Tag Archives: Fiction

Tropes I Can Do Without: Incompetent Antagonists

So, I’m breaking my rule here just a bit. My goal for this year was to write about those thing I love more than the things I dislike. But today is Halloween, and this one in particular has been weighing on my mind of late. I’m going to talk about a sci-fi/fantasy trope that I would REALLY like to see go away: incompetent antagonists.

FreddyWise

Trick! This post has nothing to do with either of them! Both of them are pretty cool as is. 

See if this sounds familiar…a plucky band of heroes is just so darn good. And clever! The bad guys, by contrast, might have cool tech and uniforms, but they are largely idiots, or exceedingly arrogant (or both). Because the heroes have the ‘heart’ of 100 Rocky Balboas, they are able to snatch victory out of the lazy, slackened jaws of defeat. Hooray! Everyone goes home.

Based on this, I’m proud to introduce Carson’s First Law of Villainy: The level of satisfaction the audience experiences from the heroes’ victory is directly proportional to the competence of their opposition.

Or, in other words, the greater the threat, the greater the payoff.  If it seems nigh-impossible for the heroes to succeed, the more of a “YAAAS” moment you get when the they finally—somehow— pull it off. Villains are key to this. You can have a weak villain and still have a fun, engaging story (Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m looking at you in most cases), but the writer does his heroes a disservice if the opposition they face is weak or ineffectual.

Let’s look at some examples. Think of a bad guy or set of bad guys. This can be from books, movies, comic books, really anywhere. Why were they memorable? Why were they a threat to the protagonist, and what lengths did the hero or heroes have to go to defeat them? For me, one figure immediately springs to mind.

This guy.

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Come to the Dark Side…we have cookies!

Darth Vader.

Not, Anakin Skywalker. No, the Dark Lord of the Sith as he was portrayed in Episodes 4, 5, and 6. He’s powerful, in control, and a dire threat to anyone who get in his way. Every time the heroes cross paths with him, they pay for it. Obi-Wan goes down, he cuts off Luke’s Hand, and Han gets encased in carbonite.

He’s always one step ahead, and going up against him directly seems like a suicide mission. So, when Luke does finally defeat him, it shows how far the character has come. The Luke who whined about going into Tosche Station to pick up power converters couldn’t have faced Vader and lived. It had to be the Luke who wore all black, who single-handedly stormed Jabba’s barge like a boss to do that. In essence, Luke had to grow into Vader’s looming threat. As I’ve said before, it’s the presence of the wolf, not its absence, that makes the deer fast.

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And the winner for Most Improved goes to…

Of course, Grand Moff Tarkin does refuse to evacuate the station out of sheer arrogance, but that’s the difference between the two characters. Tarkin was certainly competent in other ways, but ultimately fell prey to this classic movie trope: His belief in his own superiority sews the seeds of his downfall.  In the end, however, I think the original Star Wars trilogy does a good job of establishing the Empire as a legitimate danger to make its defeat feel like an accomplishment.  (Stormtroopers who can’t hit the broad side of a barn, notwithstanding.)

Let’s look at a really bad example. I must preface this by saying that I’m big fan of this author’s work, and have been so for 20 years or more. But lately, the bad guys are bad at what they do. Really bad. Let’s talk about Shadow of Freedom, by David Webber, a novel in one of the spin-offs of his Honor Harrington universe.

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Despite being front and center on the cover, Honor Harrington never appears directly. 

I posted my review on Goodreads, but here’s the part that pertains to this topic. The bad guys are some of the worst I’ve ever read. There are multiple sets of them, and they are all idiotic, arrogant, AND their tech is way inferior to the good guys. In short, they are cockroaches being run over by a semi. They can’t even really fight back. They either flee or they die, without presenting even the slightest bit of threat or challenge.

If it only happened once in the book, that would be one thing, but it happens over and over again. And this isn’t the only Honor Harrington book where this is the case, I’m sorry to say. I want to see the protagonists struggle to achieve their goal, to really fight for it, sacrifice for it. There’s none of that here, because the bad guys are disposable, stupid, and pose no real danger.

