes on his universe. The story of the series is interesting in itself, but the universe it's set in is clearly much broader than what we see explicitely. In SF and Fantasy, this process is known as worldbuilding. The most obvious example of worldbuilding is J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, the setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien spent decades defining the languages, races, and mythology of Middle-Earth before he even wrote the books (and the first of those was written for his kids, not for publication). Most science fiction contains some form of world building; it's one of the distinctive features of SF. Ultimately, though, the point of worldbuilding is to tell a human story. Sure, there are differences between our world and that of the story, but the point is to see how humans react to those changes. The balance between these two components can be tricky. A lot of SF tends to neglect worldbuilding in favor of their human story (two examples discussed on this blog recently are The Man Who Fell To Earth and Solaris). At the other extreme, there are some stories that focus almost entirely on the technology of their universe and practically ignore their characters (I get the impression that a lot of Mecha series in Anime are like this). These stories will always have their fans, but in my opinion, the best SF contains both an intriguing and internally consistent setting and interesting characters that will allow the audience to relate to the differences between reality and the constructed universe of the story.

In Banner there are several interesting extrapolations (many of which have already been covered in comments, etc...). One is the existence of the Abh themselves. They aren't exactly aliens (they're genetically engineered humans), but the small changes to their physiology seem to have brought about significant differences in culture. This is to be expected, since they were engineered for life in space, but the author of this series has done a good job extrapolating how these differences impact other aspects of life, while maintaining a familiarity with humanity (this is important because the story is told entirely from the Abh's perspective, so the audience still needs to be able to relate to the Abh). For instance, there is a distinction between a member of the Abh empire and a member of the Abh race. Jinto is of the human race, but he legally became a member of the Abh empire... he doesn't share the genetic differences of the Abh. The Abh have been engineered with an extra sensory organ which allows them to jack into their ships so that they can instinctually sense what's happening in and around the ship without having to use their other senses. This distinction between genetic and legal Abh comes into play in many areas; for example: crew composition. On the Basroil, genetic Abh hold positions related to navigation and weaponry (their extra sensory organ gives them an advantage over human members of the crew, and presumably their human enemies as well), while the humans (Samson and Jinto) handle engineering, logistics, and some other duties. I imagine other ships in the Abh fleet have similar makeups (though I didn't get a good feel for how many legally Abh humans are present in the empire). A lot of the Abh culture and societal structure seems to be driven by their differences with humanity. A race which is born in the stars and doesn't spend much time on planets is bound to develop a different type of society. The Abh's political structure is an interesting mixture of royalty and the military, and there appears to be a significant merchant fleet in addition to their navy. I was initially a little skeptical of the military component of their political system, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. They're a race that primarily space vessels and so it makes a lot of sense that their ruling class would be the people in control of the ships. Again, this is a very detailed universe, and I'm really only scratching the surface here.

Another important change is the way the series depicts space travel and combat. Interstellar travel is an intractable problem in reality, so most SF universes come up with workarounds like Hyperspace or other FTL travel. In Banner, they use something called "Plane Space." You can only enter into plane space via a gate, and unlike most other SF, plane space is actually only two-dimensional. Ships travelling through plane space must generate "space-time bubbles" which surround the ship and allow it to continue existing in its native three dimensions. There are several important implications here. Strategic battles that happen in plane space are only happening in two dimensions (tactically, battles occur within space-time bubbles, which technically contain three dimensions). This was something that initially bothered me about the series. Because I didn't understand the concept of a 2D plane space, I was a little confused as to why all the strategic readouts in the series were strictly 2D (well, actually, a lot of SF movies/series don't take advantage of the 3D nature of space - the only example I can think of off the top of my head is the battle with Khan in Star Trek II).

