Tag Archives: Writing process

Backwards Compatible – Part 7: Double Vision

[Note: It’s been almost two years since the last installment of this series. Since there’s been something of a resurgence of The Backwards Mask lately, I think it deserves a continuation. This series was meant to inform folks of the odd experience of writing my first novel, and this part explains some of the confusion surrounding it.]

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Fun Fact: Foreigner’s hit “Urgent” was an oft-repeated song on my writing playlist for this book.

To recap, I found myself with the opportunity to complete a trilogy that had been started by another author, Paul Brunette. This new book had to pull double duty as both the conclusion of a trilogy, wrapping up the loose ends set up in the first two books, as well as a standalone novel since years had passed since the previous volume in the series.

I finally had the dark counterpart for to challenge my antagonist, and the stage was set for a final showdown between the two them. Development of the manuscript continued as I finally began to find traction with each character. Many of them were inherited from the previous books, so it took a while for them to really speak to me, and for me to make them my own. Everything just sort of clicked.

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Full speed ahead, Colonel Sanders!

 

Some of the most intense writing sessions I’ve ever had occurred during this time. Understand, I’m a pretty slow writer. Maybe not GRRM slow, but I’m lucky to write 500-750 words in an hour when I’m really on it. Once during this time, I wrote more than 13,000 words, with minimal errors, in a session lasting only a little more than three hours. That goes to show how dialed in I was to the character and the stories.

It was so strong…(How strong was it?)

It was so strong…that a character I fully intended to kill off in an escape attempt utterly defied me. I tried several ways to kill this character and nothing worked. She survived until the end of the story. (I’ll leave you guessing which one it was.)

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A life of its own, indeed.

At this point, the manuscript was about 80% done, and it was pretty long already. Still, everything was coming together. I knew what needed to happen. Now I just needed to get it down on paper. And that’s when it happened…

Paul Brunette’s version of The Backwards Mask surfaced online, on a fan fiction site. Neither I nor Marc Miller had any clue that it existed. As far as we knew, it had been discussed before Game Designer’s Workshop closed its doors in the ’90s, but never written.

But there it was, staring us in the face. Worse, (for me, at least) it was complete. Suddenly all the work I had put into the project seemed in jeopardy. I was an outsider to the series, and my book wasn’t finished. Here was a manuscript, by the original author, that was done and ready to go. Further, I was afraid that fans of Traveller or the first two Brunette novels would see his version as the ‘real’ version, and mine as some sort of weird exercise in fan fiction, or relegated to ‘rogue’ status. You know, like Never Say Never Again, the Bond film that doesn’t ‘count.’

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Not exactly what I had mind…

Thankfully, Marc Miller didn’t kick me to the curb. Instead, he made the decision to make both versions of The Backwards Mask available to the public. So you see, that is why there are two versions of the book floating around out there.

Naturally, this has led some to ask me: Did you take any cues or inspiration from the Brunette version? The answer is simple – no.

I made it a point not to read any of the other version until months after I had already turned my finished manuscript into Marc Miller. Even then, I got a few chapters in before I decided to read no more. To this day, I’ve never read it to completion. Not because it’s bad, but because it is uniquely weird to me as a reader.

It took me about three years to write The Backwards Mask. If you’ve read this blog series from the beginning you can see that there were many obstacles I had to overcome as far as finding a direction, guessing at the previous author’s intent, and generally trying to deliver the best book I could. After all that, reading the other version was like looking into some Twilight Zone/alternate timeline where I hadn’t put in hours upon hours exploring the mindset of the characters, plotting out action sequences, or rewriting whole tracks of dialogue.

I never realized how much ownership I had put into my manuscript until I began reading someone else’s take on the material. It’s a kind of weirdness that only affects me, but I just couldn’t read it. I still can’t. Even though I didn’t create Coeur, Dropkick, Crowbar, and Deep Six, I still feel the connection I forged with them years ago. Writing the final lines of the last chapter was bittersweet. Coeur’s frame of mind closely mirrored mine as the story came to a close.

