Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Problems In Post-Scarcity

Images of the future are often polarized along pretty extreme lines. Dystopias and utopias dominate the landscape in science fiction because they’re often thought to be the easiest to write and easiest to deliver a message. The world within a dystopia can be used to magnify today’s problems to be easier to see while the world within a utopia can often highlight issues we don’t see in our daily lives. But the truth is that they’re not nearly as easy to write as people often think and a lot of attempts fall short of the overall mark. Dystopias, in particular, are generally derived from each other and have become attached to tropes rather than genuine ideas. And utopias, as I’ve established not too long ago, are generally the improper labeling of a superficial analysis of what turns out to be post-scarcity societies.

I’ve thrown around “post-scarcity society” often in the last couple weeks without going too in depth on the subject. For some people it would be hard to really tell the differences between a utopia and a post-scarcity society, with the two of them essentially looking ideal from where we stand and showing few of the problems we could readily identify in our current culture. But the division between the two is rather clear: a post-scarcity society has solved many major problems while a utopia has ostensibly solved all problems. And the fact of the matter is, while we’ve never seen a utopia in the real world (and likely never will), we have, however briefly, gone beyond some form of scarcity. Hell, it briefly appeared to happen in the last century before a peanut farmer harshed everyone’s buzz.

He wasn’t wrong though.

But the idealized post-scarcity, the one that you want to see in your speculative fiction, can be a tricky thing to write because it often requires you to understand problems from a completely different perspective. Because writing a post-scarcity society believably requires you to recognize… Continue reading Problems In Post-Scarcity

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The Benevolent Dictatorship Of Our Robot Overlords

Presented a new project to work on in the coming weeks, I came to consider several things I’ve blogged about recently. When dealing with the future and ideas of where we’re going as a race we often find ourselves in a scared, frightened position. It makes sense, the future, especially an unknown future, can be terrifying even if all common sense and logic tells us that it should go another direction. We’re constantly afraid of the idea that the world itself may turn into a Mad Max-style wasteland, or that an arrogant politician may become the next Hitler, or that we may end up going to World War 3 over the actions of a single nation.

But in all of these cases we can look at the history of the world and the shape of what has come before to determine that it’s not always as bad as we feel. The world was once hotter than we’re making it and it managed to survive, so it would go to say that climate change is more a threat to us than to the planet itself. Hitler’s movement was born out of a fairly unique set of circumstances where the world’s economy and social climate were far worse than it is today (for now). And the World Wars were both started by a series of terrible decisions which resulted in the world’s power being separated across clearly divided lines. So, as bad as things may get, the conditions aren’t quite right for most of our greatest fears.

But there are other fears of the future where we don’t have that historical frame of reference to calm ourselves. We have no idea what would happen if tomorrow an asteroid were found to be headed right for us. We have no logical frame of reference for what happens if we discovered aliens exist and are trying to make contact. No one’s entirely sure of the full ramifications of the continued development of artificial intelligence. And these all raise interesting questions with few (if any) concrete answers. In fact, some potential answers are so outside of our normal frames of reference that we have a hard time really picturing them.

For instance: if those machines do take over the planet, are we sure we’d see it? Continue reading The Benevolent Dictatorship Of Our Robot Overlords

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Cosmic Disasters

Every year, as this time comes around, I sit back and think a lot about what exactly scares people. So many things that we deal with in our everyday lives can be so unassuming to most but absolutely terrifying to a few. But as I once pointed out, I’m not particularly afraid of things that require a lot of abstract thinking. Stick me in a situation where my entire biology is telling me to get out and I will be fairly afraid, but if I have to imagine something hurting me, I generally also imagine being able to fight back. Masked men with a machete? I wonder why no one’s grabbed the farm tools they just ran by. Animatronics in a pizza shop? I’m familiar with how fragile animatronics actually are. And, as much as people are caught up in some sort of clown hysteria right now, there’s really only ever been one clown outside of fiction that anyone had any real reason to be worried about.

