Category: Writing

Bootstrap worldbuilding

In that review of The Dragon Prince, I wanted a term to describe the kinds of initial, upfront worldbuilding that’s done by a prologue or even by the cover of a book. It’s not neccesarily an info-dump (although The Dragon Prince example was) but could be from a map at the start or a conversation early in the story.

I thought “bootstrap worldbuilding” sort of works — providing enough premise and backstory that the rest of the plot can deliver the world more organically. A classic is obviously Tolkein’s opening paragraph to The Hobbit, which doesn’t just let you know that the book will feature a small fantastical person but already sets up aspects of Bilbo’s character. I discussed already how sparingly Avatar managed this bootstrap worldbuilding in the opening credits, which explain the magic system, show the shape of the world and establish the fundamental conflict. Even so, the initial episodes had a slightly longer version:

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless firebenders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the War. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads, and that the cycle is broken. But I haven’t lost hope. I still believe that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world.

I’m not sure whether the opening scene of Terminator 2 counts as this or is better thought of as a recap. Either way it establishes the science-fiction premise and establishes the stakes for the film.

Terminator 1 opens more sparingly but does a similar thing, establishing a futuristics, dystopian theme for a film that will be largely set in the present. Because of time-travel shenanigans of course, the backstory of the plot is in the future.

Star Wars (episode 4) has its famous opening crawl but I think this is more of a subversion of the idea. The text almost doesn’t matter and is there more to create a sense of a backstory than actually convey important details. The following scenes with Leia’s ship being pursued and bordedby Darth Vader establish the conflict more clearly and organically the opening text. Lucas interestingly included the text more to evoke movie serials than to set up his story.

I’ll finish with John Scalzi’s infamous parody of fantasy opening info-dump scene-setting: Still worth a chuckle.



Style and Substance

I knew next to nothing about NYU Professor Avital Ronell until the other day when I read this essay by Andrea Long Chu in the Chronicle of Higher Education (not a journal I’d ever read before either). I recommend reading it:

It is a devastating analysis of the flaws not just in a person but in the institutions and cultural habits that gives some individuals extraordinary power and influence over others. Now I’ve already mentioned that essentially that essay is my only source for the facts and background regarding the accusations aimed at Professor Ronell. However, what struck me about Andrea Long Chu’s essay was how extraordinarily well written it is.

There’s not any sensible way of separating content from the style but clearly, they are also, somehow, different dimensions of writing. Clarity of expression, painting both an emotional picture and a set of connected ideas, mixing quips with insight, all of these enable the reader to engage with the content. In short: I think that is a brilliantly written essay — I don’t doubt the truth of what was written in it but if it was all fiction it would still be brilliantly written.

Meanwhile, some of Professor Ronell’s supporters have written a counter-response which is available here:

Here’s a sample:

“My point is simply; your effort to fix justice is in vain. As a creature of social media and especially of twitterati, you must know that this ain’t the place for Arendtian deliberation. This is where the lynch mob thrives. Which world do you inhabit? Do you think your speech has no consequence? What deceptions of grandeur? In the real world, it does and with deadly repercussions. Innocents are murdered, towns set ablaze because some fascist posted conspiracy theories on social media. Get off your high horse. Time to return to school and start reading Derrida rigorously, yes that ghastly place you call hardcore deconstruction.”

Now, there is a fallacy we can all fall into of assuming that the ideas eloquently expressed are truer than the ones poorly expressed. However, the gulf is huge in this case because the response is written by somebody with, supposedly, not just advanced skills in the humanities but in literature. Clarity of thought matters. The purpose of reading Arendt or Derrida isn’t to simply pepper them through a paragraph. Yes, the study of literature isn’t intended to be ‘how to write better’ but if the net effect is that you end up writing poorly and express muddled ideas then surely we can conclude something has gone wrong somewhere.