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“Then again, all good things must come to an end.”

So now there were two versions of The Backwards Mask slated for release, and we were on the countdown to launch. And next time, we’ll talk about my scramble to get everything ready for publication.

[Check out The Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Garden of the Gods: An Interview with Author Stephen J. Stirling

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen J. Stirling about his latest novel, Garden of the Gods. I was lucky enough to read it early and found it to be an concise and poignant thriller. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes what I call ‘introspective action.’ That is, the kind of book that is action-packed, but keeps you pondering its message and themes for days afterward.

This is something of a first on this blog, but it has given me the idea on having other authors on to talk about their work. For now, though, let’s talk to the man himself about Garden of the Gods!

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Hello, Stephen. We’re so glad to have you on Sector M! I always appreciate the opportunity to speak with another author about their methods and body of work. So, if you’re ready, let’s dive right in, shall we?

Thank you for having me! I always enjoy my chats with the leadership of Sector M and our glimpses into the future.

Let’s talk about your latest book, Garden of the Gods. Without giving too much away for readers, what can you tell us about the story and your influences for it?

The story itself revolves around a Native American tribe in the northeast Arizona desert. But Garden is largely a statement about worship—any worship—how it enriches our lives and what belief for each of us is really all about. The fact that we live in an age that needs religion so badly was the driving force behind writing this story.

I remember that Alan Moore used to say that the plot of a story is wholly different from what it’s about, meaning the themes, allegory, morals, and all that good stuff. So, what is Garden of the Gods about?

Well, Garden of the Gods is about Native Americans, their rich heritage, their connection with the past, and their hope for the future. . . (and it is also about monsters). But to call it a simple action/adventure would do the story a disservice. The story’s subplot proves that every resolution within this book was motivated by faith, or the lack of it.

The book is a period piece, in more than one sense of the term. What kind of research and preparation did you do about the time period, the various species you include, and native tribes when writing it?

The American southwest is a treasure of unique people and, as of yet, not wholly discovered zoological life. It is a human and animal ecosystem in constant flux, breathing and pulsating with the drama of life. Writing is a funny thing. You begin researching one topic, and end up somewhere entirely different. The Native American people against the backdrop of wartime America was where I tried to focus my research—I wanted to do them and their heritage justice.

When you are writing a book, what is your method? Are you more of a ‘planner,’ who outlines everything in great detail ahead of time, or are you more of a ‘gardener,’ who throws characters into a situation and lets it develop organically without preconceived notions of the outcome? Where you do you fall in that continuum, do you think?

This question is very important, and my answer is—yes. You think you’re one kind of writer who has all the characters lined up and ready to do what they’re told, and suddenly they turn on you. They come out fighting and you’re left to clean up their messes. I guess you could say I fall somewhere in between the two methods.

Let’s talk about your main character, Matt Hayden. He strikes me as being cut from the same cloth as many two-fisted pulp-era adventurers, like Allan Quartermaine and Indiana Jones, and perhaps even a hint of Cussler’s Dirk Pitt. What were your influences and thoughts when creating your leading man?

Hayden is a hero cut from whole cloth, at the same time with a huge wrinkle broadening him into a sympathetic strength that is instantly likable. I did craft him between literature’s Allan Quartermaine and living legend Bring Em’ Back Alive Frank Buck, and yet the combination makes him unique among American characters.

And what about the secondary and/or support characters? What were their roles when placing them into the overall ensemble?

Read the book carefully and you’ll discover that every character has a religious angle. Every character worships something. Every character (even “non-believers”) believes in something. Every character has to fight for something, and every character has to abandon something in the process.

The Nyah Gwaheh, the armored bear, has a very complex role in the story. In some ways it serves as the primary antagonist, but it’s clear that it has a deeper, more symbolic role to play within the narrative. What sort of metaphor does it represent?

The Nyah Gwaheh is a living parable of religious value and the things that we worship, whether we know it or not. He is the driving force of the book.

