Tag Archives: Golden age scifi

Putting Science in Story Telling

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Introduction

On May 14th, 2014 I had the opportunity to talk at the Wasatch Institute of Technology “Hour of Code” held at the Adobe Systems campus in Lehi, UT. I talked about “Putting Science in Storytelling” to students of all ages interested in STEM subjects.

What this is about

This presentation is about how to put science into your stories. It is about how to make your stories more interesting by thinking about the neat ramifications of good science. The alternative is to tell very familiar stories with familiar but terrible science in them. Clearly many people don’t mind this kind of story, but I do.

We will start by looking at some of these terrible science examples. Then I will talk about how to think about neat science stuff in ways that let you come up with good story ideas that have good science in them.

Then we will do some exercises to let you put these tips into action. So, while I’m talking, I want you to be thinking about a neat invention or science idea that you want to put in a story. And… I want you to think of a neat monster you want to put into a story. Think about those, and when I get finished explaining how to think about them, you’ll get to try these tips I’m giving you out on your inventions and monsters.

OK, let’s talk about getting it wrong.

Getting the science wrong

o Case A: Your character is flying in a space ship going between Earth and Mars. The space ship engine stops. The captain looks scared and says, “The engine stopped. We are going to fall into the Sun!”

What’s wrong with this? The space ship is acting like an airplane, not a space ship. A space ship without power will orbit forever, or close to it, not slow down and crash into the sun.

o Case B: Your character is a contestant playing Jeopardy, but he’s playing from the Moon over a video link.

What’s wrong with this? The distance and the speed of light. The player on the Moon will have a four second handicap compared to players in the studio on Earth.

o Case C: Your character is on the Enterprise. Sulu announces, “We can go Warp 8 now.”

What’s wrong with this? Warp Speed is faster-than-light travel. This is something totally imaginary at this point. But it is being treated like airplane travel — push the accelerator harder and you go faster.

And in the monster category.

o “I’ve been in this cave for ten thousand years.”

What’s wrong with this? “…Really? …Why?” “Get a life!”

These are examples of doing the science wrong. Now let’s talk about how to do it right.

How to think about neat inventions: expected use and surprise uses

Science is neat, but what is really neat is what can be made from understanding science well. It is how science changes how we live that’s really important. So when you’re putting good science in a story, you are talking about how it changes how the characters of the story live. Keep that in mind, deeply in mind. The characters and their lives are there to show off the changes science makes.

With this goal in mind, let’s take a moment to think about what kind of people in real life have to deal directly with this same issue? What kind of people have to say, “That’s neat… now… what can you do with it?”

Right! Inventors! When something is invented, the first use of it — the one that will get money behind it so it gets made — is to replace an existing product, in a way that does what the old product does faster, better and cheaper.

Then, some time after the invention is being made, someone will say, “Hey! You know what else you can do with that…” This is what I call the surprise use of an invention. This is usually the really neat one, this is the one that gets the invention into the history books… and will make your science describing really neat.

These surprise uses are much trickier to think of before the invention happens. But it’s a skill you can learn and master, and when you do your science fiction writing will get… Wow!

Here are some simple examples of surprise uses.

o disposing of bubble gum under tables

o drive-in movies when cars replace horses and carriages

To give you an idea of how widely this concept can be applied, let’s think of human’s strong language skill as an invention. (See my book Evolution and Thought)

How to prepare to do this kind of thinking

The way to prepare to do this kind of thinking is to know lots of stuff about lots of stuff. Learn science. Learn about how we can best explain what is happening in the real world. Learn history. Learn well-taught history and read good history books that are about science and technology being applied. Read about how people’s lives were changed by the changing technology they embraced. Beware of history that’s mostly about promoting a particular political idea or a writer’s editorial opinion about something. These are propaganda in one of its various forms. They will teach you very little about important things that happened in the real world… other than what the producer of this show thinks is important.

Giving your monsters motivations

Very much related to understanding your inventions is understanding your monsters. Think about why they are doing what they are doing? Think about how else they could be spending their time, energy and attention. When you understand those about your monster, then the monster will be acting sensibly, and it will be both more interesting and more dangerous.

Keep in mind point of view: What is this monster thinking about? What is important to this monster? As an example of what I’m talking about think of how a cow living on a dairy farm sees a human? What is the human doing? Who is the master in that situation? Put this kind of change of viewpoint in your story and it will come out quite differently!

Exersize: Evil Emperor of the Galaxy — what does it take to have one? (in essence, impossible, the galaxy is too big)

 

Exercises:

o Describe a neat invention for your story. Tell us the expected use and a surprise use. Most important: How is it going to change how the characters in the story live?

o Tell us about a monster for your story. Tell us why it is there, what it wants to do, and a surprise outcome from those.

