What IS science fiction?

Recently, Black Gate wrote a retro review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and it was a fair review of a beloved 30+ year old sci-fi flick, obligatory remarks about Shatner and Montalban’s hammy acting and all. One part stuck out for me though:

“But while it features all of Star Trek‘s usual array of SF trappings you could make the argument that at the heart of things Wrath is not really a science fiction story at all — which might be beside the point. It could probably have worked just as well with Khan the pirate being marooned on a remote island in the Caribbean or Khan the ex-con getting out of prison and seeking vengeance on the person who put him there. It’s all about the revenge, after all.”

It’s pointing out the obvious, what we all (or most people who’ve watched Trek) have known. How many Trek stories can this be said of? How many are naval engagements, colonial encounters, or even fairytale flights of fancy with some machine or superalien in the role of Mab & Oberon? So why point it out?

I wonder what constitutes a sci-fi story. About how many seminal works of science fiction could one say that it “is not really a science fiction story at all”?

While Lengeman may be making an innocuous point here, the “not sci-fi” or “not serious sci-fi” trope has long been an issue in fandom, whether it’s the ghettoization of retail shelves following the Fantasy market being broken off or alleged marginalization of women writers for not writing hard enough sci-fi. It’s not new. But really, why point out that Star Trek whatever is “not really a science fiction story” unless you are going to present a clear definition of what a sci-fi story is?

Sci-fi is more a combination of setting and aesthetic than story. In fact, I would go so far as to posit that there is no such thing as a “sci-fi story”.

Short Review up later today.

Batman & the Outsiders, Sentinels of the Multiverse and Superdiversity (image heavy)

So, I think I’ve got a fancrush on Halo. She loves video games and her favorite movie is Wrath of Khan*: she has made Katana take her to see it over and over to the point of exasperation.


Her taste in sci-fi makes up for her taste in clothing.

One of the things that has been pretty cool about the Outsiders is it captures the kind of diversity that you hear people always asking for, but it never really makes a big deal out of it. It never smacks you in the face and is all “Look, this team has a black guy and women on it and one of the women is Asian!**” And this was over 30 years ago! If DC or Marvel did something like this now, you can bet you’d see a million PR stories out there about how finally comics were starting to show diversity, and “Hey, look at all these colored folk*** to make you white nerds feel better about yourselves!”

But anyway, I was thinking about that because I got to play Sentinels of the Multiverse over the weekend. It wasn’t until about 30 minutes in that it clicked in my mind that I’d heard of this before: some blog had been complaining about the racist and sexist character designs. If we lived in the real world, the game would be praised for its wide range of diverse characters who are an homage to comic book cheese; feminists would praise the fact that in this game several badass heroes are female and Wealthy-Stealth-Fighter-With-Computers-and-Gadgets-Who-Is-Legally-Distinct-From-Batman is a woman****. Unfortunately, since we live in the evil mirror universe (don’t try to tell me we don’t, I’ve seen the beards on you guys!) people complain that the ethnically diverse cast are stereotypical and that the women don’t represent a diverse enough range of body types (because they’re all variants of athletic and fit).

There are DOZENS of characters in SotM, but here are a few examples stolen from the wiki.

Black Iron Man isn't good enough for you people.

Black Iron Man isn’t good enough for you people.

Someone complained that Ra is a white guy, but with a name like Dr. Washington he's probably a lighter skinned black man.

Someone complained that Ra is a white guy, but with a name like Dr. Washington he’s probably a lighter skinned black man.

Redeemer Fanatic

Unacceptable body type!

And just to be clear, Fanatic is non-white.

And just to be clear, Fanatic is non-white.

Yay, Wraith!

Yay, Wraith!

Oh, noes! D:  #genderequalityisatwoedgedsword

Oh, noes! D:

Okay, Visionary IS kind of weird looking; you can make a character chesty or go for the Hartman Hips, but doing both just ends up looking kind of off.

Okay, Visionary IS kind of weird looking; you can make a character chesty or go for the Hartman Hips, but doing both just ends up looking kind of off.

So, in conclusion, check out Batman and the Outsiders and check out Sentinels of the Multiverse, because they are both awesome.

If people are serious about “improving” things, they ought to support stuff like this and say “look at all the things these did right; here are some things that can be done better next time.”  When all of the criticism comes out as “LOOK AT HOW BAD YOU’VE DONE!”, the message becomes that you shouldn’t even try.

*:Which Star Trek movie is not specified, but at the time, Search for Spock had not come out yet and Wrath of Khan had been out for a little over a year, but was almost certainly still showing in discount theaters.  Batman & the Outsiders issue 6 came out January 1984.

**: Sure it relevant in her origin story that Tatsu is from Japan, but I think that’s something that is sometime relevant for, y’know, most Japanese people.

***: Because what is ‘Persons of Color’ but a way to say ‘colored folk’ while trying to sound high fallutin’?

****: Wraith is seriously a pretty awesome character; I’d probably read comics starring her.

Difficult Choices

A couple weeks ago, I made an amazing find at this pawn/consignment/junk shop in a one-horse town about an hour from where I live.

For $15 I purchased a never-before-opened, still in the shrinkwrap, vintage 1968 AMT model of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

stock photo from Amazon; my box doesn't look quite that nice

stock photo from Amazon; my box doesn’t look quite that nice

I finally got around to looking this thing up on Amazon.  They’re going for between $150 and $200.