The Bebaus brothers view a strategic display
The Bebaus brothers view a strategic display

Another 2D Strategic Readout
Another 2D Strategic Readout

This seemed odd to me when I considered how carefully constructed the rest of the universe was, so it wasn't surprising when I learned about the true nature of plane space. As a consequence, the space battles in the series actually end up feeling more like a traditional naval engagement than space combat (hence the use of familiar tactics like pincer movements, etc...) Again, there are lots of implications involved with plane space. The speed of space-time bubbles is directly related to the amount of mass contained within a bubble. This becomes important because when you engage an enemy in a space-time bubble, you're effectively increasing the amount of mass in the bubble. Even if you win, the debris from the other ship is still being carried along with you and will slow you down (there doesn't appear to be an easy way to get rid of the debris). This has other implications regarding ship design and fleet composition (smaller ships are faster and more maneuverable, but obviously not as powerful, while larger ships are much more powerful, but are sluggish and handle poorly). The notion that plane space can only be entered through gates also plays an important role - gates obviously become strategically valuable in times of war. Banner essentially follows the defense of the Aptic gate, which is strategically important in multiple ways (it's a system with a gate, it seems to be centrally located, and it's apparently got a lot of supplies).

The great thing about the worldbuilding here is that everything seems to happen because of the constructed reality. The author didn't come up with a story and then build his universe around that (you could call that a form of retconning). He came up with the universe, and the story just flowed a natural result. In Banner of the Stars, the story is the direct result of the things that make its universe different than ours. And despite all the detail, there is plenty of room for the characters. I'm still trying to wrap my head around some of the nuances of this universe. For instance, I didn't understand much of the military strategy until after the series (when I found out that plane space was two dimensional).

At this point, I'm convinced that I really do need to go back and watch Crest of the Stars and I'd like to check out Banner of the Stars II as well. I hadn't realized how much of a serial the story really was (apparently the author has plans for more books as well). I'm not sure where this will fit in with the rest of my Anime schedule, but I might just have to make room for it now while it's fresh in my mind.
Posted by Mark on July 06, 2008 at 03:24 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Bypassing Crest of the Stars
In watching Banner of the Stars, it became immediately apparent that there was a lot of backstory. Indeed, after reading Steven Den Beste's comments on my post, it has become even more apparent that Banner is set in a detailed and well thought-out universe. As such, I'm probably going to go back and watch Crest of the Stars (which tells the story of how Jinto and Lafiel met). Apparently, I'm not the only one who has run into this. Author has been reading about Crest and is questioning his decision to bypass Crest and go directly to Banner.

Author also shares an interesting anecdote sent by TheBigN:
I speak from limited experience, but at Cornell as a freshman, our college anime club showed both Banner series (one per semester). […] When there was a survey about the audience’s experiences with the clubs schedule, responses were divided with people who didn’t watch Crest before the Banner series tending to pan the series, while people who watched Crest before Banner tended to praise it. And it’s understandable, since Crest introduces you to the universe of the Abh and co, and as Banner of the Stars is just a continuation from there, people who watch Banner first tend to get dropped into the story without any information on how the world works.
Author thinks that Banner did an exemplary job setting up the backstory. Personally, I don't think I'd go so far as Author, but I did find that the series did a good job establishing the backstory. However, I do want to go back and watch Crest. In recent years, I've become more of a completist in that I don't generally want to jump into the middle of a series. I'd rather wait for the whole thing to be available and watch it all at once (hence my TV on DVD addiction). I probably should have taken a closer look at the original recommendations because Crest was mentioned, but my request at the time was for a more action oriented series (and Banner seems to be the better "action" series). It's been over a year since that post, so some of the arbitrary restrictions I placed on series should probably be lifted. Some of the good Anime mentioned in that post that was ruled out for one reason or another is probably fair game now (for example, Noir seems like an interesting series, even if it is somewhat grueling). I should put together a future series type page. I'll get right on that (in typical Kaedrin fashion, it should appear sometime next year and then promptly fall into disrepair as I neglect to update it).
Posted by Mark on July 02, 2008 at 12:19 AM .: link :.

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