Reader Expectations: A Conversation With Russell Newquist

I spoke with publisher, author, 4th Degree blackbelt (Shin Nagare Karate), Dojo owner, programmer, husband, and father of four Russell Newquist about reader expectations and how they influence how the reader perceives a work of fiction. (This is related to my post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) As with previous conversations we’ve had, we also talked about a lot of other things too. You can also watch the video on YouTube, if you prefer:

Get Smart: The Next Generation

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2008 a movie was released which was based on the TV show Get Smart. It was called—unsurprisingly but in a sense daringly—Get Smart. It starred Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. It had some callbacks to the original, but other than that it had basically none of the spirit, tone, or style of the original. And I enjoyed the movie immensely. Before I proceed, let me note that I’m a big fan of the original. Here are my DVDs of seasons 1 and 2:


The TV show with Don Adams and Barbra Feldon was immensely fun. I watched it as a kid and still love it (as, I hope, my owning of two seasons of it demonstrates). So how could I enjoy a Get Smart movie which basically had nothing to do with the original?

Actually, that’s how I could enjoy it. Having nothing to do with the original, I could simply enjoy it on its own terms. It wasn’t pretending to trash something I loved, so I had nothing against it. And on its own terms, it was quite fun.

I should note that the movie did have a slight connection to the original, in that the Control which this Maxwell Smart worked for was hinted at as being the same that the original Maxwell Smart worked for; there’s a moment where Max passes a tour which include the original’s suit and shoe-phone and sunbeam tiger, and the tour guide is telling the people that Control was disbanded at the end of the cold war. That’s really the only connection; everyone in the original has retired, having done their duty and succeeded in protecting their country. And that’s entirely respectful of the original. It’s also approximately the amount the movie has to do with the original, so it fits.

Further, the writers of the new Get Smart actually developed their own ideas, rather than trying to milk the original ideas. And they broke with modern movie trends by not winking at the audience. I’m not sure why writers are so enamored of winking at the audience—my guess is it used to be cheap laughs and they’re desperate—but it is a profoundly annoying habit. Its complete absence in the new Get Smart allows one to enjoy the film as a film rather than as a nostalgic celebration of how you’re too cool to indulge in nostalgia.

Ultimately, I think that if next-generations/sequels/continuations must be made this is one of the better ways to do it. Pay some tribute to what you’re following and do something good that isn’t trying to be the original. The odds of recreating the original are approximately zero, anyway.

The Problem With Outrage Quoting

I’m fairly careful to limit my intake of social media to people who say reasonable things. This is in part a survival strategy for Staying Sane on Social Media. However, this still leaves a fairly large vector for things which unbalance my mood and make me less effective at the main stuff I’m supposed to be doing: outrage quoting.

This is where a person who is themselves reasonable sees a very unreasonable thing, then quotes it to express their outrage at it. There’s also a variation on this where the person quotes it to make fun of it. The latter isn’t quite as bad as the former, but both do have the following problem: one is still being exposed to the crazy stuff one was trying to avoid.

Actually, it’s a bit worse than that—the people one follows are specifically filtering through the stuff from the unreasonable people to find the craziest stuff that they say. This can be extremely unbalancing to one’s state of mind. As I talked about in Social Media is Doomed, human beings aren’t designed to deal with a large number of strangers. We deal with people by acclimating to them, but it takes time and is harder the more different sorts of people we need to acclimate to. Even when we are careful to keep our reading to a set group of people to whom we’ve acclimated—there’s no requirement that these people agree with each other or with us, only that we’ve acclimated to them—outrage quoting constantly introduces new people to our notice who are saying crazy things that we haven’t acclimated to. This is extremely stressful to human beings.

Also, please note that I’m not talking about being exposed to new ideas as being stressful. There are some circumstances in which that can be stressful, but usually it’s quite manageable. I’m talking about running into expressions of ideas we’re not used to. Perhaps we know somebody who will say #KillAllMen and we’ve gotten used to this eccentricity. There is no new argument to be found in a person saying, instead, #CastrateAllMen (I made that up; who knows, perhaps I will have actually come up with an absurd example that the universe didn’t beat me to for once). But if we’re used to the former and not the latter, the latter will be far more stressful to run into. There’s a new person here, and people are complex. They’re also dangerous. A stress reaction to having to deal with a new person is actually entirely appropriate. Best case scenario is a big drain on your emotional energy is incoming.

