J. Michael Straczynski
Alexander Jablokov

11,302 words
posted:  january 16,  1999

[The material below is an edited version of a discussion held at MIT on May 4, 1998. In addition, we also have posted a special essayby J. Michael Straczynski based on his opening remarks before the open discussion.]

Rethinking Memory

Michael Burstein: I'd like to throw the first question out, actually, at both gentlemen because I was watching the Babylon 5 episode, "Passing through Gethsemane" and reading one of Alex's stories, "Living Will", about a man who is programming a computer with his personality. As he is growing older, he has discovered that he has something like Alzheimer's -- his memory has started going -- so he's programmed the computer to start mimicking him so that he'll be able to remember things using this computer program. Both of you were tackling the question of human identity and how that seems to change when you start having artificial intelligence or the possibility of recording the human personality.

Do you feel that something is actually going to come of this in the near future? And what do you think will be the social consequences of this? Will we be able to program a computer, as you have in your story, Alex, that would actually be able to mimic another human being to the point where it almost becomes that person?

Or, in the case of "The Passing through Gethsemane," Joe, do you really think there is a possibility to mind-wipe someone and, then, fill their brains with false memories and what, in God's name, are we going to do with it?

 

J. Michael Straczynski: I think that we are already making steps toward mapping out the brain so we can identify the chemical patterns that create and store memory. We know that if memory is destroyed in one part of the brain, it can be sometimes re-created on a different part of the brain. And once we can unravel that amino chain of chemicals that is responsible for memory, I see no reason why we can't unlock it and, essentially, wipe out what's there. Programming in new stuff is, of course, a much more difficult equation. That is the part where I can't see how it could be done, but I will assume that someone -- probably from MIT -- will figure out how to do it.

Alexander Jablokov: Well, I had another story last year called "Fragments of an Eggshell," where memories were artworks; one of the guys would create memories and implant them in people that were artworks. Now whether the people, themselves, realized they were remembering artificially-created memory or not, obviously they couldn't tell. Our memories have been affected by things since the invention of writing and, certainly, I have memories from my youth which are really photographs, not memories, of my sister. And the whole recovered memory-thing shows how slippery memory really is.

So we have a number of ways of manipulating memory already without having to get deep into the brain. And we've been doing it, kind of, unconsciously and I think, even without technological advances, we'll see a more sophisticated manipulation of how we remember things and what we remember.

 
 

Science Fiction, Mythology, Religion

Henry Jenkins: Another theme that runs through both of your works, is the subject of religion. Both of you have done stories that deal with the role of religion in future societies, and both of you have done stories that draw on religious or mythological themes. Critics have sometimes said that science fiction does for the 20th century what religion and mythology did for previous centuries -- articulate our core values as a society, endow us with a sense of wonder, ask us to think about spiritual questions and cut to the heart of what makes us human. And so I wondered what thoughts you might share with us on the relationship between science fiction and religion.

J. Michael Straczynski: To take a somewhat different tack on that for a second, actually we dealt with the topic of religion on the show on numerous occasions; and we've, actually, got a lot of positive comments on that. And I think it behooves us to treat our characters' beliefs with some measure of respect, whatever he believes in.

I mean, I'm an atheist myself, but I don't have to believe in Minbarri to write about Minbarri. I think if that person is a religious character, then you have to treat them with integrity and deal with them properly. As a result, this show is very popular with a lot of religious folks.

I got e-mail recently from someone who said that they were at an interdenominational retreat, and they were looking for common ground to talk about--and it's often hard to find that with Moslems, Christians, Jews and the whole rest of it. One person mentioned "Babylon 5," and pretty soon they were all gathered around talking about "Babylon 5." And they had a common ground for the first time that weekend. I thought that was pretty cool.


I also like to look at the dynamic that takes place between religion and science because, in a way, both are asking the same questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? The methodologies are diametrically opposed, but their motivation is the same; the wellspring is the same in both cases. And they are often more complementary than they are contradictory.

Maybe six months ago, eight months ago--I got an e-mail from a fan in Israel who said, "We are having our first science fiction convention. Would you please write a statement up to be read to the fans?" So I wrote up a reply and a P.S.: "While I have you here, let me ask you a question. Let's say that something terrible happens in the Mid-East, 20 years from now or 200 years from now, and you have to go into space and have a Colony Jerusalem 2, and after everyone's there you discover it has an eight-day rotation. When is the Sabbath?"

Well, he read this to the crowd gathered in Israel -- about a thousand plus people -- and fist fights broke out because there were those that said, "Israel will never be destroyed; we'll always be here," and wouldn't even accept the idea of going somewhere else. And those who said, "No, the eighth day was the last day of the week," and others, "No, it should be the seventh day."

And he p.s.'ed me back and said, "By the way, you may not know this, but there is a booklet prepared by the Israeli military because there are a lot of astronauts of our military who want to go into space someday as part of the American space program or our own space program, and the book is called 'Space Rules for Jews,'" because if you're on a space shuttle and you have to turn the power on on the Sabbath, you've got to find some way to do that. So you have all these exceptions and all these rules to allow them to go into space but, yet, still stay true to the faith."

 

Alexander Jablokov: Well, Carl Jung thought that flying saucers were the angels of the 20th century or [in a correctional tone] the demons of the 20th century. In the Middle Ages, people perceived the spiritual forces in one way and in our century, we technologize them. So, often, what we see are just ancient forces dressed up. Now, sometimes people treat science as religion and it gives them the emotional security that religion always did.

And I think many of us who write religious works are, ourselves, seeking something, which many people are in the 20th century, and there's a variety of ways to look for it. So we're trying to provide different metaphors for searching. "Babylon 5" is a good example because people probably perceive things in there that you didn't consciously put in there. So they can see themselves reflected back in it, the same way people believe in flying saucers or angels or the president or whatever particular myth they put their trust in.

Writers like to talk of themselves as producing new myths. I don't know that we really do that. Maybe, in a hundred years, we'll see if big "Babylon 5" spaceship mock-ups are being built out in the desert or something, we'll know that you have succeeded. Well, we won't. Someone will.


