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.


Copyright vs. authors

17. August, 2010

Everyone always argues “we need a strong copyright to protect the authors and their work” (here, for example). Frankly, I’m very suspicious how many authors are in this “we”. Usually, this “we” includes publishers, lawyers and people living off the work of authors but rarely those who actually do the work.

Just two days ago, I stumbled over an article (German) that compared the book market in England and Germany around 1800. The time is interesting because Germany had no copyright before 1837 and England had one for almost a century by that time. Of course, everyone in Germany was arguing that authors were starving and they needed a stronger copyright – just like England.

Before these copyright laws were enacted, the book market in Germany was between five to ten times bigger than that of England. A book in England would cost as much as you’d make in a week – between $500 and $1000 today. As a consequence, only very few people had books. In Germany, everyone could afford books. In 1800, only 700 news books were published in rich England while in poor Germany, they had 4000. They were cheap. Since only a few people could afford the expensive English books, print runs were tiny. A “successful” book would means a print run of 500 to 750. Reprinting was outlawed, so as soon as a book went out of print, it wasn’t available anymore. And who would reprint something that sold only 700 times?

And, surprisingly, the authors could live from their work. Around 1810, the author of a monograph could make 25% to 50% of a year’s income. In England, bestsellers got more but there are only a few bestsellers. It’s nice that 5 or 10 of the most successful authors make millions but isn’t it better when most people make enough for a living?

Yearly income of the most successful authors 2008

Yearly income of the most successful authors 2008

Why did that happen?

Because so many books were printed. Publishers always needed new material, so the authors were in a position of power. Also, “unsuccessful” books sold many thousand times. Publishers also had to keep them in print (as long as it was reasonable) to keep reprinters at bay. With a strong copyright, authors had to beg to be published (except for the few successful ones). Guess what that meant for income.

What happens today? Anyone can publish. Google has written software that collects interesting bits of information all over the globe and presents them in a nice, accessible way. Suddenly, the publishers cry out: “We need a stronger copyright.” I bet they do. But I don’t buy it when they add “to protect the rights of our authors.”

Which rights? The ones they take away with slave contracts? “Author gets 4% of the price printed on the book and publisher gets the right to publish the work in any way, forever.”

How many authors do you know which made a fortune from their books? Name five. King. Rowling. Patterson. Clancy (doesn’t even have a web site; poor guy only makes $35 Million/year). Steel. (Source)

I didn’t know two of them and the difference between #1 (Rowling, $300 Million) and #5 (Steel, $30 Million) is tenfold. See the graph for an idea where this leads.

Penguin sells books for £786 Million/year. This weeks bestseller in “Stolen” by Lesley Pearse. Amazon rank  118. I wonder how much of the $780m Ms. Pearse makes.

The next time someone tries to sell you that the copyright is good for authors, you know they’re lying.


Great Resource For Bloggers

9. February, 2009

If you want to improve your skills as a blogger (or as a writer in general), this is a great resource: copyblogger.com


Heroes (TV Show)

29. October, 2007

*gasp* (Sound after emerging from a two day Heroes Season 1 marathon). If you haven’t seen this, yet, you should.

As an author and SciFi fan, I’m always looking for good movies and TV shows. Here is my summary of season 1 (with a few spoilers further down below).

Overall, I’m very impressed. The show delivers depth and atmosphere like few I’ve seen before. It’s as smart and logical as CSI or Dr. House but the cast is much more complex and the story is a beautiful example of an interwoven stream of events which happen independently but influence each other in a very special way. Nothing in that series is set into stone; events happen, the viewer feels he knows what is going on just to stumble over another small piece of information which turns everything around. The same happens to the characters which often find themselves having to make hard decisions they feel they aren’t prepared for. Babylon 5 showed a glimpse of what can be done in this regard, Heroes goes the whole nine yards: Storytelling at it’s best, rich, believable characters, super-human action without losing a grip on the special effects.

Spoiler Warning: The following text is only safe to read after seeing all of season 1.

