Tag Archives: 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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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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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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Before, During, and After the Singularity

When we plan for most things we use linear extrapolation. Example: “I just got a new job that pays a bundle. Yay! If I save $1000 a month how much will I have at the end of the year?” The linear extrapolation answer is $12,000. But, “If each month I put that $1000 into an investment account earning 10% a year.” then the answer will be different because there is exponential growth involved.

Asking what will happen in 100, 200, 500 years is asking for linear extrapolation, but human knowledge and prosperity are growing exponentially. And if you don’t scare yourself with the kind of “sky is falling”-type worries that power post-apocalypse stories, we don’t yet see a limit to those increases. So the different question must be asked: The Singularity question I posed above.

The Singularity is a concept that has been around a while and popularized these days by Ray Kurzweil and his book The Singularity is Near. The basic idea is that the combination of growing computing power, bioengineering and nanotechnology is going to change things so quickly in the near future that living on Earth will become unrecognizable to mere human mortals. Further, this “flip”, the Singularity, is likely to happen sometime in the 21st century — almost time to Hold your Breath!

I predict a variant on that theme. I predict that higher intelligences will be created, several times and in several ways, but there will still be humans on Earth, and they will still face human problems, the kind we can recognize today. The higher intelligences will come to exist. They will be real. But they will do things and worry about things that humans can’t comprehend, so they will have little impact on human living. We will take them for granted. Think of the relation between humans and the bacteria we evolved from: +99% of bacteria on Earth today don’t have a clue that humans exist, and those few that do interact with us don’t have a clue what we are up to. They just can’t comprehend us, but we both co-exist quite happily on Earth. We will have that relation with the post-Singularity intelligences that spring from human technologies and inventiveness.

Those entities will be writing their own history. For us they will be unthinkable — we will not be able to wrap our heads around what they are or what they do. (I write about this in my story “The Failure” in Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 2.) But we humans will still be around and we will still have plenty of human-oriented day-to-day living to think about. That’s what I’m writing about in Child Champs. We humans will experience things such as driverless cars and Avatar Cruise Ships — cruise ships that sail around from port to port, but don’t have a single person on board — they just carry avatars. Why? They are a lot cheaper and safer and even more fun!

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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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Ed Wood and Aliens Don’t Exactly Mix

I like science fiction, speculative fiction, that explores how technology affects our lives, and is internally consistent. Some recent favorites of mine are the movies “Moon” and “Limitless”. Both portray rich worlds and they explore how a new technology will affect our lives. In the case of Moon it shows off a suprise use of cloning technology and in Limitless it is a pill that enhances thinking. “Prometheus”, on the other hand, I found silly. The effects and characterizations were wonderful, but the story was channeling Ed Wood. The people in that story did not use their tools well.

“Lord of the Rings” is on my favorite list because Tolkien built such depth into that series. I loved it, read it many times, and spent as much time on the Appendixes in the last book as on the rest of it. Lord of the Rings demonstrates the value of a solid back story — all the characters were doing what they did for good reason and I as a reader could sense that.

Early Heinlein works fired me. “Starship Troopers” was what started me on the road to avid science fiction reading. And it continues to be personally interesting because every time I read it I come away with a different impression. When I read it as a teenager the military adventure aspects of it were exciting. I couldn’t wait to be personally “on the bounce” in my own set of power armor! I read it again when the movie version came out and I wasn’t so impressed, it now read like Sands of Iwo Jima in Space, and I’d read a lot of similar stuff through the years.

The movie, by the way, missed the point of the book entirely. They took out the power armor! The soldiers were something out of World War One! But there was a silver lining. The movie mishandling of power armor inspired me to write my own version of how it should be handled. See “The Ticket Out” in Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1.

I read it again a couple years ago, and I liked it better again. I liked his philosophy that demonstrating responsibility to the community should be a criterion for citizenship. However, on this last reading I also noticed a whole bunch of internal inconsistencies — my Technofiction viewpoint was now strong.

Those are a few of my likes and dislikes. You can read more about what I like and don’t, and why, in my Technofiction Reviews in Tales of Technofiction on White World.

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The Challenge

In Child Champs I took on the challenge of writing an interesting story about living one hundred years from now. This was a big challenge because I see humanity as “winning” — this will not be some sort of post-apocalypse world. It will be a rich world, and rich worlds are complex, which makes them a lot harder to write about than the “life is cheap, barbarians are everywhere” story background which has been much more common for stories about the future for decades. When I was growing up it was post-nuclear war apocalypse, now it’s a post-climate change or post-resource exhaustion apocalypse. Child Champs is much more in the style of Fred Pohl in the Heechee series and Isaac Asimov in the Foundation and I Robot series. These, too, are rich world scenarios.

The foundation premises in Child Champs are:

o that human population will peak in the 2050’s then decline slowly. This will happen because humanity will become 90% urban, and prosperous city folk don’t have as many kids as poor country folk.

o that productivity — efficiency in making and using stuff — is going to continue its steady increase. This is important because it means we won’t run out of resources. In our future, as is true now, efficiency and effectiveness are the ultimate “green” — they do a lot more to save our planet than windmills and recycling bins.

o that our lives will have a lot more computer, nanotechnology and bioengineering mixed in — there’s not only an app for that, there’s a gene and a nanodevice as well.

In sum, this is a rich world, a very rich world, and a very probable one.

Then I put my thinking cap on: Given these premises as a starting point, what’s living in this world going to be like? What are humans going to be doing?

As I say as part of my Technofiction introduction on White World, “Technology is the variable. Human thinking is the constant.” The humans inhabiting this rich world are going to be thinking very much like people do today. They are going to have hopes and fears, they are going to have ambitions and frustrations, they are going to take much in their world for granted. (“Driverless cars… Of course, why do you ask about those?”) But the tools available for expressing those very human emotions are going to be different, so the people of that future world will act differently and think about different things.

One thing that will remain near and dear to the heart, and be considered very important, will be having and raising children. That’s why I picked it as theme for this story.

 

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The SciFi Inspiration

I started writing science fiction back in the 1980’s for a very practical reason: I couldn’t find enough new science fiction that I wanted to read. So, I took the “If you want something done right…” attitude and started hammering away on the keyboard. I hit stride on this endeavor in the 2000’s. That’s when I fleshed out the Technofiction concept that became the heart of my writing. The basic concept of Technofiction is that science fiction story telling should be about how science and technology change how we humans live. Stuff makes a difference. Today we aren’t living in caves and carrying clubs because what we now know and what we now have make a difference.

I have loved science and history since I was a teenager in the 60’s, and I loved 70’s-style Dungeons and Dragons — a style where interactive story telling was much more important than consulting lists of capabilities. (I was one of the first one hundred people to play D&D, and an interesting story there.) The mix of these two over the years made me more sensitive to internal consistency in stories.

My friends and I would be working through a D&D story one of us had created and someone would say, “Yes, but what about…” and be pointing out a plot hole or world inconsistency which we would then address before we moved on. I say “we” with good reason, these stories were interactive so the DM (Dungeon Master) and the players were on the same side in getting these issues worked out.

With hours and hours of practice my scenarios got very consistent, and I got quite flexible in presenting them. These are traits that have carried into my story telling and story experiencing these days — these are the heart of my Technofiction reviews of books and movies I have in the Tales of Technofiction section on White World.

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