I’ve read a couple of reviews of Age of Ultron which criticize the character of the villain, the murderous AI named Ultron. One called him “generic.” Another suggested that he wasn’t as clever a treatise on the dangers of artificial intelligence as some other film which was released recently.
Ultron, as is pretty clear from my last entry’s discussion of his “son,” the Vision, is, after all, only half a treatise on artificial intelligence. And the Vision, is not a treatise on its dangers, but on its wonderful potential. Dangers? Let’s be honest, everything that’s wrong with Ultron as an intellect is also wrong with a lot of humans. And that gets me to my refutation of that other accusation: that Ultron is generic. Ultron is, indeed, a deeply personal menace to the Avengers. For not only are his failings also theirs, he is, in fact, born of the hubris of one of their own. Tony Start believes he can enforce the perfect peace by building an AI, and he seizes on the technology behind Loki’s alien scepter to do that.
So my favorite Marvel film has been taking a pounding this week, from the usual nay-sayers who wanted it to be Batman, or who wanted it to be just the first one again (suggestion – watch the first one again!) I’ve heard Ultron called a generic villain, and read that Evan Peters was a better Quicksilver in Days of Future Past.
Okay, I’m not going to review this film. Because, if I were to review this film, you’d get about 1800 words, all of which were various combinations and permutations of these: “Oh”, “My”, “God”, “This”, “Film”, “F___ing”, and “Rocks.”
This is my favorite Marvel Studios film to date. None of them have been bad. A couple (Iron Man 2, Thor 2) were not what I wished they could have been. I’ll still watch them any day over, say, Ben Affleck in Daredevil or Man of Steel and any of its ill-begotten spawn. But Age of Ultron is my dream Avengers movie.
Like everyone who grew up on Marvel Comics, and a lot of people who didn’t, I’ve been watching and enjoying the hell out of the Netflix original series Daredevil.
Last night, while gathered with friends to watch Marvel’s Agents of Shield, we naturally discussed both topics. And the thought crystallized in my head that the two topics actually fit together very well.
I continue from last week, where I was running through my own creative process in developing the characters, and along the way the worlds, which make up my series, The Arbiter Chronicles. As explain last week, I work by asking myself a lot of questions, and answering them allows me to develop my story.
Question: What kind of society makes it strange to have a relationship with your parents?
With this question, framed about the character Kaya, I move off earth and create the character that’s going to be both a romantic interest and a different kind of foil for my hero. This is a very smart, capable woman for whom Terry Metcalfe will fall hard. And, because I wanted that element of old, pulpy space-opera, she’s going to be the Captain’s daughter. But she has to be a misfit to be part of my team. She’s smart, she’s rich, she’s beautiful. What’s wrong with her? Her people think she’s weird because she has a man she recognizes as her father.
Wait, every human has a father and a mother. What kind of world is she from that it’s weird that she knows hers?
Last time I talked about world-building, and how I think it’s properly accomplished by starting with your lead characters and building the world that they need to live in, the world that would have produced somebody like them. (Of course, it’s important to point out that the world we grow up in is only one factor in the person we actually become. “Nature or Nurture” is an old question, and I agree with L. Neill Smith’s answer–ultimately it is each one of us, not external factors, who determine who we are. But there’s no denying that place changes us.)
So this week, I want to start showing you how I used my own method to create worlds for my most successful series, a space opera called The Arbiter Chronicles.
The Arbiter Chronicles is a teen-angst story about outcasts. When I started, I knew I wanted a cast of five young characters, mostly from different worlds. I made them each different and therefore rejected by most of the people around them. Why did I do that? Because, above all, you’ve got to write what you know. You may be writing about worlds that don’t exist, where people have powers no human could ever have, but, at some level, you’ve got to write what you know. I started creating the Arbiters when I was a freshman in college. At that point, what I knew best was what it was like to be a high school geek. So I made my characters young misfits in space.
Every now and then, my creative friends and I step out from behind the mics and indulge in a bit of stage or video parody. Here’s a short comedic tribute to the George Reeves Adventures of Superman from the 1950s, directed and edited by Lew Aide, and starring my dear departed friend Jim Childs.
This is a distillation of a workshop I taught at the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group conference, “The Write Stuff,” a couple of weeks ago. It’ll probably be a three-part series. Hope it’s of interest!
Frequently, when I talk to new writers, especially in the fantasy field, I hear things like, “Well, I’ve been working on a novel for ten years.”
“Oh,” I say, “what’s it about?”
“Well,” they say, “I’m still building the world.”
“Who are the characters?” I ask.
“Well, there are these guys who wear blue hats, and they’ve been fighting a war for 500 years with the guys who wear red hats.”
“So is your story about a red hat, a blue hat, or a couple of each?” “Well, I’m still building the world…”
Yeah. Like that.
Talking to yourself is supposed to be a bad sign.
Hearing voices. Also bad. Talking to yourself suggests a mild neurosis or perhaps improper socialization. Hearing voices in your head talk back to you? Now we’re talking psychosis.
Me? I talk to people that aren’t there.
They talk back. Of course they talk back. What do you think I am, the sort of fool who’d waste time talking to people who don’t answer?
So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind,
Is all the sad world needs.
(“The World’s Need” – Ella Wheeler Wilcox)
That there, my friends, is what we call (with a sneer) a platitude. No, that’s not an animal related to Perry the Platypus. It’s a trite, sort of obvious, not particularly helpful bit of advice that people are wont to give when things get complicated. Platitudes are spouted so often that they become meaningless. But this platitude means something to me.
You see, it was proudly displayed (and, as far I know, still is) on the family room wall of the house next door to mine when I was growing up. The house belonged to a retired postmistress named Ruth Bryant and her daughter, Eva. Eva still lives there. Mrs. Bryant was just about exactly the age of two of my grandparents, born as the now-vanished 20th Century was only a year old. She remembered a time before there was ever such a thing as a World War, before electricity, before radio, before the Titanic sunk and forced the lords and ladies of Downton Abbey to go get jobs like normal people.
The saying was emblazoned in a needlepoint sampler that hung above Mrs. Bryant’s easy chair. When I spent mornings with her before getting on the bus for afternoon Kindergarten, I would read it over and over, sometimes out loud if I was feeling brave. Mrs. Bryant would assure me that that saying was true. And she lived that saying, as far as I could see. In all my five or so years I’d never met anyone kinder. 45 years later, I still haven’t.
Mrs. Bryant died just as a thing called “Political Correctness” was taking hold in her beloved America. I don’t think she would have thought very much of it. Nor do I. And I think my disapproval goes back to those words above.