Any chance or thoughts on a sequel? No pressure…

Oh good, because I don’t see a sequel in the future. I think I’ll leave the characters to their own devices for a while.

This last question is pretty free-form. What would you like the readers out there to know about your book? Anything you like. Here, I’ll hand you the proverbial megaphone.

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Well thank you! I’ve never used a proverbial megaphone before. I’d like to leave you by saying I hope others will find as much joy in reading this book as I found in writing it; and if they find an introspective moment—or two—to contemplate their own spirituality I will have accomplished even more.

Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat, Stephen! It’s been a rare pleasure.

The pleasure is mine! Thank you for your interest in my project and your insightful questions. Talking with you has been a rare treat.

Take care now, and don’t be a stranger!

 

There you have it, folks – right from the source himself. Garden of the Gods is on bookshelves now at Deseret Book stores. It’s also available in print or digital format on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com.

CHECK. IT. OUT.


My Pre-Writing Ritual

Authors are a strange lot. Sure, some may be completely normal-looking on the outside, but there’s something about a person who’s willing to spend hours upon hours plinking away on a keyboard (or writing with pen and paper) that makes them…eccentric. Yes, eccentric. That’s a polite way of putting it.

I’m no exception. In fact, I revel in the knowledge that I’m just a little off. Always have been, always will be. Let me give you an example of the madness to my method. What follows is the ritual I go through before a writing session.

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Brace Yourself – Weirdness is Coming.

1.) The Encounter Suit

Do you know someone (or are someone) who has a game-day jersey, lucky hat or something similar? You know, it’s that article of clothing that can magically make the difference between victory and defeat for a favorite team? Well, I have a similar deal with what I put on before I settle in at my keyboard.

I’ve been known to wear pajama pants when I’m writing, the really eye-blistering plaid kind that look like golf pants gone horribly wrong. Or, it could be jeans or cargos, just so long as they’re comfortable. The real focal point of the garb, however, is the shirt. Most often it’s a printed T-shirt from a band, movie, TV show or something else that I really enjoy. It could be themed after Superman, House Baratheon, or the Official Stirlingites – just so long as it’s a physical representation of something that inspires me.

At times I even don what I refer to as my lumberjack shirt. It’s a black, beige and brick-red plaid shirt with a corduroy collar (yes, you heard that right) that I wear unbuttoned like a labcoat.  It’s a hideous throw-back to the coffee house culture of the 90s, but it also happens to be one of the most comfortable and durable shirts I’ve ever owned. It is, however, quite warm, so it doesn’t come out as much in the warmer months of Texas.

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Remember, you’re never fully dressed without a smile.

Once I’m properly attired, I look sufficiently bizarre to ensure that I spend my time writing and don’t pop out to the grocery store. Although, even in that state, I’m sure I could get away with a trip to Walmart.

2.) Downstairs Pre-flight Checklist

Once I’m ‘in garb,’ it’s time to get all my stuff together for the trip up to my office upstairs. I may grab a light snack just to tide me over or something for an in-flight treat. Generally this takes the form of sliced apples, bananas and perhaps even a few of those individually wrapped wheels of cheese. If I have any reference books downstairs that I might need, I gather them up as well.

That’s when I reach for my cobalt blue U.S.S. Constitution mug, which I bought when I went to go see Old Ironsides in Boston.  I fill it with something hot to drink, either hot chocolate or Earl Grey (the drink of choice for all the best French starship captains!).  I then stir the drink with my TuxedoSam spoon from Yogurtland.  Don’t ask me why I do that; it is simply the way of things.  Iced drinks can sometimes replace this in the mug during the Summer months.

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Onwards and upwards, Mr. Carson. Carry on.

If it sounds like I’m packing for a journey, you’re not far off. My writing sessions run about 3 to 5 hours at a stretch, so I need to make sure that I have everything I’ll need along the way. This is a non-stop flight.

So, once I have all that, I’m ready to make the walk upstairs – balancing all this stuff. I use that slow progression to mentally prepare myself for the scenes I’m about to write. I play them out across the movie screen in my head, trying to get inside the hearts and minds of the characters.