A friend, who like me is not part of academia but whose work crosses orbits with academics sufficiently often to have semi-informed opinions, refers to a thing he calls “stupid people with Phd’s”. I’m not keen on the term “stupid” and in my friend is refering to people from the sciences but I know what he means: lots of really smart people with Phd’s but every so often you encounter people who don’t even seem to understand the discipline they have a doctorate in. The nature of academia and the power relationships that arise out of rewarding expertise and the unstable working conditions of people starting academic careers is doubly toxic – toxic at a human level but also toxic in that it can end up rewarding the wrong people.

Anyway, I’ve already strayed well beyond the extent of my own knowledge and experience.


Not a How To Time Travel

This post sort of follows this, this, and this. I don’t many impractical suggestions of how to time travel. Let me explain.

Time travel is either easy or impossible. It is easy because essentially time is just another dimension of space-time and travel in the other three is easy and we are already all travelling in time (just in one direction and locally at the same rate). On the other hand, time travel appears to imply paradoxes. Paradoxes of causality worry me less than issues such as conservation of energy/matter.

Causality worries me less because I suspect cause and effect isn’t everything we might think it is. However, if I disappear from one time period and reappear in the next, then my new time period has more matter in it than it did before and worse, that matter will hang around going forward into the future. Perhaps time travel requires some physical exchange of matter between time periods? If so, then what in the universe is keeping track?

A different issue with time travel is the speed of light. Even approaching (but staying within) the speed of light has some weird temporal consequences. Actual time travel would provide ways of in-effect travelling faster than light and likewise FTL travel also implies a degree of time travel. If the speed of light is a hard unbreakable rule of the universe then it follows that time travel is impossible also.

One method of time travel escapes most of these issues: perception. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time due to the allied bombing of Dresden in World War 2. However, the time travel here is how he perceives events. Billy’s body isn’t popping in and out of time periods, instead, he is experiencing his life out of sequential order. This kind of mental time travel avoids issues of causality on the grounds that everything has already happened. Events are what they are but perhaps the order in which we experience them is an illusion of the human mind.

Unfortunately for stories, there aren’t many writers who can make a narrative work where no decisions can possibly matter. Which takes me to a topic for another time: how should time travel stories work?


[Scene: Felapton Towers music room. Camestros Felapton is sitting by a 18th century cherry-wood Moog synthesiser, writing notes on foolscap paper.]

Timothy the Talking Cat: Well another chapter of Jor-Dan King of the Lobster Men is finished and also my cat-nip fuelled hangover is finished.

Camestros: Can’t talk, busy.

Timothy: A new project is it? Spill the beans.

Camestros: Hermeneutic filks

Timothy: I can’t say I know that young lady. Is she a relative of yours?

Camestros: What? No. Filks are reworking of songs with new lyrics, a sub genre of music popular among fandom.

Timothy: Sounds dull but show me what you are working on.

Camestros: I’m trying for the ultimate minimalism within the sub genre and using the works of Simon & Garfunkel as a starting point.

Timothy: Let me see…

Timothy: You don’t seem to have changed any words.

Camestros: Ah ha! No look again!

Timothy: ‘The Sound of Silence’…this is just a print out from lyrics dot com but you’ve capitalised one word.

Camestros: Exactly! See, see ‘ the words of the prophet are written on the Subway walls’

Timothy: Huh?

Camestros: It’s now about a sandwich shop.

Timothy: ‘In the clearing stands a boxer…’

Camestros: …is about the breed of dog.

Timothy: ‘I am a Rock’…

Camestros: …is about Dwayne Johnson impersonators

Timothy: And the weird smell around the house?

Camestros: That’s not a song…Oh you mean the lingering vapours from having the carpet cleaned after your cat-nip frenzy?

Timothy: And you’ve been locked in here breathing those fumes for several days while I was delirious?

Camestros: Maybe…

Timothy: You are off your noggin mister…and that means…I’M IN CHARGE!

[Cue theme music]

Cattimothy House Presents…Jor-Dan, King of the Lobster Men

Timothy the Talking Cat’s Thrilling Undersea Adventure!

jordanofthelobsterpeopleRumours tell a tale of hearsay and word of mouth and of misbegotten words of unclear provenance. Tall tales of stories part-forgotten and half-remembered. Aye, aye and shiver my timbers, it is I, Timothy the Talking Cat, bringing you a story of deep-sea adventure!