Except that this being a one-off quote means that actually, a big drain on one’s emotional energy isn’t incoming because you don’t actually need to get used to this new person. You’re almost certainly never going to see them again. And therein lies one strategy to help mitigate the stress from encountering outrage quoting: focus on how this is a person you’ll never see again and how they don’t really matter.

I don’t have any other good suggestions, other than be careful about people who do a lot of outrage quoting. But certainly I think the golden rule applies, here: be very careful when quoting to make sure that one isn’t outrage quoting. For example, when I wrote a humorous blog post about that CNN article on cuckolding (CNN’s Love of Cuckolding), I started it off with explaining why it doesn’t matter and isn’t worth stressing over. And I’ve stopped myself from quoting outrageous things often enough that it’s now becoming a habit to not quote outrageous things. Still, it’s something I always keep in mind—if I’m quoting something, what effect will seeing that have on the people who read what I write?

Science Fiction as Limited Fantasy

Readers of my blog will remember that I have been wrestling with the question of what is science fiction, and whether science fiction is just bad fantasy (see What If The Future Has Past?). Not, mind you, because I dislike science fiction, but because I like it. I’m working on a sci-fi story and have hit something of a block because I have yet to come to grips with what Science Fiction is, at its core.

If it’s going to be fantasy, well, I’m very fond of high fantasy. I love swords and sorcery. Why why stuff that could reasonably have swords and sorcery without the swords or the sorcery?

A possible solution recently occurred to me. High Fantasy exists on a continuum of how common magic is. It ranges from very common to quite uncommon. The solution is this: what if Science Fiction is fantasy with uncommon magic and modern technology? The burying of magic inside of devices (“warp/wormhole/etc drive”, “shield generator”, etc) is a way of forcing it to be uncommon. If you need a big expensive device to house your magic amulet, this serves as a limiting function to keep the magic rare.

I’m not committed to this idea at all. It’s basically just thinking out loud. It at least gives a framework to think about science fiction which makes more sense than as various degrees of cheating at an unattainable goal (interstellar speculative fiction).

And as a disclaimer, please don’t take this as criticism of science fiction or of fans of science fiction. This is me trying to work through a way to understand science fiction stories so as to be able to write them. Because there’s an obvious reason Why Science Fiction Will Never Die.

Advance Review Copies of The Dean Died Over Winter Break

The first bit of news is that Silver Empire Publishing will be publishing my novel The Dean Died Over Winter Break. It’s due out on early February. And as you might be able to guess from the title, it’s a murder mystery.


And on that note, if you are interested in an advance review copy of The Dean Died Over Winter Break, please contact Russell at Silver Empire (russell at silverempire dot org). As I understand it the only requirement is that you agree to read it and leave an review on the publication date. Which, I should point out, is a very kind service to perform. Amazon reviews are extremely helpful in connecting books with people who might enjoy reading them.

That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell

Recently, I wrote about The Story Modern (Western) Screenwriters can Tell. I realized that the modern story can be put even more succinctly: the main character decides whether he’s going to be completely worthless or only mostly worthless.

Usually the thing which precipitates this crises is that the main character wants to be completely worthless, but the plot makes it such that if he is as completely worthless as he wants to be, many people will die (or at least suffer). In the end, we find out if he’s willing to go beyond himself to alleviate their suffering in the way that only he can do.

This has nothing to do with heroism, but it is mistakable for heroism by people who primarily think in terms of story beats (i.e. of plot points broken down by scene, the way that screenwriters do when writing or editing stories). Real heroism is not about whether someone will do the minimum necessary, but whether he will go beyond what is necessary. At its core, heroism is about generosity. That’s why it moves us so much—it’s about being a true image of God.

I suspect that it’s not a coincidence that modern writing is primarily concerned with how imperfectly the main character will be an image of hell.

Star Trek TNG: Sub Rosa

I forget why, but I was recently reading about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Sub Rosa. It was an unusual episode, being described by Memory Alpha as a foray into gothic horror. It was a (sort of) ghost story, centering about an “anaphasic entity” which had been haunting the women of Beverly Crusher’s family. Haunting isn’t quite the right word, as it seemed to live symbiotically with them. Though like all TNG episodes, it had its share of plot holes.

