Lazy Luddite Log

28.2.10

Collections

During childhood my brother Lukas and I collected three different brands of toy. And while now we may regard them as collections to preserve carefully, back then they were very much toys for playing with. And another word for ‘imaginative play’ is storytelling. In this post I will consider how well the three different kinds of toys facilitated storytelling.

Legoland Space

The oldest toys we got into were the space-specialized Lego sets. In the 80s these toys lacked any prescribed story or character information. All you got was what was suggested by the toy designs themselves. As a result we had to invent a story all by ourselves and inspiration came from an entirely different source.

At the time we had some illustrated non-fiction books for children by the UK publishers Rigby-Usborne on every topic from dinosaurs to future predictions. In the books dedicated to the future there were some interesting images including mining the asteroids for minerals and pirate vessels attacking commercial spacecraft.

From these sorts of images we developed a story involving a Space Patrol versus a much smaller set of space criminals. Different colours of astronaut were designated different functions – white for technicians, red for military, yellow for miners. Our Lego was an exclusively indoor toy but there were plenty of ways of adapting furniture to imaginative ends. I cannot remember much of the storylines but I do remember that a big brown beanbag makes a fantastic asteroid!

Star Wars Action Figures

The original Star Wars movies blew our minds and likewise we got a thrill from getting Star Wars figures (I can even remember fondly the smell of fresh action-figures on my birthday). The interesting thing however is that we never used the Star Wars story in playing with those figures and I wonder why. The fact that our collection lacked key human characters may be a factor. The fact that the vehicles we had for them were generics rather than specific to Star Wars may have helped too. I also suspect that we felt that the story as described in the movies was too big and too complete for us to try and mess with (this never stopped the development of a huge non-canonical Star Wars universe that I now know exists).

What we did do was to imagine a remote and lush world on which several alien castaways were separately stranded. These heroes were played by Cantina Creatures (who always looked better in your imagination). Each had unique skills adapted to particular habitats. Greedo (who got to keep his original name) became amphibious and lived in the fish pond (in fact the toy sometimes stayed in there overnight). Walrus-Mon became Treetor who lived in a forest treehouse. Snaggletooth became a burrowing dweller of caverns. These and others banded together across the planet once it was invaded by a force of conquering marauders (played by assorted masked Imperial figures).

There was a kind of moral theme to this play – the side of good was diverse and possessed complimentary talents while the side of evil was regimented and uniform. These toys were robust so could be played with outdoors and every part of the yard corresponded to some part of that imagined planet. I think my fondest toy recollections are of these and the settings we made for them.

Transformers

Originally – even as a upper primary school kid – I felt that Transformers were a bit far-fetched and silly but then we saw the cartoon made to promote them and were hooked. Here was a fully developed set of characters and even the toy packages provided personality descriptions and vital statistics. In the cartoon we were presented with convenient episodic story-telling to which we could insert our own. There was a simplistic formula we could use over and over which included the following elements:

* Humans develop some new energy source that the evil Decepticons try to exploit and the Autobots have to stop them.

* Story starts with the accidental discovery of the Decepticon plan by a small group of Autobots who have to quickly get away to report to the others – exciting chase ensues.

* Autobots plan how they intend to thwart the Deception plan.

* There is a final confrontation between the massed forces of both sides. At this time some new or rarely employed characters come into play to help decide the final outcome.


It was a lot of fun but I think it lacked something compared with the older toys we played with. Too much of the storytelling work was done for us by the toy company. I now look on my Transformers as the best toys I have because of their clever design and novel appearance rather than because of the story they are supposed to tell.

And as nifty as they are I would never put them in a fishpond overnight – only Greedo is that cool!

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12.2.10

Worlds Upon Worlds

I have a number of creative writing concepts percolating at the moment and this is one of them. As a short story it stands alone but it also shares the same setting and characters as this and this story...

It took Lari Vanhanen three months to realize that he had slipped into an alternative universe. An argument over the origin of a popular yeast extract was what made him recognize this shocking truth.