Who can say what lurks in the hidden depths of the ocean? Not I! I can’t swim. But I assume there are lots of fish and what cat can resist the idea of an endless supply of fishy treats. To satisfy my proverbially fatal curiosity, some months ago I set off on a quest to learn more of what was under the ocean depths.


Continue reading

Please Help Timothy Remake The Last Jedi

A message from the CEO of Cattimothy House, Timothy the Talking Cat

Greetings fans of Star Wars everywhere,

You’ve probably heard by now of various groups who wish to remake Star Wars: The Last Jedi. While we might call their hopes “new” we should be honest and see that their plans are both a phantom and a menace that will inevitably lead to the Disney media empire striking back. What we need is a return to the Jedi of yesteryear and not some mere revenge of the Sith or some pointless clone of past wars.

Who can deliver that? Faceless internet people? Some vague comittee? Or…a face you know and can trust. A face that has repeatedly delivered epic space opera? A face with whiskers and a little triangular nose?

I think the answer is obvious.

That’s why I give you my re-worked plot outline for “The Last Jedi: Timothy’s Cut”.

[Scene One: some rocky island place full of freaky puffin monsters]

{Rey} Oh hello Mr Skywalker. I found your lightsabre!
{Luke} Excuse me while I use my Vulcan mindmeld powers to download the plot of the last movie.
{Rey} (makes noise like a 1990’s modem as Luke download The Force Awakens into his head)
{Luke} Hmmm. It seems much has transpired while I have been hiding here.
{Rey} Yes! We need your help to defeat the Sith again!
{Luke} I’m sorry Rey but there’s things you don’t know about me – things that are almost too terrible to tell you!
{Rey} Please Luke Skywalker, you are only hope!
{Luke} No, there is another…
{Rey} Another what?
{Luke} Another problem! You see Rey, the Sith were just a distraction. The real threat to the galaxy is…(looks around all shifty like)
{Rey} What? What is the real threat? And why do you keep looking around like you think somebody is eavesdropping.
{Luke (sotto voce)} The real threat is…
{Rey} Yes?
{Luke} The real threat is…
{Rey} Yes?
{Luke} The real threat is…
{Rey} Yes?
{Luke} The real threat is…
{Rey} Seriously, what the flip is the real threat!
{Rey} You’ve lost it dude. You’ve been sitting on this rock drinking blue milk for wayyyy to long.
{Luke} Search your feelings, you know it to be true!
{Rey} No. No! That’s not true! That’s impossible!
{Luke} It is absolutely true! That’s why I’m hiding on this rock farming the one thing Space Vampires have no resistance against!
{Rey} Um, space garlic? Giant space ships shaped like wooden stakes? Oh! Is it space mirrors? It’s space mirrors isn’t it?
{Luke} It’s porgs Rey. Vampires can be destroyed by porgs!
{Rey} No way!
{Luke} Yes way!
{Rey} But how!
{Luke} Traditionally it required the porg to be rubbed softly against the nape of a Space Vampires neck. This was a task undertaken by the Holy Order of Fishy-Frog Nuns of Porg Rock Island.
{Rey} That seems impractical…
{Luke} Indeed! That’s why I’ve been spending the all this time through three prequels, a bunch of cartoons and The Force Awakens, developing my super-weapon!
{Rey} Oh, oh, is it a porg-based light sabre! A porg-sabre! It is isn’t it?
{Luke} Rey, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that I can make a light sabre from a porg.
{Rey} I hope it’s not a planetoid sized space station made of porgs…
{Luke} It is a porg-bazooka or, if you will, a porgzooka.
{Rey} Can I have one?
{Luke} Yes, and also a hull mounted porgzooka for the Millenium Falcon.
{Rey} Can Finn have one too?
{Luke} Yes! I’ve made enough for everybody. There’s one for Rose,Leia, Poe, General Holdo, a crossbow one for Chewbacca, a cybernetic arm-attachement one for C3PO. I’ve got shit loads of them. You just need to load up the ship with concentrated porg essence!
{Rey} Let’s do it!

