Teasers for CBS’s new sci-fi series Extant have been running for a very long time. Since the beginning of the year, if not before. During that time, my interest level in it has gone from “eh, maybe” to “yay awesome!” With an Almost Human-sized hole in my sci-fi viewing arena, I’ve since been looking forward to the show in the hopes that it might not only be something fun to watch, but also join the rare air of successful network sci-fi shows. After watching Extant‘s first episode a couple days ago, it’s too early to call foul or fair, but here are my initial impressions.
Some of you may know that I’m a big fan of the Canadian science fiction show Continuum. Like, I once wrote a ridiculously long post recapping the entire first two seasons and giving some thoughts for where the show might take the story in the future.
Now that the third season is premiering, I’m here to recruit some new fans — so here are some reasons to watch (with no big spoilers, don’t worry!):
The Time Travel Twists
The show is about a cop in the year 2077, who is on duty when a group of terrorists calling themselves Liber8 is going to be executed for their crimes. At the last second, these terrorists use a time travel device to escape to 2012 — and the cop, Kiera Cameron, is sucked in with them. Stranded in our time period, she wants to stop Liber8 in the present while trying to preserve the timeline to make it back to 2077, where she has a husband and son. If too many things change in the present, the future might shift accordingly — meaning her family may not exist if she ever does make it back to 2077.
It’s an original premise and allows the show to be sci-fi yet set in the present day, with no need for major special effects, etc. But what I really love about it is how surprising it is. It plays with familiar time travel concepts such as the grandfather paradox, but it always makes them feel unique. Part of this is because the show’s characters are so strong, and everything presented in the storylines is personal to someone.
A Cop Show That’s Not Your Average Procedural
I would describe Continuum as a cop show, but it’s not an episodic procedural. Kiera teams up with the local police force in 2012 to help take down the Liber8 terrorists, which is the big “cop” arc that the show has. There are no separate crimes that are solved at the end of each episode; instead, Kiera and her fellow cops are specifically tracking Liber8 throughout the series — plus all of the other stuff going on. And while I’m all for a good cop procedural like (Almost Human), I prefer Continuum‘s long game.
The Importance of the Tech
The futuristic technology in Continuum is mostly limited to whatever Kiera has on her when she time travels, such as her cop suit that lets her decipher codes, turn invisible, create crazy shields to block bullets, and more. She also has a Cellular Memory Review (CMR) that records everything, as well as a HUD that can show her readings on people she’s interrogating so she knows when they’re lying, among other things. Plus, during flashbacks to 2077, you get to see a lot of the tech that makes that future world go ’round. Still, if you’re really into lots of tech, it might feel like Continuum doesn’t have enough.
Personally, I like that the tech is limited but well-developed. The Liber8 members are always after Kiera’s cop suit because they know what it can do; there’s even a very cool episode about the suit falling into the hands of people like us, living in modern times, who don’t know what it is. (But don’t worry, I won’t spoil it!) The rarity of the tech, and the fact that not everyone knows Kiera has it, works its way into interesting storylines and adds a lot to the stakes. It also makes the flashbacks to the future more exciting.
The Focus on Characterization
I love Continuum‘s characters. When I haven’t watched the show in a while, I sort of miss them. And what’s really cool is that the “villains” in Liber8 outnumber the good guys and are just as well-developed as Kiera and her friends. Each of the Liber8 members has a unique purpose, personality, and back story, and they have their own conflicts with each other as the story unravels.
Kiera also meets interesting allies in the year 2012. One is her cop partner, Carlos, who defends her when the rest of the station doesn’t know what to make of Kiera. But the most important of Kiera’s allies is Alec Sadler, a teenage computer genius who is able to tap into Kiera’s tech… because he’s the one who designed it in the future.
Kiera herself is one of the less accessible characters, which I actually love. She’s serious — sometimes too serious. She’s also got tunnel vision on getting back to her family, which can make her seem selfish sometimes with people in the present. And though the Liber8 members use terrorist tactics to spread their message and further their cause, they champion freedom from corporate rule — something that a lot of us probably agree with today. Meanwhile, Kiera is the one who is actually okay with corporate rule. In the first episode, she even makes a joke that it’s corporations that make life so comfortable for her family and her friends in 2077.
I’m kind of hoping Kiera will go through a character arc that has her believing in Liber8’s cause. Or maybe she and Liber8 will meet in the middle. Or maybe that’s not what Continuum is even about. The show loves to present different ideologies, but it doesn’t seem to condone any single one, which is very cool.