Michael Burstein: I happen to be somewhat of an Observant Jew, and, actually, a lot of the issues involving the Jewish religion in space are things that we love to discuss and look into. So it does yield a fascinating topic.

Actually, that leads me into the next question. Both of you tend to sometimes use mythology in your work. I wonder if you might want to comment a bit on your use of mythology in your work.

Alexander Jablokov: Well, T.S. Eliot once said that bad writers borrow, and good writers steal.

And mythology has a power to it. This is something writers do -- we borrow lightning; we take lightning from others. The specific features of classical mythology have ceased to have meaning for us -- you know, we don't believe in Mt. Olympus and various things like that -- but we still feel that force that lay behind it. And we are inspired by that.

I wrote a story about the Oresteia as a police procedural, from the point of view of The Fury chasing Orestes. Now I'd like to see that as a play actually.

 
 

J. Michael Straczynski: Again, one of the problems I have with television, as I mentioned before, is it's trivial in many ways, and I think that a lot of folks out there are looking for new metaphors and new ways of thinking about things.

The point of mythology or myth is to point to the horizon and to point back to ourselves: This is who we are; this is where we came from; and this is where we're going. And a lot of Western society over the last hundred years -- the last 50 years really -- has lost that. We have become rather aimless and wandering.

And, in some ways, it's the reaction to events around us. We stumbled over Watergate; we stumbled over Vietnam, King, the Kennedys. The problem is, if you stumble too many times, you look at your feet. You take your eyes away from the horizon, and when that happens, you begin to wander.

The purpose of science fiction or any form of myth-telling is to bring the eyes of the citizenry back to the horizon and say, "That's where we're going." And I'm not averse at all to using the tools of mythology. You can't create new myths; you can re-interpret them, but it's very hard to create them.


I just use those to try and point a direction. If you watch the average episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger," at the end, what have you gotten out of it except seeing some really cool stunts?

In "Deconstruction of Falling Stars," we see, at the end, humanity a million years down the road having come to a certain level where they can leave the planet and go off somewhere else. And that tells us that we're not just living ordinary lives and having dinner and holding down jobs; you're in the process of creating the future. You can now -- and folks e-mail me about this -- you can now see the progression from here that brings us to there.

And I think that once you're aware of creating the future -- which is what mythologies help us to do -- you realize that if you don't create the future, someone else will do it for you. And that's one of the primary purposes of "Babylon 5." I used myth to that purpose quite shamelessly, quite frankly.

 
 

Faith, Optimism and Science Fiction

Maria: I'm from Harvard Divinity School. My question is kind of long. Your show seems to be painting a picture of the world that is realistic, perhaps, sad -- most of the time terrifying -- if not dystopia, at least, definitely not a utopia.

But there is a common element running throughout the series and that is a presence of an icon, this ideal, perfect human being -- and I'm talking, of course, about the holy trinity -- Sinclair, Delinn, Sheridan, the one who was, is and will be. And when I'm watching the show, I want to believe. Sometimes, though, I'm getting a little apprehensive, like, some of us who have lived through the rise and fall of the Soviet experiment, you know?

So, what your motive behind creating this trinity? Do you believe that it is the case within humankind that there are these uncorruptible, ideal leaders who are to be followed--you know, "We live for the one; we die for the one." Or is it a utopian element in your thinking? How did that come about?


J. Michael Straczynski: I'm not trying to sell any one particular idea in that respect. I think that, at its base, science fiction is about hope. It says, "There will be a tomorrow." It may not be the best of all possible tomorrows; it may be dystopian, utopian and somewhere in-between. But there will be a tomorrow. We do go on. We don't blow ourselves up in the next 50 years. That in and of itself is a statement of hope.

Within that context, I, at times, will create something on which we can pin our hopes, whether it's the Delinn-Sheridan-and- Sinclair triumvirate or it is another lofty goal. I embody that but, at the same time, it's important to pull away the cloak and say, "Sheridan, sometimes is dumb; Delinn lies--she says she doesn't but she does; and Sinclair has his own problems."

So in some ways the icon as a concept is more important than the individual because the individual will always fail you somehow. But there has to be a goal to strive toward. And we will never be a perfect people; it's never going to happen. But if we fall down and get up two inches higher than we were before we fell down, then, falling was OK; it was worth it. I don't believe in perfection. I believe in the striving and the struggle in the process.

 
 

Maria: But an embodiment of an idea in the human being is something to make the idea so concrete it can be followed? Is that what you're saying?

J. Michael Straczynski: I'm not thinking in those terms. All I'm thinking about is telling a story. And I would hesitate if that got pulled out too much into the foreground.

Maria: Hmm.

Henry Jenkins: So, Alex, are there worse things than destroying mankind? Do you agree with his statement that science fiction is inherently utopian?

Speaker/J. Michael Straczynski: Hopeful.

Henry Jenkins: Hopeful.


Alexander Jablokov: Well, I think, that's an interesting statement. I think they're doing a movie version of Brave New World or a TV series version. Brave New World is kind of a non-science-fiction book because -- I don't want to give away too much, but the guy hangs himself at the end -- and this is a non-science-fiction novel. . . . (LAUGHTER) This is a non-science-fictional thing because the general tenor of modern science fiction has been utopian. Dystopias are typically warnings--that is why writers write them; writers are hopeful--and the dystopia, all the way from Zamyatin on, is a warning or a judgment.

I think modern science fiction has come up with genuine dystopias or genuinely harsh views because science fiction is a reflection of life. The science-fiction critic, John Kurtz, says "Any science-fiction book has a real year." It's not the year that it's ostensibly set in; it's the year the writer's mind is in. And the closer the real year is to the actual year, the more science-fictional it is, which is why when Neuromancer came out, the real year was the year it actually came out, which was very sophisticated for a science-fiction book. The real year of science-fiction books is usually, like, l944 or something like that.

So as people get worried, there are genuine dystopias. But, in general, I would agree that the hopefulness is what drives science fiction as a genre.

 
 

J. Michael Straczynski: And I wonder, sometimes, the loss of that hopefulness has been the downfall of a lot of what is called "modern science fiction." A lot of science fiction these days, Neuromancer, cyberpunk crap, is so caught up in being dark and depressing.

