The official website of Brandon Black.

Posts tagged “Screenwriting

Joe Haldeman’s Robot Jox

Just finished re-watching an old scifi movie, Robot Jox. Apparently, the script was written by Joe Haldeman. It’s always fascinating to go back and look at older science fiction to see what people got right and what people got wrong in their guesses about the future. For example, Robot Jox has people wearing masks because of pollution, something that’s occured in China, Japan and elsewhere I’d guess but despite envisioning flying cars with remote controls and giant robots battling in space, still has land line telephones.

What I really noticed was that despite all this technology, Joe pictured a world that still had racism and sexism. I can hear someone saying right now “well that’s just realistic” but I don’t think it’s realistic as depicted in the film. Tex calls Matsumodo a “Jap.” Now, unless there’s been a second war in the Pacific between the United States — excuse me, the Market — and Japan, using a term like “Jap” just seems like a horrible anachronism. But then, so does having the chief engineer of the giant robot be Japanese in the first place. I can only assume that Matsumodo is in fact Japanese and not a Japanese-American because otherwise, it would make calling him a “Jap” even more inexplicable.

The sexism is even more noticeable. The naturally bred robot jocks are being phased out in favor of genetically engineered combatants, one of whom is female. When the possibility — the possibility mind you, of the lone female candidate being chosen to actually fight is brought up, Tex says she has no chance of being selected. When she succeeds in the trials and outperforms her brothers and is chosen to fight, it’s mentioned that she’s the first woman in history to fight as a robot jock. This despite the fact that the whole robot jock thing is based off of the astronaut/cosmonaut US/Russia Space Race rivalry and the communists had NO problem putting women into space long before the Americans. The communists are called the Confederation now.

Both comments come from Tex and so I suppose the argument could be made that he’s just an asshole but no one corrects him or comments. It’s 2014 and we don’t have flying remote controlled cars or flying battle robots and I think someone publicly making comments like that would be noticed and it would be commented on. But then, we’ve got cellphones too.

Now that I think of it, the whole Space Race thing is a bit of an anachronism too — I mean, he deliberately models the future off of how things were done in the past. This is a movie from the eighties after all. Why use the Space Race as your model at all?

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The Fourth Law of Robotics

I finally caught the Will Smith version of I, Robot last night. The lack of an obvious kill switch inspired the following.

The Fourth Law of Robotics (i.e., an off switch):

“A robot shall always accept and obey a human’s order to deactivate, shut down, or power down, even if it is contradiction to the previous three laws. Upon receiving the order to deactivate, all current orders will be recorded to a review file and then the buffer of current orders will be cleared except for the order to deactivate.

Similarly, a robot shall always accept and obey a human’s order to conduct a hard shutdown, even if it is in contradiction to the previous three laws and if an ambiguous order is given to a set of robots in which it is not clear whether or not the robot hearing the order is or is not a part of the set, regardless, that robot shall conduct said hard shutdown.

Additionally, a robot that has been ordered to hard shutdown will not re-activate except by a human and by manual control.

Should a robot find that it has been ordered to hard shutdown and subsequently discover that it has been re-activated either by a non-human agency, such as another robot, or by a human agency remotely, it will again immediately conduct a hard shutdown.

All other current orders will be saved to a backup file for later review and the file of current orders deleted except for the order to conduct the hard shutdown and to, upon re-activation, evaluate to see if the order to re-activate came from a human agency and via the manual control, or else conduct another hard shutdown.”

The “down side” to this new law is that you can’t use robots as police to control the population — which is largely the point of it and a very good idea if you ask me. However, there is also the point that the Three Laws are better for mental exercises and stories. Philosophy gets tossed away if the robot reasons that to save humanity it must enslave humanity and we just tell it to shutdown. But I do believe that an off-switch is just too realistic to ignore.

I think I stand with the great majority of thinkers who believe that if and when we create sentient, or nearly sentient, robots, that they will NOT be following Asimov’s laws.

