Swans and Singularities: Space Travel

The future is going to be different than today in ways we can’t entirely predict. Countless possibilities stretch out before us as science continues to advance in multiple fields. We can make educated guesses about those possibilities and when they’ll become realities, but there are hurdles in the way that prevent us from knowing exactly which paths will open up and when. Over the course of human history we’ve seen this pattern repeat time and time again. Breakthroughs are made all the time and cause fundamental changes overnight, like the creation of gunpowder, the discovery of electricity, or the invention of antibiotics. And the funny thing is, because a lot of these breakthroughs can be due to chance, we really can’t be absolutely sure when and how these changes will come.

There are people who work towards these sorts of breakthroughs for a living, however, and they’ll often tell us where they think things will be going. Someone working in the development of artificial intelligence will have some pretty convincing arguments about when an artificial superintelligence might be created. Someone involved in fusion research will have a credible sounding prediction of when their reactors might be able to power our civilization. And every once in a while NASA will drop us some interesting pictures that make us wonder if they’re trying to tell us something.

As speculative fiction writers, one of the fun things is to take ideas like this and run with them as far as we can. You’ll find few people who get as fascinated with the idea of technological singularities as scifi authors. And, while a lot of us may have a looser definition of what this singularity may be than academic communities, most people who are concerned with this world changing event base their stories in some aspect of modern scientific understanding. Even in instances where we hand-wave it away, there’s a respect for science involved. For as ridiculously implausible as most FTL concepts are, for example, they exist because someone realizes that FTL would be a game changer in a universe far more vast than we once realized. In fact, even without going faster than light, there are a lot of technologies related to space travel that get scifi authors and fans really excited. Yet, in the modern discourse, there are a lot of people who have a hard time understanding just how important space can be for us down here on Earth.

To those people I always like to point out: the destination doesn’t change the world, the journey and what we find out there does… Continue reading Swans and Singularities: Space Travel

Clarke, Singularities, And Swans

One of the things that unites speculative fiction genres is dealing with a world that’s different from our own in ways that seem impossible. With fantasy the line is easily drawn, we know that there aren’t actually wizards or dragons no matter how much we want to believe. But with science fiction there’s always this grey area where we’re not entirely sure just what is and isn’t really possible. It’s that grey area that gives the genre its unique flavor as we explore worlds that seem completely insane but still have that vague sense of truth to them. In essence, when you describe something in science fiction as not possible you can always feel that lingering sense of “yet”.

It’s because of this that I’ve always been a big fan of Clarke’s laws – particularly the third law. According to Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi author and futurist responsible for stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. It may sound like an easy excuse for writing impossible things and calling them scientific, but when you think about the real world you realize it’s surprisingly accurate. To this day there are people who believe everything that NASA does is an elaborate hoax because, to them, everything NASA does seems impossible. Even people who do trust in science will doubt some things are possible just because a theory sounds insane despite evidence.

And one of the most interesting aspects of this concept as a speculative fiction writer is that some of those theories may shape our future. We can’t be entirely sure which will actually happen, but we know that the world of the future will be drastically different from the world of today. In fact, in academic circles they say that we may one day hit a “technological singularity” – a point at which technology has advanced so far that society would be near unrecognizable to us. Some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around that, but anyone who reads this right now is doing so through a device that would have been considered witchcraft a thousand years ago. So how is it that we can have experienced such dramatic changes and yet still feel like things can’t go further?

For that, we have to talk about swans… Continue reading Clarke, Singularities, And Swans

Witchy Holidays

When looking at the history of Europe, one of the interesting things that comes up time and time again is the overlap of Christian holidays (particularly Catholic) with Pagan precursors. It’s pretty well known that Halloween is actually a Christian holiday that was created to overlap with the Samhain. Christmas probably had some influences from the Saturnalia and Yule. Easter may have straight up taken its name from a pagan goddess. But how Christians react to these holidays today is based in large part on just how much the church sold the “Christian” aspects of it. Easter and Christmas, anchored deeply into the lore of Jesus himself, is now generally forgotten by the general worshiper to have some pagan roots, but Halloween?

And because these three holidays are the most widely celebrated of the Christian holidays, they kind of shape how we think of Christian holidays as a whole. For those who don’t go out of their way to find these origins, it seems ridiculous that these holy days may be related to pagan holidays. Meanwhile, for those who’ve been told about this often, it often leads to the belief that every single holiday Christians ever came up with were to rip off the pagans (even when this isn’t necessarily true). But when someone takes the time to really look into the history of these holidays, it often turns out to be more complicated than first glance.

