Two interesting but possibly silly factoids about Star Wars

A while back Peter Mayhew – the 7’6” guy inside Chewbacca’s costume in the original Star Wars – released a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ stills from the production.

They’ve got a period look – the movie was shot in the age of disco, flares and vinyl-topped cars. But it’s kind of cool to think Star Wars still has the power to capture our imaginations despite its stylistic origins in the decade taste forgot. Which leads me to a couple of factoids:

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Wait – yes it is. It’s Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

1. Tattooine is a real place. Most of the movie was filmed at Pinewood (hence the surfeit of British seventies brat-packers in bit-parts) but Lucas filmed the desert sequences in Tunisia near a town that looks like the Star Wars version. The name of that town? Foum Tataouine. Though before you all go ‘squee, how cool is it that they found a town of the same name’, think about how movies are actually made.

Not only is Tataouine a real place – it was liberated from the Nazis in 1943 by New Zealanders. I’ve met some of the guys who were in on the drive. (Just to compound the trivia, Luigi Cozzi’s Italian spaghetti version of the Lucas epic, Star Crash (1978) was filmed in part at Bari, where the Kiwis landed later the same year).

 2. Darth Vader’s real accent. Darth Vader was played by British actor and weight-lifter Dave Prowse, but he lost his voice to James Earl Jones. Prowse is from the West Country – Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who was also West Country, spoke the same way. A soft, lilting accent that is one of England’s quintessential classics. But not, it seems, suitable for the movie’s chief villain.

Call it meta-entertainment. The story behind the adventure. Or something.

I can’t help thinking that the story behind the forthcoming Disney knock-offs won’t be anywhere near as interesting.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Essential writing skills: we all need to write Tolkien’s appendices

One of the ways J R R Tolkien broke new ground with The Lord of the Rings was through his massive back-story, partly published at the end of The Return of the King in the form of appendices.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to go prone to take this picture of The Hobbit artisan market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

That story was better there than interspersed through the text – ‘information dumping’ is the biggest turn-off to readers – but it underscored the sheer depth of Tolkien’s master-work.

In the 1950s it was unusual for this sort of thing to be published. Tolkien, of course, re-defined the genre and now the notion of back-story has become passe. Authors are almost expected to be able to have a complete world behind their story, to create chronologies, maps, gazeteers – even to provide swatches of cloth for their characters’ clothing.

Few, I suspect, can ever get the detail that Tolkien did, without an equivalent amount of work. He began crafting Middle Earth in the trenches of the Western Front. That framed a good deal of the darkness in his mythos. His world also grew from the languages he developed – two full languages and several partial constructions. And it grew from repeated iterations – endless work, which he put into it in university holidays, of evenings, even scribbled on the back of old exam papers. Lines like ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…’ expanded into – well, I don’t need to repeat that story, do I?

It would be difficult to repeat such a tremendous construction. But we can approach it, and I think every fantasy story deserves to have a fair back story.

That’s where e-publishing comes into its own. One of the ways to sell books these days is to have ‘extras’ available online.  And what better place to put the back-story than as extra tales, stories and appendices online?

It’s a thought. What do you figure?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

All the good Trek stuff was invented by Robert A Heinlein

OK, so ‘Captain James Tiberius Kirk’ got pinged on Monday for drink-driving, here in New Zealand.

supernovaWell, not actually Kirk, he’s fictional. I mean Chris Pine, who plays him in the movie re-boot. According to the reports, Pine was stopped in Methven (of all places), after a wrap party for a movie he’s been shooting here. It’s made major news internationally.

To me the media frenzy underscored the way Star Trek has been entwined into modern culture. In fifty-odd years since the original Shatner-Nimoy-Kelley series it’s gone from fan fodder to mainstream entertainment.

For me the real appeal of Trek has always been Roddenberry’s optimistic vision for society. This really was futuristic. But there’s also been a lot of focus on its supposed anticipation of today’s tech – everything from automatic doors to cellphones. That’s less compelling. The auto-door and cellphone also hit TV at the same time in Get Smart, underscoring the fact that Trek tech was of its time. Much of its gee-whizz stuff actually drew from prevailing mid-twentieth century visions, all of which missed the bulk of the information age revolution and focussed on mega-rockets and star drives. The best of the Trek stuff, as far as I can tell, came from Robert Anson Heinlein – an American literary great. He was also an engineer, and it showed.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Why is it in this post? Just because. Click to enlarge.

