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AI Art was all the buzz a couple of weeks ago. That chatter has died off somewhat, perhaps as people got tired of the shiny new toys like Midjourney and Dall-E 2, but it’s a Thing that will only get more technically impressive and practically useful as time goes on. The pros and cons of that can certainly be debated, but I don’t think that we’re going to see that genie go back into the bottle. Like “Machine Learning”, which improves things that the Money Men care about in production, like schedule and headcount, using AI in art is a tool and a toy that is too useful to go away. At least, until the inevitable meltdown of society and technology, and we’re back to drawing on stone cave walls with charcoal-tipped sticks, but that’s tangential.

“steampunk floating island apocalypse” via NightCafe

This particular bit of buzz is of interest to me both in the abstract and professionally. I worked in video game development for a decade, and I’m working in film at the moment. I haven’t had occasion to use these particular tools for anything more intense than helping my kids with homework, but I do use Houdini, which is built on “proceduralism“, which is more or less the engine that drives AI art.

I’m already using a tool that takes inputs, runs simulations and variations, then spits out something that I can sort-of art direct. The computer does the heavy lifting of calculating all the bits and bobs bouncing about, and if I’ve set up the parameters for the procedure correctly, that calculation comes up with something usable. My job is then mostly about setting up the system for success, and inevitably wrangling things when the computer mangles them somehow. I’m not drawing and painting frames, like I grew up wanting to do, watching the Nine Old Men work their magic. No, I’m a desk-jockey cowboy-mage, desperately trying to harness eldritch powers in a digital wilderness, hoping to produce something that the art director will be happy with.

I’m using a tool to produce effects. It’s not the same as using a ballpoint pen on paper, which I can do, as seen here with my Dwarven Tinkerer, but it’s still a tool. It’s a tool with a bit of a mind of its own, and a black box heart that I hope I can channel to great effect. Sometimes it does as predicted, but sometimes it gets a bit flipped somewhere, or an assumption inverted, and things go awry. This, to me, is the most irksome part of using such tools from a production standpoint. Yes, the simulations get faster and faster every year, the results cleaner and more useful… but sometimes I just don’t have the control that I have with much less ambitious (and much more time consuming) tools.

Maybe I can have the spiffy AI system generate 200 different trees, all variations on a theme based on growth rules and parameters, but none of them are what I actually want to use for a “hero” tree. They can be good for fillers to back up the Potemkin Villages that games and films build as part of their magical facades, but for things that get the spotlight, that Uncanny Valley effect where computers still don’t quite get reality is still a hurdle.

We’ve known this for a long time in film; that’s part of why filmmakers can get away with matte painted backgrounds and greenscreen tricks, even as they spend an inordinate amount of time on actors and their makeup and lighting. Backgrounds can be simpler, counting on viewer assumptions and interpolations to gloss over imperfections. We also see a similar “audience interpretation” filling in the gaps when we look at concept art. Even masters like Daniel Dociu, for all their incredible skill and intricate detailing, still don’t work out and carefully render every little detail when they produce concept art. Zoom in on something like his “Tectonic Dystopia” piece…

…and note that even as he bombards the viewer with detail, it doesn’t always bear heavy scrutiny. He’s put in a lot of work, but a detail like a single road is largely a suggestion, a brushstroke or two, maybe a few blobs or smudges, and the viewer’s assumptions of what a city looks like at scale fills in the mental gaps. It’s a fine dance between just enough detail to be plausible without having so much detail that it triggers our sense of wrongness if something’s not perfect.

Leveraging the viewer’s imagination and interpretation is indeed part of Dociu’s mastery of his craft, and while I may sound disparaging, I recognize and am impressed by his genuine skill in performing such feats. Sometimes, we want to be fooled. Art movements and forms of entertainment have been built on this sort of shenanigan, tricking the viewer’s eye, like pointillism, impressionism, or the mental assault of cubism and lesser imitators in more modern art, bluffing with balderdash to give the impression of depth.

The principles at play, then, those of dazzling with detail, or overloading with obfuscation, well, those are age-old fine art traditions. When it comes to AI, though, it’s still learning. It’s only as good as the material it’s trained with, and the assumptions built into the generation systems. Those assumptions aren’t always built with fine art principles in mind, or are built to function first, rather than consider fripperies like composition, emotional appeal or verisimilitude, much less photoreality. Perhaps such considerations will continue to be folded into the frameworks of these tools, but for now, there is a lot of room to grow.

Deep Fake videos are one branch of the technology that is getting particularly interesting and potentially troublesome. Sure, being able to fake Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford is a humoresque parlor trick, but more nefarious uses abound in an era of political disarray and general lack of fidelity to truth. There’s a moral dimension to art, and there always has been, so it’s wise to be aware of how technology can engender trust when it is not warranted. Again, sometimes people want to be fooled, though, for better and worse.