For one thing, it was said to have lived symbiotically with the “Howard Women” for centuries, except that family names are patrilineal, not matrilineal, so they would have been Howard women for a single generation. (You could get around this by skipping a generation, going from grand-mother to grand-daughter, which happened in the case of Beverly Crusher but didn’t at any other time.) I bring this up not to nit-pick, but because it’s a good symbol of how much the TNG writers cared about plot holes: not very much.

A bigger plot hole was that the anaphasic entity was supposed to be sinister, but it seemed to be symbiotic, not parasitic. Beverly came into contact with it because she was burying her grandmother at a very old age, and the Howard women were, if I recall correctly, generally described as hardy. This suggests that the anaphasic entity kept them healthy. It also, according to Beverly’s grandmother’s diary, kept them happy. Why, then, it was supposed to be bad was completely unclear. It did eventually murder someone, though there was no obvious reason that things got to that point.

As I said, it’s not that I particularly care about the plot holes in TNG episodes, at least not any more. When I was watching them as a teenager I would immediately call up a close friend and the two of us would nitpick the night’s episode for the better part of two hours, but I’ve gotten over that. What I do find interesting is what this suggests about resource allocation: most of these plot holes would not have been at all hard to fix. The producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation just didn’t care. And what I found most interesting about the Memory Alpha article were some quotes from the writers at the end. First, from Jeri Taylor, the showrunner at the time:

Rick and Michael were very distrustful of this story. They considered it a romance novel in space and felt the possibility for embarrassment was monumental, but I just knew it would work. It’s a different kind of story for Star Trek to tell. It is a romance but we do have women in our audience and women do traditionally respond to romantic stories.

This from Bannon Braga:

It was the best performance I’ve ever seen. I just thought she did a wonderful job. Picard catches Beverly masturbating for crying out loud! What a tough role to play. When I was writing the words, ‘She writhes around in the bed having invisible sex,’ I just thought, ‘Oh man, we’re asking for trouble. Are they gonna be able to pull this off?’ Thanks to [director] Jonathan Frakes and Gates, it was not hokey. It was very good. Look, I scripted the first orgasm in “The Game“. This was mild by comparison. Sure it was racy. Even Rick Berman had said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ I think they trimmed quite a bit out of the writhing sequences.

And finally, this from René Echevarria:

“I can still reduce Brannon to shudders when I go into his office and say, ‘I can travel on the power transfer beam’. But the cast loved it. Every woman on the lot who read it was coming up to Brannon and patting him. Ultimately I think it was worth doing because it was campy fun and the production values were wonderful. The sets look great and everybody threw themselves into it. Gates did a wonderful job. It just got bigger and broader and to the point of grandmother leaping out of the grave. Just having Beverly basically writhing around having an orgasm at 6 o’clock on family TV was great. For that alone it was worth doing. We got away with murder.”

That last line really summed up a sneaking suspicion I have about the writing on The Next Generation. “We got away with murder.” They weren’t trying to tell good stories. They were trying to be clever.

(I should note that I mean good in the sense of, well, good. Not in the sense of “addictive”.)

Star Wars Movie Titles

While in general it is a good idea not to judge a book by its cover—and that cuts both ways; just because a book has an awesome cover doesn’t mean that the book is any good—it is instructive to look at movie titles . They can be deceptive, but unless they’re outright lies, they do give you a sense of what a movie is about. So, in story order, here are the titles so far:

  1. The Phantom Menace
  2. I don’t Remember and don’t care enough to look it up.
  3. This one wasn’t good enough to justify looking up its title either.
  4. A New Hope
  5. The Empire Strikes Back
  6. Return of the Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. The Last Jedi

Now, I’d like to point out items 6 and 8, in particular. Two movies after Return of the Jedi comes The Last Jedi. So apparently the Jedi didn’t return for long. So, it apparently turns out that the Jedi’s return consisted of one guy. This is bad story telling. This is very bad story telling. This is story telling so bad that improv actors with no time to think about their lines usually don’t make this sort of mistake. Let me explain.

