Woes of SciFi Writers

15. May, 2012

The problem with stories like Battle Star Galactica, Lost, etc. is that they don’t make sense to begin with.

BSG: The Cylons are an artificial race. They don’t need air, water, food. They can live everywhere. Unlike the humans, the few life-supporting planets in the galaxy mean nothing to them. So why bother attacking the humans when you can just go away, start hundreds or thousands of civilizations all over the galaxy and ignore the 13 human worlds?

They might attack one day? So what? By that time, the Cylons will outnumber them a billion to one. They could even simply ignore any human attacks without any noticeable loss. Humans killed a million Cylons? Meh …

So the core issue in the story (human vs. Cylons) is buggy.

And that’s the core problem of all SciFi stories: they simply don’t make sense to begin with. It’s an intrinsic problem.

The motto of the human race is boundless growth. What’s going to happen when we can travel to distant stars? We put colonies there. For what end? We will accumulate more knowledge but each individual being will know a lot about a tiny fraction of all the lore. There will be people who will have to split their bank accounts over several institutes because the numbers will be too big for their ancient mainframe software to cope with. For what? What’s the point of endless growth? Our greedy parts say “go-go-go” but our ratio asks “why?”

Life’s answer: There is no boundless growth. Natures rules make sure that everything that got too big gets killed or kills itself. In a way, the climate skeptics are the next big stumbling block on the road to the future (after the bankers failed a few years ago). Life is in cycles.

Of course, this doesn’t make a good story. People are disappointed when their love doesn’t grow out of all proportions after they marry. Well, duh. How did you plan to fit epic emotions into your tiny skull? How did you plan to love someone more than “with all your heart”? Get a second one? Get a brain!

So as a writer, I’m stuck between a stone and a hard place: I can make the story realistic but that’s boring. Imagine getting the Galactica battle ready. Thousands of people have to do millions of things. Getting that into the story would fill 5-10 episodes just to get an overview. Finding the right kind of ammunition. Hauling it to the Vipers. Fitting the Vipers. Looking through 517 pages of preflight preparation checkpoints. It would bore people to death. So they get to see Adama yell “BATTLESTATIONS” + 10 seconds of pure panic on the flight deck.

If you know a bit about physics, then you know that the only reasonable weapon in space is a laser. If you can move a ship the size of the Galactica, you can power one big, mean laser (or ten). With that laser, you can slice and dice a Cylon battlestar before it comes close enough to fire any projectiles on you. Even if it manages to fire its projectile weapons, you can easily evade them after cutting the damn platform to bits. Afterwards, you take the same laser to fry the small fighters which the battlestar dropped long before they can get to full acceleration. And the torpedoes and rockets, too. Without deploying a single Viper. Vipers are stupid, physically speaking. They are slow, they need to take fuel and bullets along, they have a human pilot (fragile and slow), they need to waste space on a cockpit, air recycling. And they are easy to find: They have a long trail of the stuff that comes out of the exhausts. That trail is pretty easy to make out in space where there is nothing else (oh, yeah, radiation from stars a few light years away). It’s like a big pointer for the enemy radar saying: “HIT HARD HERE!”

Looking at this from an angle of reality and physics, a space battle would work like this: Everyone would be invisible because the monent you get noticed, you’re dead (try to outrun a laster that travels with 300’000km/s and possibly an angular velocity that is even greater). In a TV episode, you’d see space, full of stars and nothing else. No ships, no heroic battles, no impressive last stands, no dodge-fights. Several minutes, nothing would happen. Then suddenly, something would blow up. All survivors on the other side would fire on the spot where that shot came from. 13 seconds later, everyone would be dead or dying. How does that sound? Boring. Oh, and no survivors. The first space battle would also be the last. A TV show with one episode. A book with ten pages.

That’s why SciFi stories have to be unrealistic.

Like SciFi and a good laugh?

14. January, 2011

Get both.

Evolutionary Void

13. September, 2010

I just finished the third volume of Peter F. Hamilton‘s Void Trilogy: The Evolutionary Void. I feel that there isn’t as much suspense in the end as in the last books but all loose ends are tied down nicely and there are a couple of funny surprises (like the identity of The Lady). All in all, a good conclusion to story.

