Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Prehistory of the Future: Venus Prime

Darrel Anderson's illustration of the alien craft Medusa, from The Shining Ones. Equally at home in water, air, or interplanetary space, Medusa is not surprisingly the product of an alien culture from a watery world.

Darrel Anderson’s illustration of the alien craft Medusa, from The Shining Ones. Equally at home in water, air, or interplanetary space, the Medusa is not surprisingly the product of an alien culture from a watery world.

John Colby’s Brick Tower Press offers the Venus Prime series among many other titles from the Byron Preiss estate. John also recently reissued Core in a revised ebook edition, with a new trade paperback on the way, which I talked about in the previous post – although I didn’t realize the Brick Tower Venus Primes were themselves new editions until last week, when a friend asked me to sign one for her daughter.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Venus Prime had its origin in the dim prehistory of computer games, and its evolution accidentally illuminates facets of what seems like history’s fastest transformations of technology, commerce, politics, international affairs, and popular culture. Other decades could make the same claim, but this is one I lived through.

When Byron Preiss invited me to choose among Arthur’s stories one with the milieu (and the MacGuffin) of a science fiction mystery and make it into an “Adventure”-style computer game, Breaking Strain leaped out. It’s a classic life-boat tale: a cargo ship on its way to a space station orbiting Venus suffers an accident that bleeds it of oxygen; there’s only enough left for one of its two crew members to survive.

Text games of the “Adventure” type – “You are standing in a small room painted white. In front of you is a door,” and so on – rose quickly and reached their peak popularity in the late 1980s. But text games (and the hypertext genre they spawned) were soon overtaken by animated graphics. By the time Byron canceled the multilayered “Breaking Strain” game in favor of a novel, I had hundreds of pages of script and flow charts and a long list of all the things the bionic Sparta could do. There were, however, no hints as to whether Sparta was male or female.

As a character, Sparta was a hollow shell, any “you” at the computer keyboard who found himself or herself in the airlock of the space station Port Hesperus, challenged to solve the Star Queen mystery – any “you” at all. For a computer game that was okay and maybe even a little ahead of its time. A novel, however, depends on such details as the age, sex, and history of its protagonist.

I agonized over whether Sparta was male or female for all of about ten minutes. Of course she was a young woman – the whole point of not specifying Sparta’s sex in the game was to invite girl players to identify with “you.”

Breaking Strain was the title of the first volume of the first mass-market paperback, which appeared in 1987. That and the following titles, Maelstrom, Hide and Seek, The Medusa Encounter, The Diamond Moon, The Shining Ones, are keys to the Clarke stories they incorporate and build upon. Alas, all were lost in the subsequent trade paperback editions, which are simply numbered Volume 1, Volume 2, and so on.

Sparta’s near-superhero abilities sprang from my appreciation of psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, more explicitly acknowledged in the second volume, Maelstrom. Even before reading Gardner I’d lit upon the notion that monolithic IQ is a sham, that there are several different kinds of intelligence (at least!) – social, linguistic, mathematical, physical, and more – and while they can exist side by side, they are more or less incommensurable.

Sparta was someone in whom multiple intelligences had been fostered from birth. Then something happened. What strikes me in opening the first book is to see how urgently the need to recover an erased identity springs to the fore: “Does the word Sparta mean anything to you?” Indeed, Sparta’s search for her identity, her determination to recover her history and personal integrity, became the plot drivers of the entire series.

Having decided that Sparta was the victim of a conspiracy, I had to decide who was conspiring about what. What to do about the aliens is a question that figures in a number of Arthur’s works. (“Dave, this mission is just too important….”) So there would be aliens in the works – truly Clarkeian aliens, not pallid little humanoids – and the shadowy characters determined to keep the rest of us in the dark, guardians of Pynchonesque cult secrets.

Sparta’s grand tour of the solar system begins on Venus and moves outward to Earth’s moon, to Mars, to Jupiter and its moons, and finally to interstellar space. The vehicle is Arthur’s incomparable imagination, expressed in a handful of my favorite stories. The dilemma or resolution of every Clarke story depends on some physical principle, some fact of nature, but nothing he wrote ever failed to give his characters their due – even as he put them in their place, human sparks against the backdrop of an infinite cosmos, a cosmos inhabited in unimaginable variety.

Sparta and her pyrotechnically inclined sidekick, Blake, are intended to embody just such striving, mostly rational, mostly optimistic Clarkeian beings. At times desperate or discouraged, at times fatally mistaken, at times fragile to the point of collapse, Sparta, who started as a bionic cipher, ended by being as human as I could write her. In Arthur’s honor, it was the least I could do.

One regret is that Venus Prime never properly acknowledged the visual contributions of artist Darrel Anderson, which are not even included in the latest edition. His illustrations began as wire-frame drawings for the game, almost as sparse as the soon-to-be-abandoned “Adventure”-style text. He extracted more expression from simple black-and-white graphics of machinery than most artists get from lush cover paintings. Artistic technology and style evolved with each new volume and its realizations of robots, spacecraft, aliens, space stations, and neural wiring. Check out Darrel’s more recent work on the Braid Media website.

Posted by at 04/02/2014     Comments (1)     Labels:

One Response

  1. Hey Paul,

    Great to hear that history and your adaptive thought process as the project evolved.

    Thanks for the mention & kudos.
    I’ve fond memories — best part was working with you. You, provided me with fascinating guidance & concepts while leaving the slate wide open for my visual explorations.

    Digital art tools were crude then, but moving so fast that they changed dramatically over the course of the project. I actually built software tools to push that growth along and inch a bit closer to the sort if images I knew were possible.

    Best Wishes,

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