Friday, February 18, 2011

The Details Are Kind of Important

Japan Expo 2009
Photo by Jamiecat via Flickr.

Heads up, this is going to largely be a post about Stargate. Well, it is a post about writing, but my inspiration was a Stargate novel, and therefore main examples are gonna be from Stargate. I just say this to warn you, though I will do my best not to delve so far into things that someone who hasn't seen anything can't follow the line of thought.

Anyhoo, disclaimers done, moving forward now.

I have mentioned before that I a huge fan of Fandemonium's series of Stargate novels. These are novels approved by MGM, but not considered canon by the franchise's writers. They are written by a variety of authors and each one is a stand-alone story (with the exception of two that tie into each other, wrapping up a story left untold by a specific episode). There are multiple books out for Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, and there might be some on the way for Stargate Universe (so far the only novel they have released for that series is the novelization of the pilot episode, Air).

Basically, and I say this in the most loving way possible, these books are official fan fiction, written by professional writers hired by Fandemonium and approved by MGM. I know that at least one of their regular authors actually started out writing Stargate fan fiction and was contacted by Fandemonium when they started putting these books together and asked if she would like to contribute. From what I can tell from the FAQ on the Stargate novels site (which, to be fair, seems like it hasn't been updated in quite some time because it only mentions SG-1 and still says the books aren't available outside of the UK, which hasn't been true for a long while), while MGM has to approve each story idea and the stories themselves in each stage of production, the writers come up with their own story idea for each novel.

The stated goal is for these books to each feel like an episode of Stargate. While the events within these stories are not considered canon, they do follow canon, meaning they don't change up something that has been established on screen or verified by The Powers That Be. They also must leave the Stargate world as they found it by the end of the story. (I will note this is one of two major deviations from traditional fan fiction, the other being the lack of romantic involvement, save those that have been established or alluded to in the official show canon).

Most of the time the writers accomplish this goal beautifully. When they don't, however, it is extremely jarring. Usually, failure to feel like a true episode is down to a lack of attention to detail. Characters are not acting like themselves, with no explanation given for the change of behavior. Things that have been clearly established as possible within the shows are treated as if they have never been encountered before, with, again, no explanation as to why this particular instance is different from what we, the reader (and presumably viewer) have seen before and know has already been experienced by these characters.

It seems to me that most of inconsistencies seem to come from an author's first entry into writing a Stargate novel, suggesting they are just not as familiar with the show and the mythology of the universe as the other writers. According to Fandemonium's FAQ, all of their authors are fans of the show and have seen every episode at least once, but I wonder sometimes. SG-1 ran for ten seasons, Atlantis ran for five. That's a lot of episodes, and just seeing them once maybe isn't enough to ground someone in the mythology. At the very least, I feel like maybe these first-time Stargate authors need a little bit more hand-holding throughout the process, and their manuscripts perhaps should be given a bit higher level of scrutiny.

Sometimes it is just clear that the writer is perhaps writing for one show, say, Atlantis, when clearly he is more familiar with the other, SG-1. In this case, portrayals of the characters are just a little less nuanced, and that can be overlooked if the story is compelling enough. But when you have a character born and raised in the Pegasus galaxy (where Atlantis is located) thinking and referring to humans as "Tau'ri," it can get extremely frustrating. Why? Because the term "Tau'ri" is a term used by the Goa'uld (a race that has never been to the Pegasus galaxy or had any contact with it until well after the SG expedition arrived in Atlantis) and by those cultures they have dominated to refer to the people of Earth. People from the Pegasus galaxy who encounter people from Earth tend to think of and refer to them as Atlanteans or Lanteans, because they have set up residence in Atlantis. It is a small detail, but an important one to staying true to established characters.

Sometimes though, I wonder if the author has actually watched the show they are writing for at all. Take for example, the book I am currently reading, The Power Behind the Throne. Granted, author Steven Savile seems to be a good writer, I am not trying to knock his skills in that area. His basic story idea is even actually pretty interesting. But I have to say, I am having some problems with one of the major plot lines.

Okay, a little background for you really quick if you are not familiar with the franchise. The stargates transport people and other matter from one planet to another via stable wormholes. Each planet has a gate address made up of seven symbols (six representing the planet's coordinates and the seventh being a point of origin, or the planet from which you are dialing). It is kind of like an interstellar telephone number. (Using an eight-symbol address, with seven coordinates and the point of origin, will take you to another galaxy, but that requires more energy than most stargates have access to.) Matter will only travel one way through the wormholes (from the originating planet to the receiving planet) but radio transmissions and data can go both ways (so people can stay in contact through the gate when they are off-world). When you step through the event horizon, your body is broken down into all of its component molecules and transferred from one end of the wormhole to the other, to be reassembled upon arrival. The effect is almost, but not quite, instantaneous. Assuming that everything is just fine with both gates and the wormhole itself. 