There are a few dark spots, though, and they show a few of the problems an author/storyteller faces. Let’s start with the “perfect prison”. The prison itself contains almost nothing except for a few pipes which one of the heroes uses later to make an escape. I didn’t notice them when Sylar was in that cell, so I’m giving the author the benefit of doubt and assume that Sylar was in a similar cell but one without the pipes. Alas, if you have ever seen a real prison, you’ll know that surveillance is ubiquitous. Furthermore, with dangerous criminals (especially ones with special abilities), guards never visit the inmate alone. Not so in Sylars case; no one seems to care who visits him and when and what they take along. When Jessica Sanders is imprisoned, the authors don’t make this “mistake”: Guards never handle her alone; they are even afraid to come close to her in rather large groups!

I’m calling this a “mistake” because actually, it is quite easy to create a prison that no one can escape without help. Unfortunately for the show, Sylar has to escape which renders the whole “perfect prison” idea into a death trap for the writer. Authors: If you ever feel you have written yourself into a corner, take a step back and check where you came from. If you can, try to find a real instead of a cheap solution, because when Sylar escaped, I thought: “Oh, that’s so silly.” I didn’t believe the show anymore for some time. When you write a story, the reader trusts that you produce a logical, believable world. Whenever you betray that trust, the reader will feel that your work is not worth the money she paid for it and this not what you want.

In the Sylar case, a possible solution would have been to rewrite story to make the attack on Claire happen far away from any “Company” location. Sylar could then have escaped much more believable from a make-shift prison. Or how about having more people around? It’s unlike Sylar to just slaughter anyone in his path but he could have just rendered the “normal” guards unconscious and then go after the persuading girl (so she can have her grand moment).

The ending of season 1 is something else entirely. At first, I thought is was impossible for Sylar to be alive. Mr. Bennet knows how dangerous he is and would surely have put a few more bullets through his head if he had had any doubt that Sylar was dead. Some of that is solved in season 2 where the writers come up why the heroes didn’t notice Sylar … “escaped”.

Just to round this up, here are a few more blunders which probably only happened because the writers had written themselves into a corner or vital information had to be cut away to fit the time slots of the show:

  • In the scene in the future when the guards smash in the door and shoot “Future Hiro”: Why doesn’t he stop time when he hears the door give in? Why doesn’t he stop time as soon as the Haitian is taken out to tell Hiro everything he knows just to be safe? There is no apparent reason to wait until the last moment (except to allow for a dramatic and tragic (a.k.a stupid) death). Or why doesn’t he stop time as soon as the Haitian is down to take out the guards trying to smash down the door?
  • When abducted in Las Vegas, Nathan Petrelly can fly away despite the Haitian being close by. Oh, and if that was a sonic book we’re hearing, Nathan ought to be dead but maybe his ability turns his skin into something more durable than steel while he flies. That only leaves the question how his clothes make it …
  • Again in the future: In all these years, Matt Parkman never noticed that Nathan Petrelli was in fact someone else? Never? In five years? Okay, again the benefit of doubt: Maybe the ability to create illusions can fool a telepath, too. Still, it seems uncomfortably odd.
  • After Claire ran the car into a wall, her father Noah has the brain of the quarterback erased so he “can’t make her life even more complicated that it already is”. Later, the whole school knows that Claire is somehow involved in the event. Having his brain erased just makes everything worse for her. Seems like an unlikely mistake for someone like Mr. Bennet.

All this might give you the impression that the crew around Tim Kring did a sloppy job. Well, think again. If you have seen Star Wars, you probably noticed the 264 mistakes in the first movie. For a TV show with a budget that is probably close to what Goerge Lucas spent for rubber stamps during the shooting, they did an incredible job.

Conclusion: Well done.

Lesson for authors out there: Strive for perfection and try to eliminate all logical mistakes and “easy ways out”. Otherwise, your readers will spend their money on the authors that try harder than you do, the next time they buy a book.