You can see the author saying, "I just came out of a really bad relationship; I'm going to depress the hell out of you, too."

I mean, when I grew up reading science fiction, I read it for the sense of wonder, for the sense of galaxy-expanding empires, of going someplace, of a shared destiny, a manifest destiny. And, yet, a lot of it is like, "Well, we're all going to die slowly and painfully. Have a nice day." And I wonder if that's, maybe, contributing to why it isn't doing as well anymore.


Ethical Drama

Brian: Joe. In your talk in the beginning, you were saying a lot of things about how you grew up liking the genre of science fiction and the things it can do, like building hope for the future--that sort of stuff. When you were talking about making the show, I heard you talk a lot about the form, how you wanted to have a long form show and cover some serious issues in more than trivial ways. But when you were talking about working for "Twilight Zone" reading scripts, you were saying that you were really taken by one person who really wanted to tell a story. And I was wondering if there was some sort of story that you were particularly interested in and not just the genre, not just the form of doing the show. Or if, perhaps, just setting up a show to last five years and be cheap to make, if that was enough for you.

J. Michael Straczynski: There is no specific message in "Babylon 5" because as an atheist and as a person of flawed character--as is everyone in the room except for Dr. Jenkins -- I have no morals or message to give you. What I have tried to create, what matters to me to do, is to make an ethical show, not a moral show -- the distinction being that it encourages debate and discussion of the ethics of a given situation rather than my telling you what to think or what to believe.

If I knew what to tell you, I would do it. But I don't. So I figure, here's a question that bugs the hell out of me; I'm going to dramatize it for you; and you figure it out. I haven't got a clue. And not enough television does that, I think. In other words, it hits you with a scenario and then walk away and say, "Now discuss it among yourselves."

 

So that was the number one goal -- to do an ethical show in that respect--and to do a show that was passionate, where the characters were fire and blood and made you feel about them; and to take some of the stereotypes and turn them on their heads.

When the series first came out, I saw comments on the 'Net and elsewhere saying, "It's like every other science-fiction show. Jakar is the bad guy; Lando was the comic relief; the Captain's gonna be there forever." Wrong. We turn the conventions around and make people think about them in different ways.

I've always been more interested in process than I am in results, in some respects; and the show is about the process of going from a peace-time environment, the process that leads to a war starting and the aftermath of that war, and the political, social and intellectual dynamics that go on surrounding that.

If I were to say to you "prejudice is bad." If you are watching this show and you're more than l8 years old and you don't know that, you ain't gonna learn it from my show. But I can do ethical stories and say, "What do you think about this scenario and how does this square with what you believe?" And see what happens.

 

Will Mass Media Survive?

Henry Jenkins: You alluded to this idea of desk-top television, and we hear a lot, from both critics and advocates of digital media, that digital media means the end of the book, the end of television, the end of what-not.

In "Babylon 5," however, we see a future in which people still read newspapers, "Universe Today." They still watch both news shows and entertainment shows; cult characters like Zootie can still appear through the mass media and become part of the culture still. And the classics: Duck Dodgers in the Twenty-fourth and a Half Century are still around. (APPLAUSE)

So I wonder if you could elaborate on your vision of what will be the future of traditional media, including television, which some fear may be replaced by a more interactive media.


J. Michael Straczynski: I can't see print going away anytime in the near future; it's too portable; too efficient; too easy to use. I was talking to a reporter, recently, who was talking about how the Internet is killing media, killing people's ability to read. I said, "Have you been on the 'Net at all?" He says, "Yeah." "How do you communicate on the 'Net?" "You read stuff." Thank you. (APPLAUSE)

And how do you evaluate a message on the 'Net? By how well it's written; how convincingly he puts across his ideas. Where the new technology will change most is really just in television itself. Television won't kill print anymore than anything else has ever killed print. It may change it a little bit, but it won't kill it.

Let me give you an example of where I think it's going, as far as television goes, for a second. Let us create a series right here on the spot. We'll call it "The MIT Zone." Now in this series, every week a different MIT professor is killed. (APPLAUSE) Now to be fair, non-tenured first. (LAUGHTER) All right, tenured first. (APPLAUSE) Now you watch the show and, then, that night you can get on to the 'Net and log on to the "Die MIT" site. And you can look at video from the show, freeze a frame of it, and let's say it's in the recent victim's office, Dr. Henry Jenkins', and you see his desk and the wall, and there's the clues that were there in the show.

You click on his desk, and you can see the folders that were there, open up a folder and what you saw referenced briefly in the show, you can now read the entire report.

You can go outside on the campus and see other parts of the campus, click on it, and get more background information. You can have an avatar of yourself created as a student of MIT, god help you.

 

Alexander Jablokov: It's much superior to actually going, right?

J. Michael Straczynski: And hang out at the chat-area which is the campus commons and talk to other students. And download files and have your own little room, as it were, in the campus dorm, a digital area for yourself, like you have a Web page, where you could live on the campus and live in the environment of the "MIT Zone" series.

So the television becomes more and more immersive and you can get more out of the experience and download other takes; you can download parts that they had to cut out of the show, so that I think you'll see, in the next five, ten years, the Web and television merging more than ever before in that fashion, where it means you're getting more information and experiencing more of a show.

As far as print, itself, is concerned, I think it's always been with us; it will always be with us. Every time someone says, "The death of print is upon us," I get l0 more forms to fill out.


Alexander Jablokov: Well, I'm sure that when writing came in, people said, "Well, this is the death of the oral tradition." But clearly not.

I agree that that's the way it's going, that the fans will be generating their own versions of the story. And that's a very vital part of modern media. Now I'm a little slower than that, and my problem is, I don't have time for what you just described. (APPLAUSE) By the time I get done dealing with my real neighbors and my real issues, with getting my son to where he has to go and everything else, I really cannot immerse myself.

I mean, I have a real immersive environment--I live in it every day--and it takes a lot of time; it's not an easy thing. So I can see how that could be done. I just don't know how anyone would have the time to do it.