Go. Buy. Now.

Spoiler Warning

My main critique this time is that some guys check space for enemies all the time while some teams seem oblivious to that option. The author should at least have mentioned that they check once in a while and find nothing.

Similarly with the deterrence fleet and ANA. The idea behind the deterrence fleet is great. But I doubt that just hiding it somewhere will actually protect it against being found. Next, I wonder why redundancy was no option. When the “fleet” is rendered helpless, Kazimir’s successor is unable to call any backup. I can accept that only ANA itself knows about the fleet and since ANA is out of the game at that time, they can’t ask but I wonder why ANA exists only once. There should have been a backup. Earth is well protected but not against something like the deterrence fleet.

If something like that would wipe out Sol, they wouldn’t have a lot of pre-warning. So all in all, I like the twist when ANA is disabled but I don’t quite swallow it.

Engineering SciFi

10. May, 2009

There are two types of people playing role playing games (RPGs), I call them the “story gamer” and  the “power gamer”. The story gamer likes a grand story while rules and dice rolls are a necessary evil. The power gamer enjoys the story but they relish in taking the rules to the limit. And they have their own definition of “limit”. While a story gamer likes to her “you switch on your personal force field and the bullets bounce off, sparking blue ripples that run over the surface of the field,” the power gamer asks “how does this screen work? Can I fry an eggs on it?”

In traditional SciFi, the inner workings of something are often a mystery. Space ships activate their force fields, protective screens, incoming fire gets deflected — or not, depending on what the author needs. But how do they work? Really? While this might sound like a silly question, it opens a whole new world: When you understand something, you can be creative with it. So how does a force field work? Can it be activated when something is blocking the space it will occupy in a moment? Is it a quantum effect or psionic? Magic? If it’s a personal shield, does it flow around the body or is it like a big bubble? If it’s a big bubble, how do you plan to charge through this door? If it can’t be activated when something is blocking it’s path, do you have to back away from any kind of cover to turn it on? Or if it can be activated, what happens when you lean against a wall? Are you stuck? Can you use the same effect to block a door, then? If nothing can pass through, how do your bullets get out? How about sound? Air?

Is the surface dull or slippery? If it’s slippery, how can you walk? If the field is guided through a mesh in the soles of your boots, how long does it take to rise after stumbling when you hands can’t get a hold? How do you plan to stand up when the enemy knows all this and tries anything to pin you down on the floor like a slippery fish? If it’s dull, what causes this? Is the field uneven? Is it static uneven or is there a ripple which sands off any surface you touch? Does it only stop solid matter? How about liquids? What happens when you’re pushed over a cliff? Get hit by a Molotow-cocktail? If the field stops bullets, how about light? If you can look out, can I blind you with a bright light? Cut you with a laser? If the laser is stopped, how can you see anything? And why is the field clear? Shouldn’t it be completely opaque in this case?

The answers to these questions tell us how a force field works and this gives us the basic blocks to build strategies. If the shield stops all matter, I must avoid lasers and heat weapons. And I need both an air supply and radio, so I can still talk to my team. If the air supply fails, that doesn’t render the screen unusable but I can only keep it up for a few seconds. Don’t forget that, in battle, you need much more oxygen than normal. If air can’t pass, I can use it as a space suit. It also means that the shield is rigid: It must create am opposing force to stop the matter trying to get through. So how can I move? How can the shield tell apart bending an arm from deflecting a baseball bat? Will it help when someone is bending my arm? How about being crushed under a tank? When something comes in, where does the energy go? In this universe, energy can’t be destroyed, it has to go somewhere. So when bullets come in, do I get pummeled? How is the shield projected? Can I put the projector in my pocket or do I have to wear a projector mesh that covers the whole body? Can this mesh have holes for your hands and head? Does that mean these parts are unprotected? That would allow to wear the shield as a flack vest. Or can I have projectors in the sleeves and around my neck which extend over my hands? Is the field perfectly clear or does it have a color? If there are holes, how about malfunction? Is there a chance to cut off my own head by switching it on? If the shield needs a lot of energy, how do I carry that along? How do I camouflage this? Or does a shield turn me into a beacon with a large sign “kill here”?

