Happy Star Wars Day! And may the Force be with you. (as a graduate of a catholic high school I always have to stop myself from automatically replying “and also with you” whenever I hear that).
Like the vast majority of us, my life has recently been somewhat subdued by the covid-19 pandemic and its resultant social restrictions. And while I feel thankful to say the personal impact has been limited, I have nonetheless been looking for ways to spend some of my newly freed-up time and energy.
So what does one do when faced with the existential crisis of a killer coronavirus? Naturally, one builds oneself a lightsaber hilt out of spare plumbing parts.
Well, that’s what I did anyway.
And when I say “spare” plumbing parts, I mean I may have bought them specifically.
Still, I’m rather pleased with the result.
Needless to say it took a lot of sawing, sanding, spray painting and gluing and it didn’t come out quite as impressive as its inspiration (see YouTube link) but I’m satisfied the Force is with this one as a first attempt. In fact I already have plans for a second, PVC-based design for costuming and so on.
So if you too feel the mystical pull of the Force (midi-chlorians?!?) in your veins, then checkout the tutorial below, or one of many like it, and this Star Wars day, build yourself a lightsaber worthy of Luke (or Leia, Anakin, Ahsoka, Rey…)
That’s all folks! Stay well, and as always: thanks for playing!
It has been a long time since I’ve made a random geeky post (OK – so it has been a long time since I’ve made a post of any kind) but I’ve recently been enjoying something of a Star Trek renaissance (a rebirth of my interest in the franchise rather than of the franchise itself, obviously) and as a result I’ve had Deep Space Nine on the mind.
Deep Space Nine? More like Deep Space Nein! you say. Alright, that was me. But while the wording may be a little trite, the sentiment is one I often hear expressed with regard to the original (and best) universe’s third installment (I’m discounting the animated series – sue me).
So why all the hate? Is DS9 really Star Trek’s ugly stepchild? And if one were to revisit the adventures of Captain Sisko and co. on their embattled ex-Cardassian/weird kitchen utensil of a station, is Emissary, the first DS9 episode, necessarily the best place to begin?
A brief discussion with possible mild spoilers (for DS9 and potentially the prime universe’s overarching story line) to follow…
Dark Space Nine
One of the big criticisms of DS9 is that it’s just too darn dark in tone, which often leads quickly to the accompanying accusation that it’s therefore just not Star Trek. I get this. Star Trek a la Roddenberry’s vision was, after all, a sci-fi utopia (for humans anyway, but more on this later) in which the upstanding protagonists strove to eliminate war, prejudice, oppression etc. etc. from the galaxy.
DS9 on the other hand is a series set in the aftermath of the Cardassians’ brutal occupation and subjugation of the Bajorans and is swiftly caught up in the several seasons-spanning Alpha v. Gamma Quadrant war with the Dominion, a conflict which the Federation very nearly loses. Admittedly a far cry from exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new civilizations, although they also manage to squeeze in a fair bit of that too.
I would argue, however, that it is in these darker moments that DS9 really comes into its own. That it is only in amongst all of this darkness that the series’ own, unique light is able to shine (ahem).
Captain Picard may spend TNG’s seven seasons occupying the moral high ground but it’s Sisko’s ability to delve into the grey (actually following through on a threat to poison a Maquis planet in order to stop the Maquis from unleashing biogenic weapons of their own in For the Uniform 5.13, for example) that makes him a commander capable of winning a war against an enemy like the Dominion. It is also part of what makes Sisko, and DS9, such an interesting and entertaining show to watch.
Star Trek obviously has a long and laudable history of addressing social injustices, but whereas TOS and TNG did so from a firm and inflexible Federation (read vaguely liberal American/Western) viewpoint, allying the audience with the (obviously correct) Starfleet protagonist’s moral position, DS9 goes further than any Star Trek series before in not just inviting the audience to question the motives and ethics behind its characters’ actions, but having the characters actively engage in this practice onscreen themselves, often without compromise or apology.
The prime example of this must surely be the season six favorite In the Pale Moonlight (6.19), in which Sisko not only admits to being an accessory to politically motivated murder, but that, given the stakes and the outcome, he’d do it again. He might not like it, but he can live with it.
Now I certainly understand people who complain that this is not their idea of Star Trek, and the morally questionable character actions/generally darker tone of DS9 is probably the main area in which Roddenberry’s lack of involvement with the creation of the series is felt. But after all of Picard’s moral grandstanding and inflexibility it’s refreshing to see someone uncomfortable in their Starfleet uniform, or who has the capacity to ask what it means to be morally flexible in a universe of moral hard-lines, however liberal. How can the Federation justify its pacifistic policies in the face interstellar aggression? And, at the end of the day, what gives the Federation the moral upper-hand anyway?
Little better than a homo sapiens only club
It’s during an ill-fated diplomatic summit aboard the Enterprise-A in the late twenty-third century that the Klingon Chancellor’s daughter, Azetbur, refers to the United Federation of Planet’s as “little better than a homo sapiens only club”, calling out the unspoken human-bias visible beneath the surface of the Alpha Quadrant’s major power.
Ignoring the obvious allegory of the real-world fall of the Soviet Union, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country can be seen as the beginning of a process of the franchise’s knowing self-reflection that would be continued in Deep Space Nine, where – for the first time – non-Federation aliens are featured as main characters (the final movie to feature Kirk and co. as the central protagonists was released in December 1991, just over a year before DS9 made its TV debut).
Whereas TNG had offered occasional philosophical explorations of the purpose and worth of the UFP and its ongoing scientific and diplomatic expansion via the character of Q, it took DS9 to invite “outsider” viewpoints firmly onto the screen, week after week in the form of central alien (aka non-Federation and, crucially, I think, non-human-looking) characters. Non-human people with whom we were encouraged to empathize, not as oddities-of-the-week, but shopkeepers, scientists, merchants and even spies whose everyday lives were shown unfolding just as complexly as those of the Starfleet crew with whom they cohabited.