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Yeah, pretty much like that. 

That brings me to Carson’s Second Law of Villainy: The audience should, in some way, empathize with the antagonist enough to—almost—wish them to succeed in place of the protagonist.

This is stepping outside the speculative realms, but think about Hans Gruber from the original Die Hard movie, played by the incomparable Alan Rickman. He is a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist, and a worthy adversary of Bruce Willis’ John McClane. Even though we hope McClane is able to triumph over Gruber, the moment that Gruber’s team opens the vault is genuinely exciting. For an instant, you almost feel elated that they have accomplished their goal, even though they’ve done some horrible things to get there. You temporarily suspend your wish for McClane’s victory in favor of Gruber. It’s only for a moment, but it’s there.

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The man himself. 

Even this can be traced to Gruber’s innate competence. He knows what he’s doing. He has it together. He has a thought-out master plan and the will and resolve to see it through. That he is very good at what he does contributes to the menace he represents to McClane. If Gruber and company were a bunch of bumbling idiots, McClane’s triumph wouldn’t have been nearly so resounding.

Another example of this is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, in my opinion one of the greatest TV villains of all time, and Giancarlo Esposito’s masterwork. (Spoiler Alert) Even though Gus represents deadly peril to our protagonists, Walter and Jesse, it’s pretty satisfying to see him take down the Juarez Cartel. Again, we’ve seen this guy literally slit a guy’s throat in cold blood just to make a point, but in this moment we are glad that Gus has won the day. And he did this through superior planning, a deep knowledge of his targets and their foibles, and a driving determination to avenge his dead friend, Max. Again, competence.

Breaking Bad (Season 4)

Is today the day, Hector? 

It’s these instances of success where we can’t help but cheer, even though we know we shouldn’t. And it’s these moments that lead me to Carson’s Third Law of Villainy: Antagonists should believe and behave as though they are the protagonists in their own story.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about some of the worst people who have ever lived in real life is that they thought they were the good guys. They all thought they were the hero in their own story. A well-rounded antagonist should likewise believe this. They aren’t just there to be a convenient obstacle, to wait around to be defeated or killed, they have goals and dreams like anyone, albeit twisted by our standards. In their view, the hero is the actual villain of the piece.

One of the most unsettling examples of this is the movie Falling Down. I’ve heard it said that you can tell the protagonist of a story by looking for the one in the most pain. Not so with this movie. Even though the story revolves around William Foster (Michael Douglas), he is really the antagonist. We see that he’s in pain, and that he’s fed up with the world, but when Robert Duvall’s Sgt. Prendergast confronts him at the end of the movie, Foster says “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?”

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His glasses aren’t the only thing that’s cracked. 

And, just to throw a curve ball into the mix, let’s talk about the Operative (Chiwetal Ejiofor) in Serenity. He certainly passes the competency test. He’s articulate and extremely dangerous, and also strangely empathic towards his victims.

He passes the first two laws of villainy with flying colors, but not the third. That is perhaps the only failing in an otherwise command performance. The Operative knows that he’s a monster, that what he’s doing is wrong, and yet he does it anyway. That’s the only part of this character that doesn’t ring true to me, especially when Shepherd Book says that men like the Operative  ‘believe hard’ and ‘never ask why.’ The Operative knows he’s a villain, which in my estimation, makes him less of one.

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Perhaps there is nothing left to see. 

Well, there you have it, Carson’s Three Laws of Villainy, and how the use of them can prevent a milquetoast antagonist. Villains fuel the story’s conflict, and what is a good story without conflict?

So if you’re writer of any sort of fiction, do us a favor and make your villain as compelling as your hero. Make your protagonist rise to the challenge. And if you can, have your villain go out with a bit of style or panache.  (That’s more of a personal request, however.)

Truth is, we all deserve better bad guys in our stories. Villains aren’t good, but by the horned helmet of Loki, they should at least be good at it!