1. Medical beds
McCoy’s sick bay was the epitome of high-tech in 1965, complete with medical beds that monitored patient vital signs. We have them today thanks to doctors inspired by Trek. However, Heinlein described one nearly a decade earlier in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958).

2. Communicators (cellphones).
The Trek communicator was a radio. No cell networks on alien planets – your signal’s got to punch through to the Enterprise in its 200-mile orbit (I’m glad I don’t have to hold a kilowatt transmitter to my ear). However, these days they’re widely taken to be ‘cellphones’. Setting aside Buck Henry’s ‘shoe phone’ in Get Smart, the first description of an actual cellphone, in everyday use, was in Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet.

3. Tribbles
My favourite Trek episode is David Gerrold’s ‘Trouble with Tribbles’. Proof that Shatner, McCoy and Nimoy were really a comedy trio with Nimoy as the ‘straight man’ (he can also be very funny, check out ‘The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins‘. But I digress.) In ‘Tribbles’, a space station gets over-run with cute ‘cat’ creatures that reproduce asexually if you feed them. The creature – and plot - so precisely followed Heinlein’s ‘flat cat’ from Space Family Stone (1952) (aka ‘The Rolling Stones’) that the producers apparently asked Heinlein for permission. Heinlein himself, incidentally, apparently drew inspiration for his 1952 tale from a 1905 story by Ellis Parker Butler called ‘Pigs is Pigs‘.

4. Starfleet
This is influenced by Heinlein’s ‘Space Patrol’ from Space Cadet. Explicitly – Roddenberry said so. Again, Heinlein had an antecedent  - Space Cadet was basically ‘US Naval Academy In Space’. (As an aside, he precisely described the physics of space-walking in this book – 17 years before NASA had to re-discover the principles).

Needless to say, Trek wasn’t the only SF tech Heinlein did first. Remember Star Gate? Go read Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955). What about Dr Who‘s TARDIS, that can go anywhere in time and space? Try Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958). And the idea that your star-drive also makes a dandy weapon – a key schtik in Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ series? That was a throw-away line in Heinlein’s Time for the Stars (1956).

All of which points to one thing – Heinlein was a very great writer, by any measure – and a great engineer and thinker.

Indeed, some of us encounter his ideas every night, in our own homes, whether we’re reading one of his books or not. Guess who devised (and eventually patented) the modern waterbed?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More science, more writing tips, more fun.

I miss my future. It’s been taken from me.

I miss my future. When I was a kid, 21st-century food was going to be pre-packaged space pap. We would all, inevitably, be eating  paste out of tubes. It was futuristic. It was progress.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

The future of 1970: a Mars mission, 1981 style.

Today? We’re in that future. And I still cook fresh veggies and steak. Some of it from the garden (the veggies, not the steak).

When I was a teenager, plastic cards were going to kill cash. In the 21st century we’d just have cards. It was inevitable. It was the future. Get with the program. Today? We use more cash than ever, but chequebooks died.

When I was in my twenties, video was going to kill the movies. It was inevitable. We just had to accept it. When I last looked, movies were bigger than ever – didn’t The Hobbit, Part 2,889,332 just rake in a billion at the box office?

And, of course, personal computers were going to give us the paperless office. Except that today every office is awash with …yup, paper, generated by what we produce on computer, churning out of giant multi-function copiers that run endlessly, every second the office is open.

Did we fail to adopt all these things hard or fast enough? Is it just that technology hasn’t quite delivered what was expected – but it will, it will? No. The problem is with the way we think – with the faulty way we imagine change occurs over time with technology and people. With the way we assume any novelty will dominate our whole future. With the way we inevitably home in on single-cause reasons for change, when in reality anything to do with human society is going to exist in many more than fifty shades of grey. The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding – driven by the simplistic ‘progressive’ mind-set that has so dominated popular thinking since the Age of Reason.