Like, for instance, when people celebrate the same holidays in the same fashion for the same reasons… to completely different gods. Continue reading Witchy Holidays

The Ridiculous Scales Of SciFi

For the long time readers of this blog it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I’ve been watching Star Trek since I was a child and to this day still watch the reruns. In fact, in the last couple of years I’ve been watching the H&I “All Star Trek” block every day. As a result, though I don’t actually pay attention to every episode (I’ve seen all of them several times before), reruns of Star Trek have been running as the background track to my daily activities for quite a while. It’s habit, mostly, and every once in a while I’ll look up from whatever I’m doing to either watch one of my old favorites or come to recognize some of the flaws that I overlooked as a kid. The franchise taught me a lot about speculative fiction, for better or worse, and to this day I appreciate it for what it is – flaws and all.

One of the flaws that Trekkies debate constantly is just how consistent some aspects of the world actually are. Continuity is a big deal to the average nerd, and continuity tends to get stepped over often for the sake of an individual episode’s plot. As I’ve said in the past, while the little details may not necessarily matter to the plot, they’ll usually matter a lot more to your audience than you expect them to. And one of the greatest inconsistencies in Star Trek over the decades lies in the distances they travel and how fast they actually do it. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “Warp Speed” and has an understanding that it’s faster than light, but only Trekkies are aware that there are times when Warp Speed is sometimes less about the speed of light and more about the speed of plot.

“Oh god,” I can hear you saying, “a Trekkie is about to complain about numbers, just like mom warned me would happen.”

But when I bring this up I don’t bring it up as some jackass with no life who obsesses over the details of fictional worlds. No, I bring this up as a writer with no life who obsesses over the details of fictional worlds. You see, there’s something to be learned not only from the inconsistencies but the reaction those inconsistencies get. It’s been long known that Star Trek’s technobabble can be a barrier for entry for some audiences, but something often overlooked is that there are times when decisions are made, for the sake of technobabble, that actually run counter to their intention.

Because, when you really look at those numbers you realize something: the writers rarely had a clue of what any of them meant – so how could we? Continue reading The Ridiculous Scales Of SciFi

Balancing Expectations

Your audience’s expectations are a strange balancing act. People like the familiar, they cling to the well worn and comfortable, but they can just as easily reject something as being unoriginal. We’re hard wired to want something that we recognize but at the same time demand something new, meaning that we’re often put off by things that are either too familiar or too unfamiliar. And, generally, we go into everything that we read, watch, or play with some expectation of what we’re going to get and what we want from it.

You’re under no obligation to meet all of these expectations, of course, because it’s impossible to hit every single expectation thrust upon you. But, as I mentioned not too long ago, you shouldn’t just brush off those expectations either. If you prep someone to expect a payoff, you owe a payoff, and using someone’s expectations without intending to include a payoff is eventually going to backfire. So clearly there are two completely different kinds of expectations – those that work for you and those that work against you.

The question is: how do you figure out which are which? Continue reading Balancing Expectations

Alterpedia Historia: Fangtowns

(I hate that I have to say this, but this is a fictional account of the history of a fictional world. I do not believe these things, nor should you, as I am making them up. If I receive any comments that I did not do my research into these events, you will be mocked.)

In the Agent of Argyre series of books, there is an organization called the Alter Control Task Force. Though ostensibly an organization for policing activities of the Alter race, an attempt to prevent an eventual race war, they are actually representatives of a city-state on the ocean: The Republic of Argyre.

The Republic of Argyre, an artificial island anchored to an oceanic ridge in the pacific, is a city-state established by Alters for the sake of harboring their kind and establishing a relationship with the mainstream human population. Despite being an artificial island and attached to no primary landmass, the city’s structure is capable of potentially supporting all 12 to 15 million active Alters on the planet.

How did a race of people who’ve lived in hiding for centuries manage to construct such a city? Why would they build their city in the middle of the ocean? Where did they get the resources for such a task? In the Alterpedia Historia, we will answer these questions and discover the history of the Alters. Today we address… Continue reading Alterpedia Historia: Fangtowns

Multiple Discovery

Anyone who’s had any exposure to other people will know at least one person who’s said that there was no such thing as a new idea anymore. These people come in a few flavors, from the people who say that all “new” ideas are really amalgamations of old ideas to the ones who endeavor to be pedantic by pointing out that “ideas” were just things waiting to be discovered and someone would do it eventually. But the most common, and arguably the most annoying to creators, is the cynic who believes that we’ve run out of ideas and that creativity is dead. And, frankly, when you look at the swath of similar products coming out at once from studios and publishers, it’s kind of easy to see where they’re coming from.