Now DS9 obviously needed the success of TNG (and the Kirk-led big screen outings) in order to facilitate such a risky change of perspective, and the shift of setting from a starship to a station can be viewed as part of this experimental leap (a part that one could argue was not entirely successful, necessitating the introduction of the Defiant in season 3). The result is that DS9 often plays more like a soap than a traditional dose of weekly sci-fi, and therein lies the second major criticism of the show.
Robbed of the “These are the voyages…” ritual opening and weekly meet-and-greet with strange new civilizations, many Star Trek fans were turned off by the seemingly pedestrian pursuits of the station’s promenade. But behind all of Quark’s get-rich-quick scheming and Garak’s vaguely camp suggestions of Cardassian intrigue, this different type of storytelling allowed Star Trek to explore something even more interesting: alien perspectives.
Now as the human audience, we all know that the Federation is the galaxy’s very best society, with its post-money, post-resource scarcity economy and commitment to freedom, equality, and fraternity between species. But what does the UFP’s smug we’re better than gold-pressed latinum attitude mean for, say, the Ferengi, a culture whose sole sense of worth is derived from the accumulation of material wealth? Or what about the Cardassians, a people unfortunate enough to find themselves on a relatively resource-starved planet and therefore seemingly forced to adopt an authoritative, militaristic style of government, bent on aggressive expansion as a means to survive?
In TNG such aliens were cast as cut-out enemies and/or comic relief; cold, inhuman adversaries to be defeated, and sometimes pitied but always defeated, by the superior Federation. It is in Deep Space Nine, however, that we start to see the other side, that the Federation’s growing diplomatic and military clout necessarily means a reduction in space, political and literal, for others, and through scatterings of conflict with the Cardassians, the Klingons, and a smattering of folks from beyond the wormhole, we realize that when the Federation wins, someone else invariably loses.
If DS9’s alien protagonists allowed the audience to peek behind the curtain and explore the cost of Federation expansion, it also encouraged them to adopt, however briefly, an alien perspective and view the UFP (and by extension, the USA/West) through the imagined outsider’s eyes. This, I would argue, is one of the best and most enjoyable elements of Deep Space Nine’s soap opera style storytelling, facilitating often insightful and invariably humorous reflections upon what is ultimately an expansionist, if peaceful, United Federation of Planets.
But is it still Trek? Perhaps not in the traditional sense, but I do think DS9 represents the genuine growth of the franchise, even if Voyager and Enterprise later seemed to do their best to set the clock back, recycling everything good from TOS and TNG.
While it is certainly not without its flaws (and detractors), I would argue that DS9 is well worth a second look (or first, if you skipped it before). So where should the discerning viewer start such an endeavor? Probably at the beginning, but then skip ahead…
Deep Space Nine in Seven Parts
Following the breakout success of TNG, it seems there was some sort of rule written at Paramount that no Star Trek series after could be called a triumph unless it too ran to a full seven seasons (hence the reason the USS Voyager’s journey back from the Delta Quadrant is SO bloody protracted while the adventures of the Enterprise NX-01 (mixed as they were) are dismissed by many as a failure after managing a season count of a paltry four). While DS9 is no exception to this rule, it is also not immune to the dangers of drag and fluff, many episodes, and indeed seasons, contributing very little worth savoring, and are in fact just best avoided.
So how should Star Trek fans looking to fill the void left by the end of CBS’ reboot/squeal Discovery with DS9 proceed? I’m glad you asked.
As I previously mentioned, I recently returned to Trek after some time away (it was always in my heart, just not on my screen) and, at my suggestion, my wife and I sat down to watch DS9.
Now while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my wife was singularly unimpressed by the series’ opener, the aforementioned Emissary, I would say that she was decidedly underwhelmed. And with good reason: it kinda sucks. Partly this is due to age (honestly, even I was surprised at quite how 90s the show feels) but it’s also partly because DS9 has a fair few teething problems and takes a while to get going (to be fair, do you remember the first two seasons of TNG though?).
While sharing these musings with my brother in-law, he commented that while he thought the overarching story of the series was one of the best in Trek, he felt most individual episodes failed to stand on their own merits, describing them as “so-so” at best.
Although I do not agree that there are no good standalone episodes in the DS9 canon, I do agree that watching DS9 is an exercise in delayed gratification and much more similar to the way people watch modern, epic showstoppers like Game of Thrones, for example, as opposed to the episodic style pacing of TNG. With this in mind, my advice to the novice viewer is to simply cut the chaff and jump straight into the action.
Start at the very beginning: Despite everything, Emissary *is* still worth watching. It sets up the premise of the show and introduces all the main characters. Start here but move swiftly on.
The Way of the Warrior: This *might* be controversial advice, but now you know the station and the crew, do yourself a favor and skip straight to season 4, which starts with two part epic The Way of the Warrior.
Not only does this episode signal the introduction of everybody’s favorite klingon to the main crew (it’s set just after the events of the movie Generations, so no lingering commitments to the Enterprise) it also kicks off the main story arc of the Dominion War that dominates the remaining seasons.
Yes, there will be a few details with which you’ll be unfamiliar (the presence of the Defiant and Sisko’s jump from commander to captain, for example), and you will have missed out on some hit or miss character development, but generally the best is still ahead of you, so strap in, and…
Stay the course: DS9 really is all about following the story line of the conflict with the Dominion through to the end. Yes, there are some twists and turns along the way and not all of them are expertly handled but overall I still think it’s the most satisfying story arc in Trek. Also, it’s not all doom and gloom – starting in season 4 means you still have the enjoyment of both Trials and Tribble-ations (5.6) and Far Beyond the Stars (6.13) to go; both standout, standalone episodes that allow you to see your favorite characters in a very different and fun light.