I know all that. But still…I miss my future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science, history and more. Watch this space.

Bring me my interositer, pathetic Earthlings!

Anybody remember those cheesy alien movies from the fifties? Aliens with googly eyes and big heads arrive to steal women, steal Earth’s water, or both.

Needless to say, movies such as This Island Earth, I Married a Monster from Outer SpaceIt Came From Outer Space and Brain from Planet Aurus (which was about a brain from planet Aurus) had a good deal of fiction about them. Science? Uh…no…

Yes, I know science isn’t what they were about –  they played on our social fears as a device for lifting money at the box office, and as such were bedded in the human psycho-social framework

I thought I might be fun to run through the science in them anyway. Just for fun.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

1. Aliens that look like humans
The thing about aliens is they’re alien. All Earth animals are built around the same basic plan, the tetrapod that flourished in the Devonian period – head, body, four limbs and (usually) a tail. But go back to the pre-Cambrian era and you find total weirdos, such as Edicarians. Some were so odd that paleontologists couldn’t even work out which way up they were meant to walk. And that’s just life on this planet. Now imagine life on another. I bet it won’t look like a human with a crustacean glued to its forehead (“yIqIm dude QIp tlhIngan. DaSovrup QuchDu’ lobster?”)

2. Aliens want human women
This trope was mostly about 1950s social fears. But as for the science of it – well, see (1). The chance of an alien being attracted to a human woman is about the same as an alien being attracted to oxalis. Or anything else from Earth. They’re alien. Harry Harrison riffed on it in one of his Stainless Steel Rat novels when his hero dressed up in a suit designed to look like one of the repellently squishy invaders – discovering, the hard way, that this was the height of alien pulchritude.

3. Aliens want Earth’s water
Why? We’re at the bottom of a gravity well. Also, we bite. There’s plenty of water for the taking in the Oort cloud, Kuiper belt and elsewhere. Hey – aliens might have been siphoning it for millions of years. We wouldn’t know. Or care.

4. Aliens are here to show us a better moral path
Laudable but silly. Even animals on Earth have a different moral path than humans – few, for instance, are motivated by conscious malice the way some humans are. Extrapolate that to aliens. The chance of them having world views that correct particular human failings, especially failings culture-specific to the West, is about the same as them wanting Earth’s women. See (2).

Ultimately the key word is alien. Would life on an alien world share our animal-plant split? Would alien evolution lead to a single species becoming intelligent? Would aliens become intelligent at all? Maybe they have many intelligent species. Would we even recognise their intelligence? The answer is ‘we don’t know’. Yet.

Of course that doesn’t stop us enjoying old movies. Or wondering about answers to these questions – which I hope you will. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Measuring lightspeed with custard, as soon as I get some photos. More writing tips. Watch this space. 

Why I like ‘Dr Who’ when I usually diss stupid science in SF

I’ve been a huge Dr Who fan ever since I was a kid and had to hide behind the couch when the Yetis appeared.

It’s great. Scientifically hokum – but great. Which sounds odd given that I usually diss bad movie science. What gives?

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

It’s like this. A lot of Hollywood SF is set in the ‘real’ world – then ignores the basic observable realities. Space fighters, sound in space, fake visible lasers that go ‘pew pew’ – all of it is just irritatingly dumb. Destroys the suspension of disbelief.

But not Dr Who.

Dr Who is about concepts we cannot directly see or understand, and which might be true. Maybe. I mean, things bigger on the inside than they are on the outside? That can go anywhere in space and time?

That gets my vote. It’s totally counter-intuitive. Cool. And that sustains the suspension of disbelief. Then there’s the fact that he can go anywhere in space and time. Want to snog Jeanne Antoinette Poisson? No problem. Fly to the far side of the universe? Easy. Couple that with whimsy and tongue firmly in cheek where it needs to be – and you have a winner.

Entertainment, whimsy and maybe science. The BBC got it right. Hey – does anybody remember the BBC version of TrekBlake’s 7?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: a fun wrap-up for 2013. Regular writing tips, humour, science geekery and other posts start early January. Get ready for the big reveal; the way to measure the speed of light with custard. Seriously.