 

Conclusion

The heart of putting good science into a story is thinking about, “What difference is this going to make to how the characters live?” Coming up with answers to that will shape the story. It will move it into places that are surprising when compared to familiar story telling techniques.

This is the exciting part of putting good science into stories. And, if you like what I have presented here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.

 

 

 

 

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Writing Hard Sci-Fi Stories

MILTON3 This is the final in the LTUE 2014 series 

Putting “hard science” into a story isn’t has hard as it sounds. The key is figuring out the ramifications of your neat invention or premise. If you have thought those out well, then your story will be consistent and have some “that’s neat!” stuff in it that will impress readers.

Here is a mundane example of thinking through ramifications: Imagine…

o Your character invents chewing gum.

o OK… this is a food, you put it in your mouth like you do jelly beans.

o But unlike jelly beans you have waste, something you don’t want to swallow. (Well, some of us don’t.) This aspect of gum chewing makes it more like eating a banana than jelly beans — you have something to throw away.

o So you’ll need a wastebasket of some sort.

o But… unlike a banana peel ABC chewing gum (Already Been Chewed) is soft, sticky and a small item.

o Voila! A surprise use of the technology. You can dispose of it by sticking it to the underside of a table. Your chewing gum inventor is unlikely to have thought of that use!

This is an example of thinking through the ramifications of a new invention. This process requires inventive and observational expertise — also known as common sense — more than deep theoretical expertise.

I’ll say it again: widespread experience helps with this style of adding science to a story. As you go through life, watch for the neat and unexpected ways people use things. Mixing and matching diverse experiences helps a lot.

Here are some personal examples:

o In 2006 I wrote science essay on why the surface of Venue is so hot: It is simply because the atmosphere is so thick, which makes is so dense at the surface. I came up with this explanation based on some pure physics learned in high school and college (the Ideal Gas Law), mixed with some Hollywood movie hokum, and some practical experience gained by learning to fly airplanes. In 2004 I watched the movie Day after Tomorrow and its portrayal of stratospherically-cold air coming to Earth’s surface. “Hah!” says I while I’m watching, “I’m a pilot. And one of the things I learned in pilot school was that air heats up as it moves to lower and lower altitudes because it is compressing.” So the movie didn’t work for me… but some time later I read an article about Venus in which a scientist proclaimed that runaway Greenhouse Effect was causing the high heat. Nope, I didn’t buy that either, but it stimulated more thinking about Venus… and out came my article.

o I wrote a short story about adventuring in the Ooze Zone of Neptune. (my term) This story started as a personal challenge: How to write some kind of story about people actually doing something in a gas giant’s atmosphere? It took a lot of thinking, but the “Ah-Hah” was realizing that the gas giant’s atmosphere changes from gassy to solid without changing its composition. Example: The interior of Jupiter is mostly metallic hydrogen. The “Ah-Hah” here is that if the top is gaseous hydrogen, and the bottom is metallic hydrogen, there must be a transition layer in between… the Ooze Zone. I then began thinking about what the properties of this Ooze Zone would be. This became the basis for a short story, Pressure Point, in my book The Honeycomb Comet.

o In my short story The Failure I speculate on how cyber beings may first be created: It will happen by accident, and after they are created they will say “Thanks. Bye now!” to mankind and move on to face their own problems and challenges. I came up with this idea by observing the relation between humans and cows, and by imagining what this relation looks like from the cow’s point of view. (that story is here)

These are three examples of how hard science can produce some neat story ideas. The key is wide observation of the world around us, adding some mixing and matching from those wide observations, and then carefully thinking through the ramifications of those mixes and matches. It is the ramifications that will reveal the surprises uses of the technology, and that is start of your really neat story.

Note that when I say something took a lot of thinking, I don’t mean sitting in front of the keyboard waiting for inspiration. When I’m doing a lot of thinking in this sense it means I have this question stored in the “Unsolved Mysteries” file in my brain. I think about these as I walk around, and eat meals, and watch and learn new things. As I’m doing these things, pieces fit together, patterns emerge, and one-by-one some of the unsolved mysteries become solved. And when that happens, then I gleefully hit the keyboard about them.

Here is an upcoming example of what I’m thinking about now, but haven’t written about yet: driverless cars. What difference will driverless cars make to how we live? Based on how the role of cars has evolved in my lifetime, I forecast that car ownership will change dramatically. We will switch to a mostly taxi culture instead of a mostly ownership culture. If a car can simply drive up and carry you away, why bother with such nuisances as finding parking, worrying about maintenance, and even learning to drive? Driverless will be changing how we live, and how we relate to our cars.

And when that change happens, there are further ramifications — surprises. Example: movies about driving cars will take the cultural role that cowboy Westerns did in the mid-20th century. Much more Fast and Furious, anyone? This genre will become cultural nostalgia. There will be change, but there will also be familiarity — driving up and walking into a wild party will replace riding up and walking into a saloon.