A few to consider: If you still feel you’re missing out on too much by skipping the first three seasons, here are a few early offerings you might also want to consider beyond simply Emissary.
The Jem’Hadar (2.26) Notable really only for the introduction of the titular enemy super soldiers that will become a mainstay of the Dominion War and the destruction of the Galaxy class USS Odyssesy on the far side of the wormhole, The Jem’Hadar is otherwise a largely forgettable episode. But the death of such a big and powerful Starfleet vessel really sets the stakes for the impending conflict. Plus, it’s really cool.
The Search Part 1 & 2 (3.1&2) The season 3 opener is interesting for two reasons: 1) It introduces the USS Defiant, giving Deep Space Nine a much needed edge now that it has suddenly found itself on the front line of a developing conflict. 2) It firmly establishes the identity of the founders and starts Odo on his path of self-discovery/determination that will have drastic consequences for the fate of both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants.
Past Tense Part 1 & 2 (3.11&12) Another two parter, this one is, on the face of it, a classic Star Trek time travel yarn, facilitated via the good old transporter malfunction mechanism. Upon closer inspection something else is revealed however, as Sisko, Bashir and Dax must navigate the perils of 21st century San Francisco, facing racism of a kind eradicated in their sanitized 24th century lives.
Apart from being a time travel story exploring the requisite action vs. inaction conundrum, Past Tense is notable too as a rare depiction of racism not from the viewpoint of the Federation (read white saviors) swooping in to educate the ignorant locals, but of people of color, as Sisko and Bashir actually face discrimination and violence themselves. A first for Star Trek.
Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast (3.20&21) Although denied the Part 1 & 2 moniker, these episodes are definite two halves of the same story focusing on one of the very best DS9 characters, Garak. Here, Andrew J. Robinson is really allowed to let loose as we explore Garak’s past, filled with twists, guile, betrayal and, of course, intrigue for everybody’s favorite not-so ex-Cardassian spy.
So what do you think? Am I completely off the mark and DS9 a mere pile of sci-fi space trash? Or are you a DS9 fan and you’re angry because I missed your favorite season 2 episode? How would you recommend a newbie approach the series? And just what is the deal with Morn?
I didn’t write anything about Brexit; I didn’t write anything about the presidential race, and I’m not sure I want to write anything about this week’s election…
That said, something as monumental as this call for some sort of response, so I have decided to share part of a text I sent to worried family back in the UK. It’s not big or clever, but it is a genuine reflection of my take on things and the need to find some sort of meaning, some sort path, some sort of way forward:
…Obviously it’s not the result we wanted but it is what we’ve got. Now is the time to look forward, to assess the realities of the situation and to figure out how we can work with this. Why did millions of people vote against their interests and elect a man who claims he wants to tear down the system? We need to engage with these people, accept what they are saying and understand their motivations because whether I agree with them or not, they are obviously upset and profoundly disenfranchised. In order for democracy to work we need to build a system that supports everybody, and right now that includes Trump supporters. Of course S___ and I feel deeply sad but we need to focus on healing these wounds and find the positive in all of this. Thank you for your love and support, please believe me when I say that it will all be OK – the president is not a dictator, Congress and the Senate can help keep him in check (even with Republican majorities) and America will survive this just as the nations of the U.K. will survive Brexit and devolution and whatever else comes their way. Today we need to be strong, and sometimes that means focusing on what is right in the world and building from their. The people have spoken, and that fact in and of itself is a beautiful thing…
And on that note, I’ll leave you with one of my all time favorite photos:
Fifty years after the starship Enterprise first graced our TV screens, we are suddenly awash with new Star Trek properties, from the big screen adventures of a rebooted Kirk and co., to CBS’ forthcoming attempt to reclaim the television for the Federation. But will they, can they really be any good?
As many of you already know, I am a huge SF nerd and despite my love of, say, Iain M. Bank’s Culture, and the X-Files, if I am truly honest, my heart belongs to Star Trek. And not just any Trek; as a child of the 80s/90s, TNG has always been the daddy to me, opening my eyes to Roddenberry’s universe of soul-searching interstellar allegory via Patrick Stewart’s dulcet tones at 6pm on BBC 2 every Wednesday.
Rushing to get my homework done on time I would sit and watch it religiously, studiously recording and cataloging each episode to create my own VHS library of all seven seasons which, despite my painstaking efforts, I’m pretty sure I never watched and probably quite unceremoniously threw out when I went away to university. Not the most exciting way to spend one’s early teenage years, perhaps, but I have absolutely zero regrets – the lessons I learned on the bridge of the bulbous Enterprise D will last me a lifetime and will come in particularly handy should I ever find myself having to debate the merits of the Prime Directive. Any day now, I am sure of it.
ST:TNG is, in my humble opinion, among the very best TV ever created and, once it hit its stride, home to some of the very best small screen SF. Aside from the ever-present threat of the Borg, the continual testing of humanity’s worth by Q, some excellent holodeck-fueled adventures, and Data’s Pinocchio-like quest to become human, who can forget standalone gems such as The Measure of a Man, I Borg, The Inner Light (the very top of my list), and the excellent top and tailers Encounter at Farpoint and All Good Things? It’s in these episodes, as we watch Picard and crew wrestle with what it means to be human in a universe of uncertainty, that Star Trek really reached its peak, building on all that went before to create programing that was both entertaining, thought provoking and, thanks more often than not to Patrick Stewart, genuinely moving.