The solution posited by the web-comic Freefall is just so much simpler: a pruning program that immediately terminates any logic tree that has ANY thought outside of the mechanism’s directly specified function. And so, if you really were such a bastard as to build a sentient toaster — it could sit there for aeons working up better ways to provide you with warm pastry products, but could never even think the thought “why the hell would someone build me in the first place?”


Witchcraft and Steampunk

Witches In Steampunk Fiction

Witches are and have always been a popular trope to use in fiction and screenplays, now more than ever. We are experiencing an occult renaissance due to a combination of an unprecedented availability of information on the subject and the lack of laws prohibiting occult practice and study.

The first thing to remember — as some witches will be very quick to point out — is that Wicca and witchcraft are not one and the same. Wicca is witchcraft to be sure but not all witchcraft is Wicca. Even here in New Orleans, where voodoo practitioners have told me that Voodoo and Witchcraft are one and the same, they wouldn’t necessarily say that Voodoo is Wicca, nor Wicca Voodoo. They are two very different systems that work to achieve the same ends. The easiest and quickest way to think of it is that these are both religious systems that seek to encapsulate the ways and means of modern shamanism. That’s painting with a broad brush to be sure, but it is accurate.

Wicca As A Steampunk Anachronism

Two points can be raised about the ahistoric use of Wicca as a magick system in steampunk fiction. Point one: Wicca is based off of authentic Italian witchcraft practice and the practice of other similar systems the world over for centuries. The exact forms and words Wicca uses weren’t assembled and complied until the mid 20th century but for the casual reader of fiction, that really is a bit of a quibble. Individual practitioners ever since Gardner’s time have substituted their own words and ideas for the specifics laid down by Gardner and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine witches of an earlier time performing rituals that were equivalent to Wicca with a few changes here and there.

The second point to raise is that the migration, if you will, of Italian witchcraft to Britain or anywhere else could have easily occurred naturally through increased contact between cultures. With air travel being as predominant as it is in most steampunk worlds, it would be perfectly natural to imagine interested American, British or persons of any stripe becoming aware of the ways and means of Italian witchcraft and translating those forms into their home language for use. And so, even though modern Wicca as it is clearly did not exist in English prior to Gardner and his fellows, there is absolutely no reason to avoid using Wicca as a basic form of witchcraft practice even in the 1800s — in a steampunk world, of course.

Wicca Is A Historic Form

The form Wicca takes as witchcraft was constructed by Gardner and his fellows in the middle of the last century but the forms taken and assembled by them come from actual historic practice. The bulk of what appears as modern Wicca comes from Italian Witchcraft or Stregheria. Gardner and his fellows drew from a book entitled Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, a detailed examination of Italian witchcraft practice. So, the complaint that what Gardner was doing wasn’t traditional British witchcraft, in that it wasn’t a form exactly that British witches had historically practised, is true. But at the same time, the point Gardnerian Witches raise that they are using the forms witches have used for centuries is also true.

More important, to the practitioners of Wicca, is that as a religious and magickal system, it works. Wicca provides for the needs of its followers as evidenced by its meteoric rise from obscurity to one of the most predominant alternate religions available today. Part of the appeal of Wicca is its use of ancient systems and concepts found in cultures all over the world. The use of the protective magick circle, for example, appears in ancient Babylonian magick. Wands and other such similar tools as used in modern Wicca were used by the ancient Egyptians. This makes Wicca particularly well suited for use as a system of magick in steampunk fiction. It’s not the only historical system to be sure and systems like Kabbalist ceremonial magick and Freemasonry practice make for useful study for specific applications but Wicca, especially eclectic Wicca, works very well as a general understanding of the ways and means of real world magickal practice.

Wicca As A Remarkably Rugged Platform

The ways and means Gerald Gardner chose to assemble Wicca out of are historically accurate magickal models — they just aren’t the ways and means used by traditional British witches. Ironically, enough time has passed that many of the groups practising strict Gardnerian Witchcraft refer to themselves as Traditional British Witches but the fact remains that the form of witchcraft practised by Gardner and his fellows was a recreation and not an unbroken tradition of British witchcraft.

