The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Finding New Words for Family

Copyright 2014 by Becky Chambers

I grew up with space opera and visions of adventures in space. Thanks to my dad’s influence, I grew up devouring the original Star Wars movies, as well as the then-current TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation.  You couldn’t get spaceships and alien civilizations out of my head no matter how hard you tried. But having said that, I haven’t loved every bit of space opera I’ve come across. To some fans’ horror, I wasn’t even all that thrilled with Firefly when it first came out.

Thankfully, it’s the 2010s, and we have a new generation of writers coming to the fore. This is how I came to discover Becky Chambers’s Wayfarer series. So, today, I’m looking at her first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

In the far future, humanity has joined the other races in the Galactic Commons and become a key player in interstellar politics. One such human, Rosemary Harper, is a recent add-on to the crew of the worn-down space-tunneling ship Wayfarer. Alongside such quirky crew members as Captain Ashby Santoro, the pilot Sissix, and the eccentric engineer Krizzy, Rosemary is introduced to a variety of new cultures and attitudes beyond the life she knew on Mars. But as their newest clerk, she’ll prove instrumental in helping navigate the tricky legal and logistical hardships that comes with life in outer space.

In every sense of the phrase, this is an ensemble story. Every single crew member has their own story arc, sometimes explored within the confines of a single chapter. That’s part of what makes this story a little unusual at first glance. It’s less about following a Rosemary across her journey to start a new life, and more about the ongoing adventures and challenges that the crew faces on various trips. It all leads toward a singular end, but along the way, you get an engineer dealing with PTSD, another engineer in love with an AI, a captain’s affair with a non-human woman, a reptilian pilot trying to reconnect with other members of her species, and a mad alien navigator wrestling with his race’s terminal condition.

(And all that’s just before the halfway point of the book, too.)

One of the things that Chambers does so brilliantly in this story is create a sense of culture and a sense of family. She looks for ways for alien minds to be truly alien, like how the Aandrisks don’t recognize their children as individuals until they become adults, or how the Toremi Ka’s perspective is more warped than anything else the races of the Galactic Commons has ever encountered.

But even with biological and psychological barriers, there’s a way to overcome them, and that’s something I love about this book. Reptilians Aandrisks and human beings can and do coexist. Interspecies love is shown here to be just as honest and pure as any LGBT or hetero romance. And for all their different needs and issues, the crew of the Wayfarer really do pull together whenever a crisis hits, even when it hits less-appreciated people like Corbin or Jenks. You get the sense that Ashby is as much a starship captain as he is an exasperated but caring parent to everyone else in their dialogue.

If you love colorful ensemble casts, a sense of family and kinship, and imaginative new forms of life among the stars, then by all means check out this book, and the ones that follow it. This is the kind of science fiction that I’d love to see more of in years to come.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.

Bibliography: Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.


Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Ep. 2: Brave New World: Burning Every Bridge

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

It’s October, which means it’s the right season for falling leaves, pumpkin spice-flavored everything, and more teenage angst courtesy of Arcadia Bay. Yes, it’s time for another look at the prequel series Life is Strange: Before the Storm, as provided by Deck Nine and Square Enix.

With the release of Episode Two, Brave New World, we pick up on the second day of the series. With Chloe facing expulsion from Blackwell Academy and David moving into the Price household, she turns to Rachel Amber for salvation. Rachel offers Chloe hope, while their mutual friend Frank offers Chloe a glimpse into the side of the Bay’s skeevy underbelly. The story culminates in three key confrontations: a run-in with a drug dealer, a performance of The Tempest, and a chance to uncover the truth behind Rachel’s father’s actions in the park.

One of the better parts about Brave New World is how much opportunity Chloe has to cut loose. She’s done wasting time on anyone else, and so she’s free to rebel against anyone and everyone, all thanks to Rachel’s inspiration (as beautifully illustrated by the opening title sequence). At the same time, Rachel shows that she’s developing more of a trickster side, using her acting skills both onstage and off to her advantange, and to constantly keep Chloe on her toes.

