One of the specialties of science fiction—and to some extent fantasy—is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher: Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Alien ship from movie ArrivalSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustrationClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Among the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Toy stack of ringsThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, illustration

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.

The Last Jedi . . . Maybe

Boldly Going Where the Story Hasn’t Gone Yet

Debating what may happen in future Star Wars movies has been a favorite spectator sport since 1980, when we all saw The Empire Strikes Back and spent the next three years madly surmising  what would happen in the third episode.  Was Vader really Luke’s father?  (It’s hard to believe in this era, when “I am your father” is a classic meme, but in 1980 it was a viable theory that he was lying.)  Who was the “other” of Yoda’s enigmatic remark, “There is another”?

That last question illustrates the danger of too much speculation.  By the time Return of the Jedi came out, we’d debated every possibility, from a complete unknown to Han Solo—including the winning choice, Princess Leia (requiescat in pace).  The revelation in Episode VI couldn’t help but be an anticlimax.  So I’ve been trying not to spend too much time spinning my wheels over the unanswered questions in The Force Awakens.  We’ll find out soon enough.

The title of Episode VIII, though, does bring up an interesting point.

Last Now, or Last Forever?

Star Wars - The Last Jedi title screenDisney announced the title The Last Jedi for Episode VIII on January 23, 2017.  The fan community immediately went to work to ferret out the implications. It was pointed out, for example, that “Jedi” can be either singular or plural.  There might be one last Jedi, or two last Jedi, or an entire academy-full of last Jedi.  Still, some sort of finality seems to be indicated.

Comments around the Web as of February 12, 2017, suggest there are at least two major possibilities:

Luke and Rey(1)  The film is about the last Jedi who happens to be left alive at the moment.  That’s obviously Luke Skywalker, and Rey could reasonably say, on meeting him, that she’s found the last Jedi.  It doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be any more to follow.  The Last Jedi might show Luke taking on Rey as an apprentice and making her a new Jedi.  If so, the story could well be captioned, from Rey’s point of view, How I Met the Last Jedi and Became the First Recruit in a New Jedi Order.  This would simply put us back in the realm of “That boy is our only hope / No, there is another.”

(2)  The more interesting, more drastic possibility is that Luke is the last Jedi there will ever be; that Episodes VIII-IX will involve some sort of epoch-making shakeup that will end the Jedi order permanently.  That might seem an anticlimax, after taking all that trouble to restore the order in Return of the Jedi.  But if it did, what would the future look like?

This possibility raises a question that has long intrigued me:  Is the Jedi order as we see it in the prequel series really a good thing?

How Not to Train Your Jedi

We had to wait for the prequels (Episodes I-III) to see how the Jedi order actually worked in its heyday.  What emerged was rather surprising.  The training program is of particular interest, because how you form the next generation of Jedi shapes what kinds of people they become and how they carry out their somewhat hazy galactic peace-keeping responsibilities.

(I should note that I’m referring only to the movies here and not the vast expanded universe of novels and spinoffs, much of which is no longer canon anyway.)

Jedi younglings at practiceWhen we meet young Anakin Skywalker at nine years of age in Episode I, he is already considered too old for the normal Jedi training program.  This is borne out by the scenes we see of five- or six-year-old “younglings” practicing their Jedi arts.  Evidently in the Republic, Force-gifted children were taken away from their families as young as five or six and brought to Coruscant for full-time training.  (No wonder Yoda also complained about Luke’s age in Episode V.)

If Anakin’s own experience is any guide, the younglings don’t return to their families, even, say, for summer vacations.  They are expected to grow up without normal family interactions, living a sort of monastic existence.  This approach might produce an intense concentration on one’s studies, and a sense of fierce fellowship among the Jedi members.  But it’s not clear that the resulting Jedi Knights would be especially well-adjusted for dealings with other, normal citizens.