If you’re interested, the first two seasons of Continuum are on Netflix, and the third season premieres this coming Friday here in the States. I am so ready to jump back in at last season’s cliffhanger…
The Order: 1886 is one of my most highly anticipated games of the year, mostly for the gritty Victorian setting that sets it apart from other games coming out. The last time I was this excited for a game based on its atmosphere was when Dishonored came out in 2012! (I literally had dreams about that game while I waited for it to hit stores…)
Set in 19th century London, The Order: 1886 centers on an order of knights based loosely on Arthurian legend. But what makes this world even more unique is that these knights are equipped with advanced technology. However, Ready at Dawn creative director Ru Weerasuriya explains on the EU PlayStation blog that the weapons are “actually not that outlandish or futuristic… We don’t twist the actual technology itself — what we twist is its use.” In other words, the technology behind the weapons is grounded in Victorian times, even though they weapons are not historical.
All of this makes me think the game is steampunk, but the studio says it’s not. The game is more about proposing an alternative timeline — a history that could have been, that’s believable. There may be fictional, monstrous creatures and guns that shoot lightning, but all of the technology could have existed in that time period, and it’s not steam-powered. Weerasuriya also emphasizes that the game’s atmosphere is dark and gritty, which might separate it from the more whimsical vibe some steampunk gives off…
How Do We Define “Steampunk” Today?
The definition of steampunk seems a bit wobbly to me, but maybe that’s okay. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “steampunk” is:
This makes it sound like steampunk could be set in a sci-fi style future that’s littered with outdated technology from the Industrial Revolution. It could be a little more Blade Runner or William Gibson-y than how we think of steampunk today, at least at first glance.
Nowadays, steampunk seems to turn that definition on its head much of the time. Steampunk worlds are most often Neo-Victorian — old-fashioned, historical settings that have anachronistic technology. Some people seem very tied to that technology being steam-powered; otherwise, they believe it’s not true “steampunk.” But for me, whether that technology is steam-powered or not seems beside the point. The most important important thing is that the technology is more advanced than what that time period really knew — it may even be advanced for our time period, today — but it still has a vintage vibe to it. For instance, you might have an elaborate wooden computer desk, such as this one designed by Bruce Rosenbaum (ModVic) out of an old pump organ:
Or you might have a weapon outfitted in an original way, with a distinctive Victorian coating:
These staples of steampunk give the genre a definitive look and feel, but when it comes down to hard rules, I don’t know that all of us abide by them when we think “steampunk.” I’m sure there are steampunk purists who know a lot more about the genre than I do and have a very strict definition in mind, but for the rest of us casual fans, “steampunk” is a handy word to describe a lot of neo-Victorian settings.
Bending the Genre in The Order: 1886?
Even if the technology in The Order: 1886 is based on real Victorian tech, its anachronism makes the weapons feel more futuristic — hence the steampunk connotations. Just check out some of the game’s gadgets and weapons here and tell me they don’t seem steampunk-y.
Airships are another common staple of steampunk. Having them floating around the skyline of an industrial-era city makes that time period feel more tech-heavy, without actually adding anything “sci-fi” to the world. And guess what? The Order: 1886 has airships too!
Some people might argue that it’s silly to say that a game is not steampunk when that word so aptly sums up the overall atmosphere of the world. But in spite of how steampunk The Order: 1886 appears at first glance, digging deeper into the definition of the genre helps me see creative director Weerasuriya’s point. Genre labeling can be limiting. (Like, if it’s not steam-powered, can it still be steampunk?) And it can also create misconceptions of what a fictional world is before it’s actually experienced.
I like the idea that The Order: 1886 is an alternative history, offering up a more fantastical version of what life might have been like in Victorian London. Whether we call it steampunk or not, what the game shares with that genre seems to be a love of history and technology, and the creativity to match those two things in original ways. I can’t wait to dig deeper into the game’s worldbuilding as more information comes out, and I’m dying to hear that release date… =)
Since NaNoWriMo in November, I’ve been writing a science fiction novel. That’s been a big dream of mine for a long time, because I’ve always thought science fiction is the most difficult genre to write. You have to be knowledgeable about everything from politics to economics to religion and make all of those pieces fit together in a rich, realistic world — and that’s on top of the usual characterization and plotting that all novelists have to master. Fantasy also deals with all of that, but in addition to the imagination that goes into creative worldbuilding, science fiction writing also requires at least some knowledge of science, because most of the time, you’re developing a world with advanced technology.
I’m fascinated by all of that, but I’m not an expert. That’s why I put off writing science fiction until now. I developed worlds, characters, an idea of how interstellar travel would work — but then I would set aside my notes for later. I needed to be older and more mature. I needed to better understand how the world works.
How Realistic Does Future Tech Need to Be?
But underneath all that was really just a fear of getting the technology wrong. As soon as I think of an idea for an FTL drive or an alien race, I worry that it’s too unrealistic. In 10 years’ time, my theory for people using holograms might seem totally outdated. Will we ever get invisibility cloaks? What are wormholes? What will weapons look like 100 years from now? What type of energy sources will we use? All of these questions come up, and I second-guess everything I just imagined for my fictional worlds.