Similarly, there are revolutions in animation brewing. Motion is especially tricky, and much more likely to faceplant into the Uncanny Valley. The technology keeps improving, however, as noted over here, and here. This will definitely make some production faster, especially for midground and background crowds and such. It will be interesting to see how well it fares in the foreground. I’m not convinced yet that it will work as well as some would like, but there are already real consequences for production pipelines.

In the meantime, however, I’ve found that I increasingly value authenticity. From OK GO‘s oddball music videos that bank on their intense efforts in production to Wintergatan’s fascinating machine, from anachronistically authentic YouTube gamers (the older gentleman known as TinFoilChef just played Minecraft the way he wanted to and built an audience that loved his affable curmudgeonly ways) to hand-carved woodworking, I find value in things that appear to me to be genuine and honest. I still carry pens and a sketchbook most places I go, after all, and I’m almost always drawing something, even if it’s just odd designs to keep myself focused. There is value in things that have been made by hand, though whether that value can translate into a career is certainly always a question.

The sky isn’t falling. New tools mean more ways to fool people, with all its attendant implications for an increasingly dysfunctional humanity. “All is vanity“, though, and we must always consider truth and our own decisions. It was ever thus. My profession is definitely impacted, and my personal interests in creative endeavors will be perturbed somewhat, so I’m not neutral on this. I simply see yet another set of shenanigans. Artists have always borne responsibility to be uplifting and useful, since their tools are inherently not honest, as mere representations of reality. Far too many fail miserably at this, and new tools will not compensate for moral failures. Those of us in the audience will always have to be wary, or at least, we’ll have to choose which artifice we want to accept as authentic.

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I’ve written about this before, notably in these two articles…

Merely Magical

Thinking Magic

…and Professor Beej’s article last time reinforced some of my thoughts on rules and their function.  I think rules are important to creativity.  You can’t think outside the box until you know where the box is.  If nothing else, thinking about how things work leads to story hooks, like trying to figure out what happens when death breaks, as I did in my Death Unhinged article.  I’m firmly in the camp of “magic should have rules”.

Still, I wanted to add a couple more links to articles that I’ve seen lately on magic and the rules behind its use in fiction.

First, there’s this ranty gem from N. K. Jemison, titled “But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?“.  I boil it down to “magic isn’t science, so why play by science’s logic and rules?”  This is one school of thought, appealing to some, but not really all that interesting to me.  I consider it to have a fatal flaw:  it’s way too easy for authors to metamagic themselves out of writing errors by just handwaving away their solutions by saying “but, but, but, it’s MAGIC“.  In this style of magic fiction, magic is a tool the author uses to write the story.

In the sort of fiction I prefer, magic is a tool that the characters use to solve their problems within the story.  Brandon Sanderson has a great article up thisaway on this, ultimately boiling things down to his “first law” thusly:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

This is a critical difference, I think, albeit perhaps a subtle one.  Magic can and should let weird things happen in stories.  That’s sort of the point of fiction, exploring “what if” questions that come with powers that we as readers don’t naturally have or situations we’d not normally encounter.  Magic fuels a lot of those crazy circumstances.  Still, for me, magic should feel like it’s part of the world it inhabits, even if it’s a weird part.  The effects that magic has on a world need to flow from how magic works, or else the world risks being completely arbitrary, with no sense of consequence for actions.  When cause and effect are decoupled, there is little learning that characters can do, and little that they can do to enact their agency and make choices.

If magic doesn’t lend itself to comprehension, it serves little purpose in the story but to impose the capricious will of a mad deity, whether that’s the author or something in-universe.  There’s certainly a place for that in the body of fiction on the whole, but I find it makes for unsatisfying storytelling, since it’s often all too easy to see the author’s hand in events, the chicanery behind the curtain, as it were.  That, or the story is so random that it doesn’t satisfy my desire to see characters grow instead of just live through a story, marking time by hitting the plot points.

One of the examples I often point to is, of all things, a comic book.  I imagine myself as an author on Marvel’s X-Men comics, specifically, looking for things for Iceman or Magneto to do.  Iceman is apparently an “Omega level” mutant, with incredible, nearly god-like powers.  Magneto isn’t quite at that point, but his power to magnetically manipulate metals can have a lot of curious uses.  I’ve seen authors have him slow the flow of blood to a character’s brain by controlling the metal in red blood cells, thereby making that character pass out.  It’s a remarkably subtle use of magnetism, and a reminder that as ubiquitous as metals are, Magneto can and should be able to do a great many different things, all from one simple, core power.  Iceman, on the other hand, far from his humble beginnings as a goofy guy who wore a self-made suit of snow and threw snowballs, has wide ranging powers that let him affect material at the subatomic level, which has an even wider range of applications.  Authors exploring what he can do keep coming up with new tricks for his mutant powers, like being able to use a body of water as an extension of himself to travel far distances nearly instantaneously, or his “organic ice” form that can be broken and reformed at will, effectively making him immortal since his consciousness and control aren’t linked to any particular given assembly of material.