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Well, maybe two if you count the threat of obesity.

ronald-mcdonald

This doesn’t just hold for the small personal horrors either. As I pointed out once about the apocalypse, a lot of the allure for these scenarios is the feeling that we could somehow plan or prepare to handle them. Every apocalyptic story involves the survivor who finds their way out of it and deals with the horrors in front of them despite the odds. Aliens have invaded? You’ll join the resistance. Zombie hordes marching across the landscape attacking everyone they come across? There are entire websites devoted to planning your survival strategy. And nuclear winter? I know it sounds absolutely terrifying but we’ve actually survived something like that once before. So, despite how horrible they may seem to a lot of people, they’re never something I really sit back and worry about. As I once told my friend, the things that actually have kept me up at night are the things you could never prepare for.

Because where can you hide from something that makes the planet uninhabitable…? Continue reading Cosmic Disasters

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Cutting Out The “Babble”

One of the big debates I have with myself every day is just where do I draw the line between science and magic in my work. As anyone following this blog or my twitter would know, I like to world build. But every detail I add to that world (which I’ve long ago declared was Sci-Fantasy) has that question of which direction I should go. I’m a firm believer in Clarke’s Laws so I could go either direction depending on what I feel works best. It’s not really an inconvenience, I like to contemplate it, but it does mean I think about it a lot and about why my world is shaping the way it does.

In all honesty, despite how much I like fantasy worlds and love to delve into the mythologies of our own world, I’m a huge sci-fi nerd at heart. I love me some technobabble and I’ve spent way too long on some wikis about sci-fi worlds. I know, deep down, that I shouldn’t know the fundamental differences between the real world theory of the Alcubierre Drive and Star Trek’s Warp Drive. But I do, and that’s my embarrassing cross to bear.

alcubierre

I like when things have explanations, even if they’re bullshit. I like to see the world as a tangible thing, and I really love to have that feeling that something is possible, even if it’s not quite here yet. I know I’ll never see a real dragon on Earth or ride a unicorn. And, while I’ll never go into space either, I know someone can. Sci-fi and Sci-Fantasy by extension give me a new twist, however, because there’s totally a chance Unicorns live on another planet. So I like to put sci-fi in my fantasy as a little chocolate for my peanut butter.

But despite my love of the sci-fi, I know the fantasy is a hell of a lot more accessible for mainstream audiences. People debate why all the time, from arguing that sci-fi strips the magic out of the world, to the idea that there’s an anti-science slant in our culture. But truthfully, it’s the technobabble. It’s not that people dislike the science or explanations either, because a lot of complex ideas have been loved by people and we do have whole communities devoted to “fucking loving science”. Rather, the issue is the delivery.

See, we make people feel stupid…

Continue reading Cutting Out The “Babble”

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Why Time Travel Stories Derail

This was a rough week. Waking up and getting ready to get ahead of my schedule Tuesday, I discovered that there were computer problems which had corrupted my operating system. The next few days had me making multiple mistakes and hitting several snags that I would kick myself over repeatedly. When all was said and done, I had the computer back, but my hard drive had to be erased and my most recent backup was sorely out of date due to another mistake I had made.

These are the times when a man needs a time machine.

But this week I also had a chance to watch Project Almanac, a film that I had heard of once before but had not actually taken the time to see. Not being a huge fan of found footage and wary of most time travel movies (more on that later), I wasn’t in a huge rush. But, frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot to do at that particular moment and it was there. This is basically how most things happen in a writer’s life, you get used to it.

What I found was that Project Almanac, having an interesting premise of being a found footage movie about time travel, had a very predictable and cliche plot littered with a lot of nonsense about time travel. There’s something a lot of critics and writers understand, and it’s something we don’t mention often, but it is terribly easy to fuck up a time travel story in ways that aren’t clear to you until long after it’s too late. Plot holes, convoluted arcs, and conclusions that make no sense to the audience are incredibly difficult for most creators to miss along the way.  But few people ever really pin down why.