The biggest advantage of incorporating more hard science into your stories is that it will take them into strange new realms. If you stay consistent with your premise your story will be different from those previously told. That is because science changes how we live. If you mix in hard science, and think through the ramifications, your characters are going to have to change how they live, and you will have a story that is breaking new ground.

Sometimes incorporating hard science can be hard, real hard. Example: SF writers in the Golden Age rarely wrote about communication revolutions because when communication is too good, people look so silly when they make the mistakes that are common story devices, such as, “I heard a strange noise in that dark room. I’m going in.” Look at a lot of Spielberg’s stuff. (the Jurassic Parks come to mind) Notice that he will often add a story device early on that isolates his characters — they can’t get on the phone or radio and call for help or advice.

I’ve written a lot more on incorporating hard science in my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. Take a look at the book.

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Dealing successfully with originality in stories

fv-bridgeThis was presented at the LTUE 2014 writers conference.

Originality is defined as the ability to think independently and creatively. Another way to put this is: To come up with a new story idea or putting a new twist on a familiar story format.

Originality is praised, but there is a conflict surrounding it that must be recognized: The heart of story telling is to talk about familiar things. If an idea is too original the prospective audience will think, “Huh?”, and move on to something more quickly understandable. So originality that is popular has a lot of familiarity mixed in.

This necessary combination explains a mystery that vexed me for years: When new technology is introduced into something like a business or manufacturing process, the result will be new and surprising ways of doing things. When new technology is introduced into an entertainment process, the result will be the same old stories told with different bells and whistles.

The importance of familiarity is the key to this difference.

That said, let’s talk about how to be original.

The challenge in creating original stories is where to mix in the original.

o The originality in Tolkien’s work is his meticulous building of back story — everything has a history. The familiar is the characters working through this rich world he has developed. The hobbits are nice, polite people who are good observers.

o In 1940’s Golden Age science fiction the original was exploring new worlds and new technologies. The familiar was the characters encountering these situations.

o In 1960’s Star Trek the original was introducing characters with different ethnic backgrounds and new roles for authority figures — Kirk is not a “yessir!” military captain. The familiar was the situations they encountered on their strange new worlds.

o In early Harry Potter books (1990’s) the familiar is the British middle school setting. The original is adding magic. In the later stories the familiar is the main characters and Hogwart’s setting. The original is the quirky new teachers and administrators.

o In the 2010’s Swords and Sorcery genre the familiar is the monsters. The original is the gender roles. Conversely, in the Twilight series the familiar is the lead damsel character and the original is the friendly sparkly vampires.

The key is mixing familiar and original. And keep in mind that what mixes will work and what won’t are still unpredictable. …Sparkly vampires, you say?

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Xenobiology 101

Glen-canyon-02Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE sci-fi con.

First, a definition: Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrobiology

The search for alien life, xenobiology, has changed a lot over the last century. In science fiction it has changed from John Carter adventuring among the various colors of “men” on a civilized Mars to Curiosity and Opportunity exploring a currently dry, barren planet surface that may have had water billions of years ago, and even more maybe, some kind of life.

The search for life on other worlds can be broken into two broad categories: searching for where humans can thrive (terraforming) and searching for what other life systems are out there (xenobiology).

At this stage it seems that carbon-based life occupies a distinct niche in the universe of life-making possibilities. It is hugely prolific in terms of both amount and variety of materials involved and the complexity of what can be created with it. There don’t seem to be any systems that are “sort of like it, but not the same”, such as silicon-based life or life with chlorine gas as the oxidizer rather than oxygen.

There may be other, way more different, styles of making life such as some kind of life living in solar plasma, but if they exist these are so different they are hard to identify and would be even harder to communicate with. Solar plasma life, for instance, would likely have a life span of milliseconds rather than years because things move around so fast and energetically in plasma.

Given all of the above big issues, where are we likely to find life we can identify?

Searching for life means searching for anomalous relations in energy flow. Example: Oxygen gas is highly reactive. It’s not going to exist for long in any environment that has large quantifies of reducing agents available, such as carbon, hydrogen or metals. The fact that Earth’s atmosphere has a lot of native oxygen in it is a sign that something is “pushing” the atmosphere and surface chemistry of Earth into an odd state, and has been doing that pushing a long time and pushing hard. That pushing is life. If we see other environments where the flow of entropy is being locally reversed in a dynamic way, as Earth’s atmosphere is, that’s a place to be looking for life. However, entropy and free energy flows are not quick and easy to measure, so this kind of research takes time.

And most life is not likely to be a prolific as Earth’s life is. The more likely version will resemble life around thermal vents deep in the oceans. It will be sparse and simple, which will make it hard to locate. Searching for life on the average planet or moon will be like prospecting for gold on Earth.

In sum, the search for xenobiology is not going to be an easy one.