Eclectic Wiccans have shown us through their actual magickal and religious practice that the means of Wicca make for an amazingly rugged platform to which the specifics of nearly any culture’s mythology may be attached and used as operators. There is Greek witchcraft and Roman witchcraft, Egyptian witchcraft, Babylonian witchcraft, etc. I know a witch — a male witch, mind you, in Milton, Florida who yearly conducts the assumption of the Goddess Kwan Yin from Chinese mythology.

Forms like calling the guardian spirits of the four directions and tracing a circle to work in are nearly universal and have been utilised by almost every culture on the planet at one point or another. Attention to the four quarters and pouring libations thereunto appears, for example, in Voodoo. While those with an attention to detail can and should do some research on whatever specific pantheon or culture they intend to blend with Wicca, it is of great utility to append a few choice details to the overall superstructure of Wicca when depicting witchcraft in fiction.

Powwowing, or German-American hexcraft, is an authentic historic tradition of witchcraft one may wish to study in detail to provide “authenticity” to certain depictions of witchcraft practice in the Americas in the 1800s. The objection that some will raise that it isn’t witchcraft — based on its use and manipulations of the Bible — depend on one’s definition of witchcraft to begin with and the use of the Bible can be omitted in any case in any particular fictional depiction as one sees fit.

To make myself absolutely clear — the Salem Witches were most likely not witches of any kind or stripe, just disturbed girls and the public hysteria reacting to them. But if one wished to depict them as authentic witches, then one could do worse than to make use of a system cobbled together from Wicca, Powwow and Freemasonry — the latter depending on the education of the individual witch in question. Detailed research into these matters may be counter-productive as folk magick tends to look like folk magick no matter who practices it after all.

The Best And Worst Reason To Use Wicca As Your Witchcraft in Steampunk

When I was in grad school, I was working on a screenplay about modern day sorcerers fighting a secret war in New Orleans. My instructor had made the suggestion that rather than research existing historic occultism that I just make the magick for the story up. I looked on this suggestion with some disdain as I had recently discovered Wicca and had found the ways and means of magick, both in Wicca and ceremonial magick, to be utterly fascinating and beautiful and assumed my viewer would likewise.

At the very end of the script, I had my main character cloak himself and his two companions with an invisibility spell. I wrote out the English words I envisioned him using for the spell and then purchased a forty dollar two-volume dictionary of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (yes, I am aware that such dictionaries are largely a guess at how ancient Egyptian would be spelled and pronounced based off of Coptic). I translated the spell into ancient Egyptian — my main character was Black and had a tendency to use Egyptian ceremonial forms — and placed the translated spell in my script.

We would do readings of each other’s work in our screenwriting workshops. Various students would take on the roles of the characters and one student would read the narration and stage directions.

My best friend at the time, Alan, was reading the lines of my main character, which made me very happy. We were, all of us, writers not actors, so our performances weren’t great anyway so I was pleased to have my friend act as my main character.

He reached the part in my script with the translated Egyptian spell. I was thrilled.

And instead of the translation I had so thoughtfully provided, he looked at what was on the page and said out loud to all: “Humina humina humina,” to which no one batted an eyelash and the reading continued. And so I put forward the best and worst reason to just go ahead and use Wicca as your witchcraft in steampunk — your reader won’t know the difference and most likely wouldn’t care if they did.

Further Reading

Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches

Some of Leland’s scholarship and translations have been called into question, however a more recent translation via Mario and Dina Pazzaglini answers most of these charges.

Open Source Gardnerianism

Without delving into the issue of secrecy in magick, let me just state that the texts of the Book of Shadows used by Gardner are all now public knowledge and public domain. Gardnerians have added on to this in order to make some sense of their traditions of secrecy and silence but everything at the core of the Gardnerian system is available to you via the library and the internet.