Lari was having drinks with his partner Kim and her ex Kellie. The conversation had somehow wandered into the revelatory topic – possibly because they had been discussing hangover cures. Anyway Lari knew for a fact that yeast extracts had originated in the 1950s as a vegetarian form of cooking stock that had then been turned to the use of a spread. Kellie, however, insisted that it had originated decades before that as a by-product of beer manufacture! Now, most such arguments are never resolved, but Kellie had a net-connected palmtop at her disposal, and proved her point with it. Lari was incensed but was subdued by warning looks from Kim.

The next day however was a Saturday and once Lari had woken and showered he found the argument of the previous night nagging away at him. Kellie had accessed Wikipedia - a site that anyone can edit. Could she have edited the page surreptitiously while in the pub? Lari went back to that site and from there followed links to both manufacturer and consumer-advice websites and was perturbed to find that they all corroborated the brewery origin.

Lari started exploring websites wildly as he recalled several incongruous statements he had encountered in recent weeks and discovered all sorts of trivial yet disturbing differences between the world he knew and the world that was now presenting itself to him. He could not possibly have been wrong about so many things. The only explanation that came to mind was one of alternative universes.

Lari remembered how annoyed he had been on walking past a parent and child in a front yard and hearing the parent tell the child that slaters were a kind of land-dwelling crustacean. Lari was too reserved a person to actually say anything but he fumed at an adult filling a child with such nonsense. Surely everybody knew that slaters were a stunted form of millipede. Now however the Internet told Lari that in this universe that parent had been right.

Lari also remembered browsing in a music shop while Kim was looking for sheet music and coming across an informational poster describing various keyboard-operated instruments. Lari was sure that 1960s electric organs were primitive electronic synthesizers but the poster had stated that they produced sound using a combination of rotating steel ‘tonewheels’ and electromagnetic ‘pickups’ thus making them more akin to electric guitars. Once more then Internet told Lari that in this universe the poster was right.

All this and more was rather disturbing to Lari, and yet also liberating. As frustrating as it was to have to check his facts on the smallest of things, it was also apparent that this universe was better for him than his native reality. Till recently a pale and weedy nerd with a silly name like his had never had any luck in his love-life. And yet somehow he was now with a beautiful and exciting women like Kim. And then he knew when and where it was that he had slipped from universe to universe.

Three months ago Lari had met Kim at Demonique – a goth-themed night held at the Masked Nightclub. Somehow his usually inept overtures had worked – apparently the word “exquisite” had made a big impression on her. In any case there had been something magical about that night and Lari decided to examine Masked Nightclub more closely.

The premises of Masked had been a nightclub for fifteen years. During the three decades that preceded that time it had been a camping and fishing products storehouse. And preceding that it had been the office and borrowing library for an occult society named Worlds Upon Worlds (WUW) that had existed from the 1920s to the 1960s. WUW practitioners postulated an infinity of ‘worlds’ in which every person had a world most suited to them, if only they could find it. That was it! WUW must have conducted supernatural experiments into finding those other worlds. Maybe they had disbanded once they all found what they wanted. In any case Masked was the site of the rift between universes and the next Demonique was just a few nights away. Lari had to warn Kim and luckily they were meeting at a café that afternoon.

Kim gave Lari that look over the brim of her tea cup that, as far as he could tell, only women could achieve, which conveyed pure incredulity. “Lari – you are fantastic at making educated guesses but do you think that sometimes you might just put two and two together and get five?” Kim seemed to think that Lari was just wrong and wrong on so many things. Lari was momentarily subdued so Kim went on:

“If it was Kellie she would check all her facts and if it was me I would never assert anything for sure but you just assume you are right.”

“And” Kim added “I will go to Demonique to have a good time as well as to show to you that there is nothing the matter with it.”

Lari responded to Kim by saying “okay some of those things may just be misinterpretations of mine but there is one more thing that I cannot reconcile…” Kim looked on expectantly so Lari pressed on. “You and Kellie tell this story of exploring inside the Wingnut Overpass but in my experience it has a different name altogether!”

“Just come with me Lari and stick close to me if you have to” was the final word of Kim. “We can dirty-dance the night away and if I get sucked into another dimension then you will too” she smirked. Lari would just have to agree and the dancing part did work for him. There was just one problem however – the bathrooms at Masked were gender-segregated…

I hope others enjoyed that. One thing I wonder is this: Do you think that the central character makes way too many assumptions and interpretations or has he slipped into an alternative universe?

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