As you can see, all these questions have an impact on how I can use the shield during a game or in a story. It makes things more complicated, but it makes things more rich because I can start to work with these things. Story gamers expand the horizon but power gamers give it detail.

The Temporal Void

3. January, 2009
Cover of "The Temporal Void"

Cover of The Temporal Void

Holidays. The only time where I can read or “dream with open eyes” (text from a bookmark). This year, it was “The Temporal Void” by Peter F. Hamilton. It’s the sequel to “The Dreaming Void” (my review).

Again, the series is coming along great (which Peter can probably see on your bank account 🙂 Well deserved if you ask me). I like the rich characters, the story is sound and believable. Recommendation: Buy. Now.

There were three spots which I didn’t “buy” in “The Temporal Void”, places where I dropped from the story and thought “WTF?” Note: Only mild spoilers below; you can read on even if you haven’t read the book, yet.

  1. So Aaron is stranded on Hanko, the planet is about to blow up and the Navy scout is about to pick him up. After being warned that he’s dangerous, having the best sensors military money can buy, they let him simply walk on their ship battle ready and kill them. I mean, OK, shit happens and maybe these was the Omega ship with the best morons the Navy could find and such … but … nah, really 🙂 With instant comm available at all times, no one is watching this important operation? There isn’t even a recording? Didn’t buy that one.The same happened in the first part when Aaron broke into the storage vault to claim Inigos memories. Why did you place the guards *inside* (where all that delicate stuff will break if they ever would have to engage someone)? Why not place them on the other side of the vault door where they can pummel any intruder against a foot or two of solid steel, without any cover?
  2. Edeard finds his childhood friend Salrana in the clutches of Ranalee and leaves her there. I never thought he would be the character to leave someone behind. He knows only bad can come from this; I mean it’s only the tenth time this happens, he got to learn something, right? If he dragged Salrana away, the girl would be mad but he could leave her with the Pythia and look for a solution if she doesn’t know one. If all else fails, he could simply blackmail Ranalee into fixing what she did. So I accept that he’s tired and worn out and all that but this just didn’t fit.
  3. Paula and the quantumbuster. So this thing really distorts spacetime to wreak havoc with matter. How can she get away when space is so twisted? How about just nailing her in place using the ships in orbit and blowing up the station the traditional way?

Other than that, the story is the usual perfect piece of work from Peter. I’ve posted the text above in Peter’s inbox; should I get a reply, I’ll post it here.

The Dreaming Void

22. January, 2008

The Dreaming Void is not an insult but the latest book of Peter F. Hamilton. It’s been sitting in my shelf for quite some time, now, and since I’m sick with the flu, I had a couple of hours between fever attacks to read.

I’m again impressed how Peter can flesh out characters with a few sentences. As an aspiring writer, it’s always both intimidating and relieving to read a good book. On one hand, it shows how much more one has to travel, on the other hand, it shows it’s an effort well spent.

All in all, a good story, maybe a bit confusing because the author skips back and forth between so many characters, storylines and timelines which makes it hard to track what happened in which order and why something is important. It shows Peters talent as a writer how he can manage all these details without ever stumbling. He’s also probably the only SciFi author who can get away at writing a couple of pages how to renovate a flat including buying a new kitchen and a bathroom for it. 🙂

There is one sore spot, though. In one scene, Aaron breaks into a high-security memory-cell vault and gets pummeled by two heavily armed guards. In the process, a lot of damage is dealt to the environment, especially the racks with the memory cells and their valuable content.

Peter, please. No one in their right mind allows heavy arms near valuable, delicate stuff. Next time, put these guards in the corridor before the vault, so they can hammer away at any intruder with a fat, reliable forcefield between them and the cells with takes the excess damage. That would make it a bit more realistic.

Other than that, a great book. Recommendation: Buy.

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