Archive for February 22, 2020

Ethical and perhaps boring…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke.

Absolutely UN-ethical, but definitely not boring.

By the time I reached middle school in 1980, this statement about knowledge and perception was common enough that Mr. D’Amato explained it in seventh grade Social Studies (an overview class with elements of Anthropology and Archeology). He used the example of some douchebag going into the Amazon and waving a lit Zippo around among the tribesmen from whatever uncontacted society fit the hypothetical discussion. Makes total sense…if you don’t see something previously and the person showing off the magic doesn’t carefully open up his/her hands to reveal the wires, well, what else is it, but magic and likely dark magic at that?

 Over the many years since I’ve become a writer and now actually retroactively care about the things I was taught; I’ve had a lot of time to consider the statement. And start asking the questions that go over a twelve-year-old’s head. And to see how some of my favorite books and shows did amazing toe dances with the concept long before Mr. Clarke put it in writing.

My first read of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings roughly coincided with the Social Studies class mentioned above, maybe eighteen months before. Wonderful book. Great movies (even the Ralph Bakshi version that everyone else seems to have hated). And if you read closely…is it magic or technology?

Case in point. Gandalf is being a douchebag scratching the Thief Seeking Employment symbol on the freshly painted door at Bag End. Bilbo waxes quite craptologically about Gandalf’s fireworks remembering fond times when the wizard blew a lot of cool shit up at one of the Old Took’s parties. This later pays off at Bilbo’s Eleventy First (111) birthday when having Gandalf back for a command performance proves an excellent distraction for the worthy Hobbit taking the runner to Rivendell and, with a little bit of encouragement (arm twisting), leaving the Ring to Frodo.

Is Gandalf a wizard or just a really skilled chemist with a taste for pyrotechnics and showmanship?

If we judged only from Gandalf’s fire and other blowing shit up “magic,” we can’t tell. He carries Glamdring, a presumably magicked up elf blade, for all the times when there might not be enough orcs on the board to use up a spell. Does he have stamina issues where it’s just easier to cut orcs in half most days?

At Minas Tirith, the White One was seen behind the wall working up a big one. Yes, villains do blow up on a regular basis through the course of the story. But once we start re-reading these passages with this question in mind…grenades prepared in advance and kept in a hidden pouch or great and terrible magic that coalesces hydrogen out of the air ready for a spark? That I suppose is up to the reader. FYI, Saruman sends a fairly small orc on a kamikaze sapper mission to take out the drainage culvert at Helm’s Deep with a barrel of black powder.

To be fair, Gandalf’s real magic seems to fall into the Leadership, Strength of Character and Morale categories. This is harder to dismiss, especially when given various halo and light effects in the movies.

Have a king wasting away from having to listen to the kind of advisor that only maybe certain unpopular presidents could love? Send in the wizard to do the long-distance exorcism and fistfight leaving Saruman a little roughed up on his tile floor.

Need to buy time for everyone else as they run out the back door? Well, there were quite a bit of bright white lighting cues anytime Gandalf stood up to the really bad monster. Harder to dismiss as fakery and people did have more hope…for a time. Yes, he bats about .500; the Balrog killed him and the Witch King of Angmar decided to pick the fight later on better terms.

Fakery. As I got older, I realized that Mr. Clarke had the beginnings of wisdom, but not the end of it. How much of the example of the Zippo in the Amazon depends on the actions of a stage illusionist, possibly an unscrupulous one? Someone who knows how to hold the lighter so the less advanced observer can see the Behold, I Make Fire trick without seeing the metal lid to the lighter or burning one’s fingers.

Gandalf is a showman. The description of practically having a Beavis & Butthead sense of – “heh, heh, coooool!” – when it comes to blowing up his fireworks gives it away. This means he also knows how to palm a lighter or, more to the point, a firebox. This means he knows how drive eyeballs over here, while – “ignore the man behind the curtain!”

Let’s take a few other examples from our shared narrative database. Moses? Direct line to God, or a cranky magician with a better local calendar than the Egyptians? Various waterways that presumably went blood red during the Plagues have gone crimson since…iron ore deposits stirred up and red tides being the main explanations. To be fair, the one good argument for Work of God is the except in Goshen rider to most of the middle Plagues. Yeah, how do you pull that off without a lot of help that still might not exist in current technology? I’ll get back to you when someone burns the trick for the next Fox Special, “Breaking the Magic Code Pt. 5003, Egypt.”