Post TNG is another matter however, and, forgive me for saying this, but the with the demise of the regular televised adventures of Picard and co., the franchise went rather swiftly downhill. Despite some initial promise, and the first female captain (gasp!), ST:V was largely derivative, rehashing old TNG plots in the same way TNG plundered TOS in the first season, but with little in the way of interesting, original content (even the series-saving addition of Seven of Nine called for the introduction of the TNG big-bad, the Borg, which Voyager swiftly proceeded to neuter by making them series regulars). And although I do occasionally hear moderately good things regarding Archer and co., I never even tried to get into ST:E – I just couldn’t get past that theme song!
I do have a soft spot for DS9, however, and the series did have moments of brilliance (Far Beyond the Stars and In The Pale Moonlight, to name but two) and TOS is of course home to many classic, genre defining and genuinely quite groundbreaking episodes of television, but try as I might, I just can’t muster the same affection for Kirk and Spock as I can for Picard and Data. Perhaps it’s a formative thing and I just happened to hit TNG at the right time, but for all its numerous faults (like most of the first two seasons) I just can’t stop holding a candle for the crew of the Enterprise D, and of course Tasha Yar (*sob*).
With this in mind, and after four rather disappointing TNG movie outings, I approached 2009’s J.J. Abrams-led big screen Star Trek reboot with some trepidation. Although various developmental tasks, like growing up and getting married, had somewhat reduced my, perhaps at points bordering on unhealthy connection to the TNG crew, the world of Star Trek still meant a lot to me and I was keen for Abrams not to screw it up. And largely he did not.
2009’s Star Trek offered a pleasantly surprising and engaging take on the Kirk/Spock relationship with the kinds of space battles Trek fans had only previously dreamed of, and 2013’s Into Darkness, while a little silly (and redundant – remake The Wrath of Khan, really?!?) was an enjoyable space romp nonetheless. Now that Abram’s himself has departed the director’s chair in favor of that other little space franchise obsessed with a group of light-sword fighting monks, we are due to get the third installment in the shiny new universe next month in the form of Star Trek Beyond (they have done away with the colons for some reason).
Although the misjudged first trailer for Justin Lin’s Trek film was worryingly un-Trek-like in tone and universally panned accordingly, the second has more than whetted my appetite, showcasing the characters we know in new and yet appropriately Trekkie situations: debating the ethics of the existence of the Federation and its near obsessive drive toward galactic expansion with an unrecognizable yet menacing Idris Elba, for example. Moreover, Lin (of various entries into the Fast and Furious franchise fame, apparently) seems to be putting his credentials as a action movie director to good use, finding (if the trailer is to be believed) several exciting new ways to film the main star of the show, namely the Enterprise herself.
And isn’t that what these new Star Trek films are all about? Explosions in space and spinning cameras, lens-flares (it’s Abrams after all) and inter-species martial arts? The excitement factor has definitely been turned up all the way to eleven and if the box office tallies from the last two reboot entries are anything to go by it certainly seems to be attracting audiences to the cinema, but is it really Trek?
Watching Abram’s first Star Trek again the other day it was hard not think of it as an extended audition for the job he ultimately got rebooting/continuing/re-imagining Star Wars, complete with an Ewok-esk comedy sidekick for Simon Pegg’s Scotty. In fact, about half way through I actually found myself wondering where all the scenes of old people wearing wobbly prosthetics sitting round a table and debating interstellar politics were. Not to mention the Enterprise’s famous mission that speaks to the very heart of Trek – to seek out new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before! Despite repeated verbal references to a five year mission we have yet to see the new Kirk and co. actually do any exploring.
Come to think of it, it’s not just the reboots that are guilty of this – from The Motion Picture to Into Darkness, none of the Star Trek films show the crew of the Enterprise doing any star trekking – not in the way Roddenberry had envisaged anyway. Arguably, Star Trek has never been fully realized on the big screen with few, if any, of the films, viewed solely on their own merits, actually working.
Think about it: can you name a single one of the movies that would stand up against 90 minutes (so two episodes) of the best of TV Trek? Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home are usually cited as the best of the silver screen bunch (although I have a soft spot for The Motion Picture) but how do they rate against, say The City on the Edge of Forever and Space Seed? We only really got one half decent TNG movie and arguably First Contact suffers from the same action-oriented flaws as Abrams’ offerings (albeit without the flares), and although the Jonathan Frakes directed outing gave us the Borg Queen, it’s still not as good as the Best of Both Worlds double-header story arc from which it draws heavily.
The point is, I’m not sure Trek really works on the big screen. Yes, it makes its money, but after 12 (soon to be 13) worthy attempts I think we can safely say that Roddenberry’s wagon trail to the stars is, I believe, an idea intrinsically linked to the episodic nature of television. As we watched, for example, Data’s quest to gain his humanity in TNG unfold over seven seasons and numerous interactions with main and incidental characters, pivotal or otherwise, we observed through repeat and slowly building exposure what this obsession truly meant to him, and his insertion of the emotion chip in Generations is therefore seen as a culmination of this seven year journey rather than a knee-jerk response to a minor holodeck embarrassment.
When Picard is first revealed as Locutus, his distinguished face drained of color, implanted with multiple painful looking metal augmentations, one eye covered by a cool-looking but quite obviously useless laser pointer, it is only because we have watched this man lead the Enterprise for three full seasons now that it really matters, and I’m not sure that connection can adequately be reproduced in twenty minutes of preamble before a the first big set-battle in a summer blockbuster.
Similarly, The Inner Light, a truly glorious episode in which Picard relives the entire life of a long dead alien via a telepathically delivered message from an ancient probe, would not work in the cinema at all – it’s far too slow and, ultimately, rather pointless. Picard now has this alien’s memories but where’s the interstellar threat, the lens flaring, camera wobbling dynamism? There isn’t any, and there shouldn’t be, for The Inner Light is a slow, meditative musing on the nature of mortality, the kind of risk no big studio would take (not with the Star Trek name on it anyway) but the very kind of TV SF that works precisely because of all the emotional investment we, the audience, have made in Captain Picard over the preceding episodes. In short, it’s just good TV.