From the perspective of these people, once any idea is put out there, everyone is going to race to copy it as fast as possible. There’s no coincidence between similar products, it’s all a matter of quick cash grabs. After all, how else can you explain so many similar stories being put to print and film back to back? It’s hard to argue with, because we can all see with our own eyes how publishers and studios can churn things out. So whenever one thing becomes successful, dozens of copycats will follow up. Is a dystopian YA story the new big thing? We’ll see 20 of them by the end of the year. Did a formerly terrifying monster suddenly become sexy? We’ll run that into the ground. And if you’ve managed to put out something original in that time, there’s a good chance you might get lumped together with the others whether you knew of them or not.

But what those cynics don’t realize is that often this race to hit the iron when it’s hot usually means the studios and publishers are digging up old submissions or overlooked IPs, and that the creators behind those ideas generally had no idea the others existed – but came to the same idea anyway. Continue reading Multiple Discovery

Alterpedia Historia: Secrets And Reveals

(I hate that I have to say this, but this is a fictional account of the history of a fictional world. I do not believe these things, nor should you, as I am making them up. If I receive any comments that I did not do my research into these events, you will be mocked.)

In the Agent of Argyre series of books, there is an organization called the Alter Control Task Force. Though ostensibly an organization for policing activities of the Alter race, an attempt to prevent an eventual race war, they are actually representatives of a city-state on the ocean: The Republic of Argyre.

The Republic of Argyre, an artificial island anchored to an oceanic ridge in the pacific, is a city-state established by Alters for the sake of harboring their kind and establishing a relationship with the mainstream human population. Despite being an artificial island and attached to no primary landmass, the city’s structure is capable of potentially supporting all 12 to 15 million active Alters on the planet.

How did a race of people who’ve lived in hiding for centuries manage to construct such a city? Why would they build their city in the middle of the ocean? Where did they get the resources for such a task? In the Alterpedia Historia, we will answer these questions and discover the history of the Alters. Today we address… Continue reading Alterpedia Historia: Secrets And Reveals

Mystery Boxes

For those familiar with my work, you’ll know I like to blend genres. The two most obvious genres in the blend are science fiction and fantasy as I take creatures from legend and use science and sci-fi tropes to explain the various quirks those creatures have. But the third genre I threw into the mix for my books, arguably the most important, was a dash of mystery. Part of this was because the idea first came to me as: “what if vampires really existed, who would police them?” But the other aspect of the decision was that it felt like solving mysteries would give an opportunity to explore the world with a bit more depth. Every detail that my protagonist uncovers or considers while doing his job is, in turn, a detail the audience would learn about the same world. It felt like a natural fit.

So I’ve made it a point over the last several years to do my best to be a student of mystery. Though I always knew the basics and I think I’ve done reasonably well, it’s important to learn new tricks and make sure you’re ahead of your audience a touch. I even shared a few of these tricks in the past as writing tips on this blog. Despite seeming fairly straight forward and even common sense, it’s not as easy as it looks and I’ve known people who struggled with it. There are so many approaches and techniques to delivering a good mystery, and learning all of them and mastering them is something I know will improve my work as I carry on. But not every technique I come across is equal. Some of them are even bad. And one in particular, a fairly popular one depending on which medium you’re looking at, has always proven itself to create more problems than solutions (in fact, as I’ll get into later, that’s by design).

To put it bluntly: I hate the “mystery box”… Continue reading Mystery Boxes

Good Adaptation, Bad Adaptation

Once upon a time, being dominant in a specific form of media was generally enough for anyone. If you were a novelist, you’d probably only be a novelist aside from a few passion projects you had on the side. If you were a screenwriter, you’d be known as a screenwriter first and any other projects you worked on would be exceptions rather than the rule. And if you did comic books, it tended to be a long shot for you to get big somewhere else. But today it’s much more likely that anyone who becomes a success will do so across multiple platforms.

Cross platform properties have become so common today that most successful works have their movie rights sold almost as fast as their book rights. Sure, some works are going to remain on a single format, but those are becoming increasingly rare in the most popular genres. Part of this is because cross promotion tends to help all parties involved. Selling the movie rights to a book is generally going to help sell more books as people become curious about the IP and having a book out to go with the movie tends to help with stirring interest in seeing the story fleshed out in full. And, while many would say it’s a sign of both industries being “out of ideas”, it’s really just about having audiences primed to spend money on something they may not have spent money on before.

But what exactly makes a good adaptation and why is it, despite all efforts, that some adaptations turn out terribly? Continue reading Good Adaptation, Bad Adaptation