We saw how badly this worked out for Anakin himself.  When Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi redeem Anakin from slavery in Episode I, they can’t afford to buy out his mother Shmi as well.  But, appallingly, they never go back with more funds to do so; apparently they’re content to leave her enslaved while they concentrate on her Force-enabled son.  (This omission itself says something about the mind-set of the Republic and the Jedi in particular.)  When Anakin returns in Episode II just in time for his mother to die in his arms, this experience plays a key role in his eventual turn to the Dark Side, with the avowed aim of bringing “order to the galaxy” to prevent such tragedies.

No Valentines for Jedi

The exclusion of Jedi Knights from normal family and community life extends forward in their lives as well.  We find out in Episode II that Jedi are not permitted to marry.  (No one seems to have considered that this restriction is a fine way to breed Force-sensitivity right out of the participating species.)

Anakin and Padme silhouetted against cityWhile this barrier may have been set up simply to create a story conflict, it also intensifies the separation of the Jedi from ordinary social interactions.  The trope of a celibate monastic order certainly has some narrative power.  But it may not be an ideal way to establish the primary enforcement and conflict-resolution arm of a galactic society.  In a curious way, the Jedi order resembles the army of familyless clones that the Jedi themselves initially create, and later combat.

A Failing Republic

With this issue in mind, the whole plot of Episodes I-III looks less like a simple tale of scheming intrigue by Senator Palpatine and more like a civilizational tragedy.  A polity falls most easily to a destabilizing force when it is already rotting from within.  Palpatine could not have succeeded so easily, one might argue, if the Republic and the Jedi had not already become decadent or dysfunctional.

In fact, the Jedi leaders in the prequels speak uneasily about some sort of failure or lessening of their communion with the Force, which is never really explained.  Is it possible that the Jedi ways of cultivating young pupils had become hidebound and ossified in a way that decreased their powers and made them vulnerable to a sneak attack or “phantom menace” from the Dark Side?

This is all speculation, of course.  I don’t know whether any such thing was in Lucas’s mind when Episodes I-VI were made, much less in the current screenwriters’ minds now.  But these considerations do suggest that it’s not enough just to restore or return the Republic’s Jedi order.  A renascence or renovation of the Light Side organization may be needed as well.

A Post-Jedi Order?

We now know that you don’t have to be a Sith Lord like Vader or Palpatine to serve the Dark Side.  We’ve also got Kylo’s Knights of Ren, and Snoke, whatever he is.  Maybe it’s also possible to serve the Light Side without being a Jedi Knight.

Based on the above thoughts about Jedi training, I’ve always rather hoped that Luke would rethink the historical Jedi practices (which he hardly knows, anyway) and develop a more humane, more balanced cadre.  We now know that he tried to train a new group between Episode VI and VII, but from the movies, at least, we don’t know how he went about it.  (I haven’t yet read any of the new-continuity novels.)

We do know that Luke’s new Jedi academy was a failure:  it produced Kylo Ren and collapsed after his turn to the Dark Side.  Perhaps now, after years of meditating on his mistakes, Luke may be ready to try something different.  It could be that the new knights of the light won’t be Jedi at all, but a new kind of Force for good.  To my mind, that would be a really interesting development.


These idiosyncratic guesses have a pretty low probability of panning out, to be sure.  The subtleties of training programs might not appeal to the Star Wars audience as a key plot device.  But they’re fun to think about.

The real entertainment value of SWAGs like these is to see how far off they were when the movie actually comes out.  We’ll see in December what “The Last Jedi” really means—and probably have a good laugh about this post.


Follow-up Notes

4/14/2017:  Here’s the latest trailer.
4/18/2017:  Zak Wojnar at ScreenRant has a good commentary today making some of the same points.

Arthurian Variations (Part II)

We’ve seen that the Arthuriad has generated a wide variety of retellings over the years.  What makes these legends so adaptable, and so congenial to storytellers of all kinds?

To begin with . . .

A few reasons leap out at us.

As we’ve seen before, it helps if there’s no one canonical version of a story.  Without a single clear source, later authors are free from the need to conform to the “classic” tale.  The Wikipedia article says outright, “there is no one canonical version” (¶ 3).