Got that? Okay. Good.

It has been established that all kinds of things can interfere with wormhole travel. The wormhole passing through a solar flare can cause time travel. Interference on one end or the other can cause an unstable wormhole, resulting sometimes in a very painful transit and sometimes in loss of matter being transported entirely (which means death if the matter is people). A directed blast of energy (such as a nuclear bomb) can cause the wormhole connection to jump to another nearby gate, even if there is matter in transit, resulting in that matter coming out somewhere other than the originally dialed destination.

That last one is important, we've seen our heroes make use of it a few times (intentionally and not) throughout the series on SG-1 and Atlantis. The fact that a wormhole hit by a blast can redirect to a nearby gate even with matter in transit was established at the end of the first season of SG-1, when Daniel and Teal'c made it through to Stargate Command, but Carter and O'Neill, just behind them, got stuck on some ice-planet (which turned out to be Earth, but that doesn't matter for the current discussion).

Okay, back to the story. The planet which SG-1 has been visiting is pretty much literally Hell. Sky on fire, bleak landscape, crazy hot or crazy freezing temperatures, yada, yada, yada. It's not a recommended site for gate travel, really (this was on purpose). When SG-1 tries to leave the planet (under fire from their good old enemy, the Goa'uld), they establish a wormhole connection with Earth but during transit the wormhole jumps and they end up somewhere else.

Back on Earth, at the SGC, everybody is freaking out because the wormhole closed before SG-1 rematerialized. Okay, well, that's understandable. But they all assume that this means our heroes have perished and no one even seems to think that maybe, just maybe, the wormhole jumped. Even though there was clearly a huge wonky energy reading right before the wormhole failed.

Furthermore, SG-1, on planet stranded, seem frankly amazed that their wormhole somehow jumped, as if they had never considered such a thing to be possible. Even though the exact same thing had already happened to two of them. We know it has, because Carter is a Major in this book (she was promoted in season three), so clearly season one has already happened. Gah.

Then. Then! They try dialing Earth with the same address they used from the original planet with no luck. Which makes sense because a new planet means a new point of origin symbol. But then O'Neill starts freaking out and lapsing into despair because they will never figure out the point of origin, oh no! Okay, my credulity has been stretched to its limits at this point. This was an issue in the movie, yes, because Kurt Russell and James Spader had no idea how the gates actually worked (or that they dialed more than one planet). Also, they had no Carter. But, assuming that the Dial-Home-Device (or DHD, on which you enter the coordinates of where you want to go), is working properly (and there's no indication given that this one isn't) it isn't gonna be that hard to figure out the point of origin through trial and error. There are a finite number of symbols on a DHD. The first six symbols of Earth's address haven't changed. So they just need to try the address with each symbol on the device until they get a connection.

Like I said, the story itself is actually pretty interesting, but I feel like maybe Savile is working a little hard to cram a pre-existing story into the Stargate framework, and he made a few missteps along the way. I want to enjoy the book, but it is hard to do when characters that I know very well are acting like they have forgotten basic common sense, or at least basic parts of the job they have been doing every day for the last three years at least. It would be like me going in to work at my old job and not remembering that I have to count the money the contractor is giving me before I sign that yes, he did give me that much money, and then freaking out and being confused later on when nothing added up correctly.

Maybe I am wrong and Savile has an awesome explanation waiting as for why these people are acting so stupid. I sure hope so. Shame on MGM though for letting this get through their "approval" process. I know they're facing a bankruptcy and trying to get what money they can from the consumers, but that doesn't mean they should let the quality control slip. We might as well just relegate the stories to the badly written, unofficial fan fiction, otherwise. And I know well enough by now how to spot and avoid those.

I know I am nitpicking, I know that these are small details. But I pay good money for these products expecting something very specific, something which this company says is its intended goal. And I truly believe that something made by fans and marketed to fans should know better. Is that too much to ask?

I think my point with all of this was that this has made me very conscious of my own writing style. Even though I am unlikely to be writing anything professional in an existing franchise outside of straight up fan fiction (and you can be darn sure I will do my best to get the details correct there), there are lessons to be learned from this. The first is to know your characters inside and out. The story you are trying to tell is important, certainly, but the events should be shaped by the characters, and if they are acting contrary toward their established natures, you had better have (and provide to your readers) a darn good explanation for it. The second is that small details count. Keep track of what you write and say about your world, because the people who will end up reading are going to be paying attention to that kind of stuff. Third, and finally, know your target audience. I am not saying pander to them, mind you, we don't always want what we think we want. But. If you are writing for fans of an existing franchise, whether it is your world or the creation of someone else, your readers are going to want you to get it right, so be sure you do so.

Now, it's Friday, so, enjoy a new Gronk (Katie Cook is apparently not a fan of Monopoly), and have an excellent weekend! Off you go, now.

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