My main trepidation is that I really suck at building models.  The box is a bit banged up, so it’s not display-quality New, but I could sure use $100 or so.  Do I build it or try to sell it?


(just so as it’s not all angry ranting on a monday)

So, between finishing the Great Alta books and starting Clan of the Cave Bear, I read the first 2/3s of Star Trek: Voyage To Adventure.

Voyage To Adventure is the quintessential example of what I call a quantum game book: not only do different choices affect the immediate course you’re on, they circumstantially alter the background reality to the exclusion of all others once a choice has been made.

The first choice you make determines which group of adventures you will have access to. The second choice determines a more specific adventure within that field, and sometimes the 3rd choice is where the final adventure path is set, with all of its possible good and bad outcomes. But each adventure path results in a solidifying of that reality over the other possible realities. For example, if you choose the Engineering track, one of the first choices you’re given is whether to begrudgingly accept Lt. Grogan’s order to swab the deck or whine to Scotty that a Star Fleet Ensign ought not be doing something so demeaning as swabbing the decks. If you whine to Scotty, you have one of two adventures in the Jeffries Tubes, and it ends with Lt. Grogan having no hard feelings, Scotty congratulating you on saving the Enterprise, and all three of you having a laugh together. However if you don’t whine to Scotty and actually swab the deck, in a surprise twist, Lt. Grogan is actually a Klingon spy who’s trying to sabatoge the ship. One ending, Grogan is patting you on the back. The next, he is an alien and he is shooting you. In a similar quantum shift in another adventure path, the choice to go down the hall in one direction results in the alien race being aggressive and evil, while the choice to go down the hall the other way results in the same alien race being peaceful and benevolent.
Anyway, the purpose of this is that I wanted to try to come up with a taxonomy of game books. This list is by no means comprehensive. If anyone has some other types, please list them, and I’ll add them.
Single Track to an Ultimate End – This type of game book is fairly rare, I think. The main example I can think of are the Zork game books. In these books, there is a fairly singular path that one is intended to take from beginning to end and any divergence from it results in death. There’s usually no purpose in going back and re-reading to get different endings, because every junction has a choice that leads you further along the story or to death. You might look at the death choice, just to see what would’ve happened if you made the obvious wrong choice, but you’re going to just keep going along until the bitter end.

Branching Paths to many ends– The old branded choose your own adventure books were typically these. Each book was more like a series of short stories that would crystalize with each choice you made. The initial choices would set you down on the path of which of the adventures you’d take, and subsequent choices would determine how the adventure you chose turned out. Occassionally, such as in my old CYOA foe Daredevil Park, there were no good endings, but usually there was a mix of good and bad endings. A lot of times, there was no ultimate best ending, just equally good endings among a slew of equally bad endings.

Branching Paths to an Ultimate End – The best examples of this kind of book are the Escape series, the Lone Wolf series and the old Nintendo books. These books have several paths you can take, not all leading to death, that will eventually take you to an ultimate ending. If the books are part of a series, the ultimate ending is a canonical ending and certain paths in subsequent books represent canonical paths (you may not have had the Somerswerd because you didn’t buy the early books, but the canonical Lone Wolf sure as hell did, and probably had an easier time of it, too, because of that). This type needs to be further broken down:

-Explore and find the end-
The Escape From books are open ended, in that you could virtually explore the entire world, sometime with different things happening when you visited a place a second time, but ultimately your goal was to get to the ending of the book.

-Find and Fight your way to the end-
The Lone Wolf books were not entirely open ended, and many paths would close to you after you proceeded ahead. This could result in you missing out on cool items that would help you finish the book without cheating. Regardless of what items you had to help you or what choices you made, so long as you didn’t die in a fight or get a non-standard game-over, you’d eventually end up at the end of the book, going on to the next one with whatever goodies you’d found along the way.

-Find your way to the best end-
The Nintendo game books from the early 90s tended to have a lot of choices, and depending on the book, you’d find various things that would have various outcomes. There was usually a happy ending that you worked toward, and sometimes you could even get there with a few screw-ups along the way, but there were also plenty of bad endings. The bad endings were often way-out and weird situations that you’d gotten yourself into, but weren’t quite the non-standard game-overs of Lone Wolf’s “You choose to fight way too many bad guys” or “You fell in swamp because you didn’t choose the wilderness proficiency” variety. They were often nooks, crannies and alcoves to explore and either escape from or die in.

Vs Books
The only example of this I ever owned was “You are Eric Sunsword: Legendary Knight of the Northern Marches”, and for much of my childhood I was confused by it, as I did not have the matching “You are Neves: an Ancient and Powerful Wizard” book. Each person was supposed to take turns reading a ‘chapter’, fight the monster, get the treasure, spring the trap, and move on while looking for the other person. Ultimately, the two players are supposed to fight each other to the death with the treasures they amassed in the ruined castle, but, since I didn’t have a 2P, I aimlessly wandered the catacombs looking for an evil wizard who wasn’t there. There were one or two non-standard game-overs, but the main way of losing was by losing all your hp, dying in a fight or being killed by a trap, in which case you were supposed to turn to a page in the back that displayed a masoleum of your character, and text “Here lies Eric Sunsword. He gave his all for love, but it was not enough.”