It’s true that Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is the central reference point, at least in English.  But his version is so far from current norms that it would be hard to try and reproduce it faithfully—as Steinbeck perhaps found.  Malory serves more as a library or resource for story elements that can be adapted and recombined at will.

The sheer breadth of that source material is a second factor.  All those knights, all those adventures, even the numerous events of the main storyline:  the Arthuriad is its own ‘Pot of Story,’ a stew full of nutritious narrative elements.  “It held a treasure for every seeker.”  (The Mabinogion, tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman’s Library, 1949, 1974, Introduction, p. xxx.)

The story also occupies a colorful historical setting, whether in the plate-mail-and-castles “high road” approach, or in the more historically plausible “low road” approach.  Many readers have a fondness for this quasi-medieval environment—which is why versions of that milieu are used in so many fantasy stories and games.

A Plethora of Characters

In particular, the Arthuriad is filled with strong and interesting characters.  An author can focus on, say, the character of Percival, or Morgan le Fay, or Gawain, and take off from there.  Or she can ring the changes on the main story by redefining the characters and their relationships, as we saw in the examples from Part I.

Arthur himself can be played in many ways.  Generally he tends to have a certain innocence, a certain earnestness and candor about him.  But this can be realized in the psychologically wounded but charismatic leader of Wolf’s tale, in the essential simplicity of the idealist in White’s Once and Future King, or in the clever but dedicated warleader of “King Arthur.”  (It can also be seen in the weak and waffling character of Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot”—if we include what I consider a failed implementation.)

Other characters are equally mutable.  Mordred is subtle and evil in White; he’s an innocent and rather likable kid in Wolf.  Lancelot contains enough contradictions in himself—loyal friend, betrayer of a marriage, devoted lover, peerless warrior—that an intense character study of this champion is almost unavoidable if we let him into the story at all.

Guinevere is a particularly tricky case.  It’s hard to play her as truly admirable—since so much of her traditional role lies in being untrue, at least after a fashion.  (She’s untrue to Arthur, but true to Lancelot, and the story seems largely willing to forgive the first in light of the second.)  If she isn’t handled carefully, she’s likely to default into being silly, or weak, or fickle.  The challenge of giving her a better role may appeal to an author.  Both books and films have taken up that challenge, though I’m not familiar with those treatments.

Compelling Drama

The story of Arthur contains many events that lend themselves to high drama.  For example—

His origin.  It seems essential for Arthur’s ascent to the throne to exemplify the theme of the lowly raised high, the rise from humble beginnings to glory.  His childhood is modest, in one way or another.  In the traditional formulation, Arthur doesn’t know who he is until he is almost grown, and it may take a magic token (the sword in the stone) to demonstrate his true nature.  As a result, Arthur generally has the humility that I’ve argued characterizes our archetype of the Good King.

This Cinderella-type story appeals to our fondness for the underdog, and the reversal of fortunes is inherently dramatic.  There are a lot of possibilities for how that revelation occurs, and how Arthur and those around him react.

Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur (King Arthur)The love stories.  An eternal triangle necessarily involves passion, betrayal, and drama.  But there are a lot of possible ways to construe the relations among Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot (along with Morgan and other possible players, as we saw last time).

In the central love story, Arthur tends to lose out.  As White puts it (Book Three, beginning of ch. 45):  “Merlyn had not intended him for private happiness.  He had been made for royal joys, for the fortunes of a nation.”

Since Arthur is on the scene first, Lancelot must share some strong bond with Guinevere in order to draw her away from Arthur—unless the Arthur-Guinevere bond isn’t that strong to begin with, as in Wolf.  If we idealize Lancelot and Guinevere’s romance, we have to push Arthur away.

There’s a strong impulse to rescue the love story somehow.  We have three characters, each of whom we love and admire, trapped in this untenable situation.  We don’t want any of them to lose out, but someone has to.

So we get retellings that pare down the triangle.  In The Road to Avalon, Arthur and Morgan are the real romance; it doesn’t matter if Guinevere seeks solace elsewhere (except for political reasons).  In “First Knight,” Arthur is too old for Guinevere; after his inevitable death, Lancelot and Guinevere seem to be left free to marry.  “King Arthur” ends early, in terms of the overall myth, and skips the entire triangular problem.  Arthur and Guinevere marry at the end in a traditional romantic consummation, and Lancelot remains a minor character.