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Burdened with glorious purpose, indeed. 

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Strange Reports from Sector M: A Self Interview

My anthology of short, speculative fiction came out recently. I call it Strange Reports From Sector M. Customarily when a bestselling author releases a book, there’s a press tour, complete with personal interviews. Now this may come as a surprise to many of you, but I am not a bestselling author. Shocked face, right?

Since there aren’t a myriad of people busting my door down for an interview, I decided to do one on my own. The purpose of any one-on-one with the author is really just to let people know about the book, what’s it about, and why people should check it. I’m going to do that for you here, right now. So, look at it as glimpse into my pet project, or a strange sort of FAQ. Either one is fine.

Alright, let’s get this show on the road!

StrangeReportsFromSectorMFrontCover

Thanks for joining us here on Sector M, Matt.

Um, thanks? This is weird. I’m not the only who thinks so, right?

No idea what you mean. So, about your book. What is Sector M, exactly, and why are we getting strange reports from it, hmm?

Right, so Sector M has been my creative umbrella for a few years now. It covers all my social media, my books, even my wacky fanboy videos on Youtube. The name “Sector M” is a reference to my office, which at various times in the past has been called “The Museum of Matt” or “Sector Matt.” It’s my sanctum sanctorum. You know, just like Doctor Strange.

Okay, so Sector M is really just a proxy for saying “Matt Carson.”

In a way, yeah. I also set one of my earliest military sci-fi stories in a sector on the fringes of civilized space. The first surveyors had named all the star systems with words that began with the letter “M.” Thus, Sector M.

And is that story included in this anthology?

It is. It’s called “The Foeman’s Chain” and it’s the last one in the book.

What about the reports? Why are they strange? Do tell.

The stories in this book are pretty varied. Overall, it’s sci-fi, but there’s a bit of urban fantasy and horror mixed in as well. They all have some sort of anthropological or sociological theme to them. Humans are strange beings when you think about it. I’m perhaps a little stranger than most, so these resulting stories (or reports, if you will) are bound to be a bit ‘out there.’

Fascinating. Well now we need to take a quick break to learn an important fact about llamas!

Wait, what?

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And we’re back!

What was that all about?

Just trying to break up the text with some graphics. Now, how is the book structured? Or is it all just sorta willy-nilly?

The stories get progressively longer from beginning to end. The first few stories are really short. The middle of the book has a few stories of a more “traditional” short-story length. At the end, I have two novellas or novelettes, depending on which definition you use. So, if you’re in the mood for something quick, look in the front. If you want something more substantial, go to the middle or back. You can read them in any order.

And how many stories are included, total?

There are 13 stories, all told. That seemed like a decent variety of different types of stories, lengths, and genres. Some are standalone stories, while a few others take place in a shared universe.

Do you have a favorite? I bet you do.

They all have a special place in my heart. No, I’m serious! I certainly don’t have an overall favorite among them, but I would say I’m particularly partial to “The Gossamer Thread” and “The Mundanity of Miracles.”

What are they about?

If you buy the book, you’ll find out. *wink*

Real subtle, Matt.

Just kidding. “Gossamer Thread” is about aliens who view us, the humans, as the ineffable ones. It also deals with society as a fragile construct, and trying to do what’s right when everything is falling down. “The Mundanity of Miracles” is about how the lines between reality and fiction are blurred in the future, and the problems that may come about as a result.

You mentioned societal themes before. Is there an overall theme for the book?

Interesting question. I wrote these stories without ever dreaming I’d assemble them together, so there’s no intentional theme to the book as a whole.

Wait, so you’re saying there’s an unintentional theme?

As I put it together, certain themes began to appear to me, like a Venn diagram overlapping at various points. But, much like when I see a cloud that looks like a duck, I may be seeing a pattern that isn’t really there.

See a lot of clouds shaped like ducks, do you?

Uh, sometimes, yeah.

Like this one?

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Yeah. Just like that one. *mutters to himself.*

Well, what is this unintentional theme of which you speak?