At this point I’m almost ready.

3.) Taking My Station

My office is sometimes known as “The Museum of Matt.” It has a host of my model ships, my reference library and a bunch of toys that somehow survived my childhood mixed in with the new ones I’ve picked up along the way. On my desk alone I have such things as: a model of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, a replica of the famous Egyptian sphinx, the Adam West-era Batmobile and a Warthog from Halo manned by the robots from Real Steel. (Long story). On one side of my monitor I have my autographed copy of Lindsey Stirling’s self-titled album. On the other side, I have my Masterpiece Optimus Prime holding up the Matrix of Leadership.

So, I set everything I’m carrying down on my desk, and I close the door. If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you’ll recognize the significance of that last act. Unless the house catches fire or there’s an alien invasion, the next few hours will be spent in service to the story. Closing the door is a symbolic gesture as well as a practical one.

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You’ve got the touch! You’ve got the power!

I sit down and boot up my computer, then remove anything in my line of sight that doesn’t need to be there. Bill stubs, printouts, past edits – all of that goes away. When I’m nicely settled in, I switch on a brass banker’s lamp. Aside from the light from the monitor, this will be the only light in the office. Like closing the door, pulling the lamp chain is a signal that I’m getting down to the business.

Next, I pull up my playlists and select some appropriate music for what I’m about to write. The lists have names such as “Fleet Action”, “Loss and Sorrow”, “Heroes in Uniform” and so on. Sometimes it’s a single song that really calls to me. Just like a movie soundtrack, my musical selection sets the mood for the emotional states I will attempt to capture.

I take a few minutes to let the music soak in while I continue to visualize the scenes to come. At this point, I’ve taken my station as surely as Sulu sits at the helm or Uhura at the comm panel of the Enterprise. Everything’s in place.

My hands settle on the keyboard. It’s time to write.

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Epilogue:

Do I follow this regimen each and every time I sit down to write? No, of course not. Sometimes there isn’t time to do it all. I’ve found, however, that the closer I get to what I’ve described here, the better and more productive the results. I don’t know why it works, but it does.

I’m not sure what, exactly, this says about me, but I’d like to think it means that I’m a sentimentalist  in my heart of hearts, that I like to surround myself from every angle with those things which hold special significance to me. At that moment, when I’m in my own little microcosm, I can more easily enter the worlds of my imagination.

I guess I’m just weird that way.

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What a strange person.


Backwards Compatible – Part 3: Like Getting Punched By Batman

A quick note before we begin…

Normally I try to keep things upbeat and positive here. This time around, I’m going to offer some criticism, which could be taken as negative. Understand that these are just my personal opinions, and that they are stated here to show you where I picked up on The Backwards Mask. If you are a fan of Paul Brunette’s novels (or are Paul himself), you might want to skip this one.

Still with me? Okay, let’s continue.

I admit that I found the first two novels of the New Era trilogy rather ‘meh.’  Game-based fiction is notoriously hit or miss. To me, game-based fiction should not just be a shallow commercial for the game world it represents as much as a good story that just so happens to take place in that setting. I mean, you can find some of the best and worst examples of game-based fiction in the Dragonlance setting alone. The core books (Chronicles and Legends) are brilliant, and some of my all-time favorites. Outside of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman? Well…

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Results may vary.

So, the first book of the TNE trilogy, The Death of Wisdom, seemed a bit bland, along with the characters and story. There were moments that were really engaging, but they were few and far between. It was not the worst thing I had ever read (far from it), but it was largely on the forgettable side. The premise of the book seemed like it should be far weightier than it came across. They were talking about the possible collapse of the Reformation Coalition, one of the only beacons of human civilization left in an otherwise dark and twisted universe. The characters just seemed rather nonchalant about the whole deal.