Moreover, if we choose as our main character someone other than the Big Three—one of the numerous other knights or ladies of the Arthurian court—the possibilities for love stories are endless.

The Holy Grail (Indiana Jones)The Holy Grail.  It’s hard to know what to make of the Holy Grail as a storytelling hub.  The Grail’s religious origins (although they are subject to dispute by some literary historians) may cause this part of the story to be bypassed entirely by those writers who prefer to dodge the Christian aspects of the Arthuriad.  White introduces the Grail quest rather ignobly as a distraction to keep the knights busy when there are no wars for them to fight.

Nonetheless, the mythic resonances of this ultimate quest MacGuffin have let it play a role in a surprising number of modern treatments—from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”—even where, as in the last example, the Arthurian tales are not otherwise involved.  For those who want an air of mystery and the numinous, rather than just clashing swords, the Grail is a natural choice.

Key Themes

Finally, the Arthuriad carries a number of themes of lasting interest.  These themes can also draw storytellers to the court of Camelot.

Knights of the Round Table (Excalibur)True companions.  For Western culture, Arthur’s Round Table knights may be the archetypal example of the tight-knit group of comrades fighting together for the right.  The basic story also includes some inversions of this band-of-brothers relationship—betrayals of several kinds—but that only serves to make the ideal seem more dramatic and memorable.  The Round Table is explicitly portrayed in “First Knight” and (without the table) in “King Arthur.”  It’s satirized, yet mourned, in White.  It does not play a major role in Wolf’s version.  But if an author wants to invoke the ideal of comradeship to the death, Arthur’s court is as likely a touchstone as the Three Musketeers or Robin Hood’s woodland band.

Chivalry.  The Arthurian knights represent the archetype of the ideal of chivalry.  Now, our era has a love-hate relationship with this notion.  We frequently prefer to satirize or criticize the ideals that were held up as models for the Arthurian knights.  Yet there remains a certain appeal to what TV Tropes calls Old-School Chivalry, a less literal version that can turn up in cases as varied as Captain America and “Kate and Leopold.”  These later varieties look back to the hazy memory of a medieval ideal that we associate with Arthur’s court.

Civilization is at stake.  Almost all versions of the tale depict Arthur as standing in some sense for the defense of imperiled civilization against the chaotic forces that threaten it.  The opposition may be literal, as in The Road to Avalon, where Arthur leads armies against the invading Saxons.  Or it may be more subtle, as when The Once and Future King shows Arthur striving to achieve the rule of law as a principle to contain the depredations of warlords.  Not Might makes Right, but Right makes Might, protecting the weak from the strong, ordinary people from the powerful:  this is the chivalric ideal Arthur pursues under the tutelage of Merlyn.

You could call it civilization.  What I meant by civilization when I invented it, was simply that people ought not to take advantage of weakness—not violate maidens, and rob widows, and kill a man when he was down.  People ought to be civil.  (Book Two, chapter 9)

The most poignant aspect of the Arthurian tale is that he achieves this ideal, for a fleeting moment—an island of light in an age of darkness—yet it fails.  The Round Table is broken, Camelot goes down in war and betrayal, Arthur does not found a virtuous dynasty.  This chiaroscuro of success and failure has a dramatic appeal that is hard for a storyteller to resist.

CamelotCamelot falls.  And yet, the story does not quite end in despair.  Arthur may die—but he is not entirely lost; he will somehow return.  In White’s touching ending, Arthur hands on the story itself, the memory of Camelot, to a young page named Tom—Tom Malory.  The ideal remains an ideal, and we are reassured that someday Arthur and the ideals he champions will reawaken.

It is no wonder that this kind of ambiguous, yet hopeful, ending attracts storytellers.  It attracts readers too.  All but the most hardened cynics would like to look forward to such a return.  Arthur’s story, like Arthur himself, never quite dies.