No spoilers, for real this time. I’m going to leave that up to the reader to decide. I don’t want to bias opinions ahead of time. Come on, I have to leave at least a little mystery.

Isn’t that a bit of a cop out?

Maybe, but here we are.

Tool.

Oh yeah, and what does that say about you, then?

Good point. So shall we talk about the elephant in the room?

Sure…

Why is this book $12.99, huh? Who do you think you are, Dan Brown?

Not at all. This is a print-on-demand situation, which means the individual print costs for each book are  higher than if it were a large print run. I realize I’m not an established “brand” when it comes to authors, but when all was said and done the minimum cost to print each book was over $12. For now, I like to think of it as 13 stories for 13 bucks.

Cute. Did you practice that little catchphrase?

Maybe a little, yeah.

What if that price point is just too much for people?

The Kindle version is also out. Since it’s just electrons, those minimum print costs are no longer an issue. With Kindle, readers can get the book for $5.99.  That’s about one trip to Starbucks, and my book will last you a lot longer. *wink*

You’re winking again.

Oh, sorry…

If you’re gonna wink, at least take a lesson from the best.

And who’s that, pray tell?

So glad you asked…

Oh, here we go.

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And, back. If we’re going with the “5 Ws and H” approach, what haven’t we answered yet?

Hmmm, let’s run them down:

Who: Me, Matt Carson.

What: A trade paperback book of short stories, all speculative fiction. Also on Kindle.

When: It’s out now! 🙂

Why:  See below.

Where: Amazon and CreateSpace. Links below!

How: CreateSpace Author Services.

Ah, so it’s the Why that we need to talk about. So why did you decide to put this book together?

These stories are a part of me, and I wanted to share them. While I’m glad to have The Backwards Mask out there for folks to enjoy, I realize its length means that it’s quite an investment of time. So, for those who don’t have time for a 309,000-word novel, here are multiple stories you can read in a single sitting. There’s also something about holding a physical book in your hands that cannot be overstated. It’s the first time my fiction has appeared in print, so that’s exciting.

But why should the readers care about it?

I see what you did there. *approving nod*. This book really has a little something for everyone in the geekosphere. There’s plenty of action, but also introspection about our strange existence. I talk about war, cruelty, courage, and humanity’s unconquerable, if wildly contradictory, spirit. If you like any of the speculative fiction genres, there’s something here to scratch that particular itch. And if you like all of them, so much the better.

Anything you’d like to say to all the folks out there, then?

Yes, please support my work and consider picking up a copy. AND please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Those are the two most important things you can do for any indie author—buy the book and leave a review.

In that case, where can we procure said anthology?

Right now, there are two places: Amazon and CreateSpace, directly. The text on this blog can sometimes obfuscate links (they don’t always stand out in blue), so please click on the word “here” in all three cases.

For Amazon, click here.

For CreateSpace, click here.

For the Kindle, click here.

Well, Matt, thanks for stopping by Sector M. We should do this again sometime.

What are you talking about? I’m here all the time on Sector M. I’m you.

But are you? Are you really?

Yes…?

Sorry, rhetorical question. So, that’s all the time we have. Check out Strange Reports From Sector M on Amazon and CreateSpace!

Until next time, see you around the Sector!


The Mountain and the Sector of M

As I was doing research on Neil Gaiman for my last blog post, I came across a clip of him giving a commencement speech in 2012. Clad in an academic cap and robes, Mr. Gaiman gave an interesting thought model for how he steered his way forward, creatively.

I’ll be paraphrasing from that speech in just a moment. You can find it here in its entirety, and it’s well worth a listen. It’s the part about the mountain, that caught my attention. It’s a simple way of looking at things for a writer, or indeed any artist who wants to pursue art. As we explore the idea, I’ll tell you my own thoughts and goals.

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Only the road will not be as flat or straight.

So, imagine a mountain in the distance. That mountain is your goal, whether it’s to become an artist, write a novel, a screenplay, learn to play the trombone, or what have you. Whatever it is you’re dreaming of, it’s there in the distance, waiting for you. In my case, it’s to become a professional author, and be able to devote myself to writing fiction full-time.