These characters function according to known scientific rules, yet wind up doing things that are more or less “magical” simply by being something that most mortals can’t do.  The storytelling potential is still huge, but because of the built in limits, the characters are grounded in plausibility.  That goes a long way to selling the “what if” in my mind, simply because I can actually place myself in the character’s position and try to see how they might solve problems.  That empathy is a big part of why I like fictional characters, and is important for keeping me engaged in the story.

If, on the other hand, characters just function like pawns in an author’s storycrafting, going where they need to and doing what the story plot demands, I’m far less satisfied in the story.  To be fair, magic isn’t the only way this is a problem.  Stories that only function if the characters are complete idiots are also pretty annoying.  Still, if magic is the glue that keeps characters working like good little cogs in a story, they come across less as characters, and more like, well… tools.  This isn’t always going to be the case when magic is capricious and/or arbitrary, but it’s far easier for an author with rule-free magic to just pull what they need from their bag of tricks, plausible or no.  This “Deux ex Machina” solution to narrative problems is generally unsatisfying, denying characters the chance to carry the day because of their choices, determination or other assorted heroic stuff.

Case study:  the backlash against the ending of Mass Effect 3, where Stuff Just Happened (that link is a really great video review, by the way) in the narrative at the last minute to make the prebaked Dramatic endings work.  Yeah, it’s not just magic that has this problem.

This all underlines the core problem I have with rule-free magic.  It’s a useful tool for authors to wiggle out of awkward writing, a cheap solution to a situation that doesn’t make sense.  The narrative becomes less about the characters and the world, more about how things work out to where the author wants them to be.  That sort of story can work, sure, it’s just not the sort of story that I like all that much.  Naturally, this means I have to be careful to keep my fiction writing from slipping into territory where I’m using characters as tools, not letting characters use the tools within their world.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as seeing how characters work in a world is fun both when writing and reading… but still, though I’m ultimately in control of my own fictional worlds, I want to let characters exercise their agency as much as possible, and for consequences to flow logically from their choices.  I know, anthropomorphising them that way is kind of silly, but, well, that’s what I do when I get creative.  I suspect other authors do as well.

Speaking of other authors, though, this fellow thinks that rules are useful, too:  Erik Robert Nelson’s Does Magic Need Rules? (spoiler:  he answers in the affirmative)

Thusly and thenceforthly, for those characters to have agency, there need to be clear choices to be made and consequences for those choices.  This requires rules for comprehension for how the choices and the consequences correlate.  Meaningful choices cannot be made in completely capricious settings with no comprehensional cohesion.  As we see with language itself, rules facilitate understanding.  That doesn’t mean rules can’t be broken, but if there are no rules and Stuff Just Happens, figgledy barglesnipe verbiage into# abnarwt bthppp!

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Professor Beej, a professor, a Beej, a writer, a gamer, and an all-round good guy, is writing a series of novels that I’m really looking forward to, starting with Birthright.  He has a Kickstarter page up and running, which he describes over at his place at this link, and he’s been making the blogging rounds writing about his writing, like this post over at Syp’s Bio Break and this one over at Ferrel’s Epic Slant.  He has graciously offered a great post on writing for me to share here, which is just the sort of background analysis of the production process that I love.  So without further ado, Professor Beej, class is in session!

Three Rules of Worldbuilding and Design

When you’re a kid, and you think about authors and writers and how they get to tell stories and make stuff up it sounds awesome. Because that’s their job. To make stuff up.

Then, when you’re an adult, and you think about authors and writers and how they get paid to make stuff up, it sounds even awesomer. Because, come on. They’re getting paid to make stuff up. And you think to yourself, I can do that.

So you sit down to write your novel, to make stuff up. And you do. You have rocketships and dragons and wizards and bugbears, but not one single, eency-teency thing you’ve written down makes a bit of sense.

Because you made stuff up. You made it up good. You just didn’t make it up well.

You see, there’s something you didn’t think about when you were fantasizing about how awesome making stuff up for a living could be: fictional worlds, even science-fictional and fantastical worlds, have to be governed by rules. And you have to be the one to enforce those rules.

Kind of sucks the fun right out of it, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t. It’s a bit of work, sure, but I came up with 3 guidelines that helped keep my characters, technology, and narrative on track when I was working on The Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy that starts with the novel Birthright).