One of the golden rules of improv is: always agree. That is, you never contradict what another actor said, because that’s not funny. I saw it explained like this: Consider the line, “I have the finest sword in all the land.” A bad response is, “No you don’t.” It’s not funny for a variety of reasons, but the most relevant one is that it shatters the immersion which is where the enjoyment in watching the thing at all comes from. A good response is, “Then it’s a good thing that I import my swords!” This works because it builds on the previous line, even though it does so in order to go in a different direction. In other words, don’t be Agent Michael Scarn (first four seconds of the clip):

And you can see, right in the titles, that they were pulling an Agent Michael Scarn. “Talk! Shut Up!”

And in fact there’s another bit of The Office wisdom which the Disney writers would have benefited from learning. Don’t start with the gun:

It’s likely that episode 8 got its title from someone saying, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we killed the Jedi off? No one would see that coming!” Of course, the first problem is that it wouldn’t be awesome. It would be daring. Mostly in the sense that seeing your six year old brother building a complicated scene out of legos and smashing it to bits would be daring. He sure will cry for a long time. And Dad will yell at you for a long time. It will be an enormous reaction! But it wouldn’t be awesome, because destruction, though emotionally significant, is easy. And you have to be a fool to believe that modern writers could possibly build something even better in its place, given that they can only tell one story, and it isn’t a very good one.

And I feel like at this point someone (possibly not someone who reads my blog, though) will say, “but for all you know the movie was awesome anyway!” And here’s the thing: no it isn’t. Because, stupid and dishonest as the average hollywood critter is, they’re not going to name a movie in which the Jedi get more numerous, The Last Jedi. And there is no movie which can plausibly be titled The Last Jedi which is a good sequel, involving some of the same characters, to Return of the Jedi. They might as well have titled it, Never Mind. These days no one makes any references to the prequel trilogy, except to Jar Jar Binks. I’ll be shocked if in ten years anyone makes reference to sequel trilogy either.

Except perhaps to Luke drinking milk fresh from the testicle-teats of the uglybeast:

If Disney Didn’t Hate Star Wars

I’ve read and heard enough about Star Wars: The Last Jedi (henceforth TLJ), both from people who liked it and people who hated it, to know that I’m never going to willingly see it. This review makes a fairly good case that TLJ is Star Wars for those who hate Star Wars. Before I get to my main point, I should put in a defense of some people who liked TLJ. I don’t think that you have to hate Star Wars to like TLJ. I think it’s sufficient to simply not care about Star Wars. The original movies, I mean, not the franchise.

A close friend of mine enjoyed TLJ, and one of the curious things about him (in the sense of being very different from me) is that he almost never re-watches or re-reads anything. Fiction is, for him, an experience which is then over. Characters don’t live in his memory, as far as I can tell. As a result, once he’s watched a movie, when he watches a sequel to it the original movie is simply backstory they don’t need to cover with exposition to him. As such he simply doesn’t care whether a sequel urinates all over an original movie; he was never going to go back and re-watch the original movie anyway. All that matters to him (as far as I can tell) is how much he enjoys the story he’s in right now. In other words, complete indifference to the original Star Wars movies will suffice.

Anyway, as I was explaining to this friend why some people loathe TLJ so much, he objected that you can’t have Star Wars without an Empire. He was at least correct that Star Wars is not Beaurocraaaaaaaats Iiiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaaace (henceforth BIS). But you don’t need the Empire to be reset as if it was a syndicated TV show to avoid making the sequels to the original movies BIS. Granted, though, this is a place where having a few scraps of historical knowledge would really come in handy, so writers “educated” within the last 50 years are pretty screwed. Here’s the thing about empires collapsing: they don’t just get replaced by another empire as if a democratic election just took place. They fracture into smaller empires and kingdoms. The Empire in Star Wars was patterned on the Roman empire even down to having regional governors. When the roman empire collapsed, at first the big difference was that taxes stopped flowing from the governor to Rome, and stayed with the governor. In some places the governor was too weak to stop local kings from rebelling, while in other places they were. The exact same thing would happen in the Star Wars universe after the events in Return of the Jedi. Regional Governors who were several weeks journey away would not suddenly swear fealty to Leia and the rebellion; they would simply give themselves all of their orders instead of most of their orders, with a few orders coming from the emperor.

Likewise, the Rebellion would not suddenly become supremely powerful. As they work to reconstitute the Republic, a few planets most directly under the emperor and far away from regional governors would probably join them, augmenting their strength considerably. And the regional governors would probably not just unite, since most likely they were men of ambition, so their fights with each other over territory would probably keep them from just outright crushing the rebels in retribution for killing the emperor. But thirty or forty years after the death of the Emperor the Rebellion-turned-New-Republic would probably still be one of the smaller forces in the galaxy.

