Sunday, October 10, 2004

Science Fiction By Consensus.

Been wanting to write about this for a while, but I guess I never got the nerve to do so. It's basically about this:

Orion's Arm: Building a World, 10,000 Years in the Future.

Okay, so what about it? Orion's Arm is a community dedicated to building a realistic, plausible universe, with a vast setting with no humanoid aliens whatsover.

Wait. Why is that important, all of the sudden? I mean, yes, there is no reasonable explanation for why there are Vulcans and Twi'leks and any kind of humanoid variant, but is that necessarily a prime selling point for this kind of thing? I mean, seriously. Are there enough people out there who are so sick and tired at looking at an alien with the shape (if not the exact physiology) of a human that there's a market for it?

That's my first niggle for the whole world, or at least the attitude and beliefs behind the group of people who are doing this. It kinda surfaces every once in a while, despite the fact that this worldbuilding exercise is actually pretty fucking brilliant.

The basic premise, if you haven't visited that place yet, is actually pretty much like this:

The original idea for the series began with M. Alan Kazlev, the ‘Director’ for the OA franchise. He likes space opera, but he doesn't like what the OA community calls ‘sillytech’. Not that I blame him, but since I'm not much of a stickler for sf I don't mind it as much as he does, apparently.

So what he does, basically, is try to write a story. It's an sf tale, at any rate, but with one big difference: it's space opera and hard sf. Which is harder than it looks, to be perfectly honest, since space opera is more concerned with the form and struggle between good and evil (or less-evil and evil), while hard sf is concerned with more scientific realism and coherence. These two goals typically clash.

When you try and mix those two elements with the Singularity idea, you usually give up, since Singularity stories typically end with everyone entering a vast, blissful rapture. Alan, funnily enough, solved it, by not making Singularity the all-encompassing, end-of-everything route. What happens, in the end, is, perhaps ironically, the rebirth of the Gods.

Oh, and I didn't mention this, but halfway through this whole process he lost control over the whole story, and it kinda ballooned into the current state that it's in — from one novel to a whole frickin' community-built world.

I have mixed feelings over the whole franchise, really. I mean, it's really cool. Really, it is. Ideas like a species of gods ruling the galaxy to answering the question of what happens to old-world religions, like Islam, to technology smaller and more advanced than nanotech make me go ‘ding’. They're great ideas. They're pretty original ideas. Plus, they're under the CC, so that means that people can use it to a limited extent.

But if anything, a good franchise cannot depend on great ideas. There are thousands of series and novels out there with great ideas but poor execution, and that just ruins it all for a lot of people. I mean, I don't agree with a lot of the basic ideas behind Orion's Arm — not things like why FTL travel and the existence of humanoid aliens (which there are, only that they're not really aliens, they're humans modified over thousands of years of evolution and tweaking), but basic ideas on why you're doing this.

I mean, you can say that there are no humanoid aliens because you think they're old hat, sure… but you need to realize what those aliens were for originally. Those aliens filled niches that fleshed out a world where all of humanity was united as one, and you needed that to make the world seem deeper and realer than it would have been without them. And ideas like FTL and sillytech are there for a reason, too — they make the story epic without having to make the story over-complicated. Take away those things, and you need other things to compensate.

And in a sense, Orion's Arm does this. It does, but only unconsciously, out of habit, or by discovering that you can't really make an engaging tale about an AI God last more than a short story. You don't talk about humanoid aliens, you talk about vec, ai, splice, su, tweak and sybont allies and foes, which, incidentally, make for more interesting tales than some all American cast taking on some damn Vulcans, even if you're using those characters the same way. There's plenty of shit that don't get used because everyone seems to be focusing on the wrong things… and not on what makes a better story / game / whatever.

I like OA. I wouldn't mind contributing, myself. But the inherent wankiness of the community makes me hesitate; it's not something I want to deal with on a regular basis.