J. Michael Straczynski: Mind you, I wasn't advocating it. I was saying that it's going to happen.

Now, of course, you can watch the show on its own basis and enjoy that. This is mainly for people who have, like, no lives. Propeller-heads.

 

Michael Burstein: I can actually think of two primitive examples of both of what you're talking about. In one case, if you read an author's short-story collection, I always find myself wanting to read the afternotes or the forewords to each story and identifying more with what the writer was saying about "here's how I came to write the story." That's one way of getting more out of it.

Another example, taken out of "Babylon 5," was the "Babylon 5" comic book that DC published which had, at least, two story arcs which supplemented what was going on in the actual show. And if you read the comic book, you actually got a better understanding of stuff that was going on, but if you didn't, you never would have missed it. You still could understand everything that was going on. So I think of those as two primitive examples of what you're describing.

But Alex is right that they require you to be able to not have a life of your own. This was a problem for me when "Babylon 5" was on 10:00 to 11:00 Wednesday night. I can tell you that my wife and I were not anywhere near functional Thursday morning at work.


J. Michael Straczynski: It can't be a requirement; it wouldn't work that way. But it's additional stuff.

But the print-media dichotomy is one that I'm wrestling with right now on a number of different levels for different reasons. As I mentioned earlier, a leading magazine that's been publishing science-fiction fiction--not a science-fiction media magazine--for many years wants to do a new "B-5" story, once every issue for six issues in a row.

And I'm really caught in the morality of this because part of me says it's the last bastion of non-media stuff and I hate to contaminate it. But, at the same time, how many people who might not ordinarily pick up that magazine would pick it up because "B-5" was in it and be exposed to a whole lot of new writers and new written material? And would that not be a worthy cause--or am I shooting myself, just coming up with a good rationale to do something that would help them to promote the show? I don't know, quite frankly, what to do with that one.

 

Speaker: So both of you talked about where media is going in the future and there's this buzzword called "convergence," which is how print and the Internet and video are all colliding in this cataclysmic explosion of information. But one of the big problems, I think, is going to be quality control.

I have a digital satellite dish myself, and I get the food channel and home and garden and the game-show network. You have to go through 500 channels to find "The Prisoner." But one of the things about having 500 channels is that you have "The Prisoner." When I had just a plain old analog set, I couldn't get "The Prisoner." But how do we find the good stuff?

Alexander Jablokov: Look for a Slavic name, first of all. . . . (APPLAUSE) that's, clearly, one of the keys.

J. Michael Straczynski: If you can't pronounce it, it's got to be good.


Alexander Jablokov: Clearly what we're going to see--and people have been talking about this for a while--is the rise of an editorial figure, a half-editor, half-critic. And we've always needed critics--there's always been too much writing to wade through on our own; and you can't depend on the cover illustration or the jacket copy; or the mendacious blurbs by one's friends.

But I think there's going to have to be people that you know; it goes back down to a village, you know. Who do you ask, what's good? Where do I go to find what's good? And there's going to be people that spring up to provide this service, and you're going to have to find them, but, then, they can steer you to things.

And there's also software agents now. You tell them what you like, and they go out and they find you stuff that's more like it. They don't work very well yet because they depend on very clear-cut categories. So if you like something that doesn't really fit into a category. . . .You say, "I want someone like Mark Lehrer" Well, I don't know that there is anyone like Mark Lehrer So, you're going to be out of luck.

But that's really what it's going to be, and you're going to waste a lot of time looking at stuff. That's the way it is anywhere.

J. Michael Straczynski: I agree. There will always be those who will be happy to tell you what you should be watching, and go the opposite direction every time.

 

Self-Publishing and Television

Dave: My question is about what Joe was talking about earlier, about videos being produced on smaller and smaller budgets and, maybe, eventually people in this room making quality science fiction for other people to appreciate. And I wanted to point out a couple of examples, I guess, of things that have been done recently and distributed on the Internet.

There's a parody of "Cops," the TV show--I don't know if any of you may have seen--called "Troops where some people filmed something on a very low budget and it was seen by a lot of people, simply because it was distributed on the 'Net. And there was, of course, the "Spirit of Christmas," which turned into "South Park" and was distributed much the same way.

And I guess--"Babylon 5" being one of, maybe, the first TV shows that actually had a huge Internet following; I know I followed it before it was even on the air, on the 'Net. I wanted to ask you if you thought that more and more TV might be produced this way, where people saw things that small groups of people would produce and distribute on the 'Net and, then, got very excited about as opposed to people pitching things to studios.


J. Michael Straczynski: That can be done. I know there are networks that are looking, currently, at some of the Internet Web-sites that present on-going drama like "The Spot" and others and saying, "How can we adapt this to television?"

They're looking at it the wrong way: How can we adapt the 'Net to television? Why don't we adapt television to the 'Net? They're not seeing how we make them both at the same time?

The other problem, of course, is how do you track the money, in that kind of a scenario? If you distribute it over the 'Net to different places, how does the director get a cut? How does the actor get a cut?

Dave: Actually, that's not quite what I meant. I mean, I know more episodes of "Troops" have been ordered because it was distributed on the 'Net, and people saw it. And I just wondered if you thought that people would produce shows, you know, a pilot, perhaps, and put it on the 'Net and hope that other people would see it and buy it.

 

J. Michael Straczynski: Anything is possible on television. "South Park", as you know, began as a greeting card for Christmas. Now the "Troops" you mentioned, is that the one that has the "Star Wars" things in it? The guys who made that work on our show. This is hugely cool. They went out into the desert and they shot footage and they put together ten minutes? "Troops," it's a parody of "Cops" with the imperial storm troopers investigating the run-away Luke and stuff and his problems with his parents and end up shooting them both down because of a domestic quarrel.

And there's land-speeders; there's imperial walkers; there's the whole bit; and it cost them, like, $3,000. And they showed it to the Lucas guys; Lucas Film, they showed it to them and they went, "Very nice. Give us the copies."

But, you know, that's an example, though, of where you could go with this stuff.