As much as I love this series, I found that this episode in particular seemed a bit unorganized. It had a great beginning during the scenes at Blackwell, as Chloe’s “safe” future at school unravels. But from there, the story meanders between time with Rachel, time in the junkyard, a job with Frank, a play, and (spoilers) one very awkward dinner party near the end. By comparison, the time we spent playing in Episode One had a lot more focus thanks to the common thread of Chloe trying to bond with Rachel Amber and sort out her feelings about said girl. I feel like there was a pacing issue in the new episode. While I love that so much was packed in, I also kept wondering after a certain point when the game was actually going to just end and roll credits.

I’ll also admit that, compared to when the game was in the hands of Dontnod Entertainment, the new graphics are amazing under Deck Nine’s prowess. Of course, I’m not the only one who’s also had a little difficulty trying to run the game in a single smooth sequence. It’s been all too likely for someone like me, even with up-to-date graphical drivers, to face frequent crashes and reboots within an hour or two of solid gameplay. I know there were plenty of glitches and bugs in the original Life is Strange series, but it seems unusual for the new game to come with such a common design issue while running, even on newer systems and hardware.

Overall, I’m glad that I got to experience another visit to Arcadia Bay and to the twisted lives of Chloe and Rachel. While this was a crazy collection of stories compared to the first episode, Brave New World still delivered plenty of meaningful interactions and a few solid surprises for our teenage adventurers. And it’s a very clever bit of foreshadowing that there’s still a wildfire burning in the background of every scene, still scattering ashes and misery even in the happiest moments of the game.

The second episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Brave New World,” is currently available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Storeand the official website.

Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 2: Brave New World.Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: October 19, 2017.

Elements of Fiction – Part 4: Introspection

Welcome back for the final installment of my series of “Elements of Fiction.” For today’s write-up, I’m going to discuss an angle that I don’t think gets enough love or perspective from most writing mentors. Today, I’ll be talking about introspection, and what’s really going on inside a character’s head.

What is Introspection?

Introspection is when we look at our own thoughts and feelings. It’s something that we can do in real life easy enough. But how easy is it for us to get a glimpse into a character’s inner thoughts? How do we show a character’s emotions, instead of just having them say they’re sad or angry or whatever?

When it comes to writing literature, introspection is easy. In between your character’s action and dialogue, you’ll have whole paragraphs devoted to their internal reactions. Here’s a good example from that literary classic, The Great Gatsby:

“Meyer Wolfshiem? No, he’s a gambler.” Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: “He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.”

“Fixed the World’s Series?” I repeated.

The idea staggered me. I remembered of course that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919 but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

Physically, what does Nick Carraway do in this scene? He’s talking to his new friend Gatsby, after just meeting Gatsby’s friend and mentor Wolfshiem. This is Nick’s first foray into Jay Gatsby’s world. After living a mostly sheltered life as an upstanding citizen, now Nick is rubbing shoulders with gamblers and gangsters, and seeing how someone like Gatsby makes his outrageous fortune overnight. It’s all what’s happening inside his head. It’s his introspection at work. He’s reexamining his beliefs about the event in 1919. From there, he’ll seek to change what he knows about his cousin Daisy, her past relationship with Gatsby, and what he can do to help that along.

A change in one’s beliefs is a big deal for any story. It’s what pushes the character into a new line of action, and as we discussed in the second part of this series, what a character does is always in line with their ultimate goal. Even when that goal is just “Get the hell out of Dodge because something is trying to kill me!”

Now, showing introspection in something outside of literature is a little trickier. It’s easy for literature writers, but what about screenwriters or playwrights?

Copyright © 2002 by Universal Pictures

Consider a scene like the end of The Bourne Identity. The big climax features Jason Bourne gunning his way out of a Paris apartment building—and doing the coolest shot ever while falling down a flight of stairs. But right before that, we see Jason confront his former boss Conklin. In that confrontation, when Conklin’s demanding answers, Jason finally gets his memory back of what happened on the night he was supposed to kill Wombosi for the CIA.