Which brings me to CBS and their so far only teased new Star Trek TV series set to premiere this fall. Now, I’m trying not to get too hopeful about this (it’s set in the prime universe! Ahhhhh!) and I can’t be alone in wondering if it is in fact not just an attempt to get millions of Trekkies to cash in their love of the franchise for a subscription to CBS’ streaming service on which all episodes after the first will run and which surely doesn’t stand a chance in hell aginst the might of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu without them, but beam me up Scotty if I’m not excited anyway!
Can they really recreate that magic though? Star Trek, TOS, was undeniably a product of its time, a more optimistic time, arguably, and the same goes for TNG. How CBS’ offering will fare in a Trump, Brexit climate of economic uncertainty is anybody’s guess. Perhaps a new wagon trail to the stars is exactly what we need to take our minds off the petty squabbles of modern existence, or maybe the creators will dare to offer us a darker, grittier version of Roddenberry’s future, where humanity still wrestles with demons and there is no last minute mcguffin to save the day?
Either way, I await their offering with bated breath, hopeful that Star Trek can once again assume its rightful place at the forefront of TV science fiction. If they have any sense, surely the producers at CBS will ask themselves WWJLPD? before every major decision. Since 1987 it has been one surefire way to never go wrong!
Are you a Trekkie or an SF fan in general? Do you have an opinion on the reboot(s)? Are you hopeful or fearful for CBS’ coming TV offering? Let me know in the comments below.
As everybody on the internet is undoubtedly aware, last month Twitter, a platform of which I am rather fond, announced that they are considering expanding their strict 140 character limit to a whopping 10,000 characters.
Although the powers that be at Twitter HQ were quick to defend this change as being in the best interest of the micro blogging site’s users, allowing them to communicate more effectively and with greater creativity, the rest of the world was pretty sure the proposed character expansion was a thinly veiled attempt to appease shareholders who have seen the value of their stock plummet in recent months as the number of active tweeters reportedly falls.
Sadly, for Twitter HQ, I suppose, their much maligned character adjustment had the exact opposite effect, spawning a heated backlash across the platform and prompting the value of their stock to fall even further. Despite this, it looks as though the change is still going to go ahead giving readers the option to see tweets in their original, concise form or “read on” by clicking a link to an expanded view. Whether this change proves to be positive or negative is yet to be seen and I don’t intend to jump upon the bandwagon of Twitter-bashing here. I do, however, want to address the proposed change as it relates rather powerfully to my use of the platform for the creation of 140-character works of micro fiction.
I started writing Twitter stories in or around February 2010 (I can’t be sure of the year off the top of my head and I can’t be bothered to look back and check just now, but I’m reasonably sure it was about then) initially as an experiment – could I write a complete tale, convey a scene, a snippet of plot, character, or perhaps just an emotion with so few resources? It’s a challenge I blogged about here, and the answer is yes, sometimes. Writing one piece of 140-character micro flash every day means that my output is admittedly hit or miss, but in 2014 I did collect the best ones together into an illustrated ebook called Vestigial Tales which sold atrociously, but of which I am rather proud nonetheless.
The bottom line is that come what may, I won’t be expanding. I do write longer stories – often more that 10, 000 characters (gasp!) – but that’s not what Twitter is about for me and, as long as the platform exists, I’ll be sticking to my self-imposed, artificial limit. Is it frustrating? Sure, sometimes. But it’s also inspiring, and, occasionally, downright brilliant. Who can read Ernest Hemingway’s six word story For Sale, and not be struck by the sadness conveyed in so few syllabus:
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Flash or micro fiction can be powerful to read and a lot of fun to write, and Twitter is, in my opinion, a wonderful platform for it. I’m not opposed to giving people the option to write more that 140 characters, although I do question the value of it; so long as Twitter leaves the original, shorter option in tact all is good by me.
But will anybody read my Tweets? Surely that is the question prompted by the hashtag above, spawned a few weeks after the 10, 000 character fiasco in response to further rumored changes which would see the Twitter timeline approximating something like Facebook, displaying first the “most-popular” Tweets rather than the newer ones, relegating tweeters with few followers to the dark end of timeline obscurity.
Needless to say, the Twitterati did not respond favorably to yet another, shareholder oriented change to their platform and soon started declaring Twitter dead via its own trending hashtag system. So not exactly a great start to the year for CEO Jack Dorsey, eh?
Unlike the 10, 000 character shift, the popular-tweets-algorithm talk has been addressed by the Twitter high ups, who have assured users that their voices matter and that any changes which may manifest in future, rumored or otherwise, will be optional.
There will of course be people who opt in. Heck, perhaps it’ll even be a good thing and I’ll find myself signing up too, but one thing is for sure: should the algorithm be unleashed the act of tweeting will never be the same again. No longer will we (the general tweeting public) be assured that our tweets will be seen by our followers, or even our friends, and on a platform famous for democratizing the act of socializing via media, that strikes me as rather sad.
So is twitter really dead? I don’t think so. Flash fiction aside, Twitter’s real strength lies, I believe, in its role as an information aggregator, a expansive list of curated links to all manner of content from all corners of the globe. Furthermore, a large part of the love, for me at least, is in the randomness of it all – retweets, likes, even paid-for promotions sending all sorts of links, stories, comments and creations into my timeline, exposing me to things outside of my normal scope, or even comfort zone.
That, in my mind is what makes Twitter greater than Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or just about any other social media platform out there. That is what Twitter stands to lose if it employs a probably very clever, even lucrative, but ultimately reductionist algorithm that renders everybody’s timeline an unsightly splattering of Trump and Kanye West.