Do you get more out the swarm simply knowing when the locusts are due and timing the pitch to Pharaoh (your half-brother) accordingly? And did he make up some mumbo jumbo about lamb’s blood on the lintel and the Angel of Death to provide cover for a small dedicated team of guys with nothing left to lose running around the countryside putting the First Born to the sword? We weren’t there and the rest is simply what we choose to believe.

Mark Twain understood Clarke’s Law a hundred years before its publishing. He has his protagonist in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court blow up Merlin’s Tower with black powder, lightning rod and outguessing the next storm. The rest was all about – “I need several days to prepare the spell, Your Majesty.”

And convincing Merlin to vacate. Really? It’s a good idea to bunk out for several days while some pipsqueak newcomer says he going to level your house? That alone suggests the con-artistry of the average stage magician. Hell, it’s straight up performance art!

Clarke’s Third Law also comes into play in the average Star Trek episode where a Prime Directive violation becomes inevitable and must be managed instead of avoided. The character that made the mistake opens up his/her hands and shows the box, tells what it does, apologizes for the intrusion, but only to the smart local who seems like they understood the most. Essentially, Captain Archer/Pike/Kirk/Picard/Sisko/Janeway shows off the cigarette lighter…

“See here, my good man, this is a cigarette lighter. It makes fire.” Opens lid. Flicks striker wheel. FIRE. Awe. “This wheel thingy is made of flint. There is a flammable gas held in this cotton part. Spark. Fuel. Air. And…” “Fire, Boss.” “Right, fire. Now the lid also…” SNAP CLOSED. “…takes away the air. Would you like to try it?” “Yes, Boss.” “Okay, there’s a little bit of a trick to it so you don’t burn off your fingers, but it’ll take a couple seconds to show…”

Ah, the wonderful ethics of Star Trek. On the downside, there are almost no stage magicians and other showmen left in the Federation. It shows in the ugly civilian clothes common to all the shows, until recently.

The Continuing Mission also gets us to ask the really good corollary question to Clarke’s Third Law – is there a point where the observer is sufficiently advanced that instead of believing in magic, they simply go looking for the wires or the cigarette lighter?

Looking for the wires turned Ardra the Mighty into a joke when Picard’s team uses his distraction of the arbitration hearing to find her starship. One more con man scratched off.

This ethic of “it’s not magic, we just haven’t found the wires” runs all throughout Picard’s dealings with Q. Go back to the episodes. How many times does Picard just ask Q to drop the stupid showmanship and theatricality, usually with a non-verbal cue? In one episode, Q claims to be God. In another later one, Q backtracks to “I knew him.” Neither time does Picard seem very much impressed and asks Q to get to the part where he says what he wants. He’s found too many cigarette lighters in his time.

What stories might originate here?

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Dark ruined castles. Faraway sand swept plains dotted with evaporator towers. Orbital debris fields that are just one bad breakfast burrito away from an abandonment order like the Somme Battlefield. Cities cut by extreme tide surges out of basalt and obsidian. All of these places that mostly exist between my ears are exactly that places and if I could I’d open them up to travel agents and sell tickets…oh, right, write the F@$&ing book.

These imaginary places are also a convenient excuse for discussing how choosing the right locations changes the story.

Let’s take my most recent usage of dark ruined castle that time seems to have passed by. I watched the animated Beauty & the Beast again. I start asking questions the way I sometimes have to ask funny questions of all of my fan enthusiasms…



The question I had for the both the Disney movies highlighted by a dance in a yellow dress was this – “the sleepy little French village where Belle lives before going into the woods seems walking distance from the Beast’s castle, wouldn’t there be a built up legend about the dark woods and the monster reputed to live there?”

This question rattled around in my subconscious along with the other more consciously derived elements when I started playing around with goofing on a sequel/not sequel describing what happens after the kiss, fireworks and the assertion without proof that they lived happily ever after. I know I’m going to throw in an element where Belle (sorry, renamed Helena-Linda Aranajeuz de Feo) gets so freaking bored after reading every book in the Beast’s considerable library that she starts writing her own books to keep sane. I know I’m going to need something more than the lady of the house yelling at poor Lumiere to bring more ink and clean up the pile of false starts on the floor. And I know I need a location for the castle that makes the time passed it by quality of the original story.