Visually, this means we cut in between present-day shots of Matt Damon looking upset and flashback shots of him holding a gun to Wombosi’s head… only to pull away when he sees the kids in the room. Conklin doesn’t see any of this, but the audience knows exactly what Jason’s going through. He’s remembering the moral dilemma he faced, and in the past, he made a decision. Now, that decision is haunting him, and we see it in Matt Damon’s pained expression and the movie’s frenzied editing between the apartment and the yacht. It also sets up the line where Jason looks his former boss in the eye and says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Introspection is everything that a character doesn’t say or do onscreen or on the page of your story. It is, however, everything your character thinks and feels, and when we can appreciate that, we’re more likely to want to follow them and see how their story ends.

Thanks for reading. If you would like to see more content like this, you can read my posts on the elements of Setting, Action, and Dialogue.

Elements of Fiction – Part 3: Dialogue

It’s Tuesday, and that means it’s time for another installment of “Elements of Fiction.” Today, I’ll be looking at dialogue, and how it can do more than fill up time or deliver exposition.

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is how we advance the story through conversations between people. Now, this can take plenty of forms. It can be a person wandering around a dark house with a flashlight, asking aloud, “Who’s there?” It can be the argument between a husband and a wife. It can be the chilling monologue from a villain who’s cornered the hero in the third act of an action thriller.

Now, there’s an old rule in fiction known as “Show, Don’t Tell.” In laymen’s terms, if you want to convince me that your character is heroic, cowardly, arrogant, or inexperienced, then you need to set things up so that the character can make it obvious by themselves. It’s better than having someone stand off to the side and go, “Well, of course, Jake, but then, you always were a coward, weren’t ya?” Especially if we never see Jake react in fear at all.

Here is where good dialogue can be useful. Consider the conversation between Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars: A New Hope. They’ve just seen the message Princess Leia sent asking them to deliver her droids to Alderaan. After this, Obi-Wan asks Luke to join him on his quest. Luke, however, says he can’t get involved.

Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Obi-Wan: You must learn the ways of the Force, if you’re to come with me to Alderaan.

Luke: Alderaan? I’m not going to Alderaan. I’ve got to go home. It’s late. I’m in for it as it is.

Obi-Wan: I need your help, Luke. She needs your help. I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.

Luke: I can’t get involved! I’ve got work to do! It’s not that I like the Empire! I hate it! But there’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s such a long way from here.

Obi-Wan: That’s your uncle talking.

Obviously, there’s more to the scene than just these few lines, but let’s examine them. What did we learn from this exchange? Obi-Wan’s making the case that Luke should join his cause and help Leia and the Rebellion. Luke, meanwhile, feels he can’t because of his obligation to the family farm on Tatooine. In context, we know that Luke would love to leave home behind and become a heroic star pilot. But he’s internalized what his uncle has drilled into him. Until Luke can overcome his uncle’s ways and leave the farm, he’ll never become the hero that Obi-Wan sees in him.

This is where we get into the real meat of dialogue can do. It can reveal a character’s nature and their goals. Obi-Wan’s goal is to convince Luke to help Leia and the Rebellion. Luke’s goal is to stay on his uncle’s good side. In their dialogue, we see that Obi-Wan is patient and courageous, willing to leave his quiet life in the wilderness to join the galactic war against the Empire. We also see that Luke is wrestling with his feelings. He’d like to be a hero, too, but he’s afraid. He doesn’t think he’s big enough to face the evil Empire, let alone leave his family behind. But never once does Luke say “I’m afraid to leave.” He just shows it through the way he responds to a Jedi Knight’s call to action.

Finally, it’s also good to remember that each scene is a balance of both dialogue and action. Dialogue can spur action, and vice versa. A cry of “Help!” can spur the hero into action. A sudden betrayal by a friend can have the same character asking, “Why are you doing this?” Both the dialogue and the action reveal things about our characters, about what they want and how they’ll go about getting it.