No, for the time being Twitter is still alive but its survival is far from sure. Appreciating the capitalist mechanics of the economy, the fact that we all get to tweet for free and that Twitter somehow needs nonetheless to make money, I am not opposed to innovation, experimentation, and monetization, but it has to come on the same sort of wave of creativity that made Twitter so fresh and appealing in the first place. Although Twitter’s at-the-time much publicized role in sparking the Arab Spring movement across the Middle East is recently being challenged, even tarnished in the face of accusations of terror organizations using the platform to plan atrocities, spread hate, and even recruit, we must not loose faith in the internet’s intrinsic power to level the social playing field.
Twitter gives people a voice and it provides them with information. Some voices will be viscous, others never heard and not all of that information shared may be to everyone’s liking, but isn’t that the point of conversation? To expand one’s horizon and share experiences? Twitter gives the hope that each of us, no matter the number of followers, our “popularity”, will nonetheless get to sing.
They may take away our 140 character limit, but they will never take our FREEDOM!
Or maybe they’ll take that too. I just hope they don’t mess up a very good thing in the process.
*Yes – I know: nobody uses the term cyberspace anymore*
Happy New Year! Well, day six of it anyway.
But then perhaps it’s fitting that a blog post the central tenet of which is going to be that I have not only failed to do half the things I said I was going to last year, but that I’ve also not been blogging anything like as much as I should is in fact itself late.
Yes – let’s go with that and say it’s intentional, shall we…
So here we are: 2016 already. I’m not going to lie, kind of caught me by surprise this one. What about you?
As you may recall, I had big plans for 2015 back in January, including the publication of a novella in October. Well, October came and went… the novella, not so much. It is still in the works though and a new, very tentative date of October 2017 (yes, ’17, that’s not a typo) has been set to a) give me enough time to finish the darn thing, and b) fit with my publisher’s schedule of fiction releases. So that’s nice.
Also, I know I owe you yet another apology for failing to blog half as much as I intended to last year. In my defense – I did write what for me constitutes a rather long post about Sid Meier’s Civilization back in May, and a semi political ramble about Britain and the EU in June. Although now that I come to think about it, that’s not really a very good defense. So let’s just stick with I’m sorry and will try to do better in 2016 🙂
Expect a veritable cyberspace odyssey comprised of more posts about writing and links to writing (mine and other people’s), as well as some more random stuff like the above. Some of it might even be vaguely interesting… no promises though.
In the meantime, know that I wish you all the very best for 2016. Carry on being nice to one another and make sure to pick up a copy of Vestigial Tales (sorry – I couldn’t resist!).
*Warning! This rambling blog post starts off lighthearted, then gets political, before getting a little lighthearted again, but is still kind of political in the end.*
As an expat Brit living in the US, I am routinely exposed to American stereotypes of Britishness, most of which appear to be informed by 1990s BBC and ITV low budget period dramas. Not that I mind, of course; generally we Brits tend to come off as quaint or charming rather than backwards-thinking or aloof, which are perhaps the other obvious assumptions to be drawn from such productions. Also, we live a very long way away; nothing we do there really affects how anything goes here and we also have a royal family, which is silly but fun.
In short, we’re generally considered a rather nonthreatening bunch and are all the better for it. But what about closer to home?
The results of the recent UK general election have left many reeling, myself included, at the seemingly incomprehensible right-wing lurch the British electorate seems to be taking (Scotland and most of Wales notably excluded). Following his reelection as PM, good old (read: bad) Mr Cameron now has to make good on his promise of delivering an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. If the British (read: English) electorate’s recent performance is anything to go by, we could therefore soon be waving bye-bye, or rather shouting ‘Up yours!’, to continued cooperation with our closest, not to mention most valuable, neighbors.
It goes without saying, I hope, that I think this would be a tragically shortsighted decision for the United Kingdom to take and almost certainly result in the breakup of the union (not in and of itself a bad thing, of course). For a country like the UK to have gone through so much, to have changed so much over the last two hundred years only to revert to a little Englander, island-fortress mentality in the twenty-first century is pitiable, or would be if it didn’t also seem so bloody mean.
By voting for Cameron, and ever worse: for Farage’s venomous UKIP, we’re turning our backs not just on Europe, not just on the thousands of refugees and immigrants that look to the UK’s shores for safety and at least a chance of a peaceful, prosperous life, but on our own poor, sick and vulnerable against whom right-wing politicians continue to wield the heaviest weight of their harsh, austerity inducing economic weaponry.
The problem is that after decades of turning the other cheek, the Europeans are finally getting a little fed up at London’s continual pouting and demands for special treatment that seem to fly in the face of everything modern Europe stands for. In fact, the general consensus appears to be that Cameron’s ‘I’ll take a little bit here, and a little bit there…’ approach to UK EU membership is untenable and that if the British people want out so bad, perhaps they should just go.
So if the UK public don’t like the EU, how do their European cousins feel about them? Just what is the status of the British abroad?
Well, if this recent article from the Guardian highlighting What German comedians think of Brits – from bad to wurst is anything to go by, it ain’t very good. From poking fun at royal baby fever to, bizarrely, suggesting Britain is an island of bowler hat wearing apes, the German equivalent to the Daily Show concludes that we can leave if we want to, “we were never friends”.
If you don’t fancy clicking through to the Guardian, you can watch the video below (it has subtitles). The host’s conflation of England and Britain is highly annoying (for me anyway) but apart from that (and a few German-specific comedy quirks), I think it’s kind of spot on.
I love being a Brit abroad, and so far I have met nothing but kindness, but it’s time we woke up to the fact that that kindness isn’t guaranteed. We need to start being nicer to our neighbors if we want them to continue being nice to us, and maybe I’m taking liberties here, but despite the recent election, I think we do.
The UK is an island nation (or a nation split across two islands at any rate), and we can rightfully be proud of our self-reliant, pull yourself up by your bootstraps past, but we’ve never been an island unto ourselves; whether we like to admit it or not, we need the continent and should be weary of drifting too far from land.