A small tribute to my favourite model

This holiday season I thought I’d share a picture of my favourite model.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I've had since forever... And it's not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

A photo I took of the Dinky Thunderbird 2 model I’ve had since forever… And it’s not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

It’s the Dinky Thunderbird 2 with Thunderbird 4 in the pod and click-to-extend elevator legs. I’ve had it since forever, and apparently it’s classed as ‘vintage’.

Every bloke of A Certain Age is a fan of Thunderbirds… right? And it’s being re-made, even as I speak, right in the city where I live, by Weta Workshop. Cool.

Happy holidays everybody…and I hope none of you need to call International Rescue any time soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Secret beasts of New Zealand. Only one of them with big feet.

As a writer I find just about anything grist to the inspiration mill. One thing that’s intrigued me for years has been our fascination with mysterious animals that take Size 82 in shoes and turn up in shadowy videos by lone hunters in remote locations.

To me such obsessions reveal more about the human condition than they do about any scientific reality. Fact is that these ‘crypto-zoological’ creatures are never around when scientists turn up, they leave no signs that can be decisively attributed to them, and never seem to exist in numbers able to make up a breeding population. To me the answer lies within ourselves; they lurk on the edges of our imaginations. We want to believe such animals exist.

Needless to say, New Zealand has its own twists. Here are my top three local cryptids.

1. Dinornis (Moa)
Moa were huge flightless ratites that once existed in most parts of New Zealand.

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell - son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  From the collection of the New Zealand National Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22299292

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. From the collection of the New Zealand National Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22299292

They were hunted to destruction soon after Polynesians got to New Zealand in the late thirteenth century – the final collision between Pliestocene megafauna and humanity. British settlers in the nineteenth century found their bones, and couldn’t get enough stories about them, hoping some moa might have survived somewhere. Reconstructions in London represented them as Emu-like, with immensely long vertical necks. Today we know they looked more like kiwi or cassowary, with a hooked neck and horizontal poise.

The notion of moa survival has persisted, although the chance of a breeding population of these enormous birds surviving undetected is pretty much nil. New Zealand’s back-country swarms with people. Back in 1974, we found the takahe on a population of about two dozen, and that’s a parrot. So if moa were about, we’d know.

I once had the fortune to examine the naturally mummified remains of moa, held in the Otago Museum – hundreds of years old, very rare, and fascinating. Curiously, given the way they were driven to extinction, the word ‘moa’ means ‘chicken’.

2. Fairy folk
A few years ago Penguin published a compilation of my science-fiction history stories in which I extrapolated from legends of ‘fairy folk’ to suppose that H. erectus had reached New Zealand and survived. Stories of ‘fairy folk’ – pakepakeha – circulate in New Zealand, and for a while there was even talk of a ‘bigfoot’ living on the Coromandel peninsula. Personally I thought the only unwashed hairy hominids there were living in the hippy communes, but that’s another story.

The scientific reality is that no primate ever existed here, still less any hominids. New Zealand had a unique biota as a consequence of its isolation, including the weta – an insect that occupies the biological niche of a rat (and is about as large). It was the last large land mass on the planet to be reached by humans, and we know now that this happened around 1280. Possibly on the Wairau Bar.

3. New Zealand Panthers
Since 1992 stories have persisted of a ‘black panther’ roaming the South Island. The problem is that New Zealand is an island nation 1800 km from the nearest land mass – any exotic animal has to be brought in deliberately, they’re licensed under the Biosecurity Act 1993, and we know exactly how many there are.

That’s not to deny there’s something down south; ‘panthers’ have been encountered and photographed many times. But actually there’s no mystery. To me they look like slightly large domestic cats. Department of Conservation staff identify them as feral cats, and when one was caught earlier this year it turned out to be a feral cat.

You’d think that, logically, the explanation is that they’re feral cats. But nooooo…. The pro-panther crowd insist there’s something else. Well,  maybe the ‘panthers’ swam here from Africa, along with elephants, zebras and rhinos. Or not. What’s really funny is that there is no specific species of ‘panther’ – it’s the name given to black-toned jaguars or leopards.