On my blog, I posted a little bit about how anachronistic science fiction can seem once a short amount of time passes. Seeing big, bulky computers and thick data pads already seem totally old-fashioned, yet they’re all over sci-fi from the 20th century. It can suck me out of a world if I see something so unrealistic or outdated in a fictional setting that’s supposed to be technologically-advanced.
However, for the most part, I forgive it. I consider these features to be part of that fictional world. I’m sure we could all pick out unrealistic things in Star Trek, Mass Effect, Dune, or any other number of popular science fiction — yet we rarely rail on them. We accept them. These worlds belong to fiction, and we like to imagine how everything works together there, even if it’s not how our future will look.
There’s also the issue of leaving things unexplained. In Dune, the spice melange mutates its users. It gives them all-blue eyes and, in extreme doses, makes them totally change shape. It also allows some to see the future or even fold the fabric of space-time. None of this is very scientific — it almost reeks of magic — but it’s presented in a scientific way.
I guess I’ve always wanted to write hard sci-fi. I want all of my future tech to be feasible in the real world — our world — but for someone who would rather write than research, I find it hard to keep a balance between fiction and what could be fact.
Last year, I decided it was time to stop putting off my science fiction novel. I dove in. Although I’ve done plenty of research, I don’t know everything about science, advanced technology, politics, religion, and everything else that make society function and, at times, fall apart. But I’ve decided that the best science fiction worlds come from their authors’ imaginations more than anything, and I’ve forced myself to trust my instinct as I build my fictional world.
Characterization is What Counts
My favorite fiction has always centered on vibrant characters who feel real. A lot of science fiction focuses so much on the worldbuilding — all those gears that turn to make the big old futuristic setting work — that characters come across like part of the clockwork. They’re cold. They can sometimes feel like pawns, and the bigger political struggle or themes about humanity are what matter. Although that can be interesting, science fiction suffers when it doesn’t have solid characters, in my opinion.
The sci-fi I love most has strong characterization. The crews of the Bebop, the Serenity, the Normandy, the Enterprise — they’re dynamic and interesting. They ground the world and make you feel a part of it. You don’t have to hear long descriptions of how the political system of the sci-fi world works; you just hear snippets about it from characters you love, or you watch those characters’ lives changing because of what’s happening out there in the wider universe.
In this way, good characters can ground a science fiction work. You don’t have to enter this cold, metallic future all by yourself. I was taught that in fiction, a car crash doesn’t mean anything unless you first care about who’s in the car. And when you’re dealing with a world that’s as foreign as a sci-fi world, that becomes even more important.
My science fiction book definitely focuses heavily on characterization. While I’ve spent a lot of time building my world, I don’t want my story to get bogged down in how all the big gears work. I want to reveal the details of everyday life through my characters, and anything that happens in the universe is only relevant because it affects them personally.
I think that’s why a lot of science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) focuses on characters who hold a lot of sway in their worlds. Even if they’re hobbits, they go on epic adventures that will change everything about the way their worlds work and the way they live. Other times, the main characters are royals, politicians, war generals. They’re people who matter, and that can work really well for the story.
The trickiest part of writing science fiction, for me, has been making “small” characters work. I have ideas for writing books about royals and “starship” commanders, but my current book is about everyday people taking on slightly bigger responsibilities than before — but they’re still part of the fray. Any big political machinations that happen in my world have to affect my characters’ every day lives, and my characters need to be actively involved in it somehow. It took time for me to find a story that made that work, but I’m excited to see how it all comes together as I continue fleshing out my book.
It doesn’t snow in California. I’ve come to accept that, and having lived in places where it does snow, I comfort myself with the firsthand knowledge that as pretty as it is, snow can be a hassle too. But around this time of year, I find myself gravitating towards video games, books, and movies that feature cold winter weather. For some reason, the snowy settings help set the mood for the holidays. That’s why my computer backdrop for the season is this:
It’s Skyrim. And that just happens to be my first choice for my favorite sci-fi and fantasy worlds that make awesome wintry vacation spots, even if it’s just in my imagination.
It might be a dangerous place if you’re on the wrong side of the civil war or facing an unexpected dragon attack, but Skyrim is the most beautiful video game landscape I’ve ever seen and would make an amazing vacation spot. Though parts of it are sunny — a ‘crisp autumn day’ type of sunny, that is — much of it is covered in snow. In fact, Windhelm can look downright bleak with its gray walls and murky skies, but it has an intense atmosphere that draws you in. Personally, I love climbing snow-topped mountains and looking for ruins partially buried under the snow when I play Skyrim. And when I came across a little village along the way, the chilly atmosphere only makes ducking indoors feel cozier.