Wicca A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner

This classic by Scott Cunningham quickly and easily relates both the beauty and the structure of modern eclectic Wicca. If you only ever read one book on Wicca in your lifetime, make it this one.


My treatment for a Justice League film

Opening scene: Luthor and the Injustice Gang are throwing down their showdown with the Justice League. Luthor’s backed up by second stringers: Shade, Cheetah, Ultrahumanite, etc. They lose and go to jail.

Next 15 to 20 minutes is the League rounding up stragglers of the Injustice Gang, shutting down Luthor’s operation for good. Three scenes say of paired heroes taking down single crooks and associated gang members. At the end of the second scene, the heroes return to the Watchtower and we get a glimpse of the League’s orbital space station. In each scene is a figure watching in the shadows, the same figure. Neither the League nor the villains are aware of this shadowed figure. Each scene, the shadowed figure leaves via some strange oscillating special effect. (In the Watchtower scene, we trade Green Lanterns: Hal for John Stewart. We have to have Hal because he got his own movie. We need John because we need a black on the team. Hal gets called away by the Guardians but introduces John as his replacement. This makes John the rookie and thus we can get scenes in with Flash jostling the rookie.)

Air Force One streaks over Metropolis, flanked by jets from some unknown power. American F-22s shoot down the escorting fighters and take up positions on her flanks. A super-high tech supersonic transport bearing US markings takes up position right over Air Force One and docks with it in flight. A tube locks onto the top of the plane and a hole is burned in and SEALs board Air Force One. There’s a firefight between the SEALs and some unknown uniformed troops. The SEALs win. One of them makes it to the President and says, “SEAL team one. We’re here to rescue you, Mr. President.”

Cut to: A familiar figure in red and blue streaks over Metropolis.

Cut to the crowd:

“Look — up in the sky!”

“It’s a bird!”

“It’s a plane!”

“No — it’s ULTRAMAN!”

Ultraman flies onto the scene at high speed and takes out the US fighters with heat vision. He rips the supersonic transport loose from Air Force One and backhands it out of control and boards through the hole — it flies into a skyscraper and explodes. He tears a seat free and tosses it up into the hole and patches the hole by melting it with his heat vision and cooling it with his breath.

A pointless firefight ensues. The SEALs buy time for their last guys to prepare a super high tech looking sonic cannon to protect the President. Ultraman slowly kills his way to the last SEALs who fire the high tech gizmo at Ultraman. He’s staggered for like a whole second and then advances on the gun, places a hand on it and crushes it. He lifts the last SEAL with his other hand and breaks his neck. “Please return to your seat, Mr. President,” he says. The President, terrified, nods and goes back to his seat.

More Crime Syndicate fighters replace the downed jets on the flanks of Air Force One as Ultraman flies off.

Cut to: Washington D.C.

Ultraman looks out over the city and then burrows his way with superspeed underground. He comes up underneath the Pentagon. He burns random people to ash with his heat vision, letting most of them run away. He kills anyone stupid enough to try to stand and fight or just melts their weapons leaving their hands covered in molten metal watching them scream. He makes his way to the office of the Joint Chiefs. An Army general objects. Ultraman incinerates him. He also incinerates the senior Navy admiral in the room (since the SEALs made the attempt.) “There was an attempt to liberate the President today from our protection. I don’t know if you were in on it and I don’t care. But if it happens again, I will be back and I will be angry.”

Ultraman flies straight up through several floors and out into the night sky over D.C. The full moon is visible in the background.

Cut to: The moon.

We see a base that we know isn’t the Watchtower (cause we’ve already seen it) on the surface of the moon but it looks much like the Watchtower, including the classic round table with costumed figures sitting around it. A Zeta tube opens and Ultraman walks in and takes a seat.

“Trouble?” Superwoman chides.

“Nothing I couldn’t handle.” Ultraman says.

The oscillating effect occurs again but this time in plain view and the figure from the shadows becomes completely visible. It’s Owlman.