Do you have secret animals – ‘cryptids’ – living in your area? What are those stories? Do they inspire you to write stories? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing hints and tips, more fun stuff, humour and more. Watch this space.

Return of Revenge of Sauron – nooooooo!

The other week George R. R. Martin was reported as saying he wouldn’t license Westeros.

He admired the Tolkien estate for not licensing derivative works of The Lord Of The Rings. And I’m inclined to agree.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdEven if a top-notch author is hired for the purpose, they will – because they are top-notch – put their own stamp on the story. And it won’t be the same as the original author’s. By nature. That’s good in a way; it’s adding something to the genre. But in others it isn’t, because it inevitably differs from the original concept the author had.

Martin is reported as hoping that some publisher, awash with cash, isn’t ready to commission a Lord Of The Rings sequel or prequel as soon as the Tolkien Estate gives the nod (which, I am sure, it won’t be any time in the foreseeable future).

I hope so too.

What concerns me about this sort of derivative work is where it’s done solely for the money – where a third-rate author is commissioned to do it, and often credited in tiny letters underneath the headline name of the original (dead) author. The writing that follows is often third rate too.

Of course I can’t fault publishers for wanting to make money. They’re businesses. They have to survive, and that’s getting ever-harder these days. Risk is something to avoid; a sure-fire best seller keying off a well known name is the only way to go. Apparently.

But is deriving ‘new’ stories that don’t match the quality of the original the way to do it? I doubt it. Any book, no matter what its origin, must push for the highest quality – it should attempt to lead, not merely fill a gap. It is from this leading edge that new markets are created – new demand for new material.

Regurgitating old material may be a way to make sure money in the short term, but it’s not a long-term method. That needs new material – new ideas, new concepts.

And yes, publishers have to take risks along the way. I mean, back in the early 1950s, who’d have imagined that a 650,000 word novel about the epic struggle between good and evil, as filtered through a nostalgic sense of English village life, might re-define fantasy literature? Rayner Unwin took a gamble with Tolkien. Early sales figures were dismal – and yet, well, what can I say?

It seems to me that the way ahead is by innovating a new awesome. Not trying to re-live the old. The only problem is that these things always emerge at the intersection between imagination and mass culture, which can’t be engineered. Efforts to do so always look contrived.

Your thoughts? Let’s talk.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more humour, commentaries and fun stuff. Watch this space.

Should authors license their imaginary worlds?

George R. R. Martin explained last week that he wasn’t going to license his fantasy world. Which to me raised an important question.

Hmmn

Hmmn

Should authors do that? Should authors allow their world to be used by other authors – to expand the genre, and keep readers enjoying the experience?

I’d agree with Martin. They shouldn’t. Because the experience won’t be the same. Not worse, but different.

It is over twenty years now since Isaac Asimov passed away – a great loss to the world of writing. He was more than just a sci-fi author; he was a great writer by any measure, influential and capable in many fields.

He left behind a hanging thread; his Foundation series, which by 1990 he had amalgamated with his Robot series. The last lines of the ultimate volume, Foundation and Earth, left hints at a tantalising future story – and Asimov indicated he had every intention of writing it.

Except he didn’t. Since then that universe has been licensed; there have been ‘gap filler’ books produced by some very capable and well known SF authors, all of them highly professional and solid in their own right.

But they weren’t Asimov. And to me, it shows. They put their own spin into the stories – their own stamp, as any good author should.

To me, that meant they weren’t the same. Not at all; and – to me at least – a good part of the magic of Asimov’s world wasn’t the setting he’d created, but the way he handled that setting. Other authors – quite rightly, I might add – didn’t do it the same way. And to me that lost something.

Others may disagree. Others might like the licensed books better than the originals, maybe. It’s all a matter of taste.

I think commercialism also plays a part – but more on that next time.

Meanwhile, what do you think of licensed worlds? Your cup of tea? Or not at all.

Cowpyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week – we’ll be discussing commercial motives to license. But before then, more writing tips, more humour, more – well, you’ll see. Watch this space.