They worked for me, so I think they will for you, too.

1. Write in Limitations from the Start

Alan Scott’s Green Lantern ring couldn’t affect anything made out of wood, and Hal Jordan’s was baffled by the color yellow  In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic only works by characters burning flakes of metal in their stomachs–no more metal, no more magic. In Dungeons and Dragons, wizard spells are often one-offs and have to be relearned for each new use.

By having magic or technology be intrinsically fallible, you can avoid Superman or Luke Skywalker syndrome. Kryptonite is cool and all, but when Supes can grab an entire continent made of the stuff and fly it into outer-space, that limit ain’t so limiting. And Luke Skywalker…well, you tell me where the glass-ceiling is when size matters not.

In Birthright, the technomages get their power from nanotechnology. The really powerful technomages have had their blood replaced by nanites, while newbies have to wear a thin sleeve of nanites like a second-skin. What this distinction did for me as an author was rein in the power-levels between various characters so that their interactions and conflicts actually meant something.

Where one character might be able to Conjure wings and fly himself or herself out of trouble, the newbies in the sleeves simply don’t have enough nanomachines to do the job. They can try, but they can’t succeed because the rules of the universe forbid it.

2. Find a sweet spot between technobabble, pseudoscience, and good-old-fashioned analogies

Birthright is a difficult project to describe because I try to blend multiple genres into the conventions that make up the narrative. There’s a fantasy plot in a science-fiction world–kind of like how Firefly is a western in space. As awesome as that is, it also presents a number of problems in terms of marketing and comprehension.

Namely, will fantasy fans know what I’m talking about when I mention hyperspace? Will science-fiction fans rage if I simplify this theory to make it fit in my universe?

With that in mind, I had to make a compromise. I wanted Birthright to read like a story, not a mathematical proof (I’m looking at you, Ringworld), but at the same time, I didn’t want to be accused of “teching the tech” with scads of meaningless technobabble. So every bit of technology and “magic” within The Technomage Archive is based on some kind of real science–proven or theoretical. Whether it’s nanotechnology, pocket universes, or even hyperspace, the world of the novel is based on science.

Note the key phrase there. “Based on science.” Like fan-favorite movies and made-for-TV crime dramas, I’ve taken the science and boiled it down to its consummate parts. Because damn it, Jim, I’m an English teacher, not a scientist.

And neither are you (unless you are a scientist, in which case, I’m sorry for making hasty generalizations). I had to find that sweet spot between verisimilitude and narrative accessibility.

For instance, when one character is trying to explain hyperspace travel to a group of disoriented and frightened technomage recruits, he can’t very well start throwing around PhD-level jargon. He breaks it down into a rudimentary analogy so the recruits–and the readers–can understand.

Here’s an excerpt of that scene:

“Right now, we are traveling through hyperspace—“

“What are you talking about?” asked another voice from the crowd.  “Hyperspace?  Did you just make that up?”

Roman was nonplussed.  He was used to that kind of disrespect during these initial moments.  This was a lot to take in, so he forgave the kids a little rudeness.  “No,” he said. “I didn’t.  Hyperspace is pretty easy to understand.  Think about it like this.  Have you ever rubbed your hands together and felt heat build up, that burning sensation?”

The student said, “Well, yeah.”

“Well, it’s friction doing that.  Now, have you ever rubbed your hands together with something between them?  Like some water, jelly, anything like that?”

“I guess.”

“Does it make it easier to rub your hands together?  Does it stop the burning and make you not blister?”

“I guess.”

“Well, think of that jelly, water, or whatever, as hyperspace.  If we were to move through normal space, we’d be slowed down by what you can basically think of as friction.  There’s a limiting force to how fast we can go without destroying ourselves, kind of like that burning when you run your hands together too fast.  However, if we coat ourselves in jelly, so to speak, we can move far more quickly and far more smoothly to where we’re going without burning ourselves up from too much friction.  Does that make sense?”

“So we’re in a spaceship that’s covered in jelly?” the student asked.

“It’s not a perfect metaphor,” Roman said.

“It’s a stupid metaphor.”

3. Screw it.

Just make sure that you keep some perspective. Worldbuilding can be frustrating and thankless. But you’re the one in control. You make the rules, and by that same logic, you get to decide when to break them. Just make sure that whether you are making the rules or breaking them, there is consistency and logic in what you do. Your readers will thank you.

At the end of the day, when you’re irritated that your characters aren’t playing nice with each other and the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, just remember that people are giving you money to make stuff up.

And that’s pretty freaking awesome.

B.J. Keeton is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the first book in The Technomage Archive series. He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness atwww.professorbeej.com.

 

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