Posts Tagged Worldbuilding

A Writer Reviews: Almost Hollow, the Sleepy Human

SleepyHumanTwo new genre shows debuted on Fox this year. One was an insane notion of turning the legend of Sleepy Hollow into a weekly series. The other was a high concept future buddy cop show headlined by a successful movie star. If I had to put money on only one of the two shows succeeding, I’d have put the one starring a bankable star with the safer premise.

Which is to say, I’d have bet on Almost Human beating Sleepy Hollow.

However, we’re now in mid-February. Sleepy Hollow got a pickup for season two before any other new show this season, and Almost Human is possibly limping towards cancellation. So this raises a question, what did the one do so right, and the other do so wrong?

Let me first say, before I start digging into the shows, that I really do love both of them. Almost Human is one of the first hours of television I catch up with every week. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to indict the show on, nor has my enjoyment of the characters left me blind to the flaws of the show.

First, these two shows are equally weird. That I felt Almost Human was more approachable demonstrates my bias towards science fiction over fantasy. However, asking a broader audience to accept androids, quasi-sentient bullets, and sexbots is no different than asking them to accept the headless horseman, witches, and zombie George Washington. That’s right, zombie George Washington is the sexbot in this comparison. You’re welcome.

Fantasy has also been on more of a winning streak on television lately. But I don’t think that the problem comes down solely to the different genres. One of the most popular shows on television, Person of Interest, has slowly become one of the more compelling science fiction shows of the last two decades.

So what did Sleepy Hollow do right that Almost Human did wrong?

If I had to chalk it up to one factor, I would say Sleepy Hollow better compelled an audience into its world. From the word go, the show hardly let up. It trusted the audience to be willing to come along for a ride. Frankly, it had to. I was dubious going into the show, but it didn’t give me enough of an opportunity to think about what an insane piece of media I was watching.

Almost Human, on the other hand, has given the audience too many opportunities to stop and think about what they’re watching. Look, the dynamic between the two lead stars is incredible, but too often the show has relied on their dialogue in the car. The world is painted on, a thin veneer that relies on the audience to remember Blade Runner. It was only in Episode Nine when the show was willing to embrace the world, and show the audience that there was something out there beyond a familiar pastiche. Unfortunately, that’s too late for a lot of viewers.  Nearly a third of the initial audience has abandoned the show.

It’s far too late to make a thesis statement now.

So what’s the lesson?

First, trust your audience. They want to be taken for a ride, take them for that ride. Don’t feel the need to apologize for a story being what you want it to be. There are so many stories and novels that someone can pick up and read, be your own.

Second, make sure you have a world. If you spend too much time giving your audience a chance to build the world on their own, many are going to fight that. Others are going to paint in another, similar world, and be upset when they get the details wrong. Don’t give them the opportunity to make the world their own, because the world is your own.

I’m still holding out hope for Almost Human. Both from the story telling department, and in my hopes that it gets a second season. Plenty of brilliant genre shows have had slow starts. If it does survive, then everyone needs to stop giving Fox shit about cancelling science fiction.

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How We Live, How We Die

I’m going to pretend that I intended to create bookend posts for the week, and hope none of you realizing I’m just flying by the seats of my pants.

In my State of the Writer post earlier this week I talked about looking for books about life in the 1860s, and being quite excited about finding one actually called Life in Civil War America.  It was fantastically on the spot, but it’s not the research book I’m reading right now.  Instead, I’m approaching things from the exact opposite direction.  Rather than looking at how people lived in the Civil War, I’m fascinated with a book about how people died.

The book is This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, subtitled Death and the American Civil War.  The chapters are simply titled, and currently I’m through two: Dying and Killing.  The second is a look at how two dominantly Christian democracies justified going out and killing each other, tied in with the brutality experienced by black soldiers.  About just the process of killing a man in the first and last war where guns were powerful and reloadable enough to be repeatedly deadly, but inaccurate enough that soldiers needed to be in close enough range to see their enemy’s faces before pulling the trigger.  It’s a chilling outline of the justifications for war and reality of close quarters combat, but with Nickajack not actually set during the war, the information will have less direct influence on the book.

What already has influence some Nickajack editing is the first chapter: Dying.

The underlying theme of the chapter is the early 19th American concept of the Good Death.  The Civil War was certainly not the first war the United States fought in the 19th century.  They’d fought a second war against the Brits, they fought a war against Mexico, but the American loss of life in the Civil War was several orders of magnitude greater, so it directly touched more Americans.  This was also an America that set out less, that didn’t see children moving several states away from parents, or even grandparents.  Deaths also tended to be slow and lingering, giving the dying plenty of time to make right with their god, their family, and enjoy almost a ritualized passing.  This was the Good Death.

The Civil War disrupted much of this by introducing sudden, violent death to distant relatives on a very regular basis.  There was a camaraderie in the war, a banding together in an attempt to bring as many elements of the Good Death to the soldier bleeding out in the field as possible.  Informal letters were written home by those close to the dying, whether by friendship or literal proximity.  Nurses often stood in as surrogate mothers or sisters for the dying.  The stories told are absolutely heart wrenching at times, especially through a pair of songs excerpted in the chapter, one about a nurse kissing a soldier good-bye for his mother, and the other a response from the mother thanking the nurse for giving her son a last kindness as he died.  It quicker the death, the harder it was to make it a Good Death.  Some soldiers lingered for days with sepsis and could personally write their own obituaries home, others were dead in a moment and those writing home spoke of spiritual readiness in the preceding days and weeks if it wasn’t available at the moment of passing.

The Civil War was a kind of widespread death that just doesn’t mesh with modern thoughts.  Nearly 2% of the US population of 1860 was killed during the war, whether through battle or disease related to combat conditions.  Even the tragedies of 9/11 produced fewer fatalities than either side suffered in the Battle of Gettysburg.

This isn’t meant to be a history lesson.  Give the book a try, it’s very well written and it tells a story of the Civil War that hadn’t occurred to me.

And therein lies the problem and my actual point.  It hadn’t occurred to me.  It’s easy to not think about death, it’s common to not want to think about death.  It serves to remind us all of our mortality, something that is uncomfortable to many, myself included.  But that also makes it easy to overlook a society’s view on death as part of it’s overall construct.  While familiar with the tradition, some might say cliched, death bed narrative, I never realized how fully it gripped the lives of Victorian Americans.  But in a novel where people die, it’s important to know how they would feel about dying, what their society has prepared them for.  I learned this lesson the hard way, only after being loaned the book by my father-in-law, and I pass it along now.

And this isn’t just about historically set fiction.  Any substantially built world where death is going to be part of a narrative, the author should have a notion of how the civilization, or civilizations, view death.  If the society has a strong belief in reincarnation, it may be seen as a simple transition.  If the society has a strong notion of a glorious afterlife, it might be seen as a more celebratory event.  Look at similar real cultures as a clue.  Ask yourself questions.  What do the dying want out of their final moments?  What do the survivors want immediately afterwards?  What news may a distant (geographically, not emotionally) relative want?  These are important questions, all explored in that first chapter regarding the Civil War, and all may be important within the world if even one character dies.

It’s a lesson I’m taking forward, and thus a lesson I hope to impart on others as they write.

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