And this is a perfect setting for what you want to do with the next trilogy: shift the old actors to advisory roles for rising young stars. You want to do this for many obvious commercial reasons (as the death of Carrie Fisher demonstrated), but also because this is actually how life works. Heroics are a young man’s job; mentoring is an old man’s job. Transitioning the older actors’ characters into age-appropriate activities—political leadership, mentoring, etc.—would not only be good commercial sense, it would be good story telling. And equally importantly, it would pay tribute to the characters which fans of the original movies loved. I mean, I know that these days the concept of not hating the fans of your work is quite alien to the writers of popular fiction, but couldn’t the suits who are supposed to oversee the creative types have enforced a little bit of discipline? That is, in theory, why the investors entrust their money to the suits and not directly to the creative types.

Incidentally, I think that this hatred of fans stems from the fact that fame is hollow. Fame makes huge promises; fame claims that it is the face of God smiling on the famous. But it isn’t. And I think that people who do popular art in order to become famous so often end up hating their fans precisely because they find out that their fans are not God. That realization makes the pain of their separation from God all the worse. There are two and only two viable ways of dealing with fame and not hating one’s fans:

  1. Purely as a business transactions. This isn’t ideal, but it will at least admit of gratitude. It will probably predispose the artist to too much fan service, but many well-executed stories have been done this way that ended well.
  2. As service to God, since much of the work he gives us to do is service to our fellow man. This is much harder, but it is obviously the better route, and one is more likely to keep a level head whether one is loved or hated (or as is common for public figures, both). If one is service God, praise by one’s fellow men is nice, but beside the point, while hatred is inevitable and also beside the point. And you’re very unlikely to hate your fans since the only reason you’re doing what you’re doing is to love them even if they hate you for it.

Anyway, that (or a direction similar to it) is how the third Star Wars trilogy should have gone had Disney not hated Star Wars.

Writer’s Block

I’m finding myself in a very strange place with regard to my NaNoWriMo novel: I’ve got writer’s block. This isn’t something I’ve experienced before, as ideas come very readily to me. This problem isn’t universal, it only comes down to novels. I’m not sure whether it’s just science fiction or all fiction. Since what I really want to do is work on my video game idea (the order of the wilds), I’m inclined to say it’s not all fiction.

My NaNoWriMo novel this year is a continuation of one I abandoned due to lack of time when my third child was born, and it’s a science fiction story about space exploration. And to give background, while I don’t read much science fiction, I grew up on Star Trek and loved it, and also loved Star Trek: The Next Generation. I liked Deep Space 9 and grew cold on Voyager, but space exploration SciFi is something deeply engrained in me. And yet, I can’t help but think that it’s time is past. All modern Science Fiction is either magical fantasy or something that could as easily be set on the present day earth. But if one is writing magical fantasy, why wrap it in a veil of science-sounding language and pretend that it’s not magical fantasy?

That question has been occupying my mind for a while now, and I can’t think of an answer to it. The only answer I can think of is Sturgeon’s Law (this version being published in 1958):

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

I had heard this in my youth, mostly (as I recall) as a defense against the fact that Science Fiction had elements of adventure, which was considered immature by people who had grown old and tired and disliked fun. I’ve no doubt that that defense needed to be made, just as I’ve no doubt that Sturgeon defended science fiction in the time period of 1938-1958 against some unworthy attacks. But at the same time, I’m not sure that this defense really holds against the problem that I have with modern Science Fiction. I think a great deal of modern science fiction is very well written but ultimately serves no real purpose.

And to be clear I don’t mean that SciFi is escapism. I’m all in favor of escapism. I don’t mean that SciFi is childish. In fact I think that the real problem is that SciFi isn’t nearly childish enough. I’m coming to think that SciFi still exists for only two reasons:

  1. People like me remember it with fondness from their childhood.
  2. People unlike me aren’t hardy enough to hear wizards called wizards.

There is probably something of a case to be made for SciFi in the vein of #2, along the lines of why we give crutches to people with broken legs and feed mushed up food to people with broken jaws. It is right to be gentle with the weak.