2. Narnia (Chronicles of Narnia)
The world of Narnia felt so magical when I was a kid, and I still love it. This place is one where animals can talk and magic abounds. There are witches and centaurs and unicorns, and the change of seasons feels important. For instance, there was a time when the White Witch covered Narnia in ice and snow for 100 years, which caused all kinds of hardships for the people. But winter is exactly the time I would want to step through my wardrobe into Narnia, just to experience that thrilling chill of discovery in an atmosphere that so suits it.
3. Pandora (Borderlands)
Pandora is another video game setting that oozes charisma. It’s not always the prettiest of places, but its dingy settlements, psychos, and monsters have a visual appeal that’s part art style, part amazing atmosphere. When I play a Borderlands game, I completely lose myself on the planet of Pandora, and my favorite areas are always the snowy ones. Seeing massive glaciers and tramping through snow with crackling ice nearby is the perfect way to start off a playthrough of Borderlands 2.
4. Hogsmeade (Harry Potter)
Who wouldn’t want to get away from school and drink butterbeer in Hogsmeade? That’s what Harry Potter and his friends do when they get to spend a weekend day in this little all-wizard village of snow-covered cottages and shops. Hogwarts students bundle up in their coats and scarves to make the wintry trek to the village — and then they escape inside where it’s warm. Plus, enchanted candles nestle in the trees during the holiday season to make the place festive. It might be wizards-only, but this town would make a cozy winter getaway for anyone’s imagination.
5. Noveria (Mass Effect)
Noveria is cold — so cold that people stay inside pretty much all the time. When you first visit the planet in the first Mass Effect game, there are severe storm warnings, but of course you brave the weather to complete your mission before it’s too late. While I enjoyed exploring the industrial-looking facilities built on Noveria to shield the people there from the elements, getting into the snow outside and seeing the glaciers up close was even better… even if it did involve driving the Mako.
The first time I ventured into science fiction was when I picked up Frank Herbert’s Dune in an old library somewhere. I was in 6th grade. I didn’t know what I was picking up, only that it was thick and smelled musty and important, and it had that crinkly sort of cover like library books did. The library doesn’t exist anymore, but every time I pass that area, I think about that first copy of Dune that I read.
I ended up reading the series in middle school, one book after another, usually on the bus ride to and from school. Even though I was way too young to understand all of its deeper philosophy, I loved the characters and settings and story.
Dune whisked me away to Arrakis, a desert planet where water was so scarce that the native people wore stillsuits to recycle their own bodily waste into water. It was a new world to the teenage hero, Paul Atreides, who had just moved there with his parents. His mother, Jessica, was supposed to carry on the Bene Gesserit breeding line by producing a girl, who would then give birth to a sort of superbeing. But Jessica had skipped a generation by producing a boy, and it was unclear whether he was the messiah people had been awaiting or if Jessica had ruined the line for good.
Dune also had fantastic villains with names I loved, like Harkonnen and Feyd Rautha and Rabban. When Paul’s father was killed and Paul’s life threatened, he and his mother escaped their mansion to take refuge in the desert. There, they met the native Fremen and started a new life for themselves. The Fremen began to worship Paul as their native messiah, and it became clear that he had special abilities.
A lot of this revolved around the drug melange — and this is where the fantasy aspect really comes into play in the otherwise sci-fi world. Melange gives long-time users prescience. This is why the Guild uses it to fold space-time and allow interstellar travel, but its pilots are horribly mutated from the overuse of melange. On Arrakis, where melange is common, users have all-blue eyes that gives away their habit. And when Paul was exposed to this drug, he gained stronger prescient abilities than anyone had seen.
I fell in love with the Dune universe fast. And it’s funny that my favorite things about it — the names, the landscapes, the giant sand worms, the special orders like the Bene Gesserit and the human computers called mentats — all of those things are still what I love when I re-read the first novel. I also loved that chapters began with excerpts from court writings and official biographies, describing the characters and situations as they appeared in the historical records much, much later. I even wrote down the “Fear is the mind-killer” quote and memorized it as a teenager.
I’ve watched the Dune movies and miniseries since, but none of them quite capture the magic of the books. I would love to see Dune adapted for the big screen someday and done well. (Who knows what happened to that Peter Berg project…) Or made into a really epic video game or television series. But I certainly don’t need those things. Escaping into books is enough when the books are this good.
I’ve read and watched and video game’d a lot of science fiction since then, but Dune remains one of my favorite science fiction series. It’s considered one of the best — maybe the best of all time — for good reason. For me, it opened my eyes to other worlds for the first time and taught me to suspend my disbelief for them. I’ve kept that with me ever since, and I believe it’s helped me appreciate all the other fantastic worlds I’ve encountered in fiction.