The next book, To Dream of Chaos, was better than the first one. It still left much to be desired in my opinion, but the characters seemed much more alive.  Most of the things that bothered me about this book were those staples of the setting itself (more on that later). There were some strange curveballs in there that left me scratching my head in places, but on the whole it was a improvement. It unfortunately left off on a mild cliffhanger.

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What do you think of the story so far, McKayla?

That’s where I stepped in.

As I stated in Part 2, I had no idea where the story was supposed to go from there. I had some ideas, sure, but nothing unified. It was a just a loose mosaic of vignettes and scenes in my head. I knew that the third installment really needed to up the ante, and bring together the struggles of the first and second volumes.  While I couldn’t change the characters, or their names, I could try to make them my own. The same went for the story. It had to be one that interested me or else it would never hold the reader’s interest. I pondered this during my months of research into the setting, and my endless re-readings of the first two novels.

I remember when I finally had my “Eureka!” moment. I had created, and discarded, a dozen ideas of how I could do justice to the story, of how it all might work. Apparently my subconscious had been chewing away at the problems I faced, because when the story came to me, it was all at once. Zowie! It was as though the Adam West Batman had finally knocked some sense into me.

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Holy bolt of unforeseen lucidity, Batman!

There was the story, all laid out in front of me in a strange moment of clarity. Now all I had to do was get it on paper.

Should be simple, right?

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Thinking Around the Periphery

So, I watched World War Z recently.  I’m a fan of Max Brooks and the epistolary tale he created about life during (and after) the zombie apocalypse.  This big-budget  summer blockbuster starring Brad Pitt really only has the name in common with the book, however. While I’m not a huge fan of the zombie genre in general, I went in with an open mind. I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare or Joss Whedon, just a visually stimulating romp through zombie-infested cities.  Even with what could be considered modest-to-low expectations, I did not care for the movie overall. There were far too many coincidences that bothered me, too many things that seemed to ring false.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a movie review, but there’s some spoilage ahead both for World War Z and Star Trek: Into Darkness. If you are allergic to spoilers, and haven’t seen these movies, you should ‘opt out’ now. Consider yourself forewarned.

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Not to be confused with the book, World War Z.

Okay, continuing on…there is one sequence in WWZ that takes place in Jerusalem. It was the breaking point for me. The Israeli government has erected an incredibly tall, seemingly unassailable wall to keep out the zombie swarm. When I say ‘swarm,’ I mean it. The zombies on the other side of the wall look like an overturned anthill or something from A Song of Ice And Fire. The Israelis even have armed helicopters running air patrol around the edge of the wall.

It wasn’t that a young Muslim girl singing over the PA was apparently loud enough to draw the zombies en masse (especially when there are a bunch of helicopters nearby). It wasn’t the zombies piling on top of one another (in what was certainly a concerted effort) to scale the gigantic wall in two minutes that was the breaking point either. No, it was the fact that there were zero guards up on the top of the wall keeping an eye out. When zombies start coming over the wall, everyone is surprised. You would think that if the Israelis were so intent on building this gigantic fortification, that it might look like something from a prison with watchtowers every hundred feet or so.  Nope, the zombies get all the way to the top and start pouring over, catching everyone flat-footed.

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Really? Really?

That scene felt incredibly contrived when I saw it. It felt like that the various screenwriters attached to the project had needed the zombies to get over that wall because A.) It would make a striking visual and B.) Brad Pitt could make a daring escape. I answered my own question, and I didn’t like it.

Q: Why didn’t the Israelis have people on the wall to prevent something like from happening?

A: Because the story wouldn’t have worked if they did.

Of course, every fiction writer lives in the world of convenient contrivances, and I’m no exception. Fiction needs contrivances or else the story might be believable but bland. Say the Doctor lands the TARDIS and finds immediately that he’s in a dangerous situation. If he just said, “Forget it, I’m outta here!” slammed the door and got away, the episode would be extremely short and not very interesting. So, oftentimes the Doctor must stay where he is, or can’t get back to the TARDIS, or there’s something to keep him in the thick of things. I’m pretty forgiving of these contrivances because I see how necessary they are. So long as the justification for the Doctor hanging around (when he should just leave) is acceptable, I can suspend my disbelief long enough share in his adventure.