Michael Burstein: I just want to interrupt for a second and mention a point that, maybe, not all of you are aware of: One of our previous speakers, Alan Steele, actually read a short story that's very reminiscent of what we're talking about now--a future in which everybody can be their own television show.: "My Private Sit-Com." A waitress in a diner in a rural area, basically has a floating camera that follows her around, and every day and night. she sets up a cut of what she did during the day and she uploads it to the Web. And she's like one of the highest-rated shows out there.

Alexander Jablokov: Oh, it's just a future of Jenny Cams.(APPLAUSE)


Hypertext

Claudia Mastroianni: Joe, you described a future for TV where you'd have, essentially, hypertext video where you could go to the folder of the murdered professor and see what he was dealing with. A past author in the series said that he didn't have much hope for the future of hypertext text because it took things too much out of the control of the author; he didn't think it was really a writer's medium.

J. Michael Straczynski: I see. Yeah, I agreed with Alex, to some extent, before when I read some of these things on the 'Net which are linked to l0 different locations and footnoted. It's too much like homework, and I don't want to do homework when I come home from a long day. I want to either read something or watch something.

As far as television is concerned being a venue for good story-telling, it all depends on how much of a pain in the ass you're willing to be at the top. I won't let anybody change my words. And, basically, I got in television as a freelancer and I would turn in a script, and they would re-write me. And I'd say, "Who did that?" Well, it was the story editor; I wanted his job. And I became a story editor and I got re-written again. "Well, who did that?" "The producer." I want his job. Until, finally, I'm executive producer and no one changes a word that I say. (APPLAUSE)

In fact, Harlen tells a story where he came on to do the part of the psi-cop on the show; he wanted to change a couple of words in the line. To hear him tell it--I wasn't there at the time; everyone paled around him--he said, "We have to get Joe on the phone." And all the walkie-talkies: "Get Joe____; Get Joe over here." And the walkie-talkies all in my office are saying, "Joe come down to the stage." And like Mt. Olympus, Joe comes down from the stage. "He wants to change 'the' to 'that'." "OK," back to Mt. Olumpus.

A lot of writers talk about the fact that we have no creative freedom in Hollywood but that's because they would rather take the money and let go of the freedom than to say, "Screw the money this year. Give us more creative control." That's why it happens.

 

Alexander Jablokov: I think it was Chip Delaney you're thinking of who was talking about the fact that he already has hypertext.

Hypertext, can be, itself, an art form, but it's not a new one. I would say Nabokov's novel, Pale Fire, is clearly a hypertext novel; it's a poem with annotations by a lunatic about the subject matter of the poem with an index which deliberately deludes you as to what is in the rest of the book. It's kind of interesting.

In his foreword to another novel, The Defense, Nabakov has a number of scenes in the foreword that are not actually in the novel, that he says, "Well, you'll note in this scene how this happens," and you never get to it. And that's when hypertext works is when you use those interconnections and you wander around in it.

Now a good example of a very multi-media thing is Douglas Adams' whole hitchhiker thing which is now a CD ROM game which I have not seen, but is called "Spaceship Titanic." Now you can have things which enrich the experience if the reader or the viewer wishes to enrich the experience, but it's not necessary.

"Twin Peaks" even did this. They had a million different things. Someday for cop-shows, you'll be able to send away for, you know, the blood-stained clothing; you can look at it yourself, if that's what you want.


Digital Characters

Nathan: My question is mostly directed towards Mr. Straczynski. Writing novels and short stories gives you an awful lot of flexibility in what sorts of things you can present to the reader: You can give them ideas; you can give them bizarre constructs; you can give them an unlimited variety of characters.

One of the things you've discussed is the cheaper technology making things available to the lower-end producer, but it also makes things available to the higher-end producer that weren't available before. So I'd like to know when you see some of the flexibility of writing--especially in the areas of actual character generation--showing up in television and movies? When will we see completely artificial characters?

J. Michael Straczynski: Artificial characters, I'm not sure we're ever going to see. You will see them in, like, a far-distant shot walking on an alien landscape because it's actually cheaper to do a CG-person walking along a road in the distance than it is to film a person and, then, mat him into it.

But I think that the technology--anything less than a cartoon or non-realistic form would work. For instance, you could do a six-foot tall, talking, praying mantis. But if you wanted somebody to have human emotions or human registration, I could be being a Luddite here but it ain't gonna happen.

 

There's such a subtlety that happens in a person's eyes. You can mask out the entire face and just look at the eyes and pick up on the emotions and meaning to what's being said. And I think the program can't be written that can simulate that.

And as far as flexibility in story-telling, it's really a function of how far to the wall you're willing to go and to fight for what you want to say. It also requires some degree of foxing them and working them and just messing with them.

When we did an episode in which the Centauri have six genitalia?--and we actually see one of them helping Lando cheat at cards--I knew that my exec at Warner's was not going to call me up on the phone and talk about seeing dicks. That was not going to happen because he's as sheepish about it as I am.

And so we got them to make this huge, alien phallus which we used on the show because they weren't going to talk to me about it. They wanted deniability. They pretend they didn't see it; I pretend I didn't write it. That's our understanding, and it's worked really well for us so far.


Russell: I'm an undergraduate. One of the media you guys didn't mention is animation, and as one of the people who grew up with one of my earliest exposures to science fiction being "Robotech," I'm wondering if you could tell us a little about the future of animation.

J. Michael Straczynski: I actually will confess to being an ignoramus, at this particular moment, viz. I can answer your question but, understand, that my answer I've just pulled out of my ass because I don't know any better right now.

The gentleman before talked about computer-generated characters .I just saw a new demonstration on a new motion-capture system feeding into animation which is extraordinary. It's real time-rendering, and you can now do an animated series very simply for very low cost, and have more flexibility in what the characters do.

So I think that it's going to become easier or simpler or cheaper, but, will it be any good, as the other gentleman asked? That's the question of the written word. And if there are people out there who care about stories, you'll get fine animated series. I notice, by the way, we're getting more and more serious animation, too, in this country; it's starting to happen finally.

I really don't want to try and give you a future forecast of animation except that it's going to become more of it, more easy to do and there'll be 90% crap, l0% good stuff.