Now, think about the best route to get to the mountain. It’s deceptively easy, and often easier said than done. What would it take for you to follow that route to the mountain? What it means in my case is to make enough of an income from being an author that I can pay the bills. I never write my stories with dollar signs spinning in my eyes like Looney Toons. And yet, if I am going to pay the electricity bill by way of my stories, money has to enter the picture at some point. (Unless the electric company starts accepting speculative fiction as currency, so yeah.)

Let’s say that you’ve clearly identified what life goal your mountain represents AND you have mapped out the best way to get there. If you’re at that point, you still have to actually get to the mountain, right? You still have to walk that path. This part is perhaps the hardest because no plan survives contact with the enemy. There will always be setbacks and obstacles, no matter your course, and along the way you will need to make choices.

And it’s here that Mr. Gaiman really nails it. Whenever you’re faced with a decision, ask yourself this: Does this move me towards the mountain, or away from it? He mentions that there are lucrative jobs he passed up because he felt they wouldn’t bring him closer to the mountain, jobs that he might have taken earlier on his journey, since those opportunities were closer to the mountain than he was at that time.

It’s a pretty beautiful way of looking at it all. Envision the goal, plan your way forward, and make choices with the goal in mind. And if you ever do reach the mountain, look for the next one.

Truth time, folks.

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He’s going to tell! He’s going to tell!

I’m on the third leg of that journey, the making choices part. I see the goal in front of me, I see what it’s going to take to get there, and I’m making far-reaching life choices to bring it about. What I realize, however, is that I will need help along the way. After all, a writer without a reader is almost nothing at all.

If you read this blog on a regular basis, or you are familiar with my work, I ask that you support what I do at Sector M, in whatever form you’re able. I’ll have plenty of links at the end of this post for your consideration.

The best way to support me as an author is to buy one of my books. Obvious, right? My novel, The Backwards Mask, has just been re-released in e-book format, and we’re working on a print-on-demand version. If you haven’t read it, now is an ideal time to check it out.

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Find it here.

Additionally, I have an anthology of short fiction coming out next month called Strange Reports from Sector M. It’s primarily science fiction with a little bit of urban fantasy and horror thrown into the mix. This release will include both an e-book and a paperback version. I’ll post the link here, among many places, when the book debuts next month.

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Coming soon.

If you pick up any of any of my books, I ask only that you leave a review. Aside from buying the book itself, leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads (or both) is the single best thing you can do for an independent author. I cannot overstate this.

Outside of books, you can buy a Sector M shirt, mug, or the like, or support me directly on Patreon. Or PayPal for that matter, if you prefer one-time contributions.

Beyond that, there are many ways to support me on my journey that are free. For one, if you’re reading this blog, subscribe to it. The same goes for following me on various social media, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, or any of them.

And if your mouse finger just can’t quite find the motivation, helping me out can be as simple as telling a friend about my work, or pointing them in the direction of my books and/or this blog. Know anyone who likes science fiction or fantasy? Tell. Them. Word-of-mouth should never, ever be underestimated.

Okay, I’m promised some links. One last time for those in back, please consider supporting my ongoing efforts by any of the following means.

The Backwards Mask — the re-release of my science fiction novel.

Strange Reports from Sector M — Link coming as soon as it goes live.

Sector M Store — T-shirts, mugs, phone covers and more.

Patreon—Support me directly, and get some cool perks.

PayPal— For one-time amounts, use: thesectorm@gmail.

Subscribe to this blog — If you haven’t already.

Like me on Facebook — A good place to start.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @TheSectorM

Join me on Goodreads — See what I’m reading, ask me a question, read my reviews, etc.

Subscribe to my YouTube Channel — More content to come as time allows.

Check out my other works— I have a few stories out that you can read for free on my website, with more of them to come.

And there you have it, folks. My mountain is there in the distance, and its name is Sector M. With your help, I have no doubts that I will reach it.