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I write a blog now. Blogs are cool.

It’s when that justification is weak or too jagged a pill to take that the wheels start to come off of a story. So, it’s that justification that holds things in place around the periphery. Think of a story, or even a specific scene in a book, movie, etc. as a trampoline. The black bouncy part is the scene/story itself while the justifications are like the springs that keep it all in place.  In the case of World War Z, it feels like not enough thought was given to the periphery of that particular scene, and so my suspension of disbelief came crashing down just like I had hopped on a trampoline with only a fifth of its springs.

Let me give you another example, also from a movie. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, there is a scene that really irked me. Kirk and Khan must get from the Enterprise over to the enemy dreadnought, Vengeance.  Conveniently the transporter system is down, but the Enterprise is damaged, so I give them a bit of a pass there. So, Kirk and Khan decide to physically launch themselves across to the other ship using spacesuits. There’s a debris field between the two ships that they have to navigate through to make things interesting. Okay, I’ll bite. The hatch that they have to hit at incredibly high speeds on the Vengeance is extremely small.  Um, sure, a small thermal exhaust port right below the main port. Got it.

Scotty, meanwhile, has infiltrated the enemy ship, and it’s his job to open the hatch when the two space jumpers get close. The controls to open the hatch are in a long, narrow bay with a high ceiling. Here’s the odd thing, though – the hatch is just a hatch, not an airlock. Opening the hatch will decompress that entire large compartment.

Wait, what?

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How my face looked at the time. Maybe I just needed a Snickers.

On a starship wouldn’t you want all of your exits to be airlocks? What purpose does that bay even serve if the whole thing can be decompressed at the touch of a button? Could it be a cargo loading bay, where things either can or must be loaded/unloaded under vacuum? No, the hatch is barely big enough for two men to fit through at the same time. So, why is the hatch even there then? Once again, I answered my own questions.

Q: Why isn’t that hatch an airlock?

A: Because Kirk and Khan would smash into the inside door if it was.

Q: Why is that hatch so small?

A: To artificially inflate the drama of the scene.

Q: Why is the room so long and narrow?

A: So Kirk and Khan have enough room to skid to a halt.

The whole scene unraveled for me right there in the theatre.  My best guess is that the writers came up with the idea for a cool action scene and didn’t spare much on all those elements surrounding it. Once again, a trampoline without springs. Unfortunately, this is a trend I see in movies more and more these days.

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Yeah, in more ways than one.

So, where I am going with all this? This is a plea to fiction writers to think around the peripheries of their stories, the parts that are sitting just outside of the spotlight. I know fiction writers out there already have their hands full creating compelling characters, coming up with exciting storylines and so forth. Even still, please don’t forget to at least give the edges of your stories a once over, maybe even spend some quality time making sure the springs are secure before attempting a backflip.

Can you over-justify a scene? Can you make the springs so big that the black bouncy part is the size of a trashcan lid? Of course you can, but I would much rather be accused of putting far too much thought into something than not enough.


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.

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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.


Why Sci-fi?

Speculative fiction is my ‘thing.’

Fantasy, horror and sci-fi constitute the big three in my book.  They make up a disproportionately large segment of what I love to read, write and watch on TV and movies.  They resonate with the kind of headspace I seem to occupy most of the time. I lovelovelove all three, however, sci-fi is my favorite.  I can say with all certainty that it’s what I love to write more than anything else.

Why is that? Why do starships, aliens and planets trump elves, magic swords and dragons…or blasphemous books, tentacles and the shrieking, ineffable void?

There are a few reasons for this, which I will explain here (the top three, at any rate).  Now realize that this isn’t a case for why sci-fi is better than fantasy or horror, merely why I’m drawn to it as a genre.

1.) Just a Spoonful of Sugar

It’s amazing the amount of social commentary science fiction can pull off without the ruffled feathers you would get if you talked about the same thing in ‘real life.’ In that way, science fiction is an excellent way to talk about something without really talking about it.