 

Alexander Jablokov: And you'll still have people like Nick Park who does "Wallace and Gromet"?? (APPLAUSE)

Eric: Joe, You've shown that CGI can be done relatively cheaply compared to other techniques. Do you see any danger in science fiction being used as a veneer for bigger and bigger explosions and nothing else?

J. Michael Straczynski: Yeah, but the reality is that it'll fail because as we discovered in a few other movies that have come out recently, you can have all the effects you want but if the story isn't there, it ain't gonna do too well.

I believe that quality, eventually, will win out. When a new toy comes along, they always want to go nuts with it, and if you go nuts with it in the purpose of the story, then you're golden. If it's done for its own sake, it ain't gonna go nowhere.

We just hit a new limit on our show; we did our second movie which I call "Third Space." It's 94 minutes, 10 seconds long, and has 27 minutes, 32 seconds of effects, one third, but you never notice that they're there, in many cases, when you're watching the story, and that's the way it should be.


Going Online with FansM

Bill: Joe, you've given us a real opportunity in the network to communicate directly to you, head-to-head--in the forums and in one-on-one e-mail conversations--and the access that an executive producer has given, that's just unprecedented. And it's an amazing feat of humanity, using the technology of the tool, and I wanted to make that point.

J. Michael Straczynski: It isn't that I'm trying to be a noble human being or anything--there's too much work involved in that and too little to work with. I've always been on-line since the first CompuServe node went up in my area in l984. I've been on-line ever since, and I'm too cranky and old to change.

Additionally, there's a lot of bad information and misinformation about why television is made, how it is made, and why things were done the way that they're done. So I decided five years ago, let's have an every-day, 24-hours-a- day, on-going conversation about television; how the show was made from concept, to pilot, to series, to finishing it off. So when we're done, there's a document there that will be useful for academics, for college students, for reporters, for the average person to know why things happen the way they happen because I believe firmly that you, as viewers, can never get what you want until you articulate what it is you want; so you know why things are done a certain way; you can ask in an informed fashion, "Give me this."

If you don't know what the options are or what the problems are, you are helpless and blind. And if that process of being chronicled for five years and archived all those posts help people to understand better how television works and get the programs they want, rather than what someone wants to give them, then, it was worthwhile.

 

Creativity and Communities

Rick: There's a question that we've been tap dancing around and occasionally touching on in an interesting manner regarding the democratization of media, if you will, the democratization of television which has been dominated by a fairly small number of people.

What I'm curious about is, do any of you see a new medium where it is no longer simply the artist as dictator of his own creation--Joe on Mt. Olympus. Do you see a point where the new communications technologies will allow some form of user-feedback that influences the course of the story being told? Do you see a way that this might evolve? Or do you think this might evolve in a coherent manner?

I realize that most of the fan-boys you've talked to are not going to give you very useful plot ideas.

Alexander Jablokov: Well, just as an historical example, the Marx Brothers--all of their movies were originally road-shows and they'd take them out to the vaudeville theaters and if people didn't laugh, they'd cut the joke. And they put one in that worked. And it would only end up getting filmed after--this is essentially a collaborative affair. Georges Kaufmann who wrote several of the movies, once was in the back of the theater, while they were performing, and he said, "Stop, wait. I think I hear one of my original lines."

So he was in quite a different position than Joe is, but various performers and artists have used this for many years. This is just a new way of doing it, but some artists relate very closely to their audience, as you imagine a Renaissance artist and his patron--that's a very close relationship and the patron's role is very strong. So we'll see variations on it all over the place.


J. Michael Straczynski: I think there's a quantum difference between seeing if something that I wrote, as a sketch, works on stage as opposed to letting the audience have input into its creation. I think that way madness and perdition lies.

Can I walk into the Sistine Chapel and say, "You know, it needs more red over there. It's just not right. Take the wings off of that."

No, that ain't gonna happen. And if it does happen, it's the death of creativity. Art moves forward in individual jumps. It is one Picasso coming up suddenly and seeing the world in a different way, who was often not understood in his time, but who moves art forward by the sheer strength of his personality and the art that he creates.

When Van Gogh first saw Picasso's work, he looked at it and he said, "You paint too fast." And Picasso said, "No, no, you look too fast."

And that is where the artist always is. The outside person will always look too fast and have too-ready an observation. There's already a process by which outside people affect the creative process--it's called networks, and notes, and executives in suits who are always wrong.

 

When I was working on the "Twilight Zone," we did an adaptation of "The Cold Equations." Any of you know that short story? Anyone not know the short story? OK. You know how it ends; the guy has to take her and shove her out the airlocks so that the shuttle has enough fuel to reach the destination. The network person said, "Well, that's, kind of, a downer ending. I have a better idea. How about he cuts his own legs off and pushes them out of the ship and that gives enough fuel and they can land?"

"No, the story is what the author wrote, and we're not touching it."

"Well, how about if he shoots her and he throws her out the door, and, then, he's guilty about it afterward?"

"No, the story is what the story is. We're shooting it as written or we're not shooting it at all." And we did shoot it as it was written, by the way, despite their objections.

There will always be lots of folks who want to have input--users, readers, 'Netters, network guys, your mom and dad. It doesn't matter, you have to follow your own creative conscience; you can never let those people into the creative process or you are done as a writer or an artist.


Speaker: So art can never be created as a community. I realize it's been done in terrible forms in the past, but you don't believe that there will be a new form evolving? I realize that 90% of the books and novels--the books and TV series that have been filmed are better off ___ singular . . . .

J. Michael Straczynski: You're looking at the wrong end of the horse, man. You're looking at the delivery system. The delivery system ain't the issue. It's the artistry that informs the creation, and the artistry--whatever the new medium is, whether it's some incredibly new means of telling stories that we haven't come up with yet--the good ones will always come from one person, with one idea, and one dream and one passion.

It will never be a group-thing; it could happen physically, but it will be crap because art comes from one person's heart.

 

Babylon 5 Takes on Journalism

Laura O'Brien: Being very interested in the show, my friends and I talk a lot and you're the instigator of several fights and intellectual conversations. And one thing that hit our group a little strong was the episode you alluded to where ISN twisted a lot of the Babylon characters.