*Alright, it’s a rambly blog post not an ode. I recently took the very dangerous step of starting to play Civilization again. Dangerous because, as every Civ veteran knows, Sid Meier’s classic strategy game has the power to suck entire weeks of time from the lives of its players, replacing them with understandable pride at the accomplishments of your victorious armies on one hand, and a fear of going “outside” where there is “sun” on the other. Not to mention a deep suspicion of anybody with whom you don’t have a current open borders treaty. (They’re not as easy to negotiate outside of the game where, in my experience, people tend to think you’re just crazy.)
Don’t worry though… I think I’m keeping things in check. I mean I’m in control (of whole nations!). I can quit whenever I want to… right after this one last turn…
Seriously though, I don’t think I’m in any danger. There is far too much going on in my real life for me to be able to replicate those heady summers of my childhood spent glued to the computer monitor while my armies swept across an unsuspecting continent and I diversified my economy and built the Pyramids in Tokyo. Also, I’m play Civ IV (vanilla) which isn’t nearly as addictive as II or III, in my opinion. So I should be OK.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the wondrous game (seriously, you’re using your computer wrong), there are six versions ranging from the original Civilization released in 1991, to Civilization V from 2010 (counting CivNet as a separate entry in the series rather than an update and excluding the arguably quite distinct Colonization and the sci-fi themed Alpha Centauri and Beyond Earth (and I’m not even going to acknowledge Civilization Revolution beyond this highly dismissive note 🙂 )) and a whole host of expansions and additions, not to mention player-created content.
Civilization is a turn-based strategy game (as opposed to strategy games of the real-time variety such as Age of Empires, for example) that has been called the most important strategy game ever made and is routinely ranked amongst the best compute games of all time, it’s rich level of detail and repeat playability causing it to standout as a really quite unique gaming creation. But more about that later.
The object of all six Civ games is to guide your civilization (you can chose from a historical selection at the beginning of the game or create your own one) from the stone to the modern age, exploring, expanding, trading, fighting and/or negotiating your way to the top in the process. With control over the economic and cultural output of your civilization you must pay equal attention to developing your country’s infrastructure and building schools as to advancing your military tech. Devastating wars of conquest can be a great path to victory but so can the construction of world wonders, control of the united Nations, or the launching of an interstellar spaceship to become the first nation to send out colonists to another star.
If this all sounds a little detail heavy, that’s because it is, a feature that undoubtedly contributed to the rise of a dedicated if somewhat nerdy fan-base for the series which continues to this day with a bustling online community of modders and scenario builders actively keeping their megalomania-fueled dreams alive. Although I must confess to never having played Civ V, I consider myself a veteran Civer with a good nineteen years of gameplay under my belt.
My first brush with the franchise came when I got my very own PC circa 1996 (yes, my own – it was in my bedroom and everything!); a Packard Bell that shipped with a free copy of CivNet for Window 95. Instantly transfixed by the premise, not to mention the promise of ultimate power over the course of an entire civilization, I was soon saving my pocket money with an eye to upgrading to the newly launched Civilization II – obviously MicroProse’s cunning aim in giving away a free copy of CivNet to begin with.
Unlike CivNet, Civ II came with an editor which allowed players to easily create their own maps and custom scenarios. Its launch was also followed by an official expansion pack, Fantastic Worlds, which introduced both science fiction and fantasy elements to the game, challenging players to test their leadership skills against invading aliens or in worlds populated by wizards, elves and dwarfs. However it was not until the launch of Civilization III (the pinnacle of Sid Meier’s series imho) that the whole user-made mod craze really took off for me.
Although the third installment in the Civilization series was criticized as too detail/micro-management oriented, its clever AI and more advanced diplomacy made for challenging and addictive gameplay. With the growth of the online Civ community, the introduction of a play-by-email option to compliment the existing LAN and internet multiplay acknowledged the potentially damaging time-sucking quality of the franchise and enabled Civers to enjoy new mods while also keeping their family together and holding down their job 🙂
The Civ III game engine had serious downsides however – there was no ability to include scripted events, for instance – yet creative modders came up with some ingenious ways to get around these shortcomings leading to range of highly detailed, imaginative mods. El Justo’s Cold War Deluxe and Age of Imperialism are both shining examples of this practice with historically accurate gameplay, hundreds of unique units, new soundtracks, and meticulous play-testing leading to flawless and truly immersive gaming experiences.
I must have lost weeks of my life playing these creations and even more coming up with strategies and sharing tips and stories with the friendly and interactive online community that grew up around such mods.
Yet more than simple entertainment, the truth is that Civilization inspired me and, dare I say it, actually taught me things. The history, geography and politics I encountered in the game intrigued my young brain far more than the drab classroom-based attempts to engage me on such subjects ever could and I found myself voluntarily reading up on wars, nations, and social structures in my free time.
In secondary school (middle-high school for any Americans) history class had always been a dry endeavor and I had dropped it from my syllabus as soon as I was able. Yet at university it was my first choice and I loved it so much I gained a Masters in it too. I don’t think I ever admitted this to any of my professors (or even my classmates) but Civilization is almost certainly responsible for awakening and nurturing this passion in me and was probably a much better introduction to many important historical subjects than most people ever receive at school.
My experience is in no way unique of course, and Civilization has actually been used by teachers as a creative way to bring subjects to students’ attention in schools across the world. Moreover, I know I am in good company: one of my favorite ever authors, the late Iain M. Banks was a known Civilization addict and it is said his experience of the game inspired the creation of one of the most enjoyable Culture novels: Excession.
Then, a few years ago, I was highly amused to stumble upon this:
It’s a news report about a guy who goes by the name Lycerius, who played the same game of Civ II for 10 years, resulting in an nightmare Orwellian world of constant war. Details of the decade long game are available on his Reddit thread. Highlights from his description of the war-torn world include:
The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.