For more information check out my two essays Special life-creating things about the Earth and Another Miracle of Life on Earth: Its Magnitude. Both of these are also in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book.

 

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The Curse of the Jungle/Ice/Desert Planet

three-ladies-01Golden Age Planets

Frenchman Jules Verne’s writings started coming to America in the 1850’s. These started out as adventure stories about visiting exotic places on earth using futuristic traveling technology. They were popular and the technology of the stories and locales visited steadily got more exotic. With the popularity of these stories as an inspiration, other writers started using exotic travel technology to visit other planets and describe their exoticness. Thus began science fiction’s rise as a popular genre.

In the 1890’s and 1900’s astronomy was thriving as telescopes were getting bigger and better. Instead of just dim points of light in the sky planets became blurry images. (Crystal clear wasn’t going to happen as long as one had to look through earth’s turbulent atmosphere. This is why stars twinkle.)

One person who jumped on this astronomy bandwagon in a high-profile way was Bostonian Percival Lowell. He pushed the trend along by building bigger telescopes in the clear, thin, dark air atop the high mountains in Arizona — a lonely place in those days. From these he personally spent hours and hours observing Mars over many years, and popularized the idea that Mars was covered with canals — as he called them — that may have been built by civilized beings — he further speculated. His speculations fired the science fiction writing about ancient civilizations on Mars that became part of the Golden Age of science fiction writing — the 1930’s-50’s. These Golden Agers were not the first, H. G. Wells, for instance, wrote War of the Worlds in 1897, but they were prolific and built up a standard. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars first appeared in 1912, and the series that followed became an icon of the civilized Mars concept.

And, if Mars could have alien beings, why not other planets? Venus quickly joined the parade. Because it was Earth-sized and totally white cloud covered, sci-fi writer logic called for it to be a jungle planet.

Astronomers of the 1920’s, with physicists watching over their shoulders, observed more, deduced more, and determined that the other planets were not nearly as hospitable. The gas giants were too big and too cold, Mercury was too small and too hot, and the Moon was airless, waterless and had nothing resembling Martian canals. That left the big three — Venus, Earth and Mars — plus yet-to-be-observed planets around other stars.

Then in the 1960’s astronomical harsh reality got really harsh. With radar observing Venus’ surface, satellite telescopes observing all the planets from above the atmosphere, other satellites flying close by the planets, and one or two landing on the surfaces of Venus and Mars, it became real clear that neither Mars or Venus was currently harboring civilized life, or any kind of life, and the Golden Age for space stories was over. All that was left was Star Trek with its totally imaginary Warp Drive as a way to get from star to star quickly.

But it turns out the desire for space stories on distant planets is still strong. And given that, what can be said about these three styles of worlds?

World Benefits

Each of these world styles offers different setting benefits to the story teller.

Staging a story on a desert world has the benefits of simplicity and visibility. Life is simple on the desert world — keep moving and find water — and little is hidden in the clear air and endless vistas. A close cousin of the desert world is the post-apocalypse world. This is another style of world where simplicity is the virtue.

Conversely, hiding things is the biggest benefit of a jungle world. How many stories in jungle settings have held a “lost city”? (Or if the writer is on a low budget, a lost mine.) Jungles are all about losing things.

Ice worlds offer interesting architecture — things such as glacier crevasses, ice caves and ice palaces. They also offer exciting geodynamics — crashing cliffs and avalanches and hopping across floating ice chunks.

The disadvantages to all of the above is they are cliches — they have all been done many, many times.

Here are some suggestions for moving beyond these common uses:

Desert worlds reveal easily, so have them reveal interesting things. This can be interesting geology of various sorts, such as the climate used to be different, or culture was different. On a desert world military maneuvers can be seen on a grand scale, and the culture being fought over is likely to be simple and sparse. An example in real life is the fun writers have had with the North African campaigns of World War II — featuring German general Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, and Bernard Montgomery his British nemesis.

In addition to hiding things, jungles offer complexity. This is a setting where interactions between living things is complex and that can produce neat surprises. I’ve seen just two stories take advantage of this, and I liked them both. One was Symbiotica written by Eric Frank Russell in the early 1940’s, and the other I can’t remember. Use a jungle setting to reveal variety in lifestyles and interesting interdependencies, as in, ecology stuff. Having living styles that aren’t taking place in cities, lost or otherwise.

Ice worlds can be settings for “Journey to the center of the earth”-type stories. It’s much easier to have extensive ice caves and to build ice tunneling machines than it is to do so in hard rock.

21st century exotic planets

Now, in the 21st century, astronomy has advanced even more. And… we can now detect, and in some cases even barely see, the planets of other star systems! We have broken the eight planet barrier. Yay! This means we SF writers can once again be seriously speculating about what other planets are like. (Here is an 11 Jan 14 Economist article, Planetology comes of age, discussing the state of the art in 2014.)

