planetfall & cultural references

In the last blog I wrote about my approach to writing planetfall – I use story boards for the overall story structure, I develop character biographies, I wrote a 1000-year history of the planetfall universe. And I use that framework to allow the world to come to life, so it has a consistent internal logic, while leaving enough space for characters and situations to explore their own spaces within the story.

This post will be the last (for a little while) taking a broad sweep view of planetfall. More specific issues will follow, but before that I want to briefly highlight the cultural reference points in planetfall.

Most cultural output references things that came before. Nietzsche reportedly filled his writing with cultural references; George Lucas famously referenced Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell when writing Star Wars;  and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright stuff cultural references into pretty much every scene of their works.

Using cultural references like this is useful. For those in the know it gives extra context and depth to the story. Previously read, seen or experienced stories or music or artworks will colour the narrative immediately, whether the conscious  mind picks up on it or not. As a writer they give a useful shortcut – rather than filling the page with unnecessary description, a quick reference to a commonly experienced cultural narrative can paint in more description in a word or phrase than the author could have achieved in ten pages.

For example, if I want to create an immediate, creepy sense of foreboding, I simply need to say to someone, “My, what big teeth you have,” and they will (or should) instantly bring up the tone, imagery and events of Little Red Riding Hood, and the wolf who ate her grandma, and which waited for her in grandma’s bed.

planetfall is chock full of cultural references. Some will be obvious, others less so. Some can be understood by the vast majority of readers with no or little prompting, while others will only be understood by a few, who share my taste in music or film or literature.

I’m not going to catalogue them all here, I can’t remember them all (some are lost as background description) and anyway it’s a boring job. Other people can pore over the text and figure out the references. What I do want to do is highlight the major reference points I used.

Literature

Alice In Wonderland – this book is a major influence on planetfall. The indirect reference comes from the Fall Colony being underground. Kate’s arrival at the Colony comes from entering a rabbit hole – a hole in the surface of the planet, into a cylinder-like underground colony, filled with caterpillars and mice and cats that disappear. Verigua at times turns into the Cheshire Cat, most notably when Verigua and Win are in the flying saucer, and when Win joins Verigua on the branch of the tree. The Cheshire Cat tries to come in at other points (Djembe in the departures/arrivals hall, the black cat when Verigua meets Kate, the black cat on the flying saucer) and was a welcome, if intrusive reference.

I had no specific ideas about using the Cheshire Cat. The first use of the cat with Djembe is a reference to the cats in Haruki Murakami’s books. Later the black panther was a reference to both this and Bagheera from The Jungle Book. All are tied into the Cheshire Cat however. They all disappear, and the act of the cat disappearing signals a change coming for a character, or a significant event happening. During writing each cat tried to change into the Cheshire Cat, an unwitting action from me, and I spent time playing with the Cheshire Cat, changing it into these other cats as often as I could. At one point I share a joke about this, when Win and the cat are sitting on the branch:

Win walked into the cube, stood under the tree, pulled himself up onto the branch the black cat sat on. “Do no harm?”

“That’s right.”

He sat for a moment. His hand reached out automatically to stroke the cat while he thought through the risk. “Well, I can’t sit here for days and days, and that’s a fact. What’s it like, taking this compound?”

“The humans tell me it’s like going raving mad.”

Win sighed, smiled, shook his head, “I thought they would. Very well,” he nodded, slipped from the branch.

This section is paraphrased from parts of Chapter VI: Pig and Pepper of Alice in Wonderland. 

Isaac Asimov – the section just quoted also references Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics – “Do No Harm”. Verigua is a construct, and although intelligent and considered a life form, it is still a computer constructed with human input. planetfall follows the accepted laws of robotics – that they should do no harm, and Win’s reference is a light-hearted reference to this principle.

The Bible – The chapter “Nineveh” uses a re-telling of the Biblical story of Jonah & the Whale.

Iain M. Banks – the Culture novels are an obvious reference point for planetfall. In early drafts I described AIs and technology, almost justifying their use in the story. After a while I came to the conclusion that most sci-fi readers would either have read the Culture novels, or ones similar to them. And following successful sci-fi novels, I chose not to explain how (most of) the technology in planetfall works. It just does. A justified universe loses some of its sheen and magic; if you spend your time trying to convince the reader that what they’re reading is reality, you allow them pause for thought, room for scepticism. If that justification is taken away and the reader is presented with a universe in which there is such technology, they will accept it and focus more on the narrative.

Cartoons and comics – at one point, Verigua transforms into a fairy-like character, which is a reference to (but not a borrowing of) Disney’s Tinkerbell. I made the fairy a little colder and more elfin in its face, but certainly the visual imagery is influenced by Tinkerbell drawing her wand over the Disney castle logo and leaving trails of glitter. The mouse that Verigua becomes when visiting the depths of the colony is a mixture of Reepicheep (the Narnia books) and Fievel (An American Tail). The old British comic The Eagle is referenced several times: first when The Mekon makes a sly appearance when Win and Verigua go up in the flying saucer (the green lizard-like man on a floating platform); and, second in the ship name Eagle’s Dare, which also combines a reference to Dan Dare, the erstwhile hero of the comic’s main strip, and the Eagle ship from Space 1999, on which the description of the Eagle’s Dare spaceship rests.

Music

There are lots of references to music, and unfortunately I’ve forgotten most of them. The majority are to Pink Floyd. Floyd geeks will be able to reel off a large number on first reading (Obscured by Clouds, Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle and the Ummagumma live album are referenced most heavily). There is also some Sonic Youth in there (Theresa’s Sound World) amongst other music. The chapter “Echoes” (the name itself being a Pink Floyd track) starts off with a son et lumiere to a soundtrack of Time, from Dark Side of the Moon. (Try it yourself, read the chapter start as the track begins just after the alarm clocks ring.)

Films 

Star Wars is the biggest reference point. Fall is a desert planet with two suns. While most people immediately think of Arakis from Frank Herbert’s Dune on reading the opening pages of planetfall (and that is a major influence), the planet was initially based on Tatooine. The site around the Fall Colony, though, is based on Uluru, previously called Ayer’s Rock. I borrowed the rock island, the inselberg, from Australia.

The end of planetfall is based not on any specific film but the sort of imagery used in sci-fi B-movies. The giant green circles beaming onto the planet from space are borrowed from two sources. First, the old RKO Radio Pictures broadcast tower seen at the beginning of their films from the 1930s. The company famously focused on B-movies for a while, during which time it produced films like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. And second, the stun ray used by the Stormtroopers in Star Wars: A New Hope, when they capture Princess Leia.

Toward the end of planetfall is a section based in a field of flowers. The initial part is based on Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, while the end of that section is based on imagery from The Midwich Cuckoos. And somewhere in the introductory sequence for Kate’s team is a reference to The Blob.

Art

There are three works of art or genres specifically referenced in the first book of planetfall. The statue on Daoud’s desk is Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, my favourite work of art, and a major influence on me. At some point there is a sly reference to Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night (which also crops up in book 2). And finally the Japanese art work which shows willow trees and Mount Fuji, mixed with a little bit of Minton’s Willow Pattern designs (which are based on Chinese scenes) for the Memorial Service.

I was careful, I hope, not to allow the cultural references to overpower the story. They are there as touchstones for description, for mood and context. They are designed, in the way they’re used, to help the reader conjure a visualisation without asking them to do too much work, so that the story can continue with as rich a base as possible.

Many of the cultural references will be invisible, with the reader unconsciously finding the right images when reading.

If you find any text which you think is a cultural reference, leave a comment, and I’ll try and confirm for you if it is what you think it is!

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