[Scene Two – Space. Rey is surrounded by Space Vampires]
{Rey} Say hello too my little friend! [hoists porgzooka onto her shoulder]
{Space Vampires – in unison to BB8} Hello, Rey’s little friend.
{BB-8} beep boop [also hoists porgzooka onto their shoulder]
{Space Vampires} Ha ha. We fear not your shiny shoulder tubes!
[BB-8 and Rey fire there porgzookas at the Space Vampires who explode as each porg-blast hits them. More Space Vampires turn up but then Leia and Por and Finn and Rose and that kid from the stables turns up and they all have porgzookas! But then even more space vampires turn up! But then Adam Driver turns up and says “I may be a Sith-wannabe but I hate space vampires just as much as anybody! Let’s join forces!” and Rey says “Sure, here have a porgzooka!” and then Phasma turns up and Boba-Fett and the sarlac and Lando and they all blast the space vampires. But even more space vampires turn up and then, oh guess what! Timothy the Talking Cat and Straw Puppy fly in with the Millenium Falcon and start blasting all the space vampires and I say: “You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home! ” and Rey blast the Arch-Space Vampire with the last porgzooka but he doesn’t die, so she has to stab a live porg straight into his heart! And then he explodes! And I say: “Great shot, kid! That was one in a million!” Then we all go home and get medals and milkshakes.]

The End


More on Potato Dreams

Following up on this post – I’m imagining changes to economic structures but without changing the basic capitalist conception of the society as a means of dreaming up different worlds as settings for stories. How does the change impact on people’s behaviour? What ripples spread out from that change?

One such change that interests me is inherited wealth. A world in which taxation was simply the state of church confiscating the goods of the recently deceased is a simple proposition with far-reaching consequences. Such a rule would lead to people trying to circumvent it. What would that entail?

  • Wealthy people shifting their wealth to their heirs before they died.
  • More property being held by corporate entities rather than individuals.
  • A greater fear among the wealthy of untimely death.
  • Tax avoidance strategies creating a perverse incentive for the state to be happy about untimely death.

I need a bit more of a setting to think how that would turn out…

I’m imagining a city-state, run as a theocracy in a steam-punkish setting. Convulted corporations designed to obscure who owns what and the church/government very keen on raising the speed limit on the roads for velocipedes and encouraging dangerous sports.

Why a theocracy? No specific reason. I just thought that people who oversee funerals would have an initially simple way of tracking who was dead and faith in an afterlife would mean people would have one less reason to keep a death secret from the authorities. As a starting point for the evolution of such a system, it makes some sense even if it is an unlikely stretch.

I guess there would be many scams and schemes for concealing the death of a person. Presumably, disreputable undertakers would offer illegal funerals as tax dodges.

If a wealthy person was murdered there would always be rumours that the government did it. However, the rich would generally have less reason to fear being murdered by the heirs. People going “missing” as a cover for an untimely death would be such a common tax-dodge that the state/church would rule people “presumed dead” after only a short period of time. This, in turn, would create an unusual form of kidnapping in the city – a powerful person is kidnapped for a week, leading to them being declared dead and thus unseating them from their position in a company (perhaps to aid a takeover). Threats of this kind of corporate deathless-murder (essentially murder of the legal entity of a person without harming their body) would be used as extortion. The crime wouldn’t be common but the fear of it would be.

The identification of bodies would be a big deal in this city. In a Victorian-age city, lots of people die each day and knowing who was who would be important. Many people who die would be poor or destitute but there would be strong financial reasons to make sure a corpse was who the corpse appeared to be. Homicides would be investigated by the tax department which would also be the census department, which would also run the morgues. Only sustained public outcry and protest stops the tax department from running the hospitals – the medical services (or perhaps medical holy orders) are bitter rivals with the tax department.

I guess as I made this a theocracy already, this tax department would itself be a kind of quasi-monastic order. It would have general oversight of collecting the wealth of the dead but local churches would traditionally have collected the property of their own parishioners (as would occur in the rural surroundings). Who gets to register a death (the Holy Order of the Census or the local parish priest) is another source of rivalry in the city. Rich neighbourhoods built around a wealthy parish like to keep that money local.