I wanted to know if you got any feedback from people within the mass media, the news people, about that show and about the scruples that media is accused of having or of not having.

J. Michael Straczynski: Oddly enough, we have not heard back from the mass media about those shows. I wonder why. I've not heard from anyone at CBS or ABC about that particular show, although I have heard from a number of professors who have been using it in their classroom to show why you should question what the media tells you, and how you can take things and move them around and juxtapose an interview to make it into a whole, different thing.


Television and Intellectual Property

Cathy: Mr. Straczynski, I'm curious. . . .

J. Michael Straczynski: "Joe" will be sufficient. Even I can't handle "Mr. Straczynski." It's "Joe."

Cathy: Joe, I'm curious about how things currently work in a television business and how you think they may evolve in terms of intellectual property rights. For example, if I pitch a story to a network, what prevents them from absorbing my good idea and developing it without me?

J. Michael Straczynski: You mean, for instance, if you took "Babylon 5," say, to Paramount [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE] and gave them, let's say, a treatment, artwork and the sample screenplay and the premise for the show, and two years later, they do "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?" Is that what you're talking about?

Cathy: So I guess there is nothing to prevent them.

 

J. Michael Straczynski: There's so much I can't say, with a restraining order in place.

The reality is that, actually it doesn't happen very often. Where it does happen, it tends to happen at the studio level, not the individual-writer level. Most pitch meetings you're going to, you're pitching to other writers. And I've only actually seen, maybe, two cases where someone actually stole somebody else's story.

The reality is that stories are a dime-a-dozen. It's a question of who is telling the story. When I hire a writer, I look for the writer that's most in tune with what I want to do. I want Harlen Ellison's story; I want Michael Reeve's story; I want Neal Gaimen's story because that's how they see the world. And you give the same l0 writers the same story, you get eleven different stories out of it, out of the same premise--two by Harlen, probably.

So don't let that stop you or be concerned about it because the worst thing that'll happen is, they'll do their version of your show; you'll do your version of your show. . . you'll make a better show [gives a raspberry] not that I have any agenda in saying that to you, of course.


The Battlestar Galactica Era

Brian: Do any of you have any comments on how "Battle Star Galactica" fits into this view of the development of science fiction on TV?

J. Michael Straczynski: You're scaring me.

Brian: Did you like the show? Did you see the show, anything like that? No comment at all?

J. Michael Straczynski: I understand the question, but it's all right. It's OK. Don't get nervous. Yeah, the "Battle Star. . . ."

Alexander Jablokov: Why are the people behind you backing away?

(LAUGHTER)

J. Michael Straczynski: No, "Battle Star" has gone away and it will never come back again. Overall, a grateful nation sighs its relief. It affected my view of science fiction on TV only by virtue of being more and more appalled by the day. I mean, granted the guy was a Mormon; he based the show on his own Mormon beliefs. I'm not speaking out of school; he said that, himself, very often; he was quite open about it. But the dopey-looking dog and the rest of it, it was a dark time for all of us. (APPLAUSE)

 

Michael Burstein: If I could just add to that or comment, this is stuff I've heard. You have to understand, I've never actually watched this show, although I had friends growing up who later said they loved it.

The stories I've heard about the show were that the writers' vision was essentially screwed by the network, that whatever it is they were originally planning to do they were first told, "Well, you can't do it that way because we're only going to give you this hour." Then they said, "Well, we're going to get rid of you because we're going to bring in another show that will only cost half as much."

And, then--and Joe can verify if this sort of thing is natural in Hollywood--they didn't like the other show. So they said, "OK, we're going to bring you back but since we already know we only have to spend half as much money on this slot, we're only going to give you half as much money."

Whether or not this is all true, it does point out the problems with trying to produce science fiction on television dealing with idiots, who, basically, want to give a certain amount of money for a product and they don't realize what quality is.


Writing for Other Media

Kate: My question is, actually, for both of you. Alex ,You're here representing print media, print novels and I was wondering if you'd ever consider writing for the media--any TV show, it doesn't matter which--and, Joe, if you'd consider ever writing more non-media novels like Other Side and Demon Night?

Alexander Jablokov: Well, I don't have a moral qualm about working for TV; it's not really my metier; I don't really look at things that way. But I have no problem with it. I think it would be really kind of fun. But I see things through novels; that's just the medium in which I work the best.

And I try--and I study--and, maybe, I'll buy this book here that Mike has. I do read a lot about script writing because I'm very curious about it, and, plus, it really is a very active place. A lot of stuff is going on; a lot of interesting things are going on; a lot of interesting people are working in it.

 

J. Michael Straczynski: I believe strongly that no form of writing is bad writing, if you learn something. Writing a good article will teach you how to structure what you could use in a short story. A short story will teach you how to use dialogue which you can use in a script. It all feeds into it, and the best kind of writer you can be is a generalized, well-rounded kind of a writer.

(LAUGHTER) In fact, I just had a new short story come out--almost a novelette-length, as a matter of fact--in an anthology called Blow Out At Dead Man's Gulch," I believe. It's a western anthology of mystery stories. It's a non-science fiction mystery called "We Killed Him in the Ratings," about TV and what happens when a news reporter gets too close to a serial killer.

So I think that, yeah, I will keep working in prose as well as scripts, and I think that any writer who's smart will investigate every possible form and genre because it all feeds into the writing; it's all part of the process; it will all make you a better and stronger writer.

Jeremy: Alex, I saw you nodding when Joe was mentioning that there's a sort of schism forming in the book world, and they're only putting out the highest-end's most profit margins, science-fiction authors. How are you, as an author, planning to adapt to that new world?


Alexander Jablokov: Well, I won't say, eating beefaronie. . . , but, you know,. . . . (LAUGHTER) It's a little better, but sometimes it feels a little like being a graduate student. Well, it's a lot better, OK. But it's still not good; I've been a graduate student.