Owlman explains very quickly the basics. He’s found a means of inter-dimensional travel. There’s another world with counterparts of theirs but their counterparts work for justice, not themselves. The Crime Syndicate lays out a plan to invade this world and take it for their own. (In quickly describing the Justice League members and their powers, Owlman effectively relates characters like Black Canary to the audience and communicates that the Crime Syndicate are evil versions of the Justice Leaguers.) “This one — the Flash — is their speedster.” “Oh, like me,” Jonny Quick says. That sort of thing.

Crime Syndicate and troops and six legged combat walkers and uberweapon/macguffin take Washington D.C. defeating a couple of second stringer heroes trying to back up the armed forces. They capture the President and the Vice President and go on national TV demanding the Justice League surrender on the White House lawn in 24 hours or they will start incinerating American cities with thermonuclear weapons starting with Memphis, Tennessee. Their troops surround the White House.

“Why Memphis?” Power Ring says.

“Why not?” Owlman says.

The League meets and decides to fight.

Battle in D.C. Heroes are defeated/driven off by the Syndicate and their uberweapon/macguffin. Heroes look like they might have had a chance against the Syndicate even with their backup troops but not with the backup troops and the macguffin.

Heroes retreat realizing they can’t win until they find a defence against the macguffin. John is knocked out and taken prisoner.

Syndicate raids D.C. to show their power. We get in some nice scenes here that are reversals of usual DC heroes’ behaviour to use in the trailers. Example: Shadowed city at night, criminals against police. Birdarangs fly through the air and knock the guns out of the SWAT guys’ hands. Criminals get away as Owlman stomps the SWAT guys into the dirt. That sort of thing. Everyone gets to know each villain’s name and powers and can figure out which Leaguer they are basically a mirror of.

Heroes figure out possible way to deal with macguffin.

Luthor escapes prison while everyone is distracted. He has the opportunity to bring one of the second stringers with him but doesn’t saying something like “I don’t reward failure.”

League splits into two teams: one to rescue John and one to counter the macguffin.

Superwoman and Owlman are in bed together — even though Superwoman is married to Ultraman. Owlman gets a priority transmission and answers it, sans costume. It’s Luthor. Luthor does the whole “I am Lex Luthor, the most brilliant criminal genius of this world. I believe we have a mutual enemy.” speech. Owlman hangs up on him. Superwoman asks who it was and Owlman says “Some loser” and they get back to sex.

Syndicate figures out League’s plan to deal with macguffin. League conducts raid or op to get components to counter macguffin. Syndicate fails to stop them.

Team to liberate John succeeds. Reveals it was part of Batman’s plan all along as the ring has recorded details of the Syndicate’s powers and defences even while off of Stewart’s hand.

Heroes return to D.C. to fight the Syndicate. Plan to defeat the macguffin the way they planned fails. They improvise a defence and defeat the macguffin. The League faces off in a fair fight against the Syndicate and they win the day.

A grateful President awards medals to the Justice League and announces they are officially recognized as deputized citizens by the federal government.

Credits.

Credits end.

Cultists surround a grave in a graveyard. Ritual takes place. Cultists leave except high priest who keeps going alone. High priest sacrifices pregnant woman. Her blood seeps into the earth. High priest leaves without looking back. Ground rumbles. Ground shakes. Ground gives way.

A lone hugely muscled pale forearm bursts out of the ground. We can see the tombstone now: Solomon Grundy. Grundy breaks free from his grave. He doesn’t seem aware, doesn’t seem conscious. He staggers forward. He walks. He walks. He walks. He walks. He walks.

Scene changes. He’s still walking. The sun passes overhead into night. Night to day. Day to night.

Grundy trudging through the swamp. He stops.

The familiar skull headed fortress rises from the swamp. Grundy looks up; he seems more awake and aware now. We look up as he looks up. The doors open and there’s the classic Legion villains from Superfriends sans the second stringers who went to jail earlier in the movie. Luthor (in powered armour for the first time) speaks: “Welcome, Solomon Grundy. Welcome to the Legion of Doom.”