Today, I’m going to tell you: it’s because most people don’t realize there are more than one set of instructions…

Continue reading Why Time Travel Stories Derail

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Redefining Space Operas

First created in the 1800s, originating with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the sci-fi genre is one of the babies of the literary field. Prior to this moment a lot of science and fantasy stories were considered one and the same since, at the time, science and magic were pretty much the same thing. Those were the days of alchemy and astrology that, while making progress, were deeply rooted in the ancient beliefs that had very little evidence backing them. The scientific method as we know it didn’t even really exist until the 17th and 18th centuries. So when Mary created a story around the idea of reviving the dead using chemicals and electricity (which…kind of came true centuries later), it was unprecedented for a reason.

And because of that, while sci-fi is about 200 years old now, it’s still evolving constantly. Science Fiction and Fantasy both became separate entities as magic and science started to drift apart from each other and establish their jurisdictions. Come the industrial revolution, not long after Shelley’s work, and the genre’s potentials became incredibly clear and led to an explosion of variety that she likely wouldn’t have seen coming.  And, just as the “Golden Age” was about to begin in the early 20th century, something new came onto the scene.

Amazbuck

Prior to the 1930s there was a genre known by some as the “horse opera”, a kind of melodramatic western story that entered the same sort of cheesy territory we now see in your daily Soap Operas. These were grand adventures and a tad overbearing in how earnest they were. Even for the turn of the century these were often considered campy. But then someone considered: what if you were to take those sorts of stories and put them in space?

And the space opera was born.

Though it’s arguable where in the genre itself really started, with early examples being cited in the late 1800s, it wasn’t really until the 1920s where melodramatic shit in space hit mainstream success and the genre really started to become a “genre”. Edgar Rice Buroughs probably had a lot to do with inspiring this, as his John Carpenter series was essentially Tarzan on Mars. But while he kicked off the popularity of such ideas he never really wrote a space opera himself, instead having stories that most would categorize as “planetary romances” (a subject for another day). But when a comic strip publisher wanted to get the rights to his stories they failed and needed to create their own.  Hiring Alex Raymond to do it for them, what he came up with was one of the most enduring space operas of all time: Flash Gordon. It was cheesy, campy, and full of melodrama that surpassed the likes of even superhero comics (which were just getting started at the same time). But it sold… and it sold well.

flash gordon

Literary versions of the space opera genre found success as well with the likes of the Lensman series from E.E. Smith and the Foundation series from Isaac Asimov. And these stories began to form the language and visuals to be associated with the genre. All of them had the same sense of grandiose adventures in space, littered with space battles, interstellar politics and intrigue. And for decades the styles they established were what really defined “space operas” as people told stories of wars happening among the stars. But then, this all hit a tipping point when some guy got really lazy with his title and actually released a movie just called “Star Wars”.

The style hasn’t quite been the same since…

Continue reading Redefining Space Operas

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So You’ve Built A Time Machine

Time travel, it’s not exactly something we’re sure can even be done, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to write about it. One of the things that gives humans an edge on the rest of the world is recognizing the passage of time. And, of course, because we hate the thought of dying, we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to turn it back. Almost every day someone out there is thinking, “maybe we could accomplish this by building an elaborate machine, finding a wormhole, or sticking plutonium in the back of a 1980s POS sports car no one wanted.”

delorean-back-to-the-future
It’s so simple, I figured it out when I gave myself a concussion, Marty!

However you go about it though, it’s a good chance you’re basing a lot of what you know on time travel you’ve seen in the movies. After all, when you look for reference materials on the subject, most agree that it’s impossible. The only place where anyone would give any credence to your batshit project is the hallowed halls of sci-fi where they think you’re bound to happen. So you’re likely to crack out the sci-fi books and movies and get to working on it. There’s just one problem for you… it’s all bullshit.

A lot of sci-fi has no clue how time travel would work, and most of the time we’re just winging it. In fact, most uses of time travel eventually devolve into some lazy writing. So let’s go ahead and check out a couple hurdles in your way before you fire up the Delorean and do your best… Continue reading So You’ve Built A Time Machine

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A World Without [Blank]

As someone who writes speculative fiction, I usually find myself looking into things that would be a little out of the ordinary for most people. I like to read about different religions and mythologies, for instance, and I spend a great deal of time looking into the history of old superstitions that most wouldn’t much care for. I also happen to look through a lot of science articles and a great deal of people I follow on Twitter are involved in something to do with space. Hell, I liked Neil deGrasse Tyson before it was cool.

