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Monday, May 9, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

It was the summer of 1967 when I was first able to watch an episode of Star Trek. I hadn't been able to stay up late enough during the school year to watch the show, forcing me to wait months to see science fiction on TV. I settled in, tingling with anticipation, as the show opened showing a man in a blue uniform standing on a planet. Suddenly, a white rabbit hopped by.

What the hell? I'd waited months and months for an Alice in Wonderland rip-off?

The rabbit never appeared again, but lots of other odd stuff did pop up, including a World War II fighter plane (a Zero, I believe) and a knight in shining armor. Those who have watched the original series will have already recognized Shore Leave, a decidedly off-beat episode with which to begin my fascination with Star Trek.

There was something else different about that episode, though I didn't realize it until decades later. The episode dealt with entertainment, as the planet where on the weird stuff was going on was actually a planets-sized playground for an advanced alien race. Most science fiction completely avoids the concept of entertainment, rarely even touching on what people within the story do for fun.

Why do I find this odd? Because the more advanced a civilization becomes, the more leisure time its citizens will have. You need only consider how many of the technological advances in the latter half of the 20th century were entertainment oriented to realize the truth of that statement. Black and white television, stereo music systems, transistor radios, color television, VCRs, video games, cable TV, CD players, Walkmans, big-screen televisions, portable video game systems, MP3 players, hand-held video players, smart phones. The list could be much, much longer, but you get the idea.

In most first world countries, people work about one third of each week day. They sleep about one third of each day. That leaves another one third of each day -- two thirds on any day you don't work -- to do as you please. That's a lot of leisure time to fill each day. Even after you take into account household chores and meals, we still have a lot of spare time to fill. Despite that, most science fiction stories never touch on just how the population manages to keep themselves occupied when they're not working, sleeping, or taking care of household chores. Note that I don't mean the story doesn't feature the entertainment prominently. I mean the stories don't even mention entertainment at all.

Take a moment and think about some of your favorite science fiction books and movies. Do they even hint at what the characters do to entertain themselves when they're not busy saving the galaxy or whatever it is they're busy doing? Star Trek actually scores pretty well in this regard. Not only did they show the planet-sized playground, they also featured the 3D chess set. Next Gen really raised the stakes with the holo room. The original Star Wars nodded to entertainment when Chewbacca and R2-D2 played the holographic chess-like game and, loathe though I am to compliment Attack of the Clones, it did feature a brief scene in what appeared to be a sports bar fairly early in the movie.

Mostly, though, authors tend to either ignore entertainment or they just have the characters play games similar to chess or poker. That's better than nothing, I suppose. But really, have they no imagination? I know I learned how to play both games as a child and have played both a fair bit. I haven't played either one in several years, though, and I'm a very active game player. I'm not expecting writers to come up with the sensible rules for brand new games, but if your character is going to play a game, why not try something other than chess with another name?

John Brunner showed some imagination by introducing a game called Fencing in his novel The Shockwave Rider (great book, by the way). Brunner actually worked out rules to his game and included them in the novel. They sounded just plausible enough that I attempted to play the game back when I was in college. It didn't work out that well, but I appreciated Brunner's originality and the game fit well in the story.

The entertainment doesn't have to be a game, of course, but even the most dedicated hero in a story must have some way to relax and unwind. As a writer, it will help you understand your character better if you figure that out. Besides, you never know when something like that will provide a bit of scene dressing in the story.

Remember, entertainment is incredibly important to advanced civilizations. It's the reason those who successfully entertain us tend to get rich. Don't forget about that when creating your characters and writing your stories. Just a brief mention of methods of entertainment will make your character and your world seem more real to your readers. After all, they're reading your story for entertainment, so they already know its value. Show them you know, too.
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