See you around the Sector!

 

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


Scalability

One of the hardest things about writing sci-fi (IMHO) is handling the technology. All too often the real world will catch up to science fiction levels in just years rather than centuries.  I may write about such things as invisibility fields or nanotechnology when all the while they may be just around the corner. Just do a google search for either of those, and the tech in the pages of a sci-fi novel may not seem so far off.

Even though we don’t have flying cars (yet), I am continually surprised at the things that modern scientific research discovers every day.  I mean, in the next few years, we might actually have found the Higgs-Boson particle or developed hand-held energy weapons, personally cloned organs, powered exoskeletons and life-extending treatments and/or drugs – all things that previously existed only in theory and imagination.

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Okay, Star Trek, we’re looking in your direction.

So what’s a lowly sci-fi writer to do to make sure that actual technology doesn’t exceed the set pieces that he creates? It might be a peek behind the curtain, but I’ll share with you one of the techniques I use on a pretty regular basis.

Scalability.

Let me give you an example of when this was not used. In the novelization of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we get a few scenes that do not appear in the movie. Consequently, we get to know some of the scientists aboard space station Regula 1. As it turns out two of the scientists are game designers, and they have just completed work on their latest video game, Boojum Hunt. It was supposedly the largest video game ever (by 23rd century standards) in terms of how much computer memory it occupied. It was so large that the computer mainframe of the space station only barely contained it.

Any guesses how at much space it took up? 60 Megabytes.  Megabytes with an ‘M.’ Yeah, it’s safe to say that modern technology blew that one completely out of the water. At the time of the novel’s release, 60MB might have seemed unthinkably enormous, but nowadays not so much.

Flash Drive

This flash drive holds 32 gigabytes.

Consider this, though − what if the novel had just said that the game was the “largest video game ever created,” and left it at that? Chances are someone reading it today would scale their expectations up to whatever the norm is currently. The same goes for someone reading it twenty years from now.

That’s scalability. It’s presenting a concept without the parameters that will eventually invalidate it. That way, it scales up to whatever the reader expects it to be. Certainly  Boojum Hunt’s claim would have held up without that troublesome measurement to sink it.  So, this idea can be applied to practically any claim we put on sci-fi set-piece technology. Saying, “A warship of the highest magnitude,” tells you everything you need to know in only a few words in the same way that saying, “She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen,” can describe a character.  It’s a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ to handle it that way, and you do wind up speaking in superlatives quite a bit, but it works.

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Hey, no peeking behind the curtain…ah, okay, just this once.

So what happens when you need to put some sort of real-world perspectives on your tech? Well, you can do that. Hard science fiction does it all the time, but they run the risk of being shown up by the onward march of human ingenuity and understanding.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that you have to put something down for one of your gadgets.

Here’s what I would do: I would figure out the modern measurement equivalent and then either quintuple or sextuple the order of magnitude.  I ran into a situation like this in The Backwards Mask when I had to give an indication of how large a particular hard drive was aboard the Hornet.  I didn’t want to make the same mistakes as Boojum Hunt, so I first thought of how large the ‘Canary Drive’ was in 21st century terms. I’m used to thinking of gigabytes (109 bits) in the here and now, so I then kicked it up to yottabytes (1024 bits). BTW, a single yottabyte equals a quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) gigabytes.

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That’s a big Twinkie.

As astronomical as that number may seem, there may come a day when devices store hundreds of yottabytes of information, and it’s no big deal anymore. They might look at my description of the Canary Drive and laugh to themselves at my short-sightedness.  Well, I think I’ve bought myself a few decades before that happens. If folks are still reading my book in 30 to 40 years, I still call that a win.

So, what’s the upshot of all this? I consider scalability an important tool in my writer’s toolbox. You can use it to bring technology up to the reader’s level of understanding (truly state-of-the-art) so it doesn’t get overrun by actual science quite as easily.  Of course no science fiction is bulletproof, but scalability at least allows it wear to Kevlar.