NeilDeGrasseTysonDealWithItNWM
Seriously, he’s doubled his twitter followers in a year. ‘Grats Neil!

But sometimes that means I run across people who are exceptionally close minded about things I love. It never ceases to amaze me how many religious people I know are closed off to learning more about other religions. Similarly, I’d think more people would want to know why superstitions they don’t believe in got to be where they are. Anyone who caught my last off the cuff post can know I have an issue with people who deny science. And anyone following the elections at the moment knows we have a neurosurgeon running for President who doesn’t believe in evolution – one of the foundations of modern medical science.

ben-carson

We all have a bit of a problem of seeing beyond our own existence and into something else. It doesn’t just impact our political and cultural views, it also impacts how we think on a fundamental level. We, as a species, have a difficult time imagining worlds without some of the things we’re most familiar with. It’s why some of us have a hard time accepting the Earth existed before we did. It’s also why some of us have a hard time accepting the Earth could exist without us. Hell, it’s why so many aliens in our sci-fi look like humans with shit growing out of their faces.

klingon

The thing is, that last one shows we kind of have these boxes in all parts of our lives. We tend to become stubborn and caught up in things even as trivial as fictional elements. Frankly, as a geek, I know we can get severely caught up in things like continuity, but it doesn’t just end there.  We often have a hard time straying from the tried and true.

I know I can’t reach people who have this sort of thing impacting the way they look at the real world. A lot of that has been ingrained into them since early in life, and it’s a painful process to let that kind of thinking go. But I do think there’s a chance that I could reach some of the people that have this mental block interfering with their fictional worlds. Because I think, for us, the most important part of “speculative” fiction is the “speculation”… Continue reading A World Without [Blank]

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WTF Wednesday: The Hugo Debates

The Hugo Awards, one of the great awards of speculative fiction. Sure, most people outside of the speculative fiction circles have no idea what the Hugo Awards are, but inside those circles it’s like being anointed as one of the geek chosen. A look through the Hugo Awards nominees and winners will show you a list of people who have gone down in history as legends of the genre. And it usually operates fairly quietly in the background, known of but not much focused on.

Then, all of a sudden, this year there was buzz about it, something juicy was going on. For a genre that constantly wants to be legitimized, this is big news. After all, we’ve been the basement dwellers of the literary world for decades now and the sudden buzz about one of our big achievements was a sign some of us could come out into the light finally.

time7
Though some of us are too far gone

Except… that buzz was about how the Hugos were embroiled in a political debate on the validity of social commentary in science fiction. A group backing a “Sad Puppies” slate wanted to bring back golden age sci-fi and get rid of the “SJWs”. Of course, this sort of talk doesn’t go unnoticed and it immediately saw opposition from multiple directions. The debates were fierce, sometimes petty, and often contradictory. But, from the outside of the debate, the only thing you really could have gotten from it would be a single message:

“Science fiction traditionally hates social commentary.”

picard

This is why we can’t have nice things, people… Continue reading WTF Wednesday: The Hugo Debates

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Fermi Paradox 3 – Filter Ahead?

So for a while I’ve been talking about the Fermi Paradox and the different scenarios at play in what may have happened and what may be happening. Thinking about it in depth is a good practice for scifi writers because it makes minor changes to the general scifi space story. There’s a chance we could be the big dogs in the universe, there’s also a chance that there are a lot of alien civilizations out there but the effort of colonization is restrictive. Both of these present interesting concepts to work with, most of them setting up the idea that first contact would have us being the invaders (even if accidentally).

But it would be dishonest to discuss the Fermi Paradox without talking about the elephant in the room. There’s a chance that, not only does the Great Filter exist, but we haven’t run into it yet. I don’t subscribe to the theory much myself, for reasons I’ll list as we go, but the possibility is still quite real. For a lot of people this tends to be doom and gloom, but for me?

Well, it’s not like I’d survive it, so at least I could take some inspiration from the possibilities. Continue reading Fermi Paradox 3 – Filter Ahead?

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