But we don’t have to wait or go that far away to see good examples of other exotic world styles. It turns out the larger moons of the gas giants are ice worlds on the outside, and some may be liquid on the inside. One of the more exotic is Titan, the moon orbiting Saturn. Titan is an ice world with a thick atmosphere. Ice worlds with thick atmospheres that are not gas giants are not common. Titan is the only planet/moon in the solar system with this combination. The large moons of Jupiter are icy, but don’t support thick atmospheres. The planets Neptune and Uranus are icy but so pressurized deep down that the structure of the materials changes. The common compounds, such as water ice, phase shift into exotic forms. These will be very difficult for humanity to interact with using the materials we know of today. Conversely, on Titan the ice is water ice as we know it, the atmosphere is nitrogen plus organic smog, and it supports liquid ethane/methane lakes at its poles. This is exotic, real, and with quite possible real-world technology, it can be human inhabitable.

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Thoughts on the Short Fiction of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov

Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE scifi con.

Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury were two pillars of Golden Age science fiction, but they had different backgrounds and different writing styles.

Isaac Asimov spent much of his life in New York City and Boston. He got degrees in chemistry and became a professor at Boston University after getting his PhD. For much of his life he was a teacher, and while he was doing that he was also writing furiously. From Wikipedia, “Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His books have been published in nine out of ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.” Much of his writing was science-oriented and the science fiction part was a subset of that.

In contrast, Ray Bradbury was Los Angeles and entertainment oriented. From Wikipedia, “The family lived about four blocks from the Uptown Theater on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, the flagship theater for MGM and Fox. There, Bradbury learned how to sneak in and watched previews almost every week. He roller-skated there as well as all over town, as he put it ‘hell-bent on getting autographs from glamorous stars. It was glorious.'” And this shaped his writing style. Once again from Wikipedia, Bradbury says of his style, “First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time — because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”

That said, many readers think of his work as science fiction.

Given these differences in background, it’s not surprising their styles are different. What they have in common is internal consistency. Once either author lays down a premise, they stick with it and do a good job of exploring its consequences.

Take a look at Asimov’s I, Robot series of short stories. The consistent premise here is that robots have the “Three Laws” built into their thinking — a concept Asimov came up with so he could explore robots that didn’t have “I’m taking over the world.”-issues. From there Asimov puts the robots into different settings, in space and on Earth, and gives them different capabilities. He plays to his strength as a science teacher by mixing in high school level physics and chemistry. He plays to his strength as a visionary by having the robots advance rapidly in capabilities from story to story.

A longer example of his concept exploring is the novel End of Eternity. In this he takes the time machine concept and thinks about it a bit. What he comes up with is not just a single machine, as H. G. Wells did, but a well-organized human organization that deals with this as an invention — we have a time machine industry, not just a single time machine. He then goes a step further and gives this human organization goals for their efforts — essentially to stop wars and unrest. Then he introduces other humans who object to that goal: The people of the future who miss out on the opportunity to settle the stars because human civilization has been so peaceful it stagnates rather than advancing. Out of this premise mix comes an interesting and innovative story that has nothing to do with interfering with famous real world historical events — that cliche is neatly dodged. The familiar part that is companion to this innovation is the love story between a diligent time worker and a mysterious lady from the future.

An example of concept exploring in Bradbury’s writing is his short story The Veldt in The Illustrated Man. In this Bradbury does a nice depiction of what is today called a “smart house”. This story was written in 1950 so the smartness is not computer based, but it is smart nonetheless. The fun part is he explores the consequences of that on the lifestyle of the family living there. The smartness is original, the familiar part of this story is the theme: He is moralizing against rampant consumerism, which was a common concern in the mid-20th century. The other Illustrated Man stories explore other popular social concerns of the 1950’s such as racism and the devastation of nuclear war.

These short stories are an example of something else as well: If you are writing about a concept, as versus writing about characters, the story tends to be much shorter and sweeter — telling about concepts takes a lot less time.

All of these stories are good examples of the virtue of paying attention to internal consistency, which I cover in the next section in more detail.

 

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2013 LTUE panel notes

Shillara-02-400Introduction

In February 2013 I had the opportunity to talk on several panels at the Life, The Universe, and Everything Writers Symposium (LTUE) held in Provo, Utah. What follows are notes on what I talked about in those various panels.

The panels were:

o The Importance of Internal Consistency to Story Telling
o Xenobiology
o What Can You Do With Robots?
o Screenwriting and Scriptwriting
o Using History and Folklore to Enrich Your World
o The Engines of Exploration
o Space Travel without Warp Drive

Importance of Internal Consistency in Story Telling

Internal consistency in story telling is important, more important than is generally recognized. The evidence for this oversight is movies such as “Immortals” and “Prometheus” and “Skyfall”. All these movies were badly damaged by inconsistency.