You don’t have to have the writing chops of an Aaron Sorkin or a Nora Ephron to make good dialogue. To get started, what you need in a given scene is the knowledge of what your character wants, and what they’ll say or do to get it. And in this case, too, it’s worth remembering that sometimes a character can’t say exactly what’s on their mind. Sometimes, you have to consider what a character wants to say, and what they’ll say instead, even if it means keeping quiet.

Stay tuned next week for Part Four: Introspection.

Elements of Fiction – Part 2: Action

Hey there, and welcome back for another installment of “Elements of Fiction.” Today, I’ll be looking at action, what it means within a story, and how it can do more than advance the plot.

What is Action?

Action is one of two things in fiction:

a) What happens in a scene

b) What a character does

You might think that these definitions are saying the same thing, but that’s not always the case. A lot of things can happen within a scene that’s beyond a character’s control.

Copyright © 2007 by Miramax Films

For example, in the ending for No Country for Old Men (spoilers!), after the hitman Anton Chigurh takes care of Llewelyn Moss’s widow, he’s driving away, almost scot-free. Almost, because out of nowhere, another car hits him, and he ends up with a broken arm. Two local kids come across Chigurh, who’s trying to mend his arm. He tries to pay one of them for his shirt, and the other kid gives it to him anyway. Chigurh makes a sling and gives them the money to keep quiet about ever seeing him. The kids bicker over the money as Chigurh limps off into the distance.

Now, what happens in this scene? On the one hand, no one could predict that car coming up and hitting Chigurh’s vehicle. We, the audience, are just as blindsided as he is. On the other hand, look at how the killer reacts to the whole sequence. He didn’t get a clean victory. He’s killed everyone in his path, but he’s still caught up in the forces of chance like the rest of them. And Chigurh, being a sociopath, doesn’t get that a local kid might give him his shirt out of kindness. He insists on giving him money because that’s in line with his personal code, and then he doggedly escapes the scene of the crime on foot.

In this scene, we see something that happens to a character, and we see a character’s response to it. This is what action in a story looks like.

Action is also how we might define what happens in a story. There’s a great episode of “Stand In,” a program on MTVU, that features South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about how they came up with their formula for making new episodes. They never create the action beat for beat with “And then they… and then this happens, etc.” Instead, they use the idea of “Therefore… but…” As in “Eric Cartman has something good happen, therefore he tells his friends, but then his friends tell Cartman that he got swindled by an older kid.” It’s the basic idea of setting up a character goal, then subverting that goal, and then watching how the character reacts to the new challenge, whether they fail or succeed.

Finally, yes, action can be what a character does in the literal sense, like getting a big fight with the villain or chasing after their love interest. Those kinds of action are standard, like when the Final Girl squares off with the Monster at the end of a horror film. But it’s how the action unfolds that tells us something about the character. Sometimes, a character might be expected to do one thing, but then decides to do something else.

It’s how, for example, George R.R. Martin created a compelling storyline in his Song of Ice and Fire novels. He took every medieval fantasy trope and turned it on its head. The noble lord fails to expose the palace intrigues, and while we expect the child king to spare his life at the end, we learn how vicious King Joffrey truly is, and so Ned Stark loses his head. Ned could’ve stayed honest and fought to the bitter end, but instead, he chose to trust the Lannisters for his daughter’s sake. This trust gets him killed, and even the Lannisters are upset with Joffrey’s decision. He could have done the conventional thing and shown clemency, but instead, Joffrey chose to flex his newfound royal muscle and have a known traitor brutally executed.

When you think about action, think about what a character wants and what might get in their way. Then think about how they’ll have to get around that. And from there, you’ve opened the door to a whole path that will move the story forward, while revealing what your characters want most of all and what they’ll do to get it.

Stay tuned next week for Part Three: Dialogue.