Think about it, we can talk about religion, politics, man’s inhumanity to man and the horror and/or necessity of war – all things that can make people truly uncomfortable − if we couch it in a futuristic setting.  It somehow insulates us from the pricklier bits of what the story is trying to get across.

More than that, it’s a way for us to step back from our daily lives and look at some of the problems that surround us today. Even if the story takes said issue/problem/social inequity out of context, we still come away with a (hopefully) new perspective.

A prime example of this is the original series Star Trek episode, “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield.” It starred Frank Gorshin, known for his role as the Riddler opposite Adam West as Batman.  Frank’s character, Commissioner Bele, is tracking a fugitive, Lokai. Bele believes that Lokai and his kind are of an ‘obviously inferior breed.’ Why? Bele’s face is white on the left side and black on the right. Lokai’s color scheme is the reverse. To human eyes, the two aliens look just alike, but this difference of appearance is responsible for incredible amounts of destruction and social upheaval on their home planet of Cheron.

Okay, so the message isn’t exactly subtle; it makes its point with a jackhammer. Even so, it speaks directly to the racial division and strife that was rampant in the 1960s. Do you think that any straight-laced TV show of that time could’ve talked about that issue so openly? Likely not.

STLastBattle

Okay, Frank, we get it.

2.) Possible Futures vs. Alternate Worlds

Most science fiction takes place in the future.  This might seem like stating the blatantly obvious, but there’s something to that. It takes place in the future − our future.

Usually sci-fi stories use the timeline of our real world as a foundation, or at the very least they don’t do away with it completely. Yes, there are always exceptions, such as Star Wars, but I’m talking in general.

For me, the most engaging science fiction stories are the ones that feel like I could jump in my time-travelling DeLorean or blue police box, dial it forward to the proper year and boom, I’m right there in the thick of things. I don’t have to reimagine the world from scratch, I just have to fill in the missing years between when I’m reading the book and the time period of the story.

Consequently, sci-fi feels very organic. It shows you possible futures rather than a completely alternate world that is separate and apart from the one we live in. In this way, sci-fi calls to me a bit more than the fantasy genre. Only in rare cases, such as Lord of the Rings or Conan, is a fantasy story presented as a sort of lost ‘pre-history’ to our world.

So, even though sci-fi takes flight just like other types of fiction, it does so by using us as a springboard.

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Lady Liberty — the sci-fi landmark of choice.

3.) The More Things Change

The humans populating science fiction universes are a lot like us. Even if they live hundreds or thousands of years in the future, they are still understandable to those of us in this time.  Sure, future generations may have figured out a lot of things that we haven’t, such as FTL travel, overcoming disease and hunger, etc. They may even have co-ed showers because gender roles are no big deal anymore.

But they haven’t figured it all out. Most of the time they still have to contend with greed, arrogance, anger, jealousy, hatred, betrayal, war and host of other things that are problematic for us today. Maybe they go to a job but don’t like their boss, or they grapple with the fundamental questions of our existence and place in the universe. They may have access to a host of technological toys that we don’t, but seldom are they that much more advanced than we are right now.

There are reasons for that, of course. The most obvious is that science fiction is written by authors who are relatively contemporary to us. I choose to think of it in a different way, though. I like to think that the inhabitants of the future are like us because that allows us to project ourselves in their place.  If only we had the same training and access to technology, we might be able to trade places with them.

I think that feeling is essential in creating that sense of place in any good science fiction story. I’m convinced that it’s a big part of what draws us into that universe, and keeps us there.

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Some things change.
Marines don’t.

Well, there you have it, folks. I could go on and on, but those are the things that give science fiction a special place in my heart. Of the three branches of speculative fiction, it’s the one that seems the most inclusive to the reader just as we are.

I’m sure that purists of fantasy and horror are even now lining up to point out the flaws in my reasoning. Do you agree with me, disagree or are you just sort of ‘meh’ about the whole deal?

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.