Now what surprises me, actually, given the role of the mid-list, is that my novels do not sell very well, but my publisher still puts them out which, by common wisdom, is not supposed to happen, you know. They're supposed to dump you and not try to build a career. My editor has been trying to build my career for quite some time now; there's been a lot of patience, and I'm doing OK, but it's not great.

But I love it. So I'm going to keep doing it.

Michael Burstein: I feel obliged at this juncture to point out that Alex's novel Deep Dive will be coming out later this year.

 

Women in Command

Greg Warner: One of the things I've noticed in science fiction is it's one of the few places where you have strong women in command positions. And to sum it up, I think "Star Trek" died with Tasha died and Ivanava is god!

J. Michael Straczynski: I wish I could say that I had a political agenda in doing that. I don't. I've always been attracted to strong women, who were sharp and smart and funny and who could beat the crap out of me, like, in four or five different areas.

And so when I sat down to write about characters I like, they all become strong, female characters. There's no agenda there at all. I just happen to like them a lot. (APPLAUSE)


Privacy and Niche Marketing

Eric: I have questions for both of you. I do want to say, I really enjoyed Alex's reading, and I thought that the characterizations were really superb, and it was a good story. (APPLAUSE)

Alexander Jablokov: Well, thank you.

Eric: My first question is for Alex. I was really intrigued by your concept of info-jamming that came in at the end of the story where you're purposefully manipulating the pinpoint demographics that we're getting to in this society. And I was wondering if you could see that as an actual, viable possibility in eliminating some corporate control over our lives.

Alexander Jablokov: Well, it would take planning. You'd have to actually deliver. And, plus, you have to buy those products, right? So you need some money.

 

Eric: Can you just order them and cancel the credit card?

Alexander Jablokov: So, I'm fascinated by this whole privacy issue, and, right now, I'm working on a book where a woman is point-marketed by a stalker, essentially, who alters her entire world around her to be, essentially, an advertisement for himself. He's a, sort of, very wealthy, computer geek guy who hires experts on how to do this.

And I'm interested by how manipulated we can be, and how much people really know about us that we, ourselves, do not perceive. It used to be when someone was eavesdropping on you, you could look out the window and see them, but that's no longer the case. They can even be eavesdropping on you five years later for what you do now.

So it's an increasingly. . . . I'm fascinated by the implications for our lives, and how we live our lives. So I am trying to figure out a way out of the box and this marketing-scheme I came up with for this story.


Subversive Ideas and Television

David:On "Babylon 5," there's a lot of really strong, possibly subversive imagery. I mean, you show politicians that destroy the lives of millions for personal agenda; you show a media that destroys the truth in order to back that agenda; you show an intelligence community that is the secret to the big picture and only cares about themselves; and you show a hero that actually takes up arms against factions of the government to overthrow it because it is corrupt.

Do you ever give any thought that showing this to millions of people might affect the real world political environment at all and to whether or not it calls attention and might be perceived as a threat to some very powerful people?

J. Michael Straczynski: Cool. No, I never worry about that. You can never be afraid of anything; I work from a no-fear premise. I don't go out of my way to be subversive but, unfortunately, art by its very nature is subversive. The moment you pick up a pen and put it down on a piece of paper, you're, actually, creating a subversive art by saying that "I, as an individual, have something to say that's so important that you will pay money to read it." That is something that the state doesn't much like to hear.

So it isn't intentionally subversive. No. And we've never had any problem with the government. In fact, most of our fans are in the government, one way or another.

We got a call from the Secret Service, and they said that, number one, they use our characters in their exercises to do character evaluations under stress and, then, see how they perform and, then, compare it to what actually happens.

 

Speaker: That's scary.

J. Michael Straczynski: It gets better. The Navy had this huge project where they wanted to test how computer systems fall and become corrupted with data and virus system programs like "Trojan Horses," and they named all the computers in this link after "B-5" characters. This is the Department of Navy, OK? And the first computer that always got corrupted was named "Londo." (APPLAUSE) And the last one that never fell was "Delinn." I thought that was terrific.

The first call we got was from the Pentagon, by the way, and they said, "You know, Joe, the Pentagon is on the line." "What all of it?" And my first reaction is, "The whole draft thing? I forgot to register for two years; it just happened." "We aren't calling about that."

And they said, "We're trying to get onto the Web for the Lurker's Guide and we can't figure out how to navigate the Web. (LAUGHTER) Now if the Pentagon which can blow up the world l0 times, over lunch, can't figure out the Web, that scares the crap out of me. I don't know about you.


And I said, "Well, why do you want this information?" And they said, "Well, apparently, it's what they call a forced multiplier," which is a morale booster and he sent it out to carrier groups and to battalions and field groups all across the planet. And there are some places where they haven't got VCRs, and they wanted to have synopses to fax to them about where the show was.

And he said, "Your show has a lot of followers in the military who will see things we have to deal with every day. And we agree with a lot of what you say."

Oh, the best part was in the Secret Service call that came? They also were calling because they said, "The top secret document covers that were used in the show? They're wrong. We'll send you the right ones." And they did.

And they said, "We'll send you a Secret Service shirt." I'm waiting for weeks for this to show up, right? It comes in and it's a green polo shirt with the White House silhouette and underneath it says, the "White House."

I call them back and say, "It doesn't say 'Secret Service' on it." "Well, it wouldn't be secret, then, would it?"

That's our government reaction.

 

Closing Remarks

Henry Jenkins: I'd like to ask each of the panelists if they have any closing remarks for this crowd.

Alexander Jablokov: No, thanks for allowing me to stand next to John, to Joe, here, in our wonderful all-Slavic evening.

J. Michael Straczynski: If there is any moral or message behind the show, it has always been that the three-issue phrase I've used in from time to time: choices, consequences, and responsibility. The world, at large, tries to tell you that you have no choice, that you have to do things the party-way, that you can't fight city hall, and that you are, basically, ineffective. I don't believe this for a hot second, and neither should you.

You do have choices; those choices have consequences; and you have to bear the responsibility for those things. One of those things you've chosen to do--those of you who are B-5 fans--was to support this show, and because of your support, the consequence is we're still on the air; we finish up our five-year story; and the responsibility for that is yours. And my thanks go to you as well.

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