There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.
The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.
Lovely. In fact Reddit users were so traumatized by Lycerius’ experiences that they even set up another thread called The Eternal War, which is both dedicated to ending the virtual suffering of this ravaged world and allows users to post their own tales of never-ending Civilization wars.
I’ve not done any research beyond the Reddit threads, but I am pretty sure Lycerius’ game is the longest ever played. The fact that over this length of time the Civ II engine produces such global stalemate, akin to the geopolitical situation described in Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, is incredibly interesting and suggest the games creators were not too far off in their bid to create a game that mimics both societal development and the ultimate futility of war.
Returning to Civ now, after several years away, I have to admit that some of the magic has gone. This may partly be due to the fact that I am playing Civ IV and I was never particularly fond of its cartoonish, faux 3D graphics (a superficial addition to a turn-based strategy game if ever there was one) or its interesting but in my opinion flawed civic system.
Or maybe it’s just a part of getting older, growing up.
Never again will I be able to spend quite so many guilt-free hours clicking away at world maps and adjusting sliders, not when I have actual things I want to accomplish, work to do and relationships to maintain. Perhaps this is why I can’t bring myself to justify spending the money on Civ V (just yet, anyway) and yet I still find myself going back for that one last turn that somehow morphs into another couple of hours. Honestly, I don’t know how my wife copes.
In what must have been a stroke of genius, the creators of Civ IV employed the late, legendary Leonard Nimoy to narrate the introduction to the game, and he follows the player’s progress, rewarding them with a relevant quote read in his distinguished dulcet tones whenever they unlock a new technology. Even though I must have heard each quote a dozen time by now, I still get that tingle on the back of my neck whenever Mr Spock’s voice rings out over the world, encouraging and inspiring me to research fast and reach ever further.
And that’s just it. I’m not a kid anymore; I can’t afford, and indeed don’t want to waste my time conquering fake worlds on my computer, not when there’s a real one out here to be a part of everyday. But nor do I want to forget that owe a lot to Civilization, to all the lessons it taught me not just about history and geography but about the struggles faced by our civilization(s) both now and in the past. The game inspired me and, 3D graphics or not, I hope it continues to inspire others.
I will always be grateful for the passion for history playing Civilization in its various incarnations awoke in me, not to mention the joyous days spent expanding my empire and conquering other nations. To this day I cannot hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy without picturing all those little pixelated fireworks exploding over my little pixelated cities as my virtual citizens celebrated in my honor. And I think there are elements of world geography that will only ever look familiar to me in blocky, CivNet map style form, but I don’t mind.
Thank you, Civilization! Thank you, Sid Meier!
This isn’t a ode, it’s just a rambly blog post; but it is for you.
Liquid water for that matter, held just below the surface, if the latest readings from NASA’s Curiosity rover are to be believed.
According to a paper published in Nature, which you can access here, humidity and temperature data collected from a full year of readings on the red planet indicate that the conditions are right for liquid brine to form on the surface of Mars. What’s more, instruments on board Curiosity have reportedly detected liquid water just below the surface, contradicting the previously held belief that temperatures on the red planet were too cold for water to exist outside of solid form.
These latest findings, which suggest that the soil below the Martian surface is moist with brine (the freezing point of which is significantly lowered due to the high levels of salt), were made by Curiosity as the rover attempts to climb Mount Sharp which lies in the middle of the giant Gale crater, a scar on the Martian surface 154km in diameter which has been home to the intrepid robot explorer since 2012.
Previous images from Curiosity’s camera have indicated the presence of old riverbeds where liquid water once flowed across the red planet and it is known that ice exists in the form of caps at the Martian poles. The existence of liquid water on our closest planetary neighbor however, is an important step forward in our understanding of the origins of life in the solar system, not to mention the search for traces of extra-terrestrial life itself.
So, should we get out the bunting and prepare to welcome little green men from the red planet to Earth? Not just yet. Even with the presence of liquid water, conditions on Mars remain hostile to life and it is still considered unlikely that there is anything living on the fourth rock from the sun, even below the surface.
In the paraphrased words of Ogilvy the astronomer, the chances of anything coming from Mars are still a million-to-one. But then again, if the late, great Terry Pratchett taught us anything, it’s surely that a million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten. So a sci-fi nerd can always hope!
It’s still March, so I’m getting this one in just under the wire.
In case some of you don’t know, micro fiction (or flash fiction, or micro-narrative, or however you want to label it) is something of an interest of mine. For almost four years now, I have been endeavoring to write a micro short a day and post it to my Twitter account @Liam_Aidan.
Their eyes met across the crowded lecture hall. Will you be my Valentine? he asked silently. But then he blinked and missed her response.
This necessarily means squishing any tale I want to tell into 140 characters, including spaces, which is fun, challenging, inspiring, and annoying in turn. It’s a self imposed limit, an attempt to distill the essence of a story into as small a space as possible, and hopefully improve my writing skills as a result.
Last year, a collection of 106 of the best of my micro shorts, called Vestigial Tales, was published as an ebook by Ichabod Press. You can find out more about that here.
Possibly the most famous piece of flash fiction is Ernest Hemingway’s six word story For Sale:
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Although I think my personal favorite has to be Knock by Fredric Borwn, the first lines of which constitute a micro short in and of themselves:
“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”
Both of these epically tiny tales served as inspiration for my initial foray into micro fiction on Twitter (or twitfic, as a few of us call it), but if you’re looking for additional daily doses of fast and sometimes furious fiction, why not check out my three micro-fiction recommendations below? Each is worth a follow and even the occasional RT.
My assistant says, I got a paper cut. This is a paperless office, I reply. She looks at me as if I’m an insect. A talking insect. In charge.