There are three big advantages to paying attention to internal consistency. The first is that your readers/audience won’t be facepalming, giggling or headscratching as they get halfway through your story. They won’t be saying, “Eh? You’re saying what happened?”

The second is that internal consistency will lead your story into new and interesting twists. The ending will be “Neat!”, rather than “Been there, seen that.”

And finally, readers/viewers will like going back. If the story is consistent it’s readable over and over.

I’m going to use Prometheus as a bad example, and one of my own stories with a similar theme as a good example: “Where does the 500LB alien sleep?” (found here and in my book Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol.1) Both have the theme of encountering a planet with alien civilization on it that can potentially be hostile or harmful.

Here are just three inconsistency highlights from Prometheus:

o starship lands on the planet

o no satellite surveillance before or during landing

o “The air is breathable,” everyone takes off their helmets

These are straight out of cheesy 1950’s SF movies. We know better now. Ever since the Enterprise we have known that starships don’t land on planets, they send down shuttles. There is a lot of solid engineering behind this reality.

The crew gets surprised by a wind storm. Neat visual effects but… why did they get surprised? What bozos!

And speaking more of bozoism, I guess none of this crew ever read War of the Worlds. Taking off helmets! The other-than-dying-from-disease-problem with this is that nowadays environment suits such as these are the “outer me” — they have a lot of monitoring and communication built in. Pulling off the helmet disables about 80% of the suit capability. Whew! Once again, how Ed Woods!

And the cumulative effect of all this inconsistency is to destroy story credibility: It can’t be a good story because it’s so silly!

Now let’s look at a good example:

My goal in “500LB Alien” was to put a creature on the surface that was truly scary — something that could do serious damage to the crew, and humanity, if mistakes were made. I chose a “Thing”-style creature, one that could imitate. Brr! That style give me serious creeps!

That choice made, now the consistency elements come in, and the first big questions is:

o How did that creature get there?

OK… it evolved there. It’s native.

o Why did it evolve?

… In response to evolutionary pressure. Something was promoting it, and killing off more normal competitors.

o What?

… Hmm… Robots! Killer robots! These robots were killer robots gone wild. There had been a war, they had been set loose, they had gotten off program. They had killed off all the animal life on the surface, and been doing so for millions of years, long enough for the “critters” to evolve in response to them. The critters imitated robot technology, then infiltrated the robot infrastructure and screwed it up.

OK, now I had a consistent world for humans to approach. It was populated with robots and critters who were engaged in a now-neverending battle for survival.

Next, how are the humans going to approach this world?

This is where consistency leads to creativity. In this story the humans never do land on this planet. They research from space. In the story we see what the human probes see, and that becomes a mystery as the critters start taking over the human probes.

And to add drama when the humans decide to cut bait — this place is too dangerous — the robots give chase! Whoops!

o Why chase the humans?

…Um…Um… Because the robots are smart and they want human help! They know they are on the rocks and the humans, being star travelers, should have some advanced tech that can help them solve this mess!

And so, by being consistent, this story has taken some really neat turns and twists. This is an example of the benefit of being consistent.

Being consistent is especially important in mysteries because inconsistencies are clues.

Being consistent is like good journalism. Ask the “5 W’s and H” questions and come up with good answers.

Again, the benefit is a strong story and one that readers and viewers can come back to and enjoy over and over. Lord of the Rings is a wonderful example of enjoyable consistent writing, the movies after the first one, less so.

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Xenobiology

First, a definition: Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrobiology

The search for alien life, xenobiology, has changed a lot over the last century. In science fiction it has changed from John Carter adventuring among the various colors of “men” on Mars to Curiosity and Opportunity exploring a currently dry, barren planet surface that may have had water billions of years ago and some kind of life.

The search for life on other worlds can be broken into two broad categories: searching for where can humans thrive (terraforming) and searching for what other life systems are out there (xenobiology).

At this stage it seems that carbon-based life occupies a distinct niche in the universe of life-making possibilities. It’s hugely prolific in terms of both amount and variety of materials involved and the complexity of what can be created with it. There don’t seem to be any systems that are “sort of like it, but not the same”, such as silicon-based life or life with chlorine gas as the oxidizer rather than oxygen.

There may be other, way more different, styles of making life such as some kind of life living in solar plasma, but if they exist these are so different they are hard to identify and would be even harder to communicate with. Solar plasma life, for instance, would likely have a lifespan of milliseconds rather than years because things move around so fast and energetically in plasma.

Given all of the above big issues, where are we likely to find life we can identify?