I can’t claim my solution to the last question was entirely conscious. I started giving Helena-Linda her vaguely Spanish nature as a way to have her be named Belle without being named Belle. Thus, I changed languages to Spanish and go with Helena (prettiest woman in Ancient Greece), Linda (pretty in Spanish) and a made-up surname that sounds like a concerto by Rodrigo I happen to like and hear a lot. And de Feo (ugly) is a good married surname for the Beast’s wife in French.

Without even consciously addressing the question of how the Beast in his castle is completely unknown to the villagers in the nearby community, by picking languages I backhandedly solve the problem…The Pyrenees. A border area between France and Spain, the mountain range also has the tall confusing mountain trails where you might get lost and find a castle that time has forgotten only to never find it again on the second try. Places where the magic required, doesn’t have to work as hard to say hidden.

I would’ve had to answer the question eventually. And I would get to the same place where once I have the answer to – “where do they live?” – I also have part of the answer to who these people are. Suddenly, I’m writing a few pages where Belle refers to the Beast as Señor and the Beast calls her Madame and I can sort of justify that most of their words rendered in English for the benefit of the reader as a common in between dialect that’s neither French nor Spanish.

Let’s talk about the Obsidian City. This place I’m really hoping to put on the metaphorical surf safari for you all. Sources for the city include whichever nature show talked about the Bay of Fundy with its forty-foot tide shifts last. Or the since abandoned story in which the city first appeared, an interstellar fairytale with quite a few shared elements with several traditional tales. The even more pie in the sky sequel would’ve had the title, “Sleeping Beauty Don’t Surf!” (thank you, Major Kilgore). When I realized I needed to rewrite another book centered on a great city, I just did the fold, spindle mutilate job all writers do and ported the city over.

Unpacking these mostly subconscious decisions leads you to all kinds of revelations that branch out in all directions. More basalt, a gray-black volcanic flow rock, is created by the nearby volcano, than true obsidian, a volcanic glass good for early spears and killing ice zombies. I get to comment about a city calling itself the Obsidian City for branding purposes…sounds way cooler.

I’ve also as a matter of narrative just created a volcano. Wow! At some point the savvy reader will ask when the writer gets bored of the place and just have Vesuvius blow the hell up and bury Pompeii already. Have I just created opposing religious cults, one for appeasing the volcano goddess and the one for nihilistically encouraging said next eruption? And how will these story elements show up in the everyday speech and patterns of doing business in the city?

A volcano on top of the already fantastic tide surge, I must either really hate the Obsidian City or, unlike the Chinese Emperor I see some value in – “May you live in interesting times.”

And with an eye towards being plausible, deciding on the Obsidian City as my city also affects other nearby places on the map, specifically the blighted land of Crodol. My city is a stand-in for Minas Tirith, which means that the bad guy abode is going to be the same distance away as Mordor is from Minas Tirith. It follows that the tide surges that turn Obsidian City into the kind of place where everyone runs upstairs twice a day to avoid hell and high water also afflict Crodol, described as reclaimed from the sea/tidal basin by sea walls. Gee, different engineering solutions to the same geographical problem. How does this affect…

Truthfully, I just came up with the place so my hero from California could do a little urban surfing to impress his queen. Choose a location and watch how it affects many other elements of your story, because where and how we live is part of who we are as anything else.

I don’t just have to answer these types of questions with the fantastic and faraway. Some of my stories are clearly about Los Angeles suburbia where I got to grow up and had to leave once it became clear I couldn’t afford to live there as an adult. A place of wide streets and tall trees to accommodate football games that end when I punt the ball into the treetops.

And yes, there are apartments and condos with slightly different vibes. Where do you set the fistfight on page four? Did you have a really good gag for the Petersen Auto Museum? What is the feel of the place? How much road rage do your characters exhibit because – “wow! Shit just got real!” The point of this seemingly random mix of nostalgia and overarching weird serves a purpose…to help you think of the locations you choose for your stories become integrated into the story. That if you choose the Pyrenees for a fairytale update, suddenly one character speaks Spanish while her husband speaks French. That a cool city driven by a nearby volcano is a powder keg that will change the story while you aren’t looking. And you can find magic everywhere…