Searching for life means searching for anomalous relations in energy flow. Example: Oxygen gas is highly reactive. It’s not going to exist for long in any environment that has large quantifies of reducing agents available, such as carbon, hydrogen or metals. The fact that Earth’s atmosphere has a lot of native oxygen in it is a sign that something is “pushing” the atmosphere and surface chemistry of Earth into an odd state, and has been doing that pushing a long time. That pushing is life. If we see other environments where the flow of entropy is being locally reversed in a dynamic way, as Earth’s atmosphere is, that’s a place to be looking for life. However, entropy and free energy flows are not quick and easy to measure, so this kind of research takes time.

And most life is not likely to be a prolific as Earth’s life is. The more likely version will resemble life around thermal vents deep in the oceans. It will be sparse and simple, which will make it hard to locate.

In sum, the search for xenobiology is not going to be an easy one.

For more information check out my two essays Special life-creating things about the Earth and Another Miracle of Life on Earth: Its Magnitude. Both of these are also in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book.

 

What Can You Do With Robots?

Robots are a wonderful example of what I call “The Birds and Boeings” phenomenon: There is a vision which inspires inventors, but what they produce comes out very differently from the inspiring vision. In the case of flying the inspiration was birds, and jet planes are the product of that vision. Jet planes and birds fly, but that’s about all they have in common. We still haven’t seen airplanes for humans that will let us routinely land in trees or even on front lawns.

Robots are having a similar trajectory in their development. The inspiring vision for robots was the robot butler — robot personal assistant. An early famous example of this was Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet who later became “robot” in “Lost in Space” famous for saying, “Danger! Will Robinson”. The first widespread implementation of real-world robots was as painting machines in auto assembly plants. They and Robbie both had computer brains, but little else in common. As with human-carrying planes that can land on front lawns, the robot butler is still a long way from reality.

So the question of what robots can do must be amended to what can robots do effectively? That’s a lot, but far from everything. They can explore Mars, they can answer phones, they can clean floors. In the near future they will drive cars.

In the near future they are likely to shoulder most of the burden in manufacturing and service jobs. When that happens the question then becomes “What can humans do?” The answer to that is, “Things that depend on human instinctive thinking, and top of that list is entertainment.” This question of human-robot relations in fifty years is a question I’m devoting a lot of thinking to these days. Here are some speculations.

 

Screenwriting and Scriptwriting

Movie script writing is a form of story telling, but it is different from prose story telling. It is different in many ways. The first is that the layout on the page is both standardized and distinctly different from prose. Another is that what is talked about and how it is talked about are different: movies have hard limits on their length, and they are much more “show me, don’t tell me” than prose is.

The best way to deal with the first issue — proper formatting — is to get a script writing software package and master it. There are several available, some costly, some free.

And here’s a related tip from this grizzled computer veteran: whichever ones you work with, save your final results in both the native format and some widely read second format such as Word or Adobe PDF. Do this because companies change and with them their support for proprietary formats — if your Scriptwriting company closes its doors, or even just moves on, your native format files could become unreadable.

Beyond that, read scripts. Pay attention to how things are described. Oh, and expect that your prose writing will change as you become more sensitive to the issues of screenwriting. If you look at the Harry Potter series you’ll see that about book five J. K. Rowling changes her style to get more visually oriented — she’s been reading the scripts of her books and it’s spilling over.

 

Using History and Folklore to Enrich Your World

History and folklore are invaluable in story building because human thinking is relatively unchanging — a good story can be a good story for generations and the history of exciting events is told for thousands of years. This means that incorporating parts of a good story or well-known history into your work will be comfortable for readers. It helps build familiarity.

You can use elements of an existing good story, or come up with your own. An example of using an existing good story shows up in a couple of my stories: I have the protagonist meet Aladdin and his genie. (here’s one) The reader is familiar with the Aladdin story, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining him. I introduce him, then get the story moving along. (I spend a little time explaining him because I modify him for my stories. I give him different motivations.)

A wonderful example of creating background pretty much from whole-cloth is the Lord of the Rings series. Tolkien does a wonderful job of building back story — so wonderful that I love the appendices of Book Three as much as I love all the other parts. The big benefit of his background story building is that it builds the internal consistency of the main story, and internal consistency is one of the big reasons I read it again and again. It makes it great.

So, yes, use folklore in your stories. Don’t plagiarize, but do incorporate. Doing so will help make your story familiar and comfortable to readers and you can get it moving along faster. (An example of lots of incorporation is my Technofantasy book Rostov Rising.)

 

The Engines of Exploration

People explore strange new worlds for two reasons: for the fun of it and to make money. It is the latter people who fuel lots of exploration. If your world is going to have commerce — lots of people moving in lots of craft — there has to be lots of money being made.

After some people have become rich beyond imagination, then the people with causes can join in on the parade because the parade will be a big one.

An example of this difference is the difference in what happened after Eric the Red found North America and Columbus found it. Eric came back and his people said, “That’s nice…” and did little. History nearly forgot him. When Columbus came back, millions of people and dollars started moving across the Atlantic — that’s why we celebrate Columbus Day, not Eric the Red Day.

In contemporary times Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren are facing this same fading issue. With no humming-and-buzzing Lunar or Martian colonies following them, they are becoming, “That’s nice…”

Over time, commerce gets more mundane. These days, there is solid profit in moving stuff around the world, but not amazing profit. In your world building you need to decide which era your commerce is in: just being developed, or now taken for granted.

I’ve written a lot more on this topic here and in my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. Take a look at the book.

 

Space Travel without Warp Drive

Writing stories with only slower-than-lightspeed travel (STL) presents a big challenge, but it can be done and the results are very rewarding because they will take you out of the standard Space Opera story-making format. You will get interesting and surprising results.

Rocketry revolutionized space travel. Before its feasibility was recognized SF writers were launching people into space with cannon, and saying nothing about how they would stop when they arrived — H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is an example.

Rocketry was the game changer that opened up Golden Age science fiction of the 1940’s. Ahh… but then came the harsh reality of the 1960’s. Because chemical-based fuel is so heavy and nuclear proscribed as too dangerous to mess with, real rocketry became the boost-and-coast variety — which is soooo slow! It’s good for getting probes around the solar system and people to the Moon, and that’s about it.

In response to this harsh reality writers either abandoned space stories or turned to warp drive in its many incarnations to get around that long journey problem. Nice, but not a hope of being real. And it introduces a story-telling consistency problem: If everywhere can be gotten to quickly, everywhere becomes a suburb of LA. Over time, why should there be any differences between LA and Zeeopolis on Planet X orbiting Alpha Centauri? “Want a DVD of Avatar on Zeeopolis? No problem, I’ll warp drive it.”

An alternative I researched that has a possibility of becoming real is constant acceleration propulsion — the engine keeps pushing throughout the journey. This makes the journey a lot faster than boost-and-coast — traveling around the solar system drops from years to days or weeks, and nearby stars can be reached in years, not millennia. We don’t have it yet because fuel is such a big problem, but it’s physically possible…

I then took up the challenge of writing an interesting space exploration story with constant acceleration propulsion at its heart. I drew a lot from the history of the sailing ship breakthrough that let Europeans sail to the Far East — a years-long but hugely profitable journey. The result is The Honeycomb Comet, and it’s an interesting result. It’s not your daddy’s space opera story! I have also written at length about constant acceleration space travel in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book. If you’re interested in exploring constant acceleration stories, start with these two.

Conclusion

The LTUE panels covered a rich trove of writing topics. I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate. I hope these notes prove equally inspirational to you. And, if you like what you are reading here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.

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Golden Age SciFi

Golden Age science fiction, written in the late 1930’s through the mid-1940’s, was written during a time of tremendous science and technology excitement in the world. Physics had just discovered atomic power, quantum mechanics, and relativity; astronomy was discovering what the planets were composed of and how really big the universe is; Sigmund Freud was revolutionizing psychology; Henry Ford was demonstrating how real the miracle of mass production could become, and the totalitarians and socialists were showing that liberal ideals were not the only way to lead mankind into industry and out of misery. These were exciting times, full of change. (much as we experience today)

Possibilities in space travel and social control resonated strongly with the emotions of readers. Pre-Golden Age writers Jules Verne and H. G. Wells could only imagine people being shot into space from cannons, and that never sounded pleasant or terribly real. Newly invented liquid-fueled rockets, on the other hand, opened up wondrous possibilities. That, combined with the possibilities that nearby Mars harbored ancient civilizations and Venus was a jungle planet, fired the imaginations of writers and readers.

Likewise, Freud was bringing science to the study of the mind, and the totalitarians were demonstrating that new communications technologies such as weekly news reels in movie theaters and radio really could mobilize people to do great works. This was the time of colorful Nazi political rallies that became fodder for those news reels and FDR’s Fireside Chats which became memorable on the table-size radio that was becoming a living room fixture in American households. Science fiction writers were exploring how practical psychology could be used for diagnosing and mind control.

What changed in the fifties and sixties was increased knowledge in those areas that had SpaceSunrisebeen fun mystery. Space travel actually happened, and it turned out to be more expensive and slower than was imagined. Venus turned from possible jungle planet into super-hot hellhole. Mars got cold and empty, the canals indicating civilization were an optical illusion. The stars got really far away — rocketry was not a solution — they became accessible only by clearly imaginary propulsion systems such as warp drives. Socialism and totalitarianism transformed into the gloomy USSR and the Cold War.

In short, the cheap and easy science thrills were gone. <sigh> And what has replaced them are cheap and easy fantasy thrills.

What I am attempting with Child Champs and my other Tales of Technofiction stories is to move on: To reveal what the next generation science and technology-related thrilling stories can be about.

They won’t be the same. The tools have changed so the stories will be different. But that’s exactly what makes them exciting.

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