But it seems to me that outside of truly hard SciFi like Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is just the story of a castaway surviving until he’s rescued which could as easily be told in a jungle or a desert island, Science Fiction is riddled with inescapable plot holes because it refuses to take its magic seriously.

And this brings me back to where I started—as an author, I have a huge, almost pathological dislike of plot holes. I don’t claim that all my plots have been perfect, but I certainly put a lot of work into making them consistent and coherent and as close to free of plot holes as I can make them. And I can’t explain to myself why I’m bothering with a genre where that is impossible, especially when I could have a lot more fun with magic if I just admit that the world is filled with magic.

Please bear in mind that this is basically me thinking out loud. These aren’t conclusions, and I’d be very happy to hear a strong argument that I’ve got it wrong.

What If The Future Has Past?

(This is continuing thoughts from Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard and Why Science Fiction Will Never Die, both of which are related to a science fiction story I’m working on writing.) As I’m working on a Science Fiction story about the first ship from the Milky Way to explore the Andromeda galaxy, the various sorts of magic required to make any sort of space exploration story weigh on my mind because I tend to prefer hard SciFi to soft SciFi. I think that this is in part because if one is going for magic, why bother with the SciFi at all—why not just go whole hog and actually have fun with the fun parts?

But the problem is that you can’t do space exploration as hard SciFi. This was captured fairly well in a post by Jasyn Jones titled, Hard SF Does Not Exist. And he’s right. There are of course exceptions like Andy Weir’s recent book The Martian, but the sorts of stories one can tell in hard SF are not very different from the sorts of stories one can tell on earth. People get trapped for many months at a time on Antarctica, and there is nothing preventing someone from setting a story on a desert island. (For example, two women were recently stranded at sea for months.) But if you want to actually do space exploration, you need magic to accomplish it. To put things in perspective, it took 9 years for New Horizons to get to Pluto. Proxima Centauri, the closest star we know about, is approximately 5,400 times further away than Pluto is. Even if we could travel to Proxima Centauri ten times faster than New Horizons (which seems doubtful), it would still take more than twice as much time to get there as has elapsed since Julius Caesar became the emperor of Rome. Just the amount of fuel necessary to power a ship for 5400 years would be staggering (ball park, assuming a gigawatt nuclear power plant, it would need about 5.4M Kg of fissile material, according to this), to say nothing of the near-perfect oxygen and water reclamation necessary, the meters of shielding necessary to protect the people from cosmic rays, etc. It would take tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of rocket launches just to assemble such a generation-ship in orbit around the earth. And heaven help the people on it if they need any spare parts for their ship during those five millenia.

I should probably note that there are proposals, like Project Daedalus which can span that distance much faster—on the order of 50 years. But they involve fusion engines firing for years and consequently truly massive amounts of deuterium and tritium, both of which are extremely rare. Project Daedalus depends on a bunch of stuff which there’s no good reason to believe can reliably be made to work, and that in order to get a 500kg mechanical payload to do a flyby. To move people in a way that they can land on a foreign planet requires exponentially more mass and consequently initial fuel, etc. In short, the human race is not going anywhere outside of our solar system in real life.

And yet, as I said in my last blog post on the subject, I do think that exploratory Science Fiction is great because it is the heir to Greek epics like the Odyssey. (Of course, the Odyssey did have magic in it, but the magic wasn’t Odysseus’s, it belonged to the people he met.) But all exploratory sci-fi relies on what amounts to teleportation. Does this mean that Science Fiction is just bad fantasy? Is it just fantasy for people whose imaginations are too weak to entertain the explicitly fantastical?

There is another possibility, though: what if Science Fiction was possible in an earlier time, but isn’t now? The Science Fiction written from about 1850-1950, was often set in our solar system. There are a million counter-examples, I have no doubt, but what if it was the Science Fiction (scientifiction, as C.S. Lewis called it in the days when he was writing it) that was set in our solar system which was the source of vitality in science fiction?

Space exploration set in our solar system actually did have the right scale to it. One can get to the moon in days; one get can to Mars in months. The moons of Jupiter are more like a year’s travel time; and all these are the right time scales for the Greek epics. Stories set here were—when we didn’t know what was on the moons and the planets—actually were quite plausible for the future. The science involved in getting to these places was actual science, not merely magic with a veneer of science lightly glued on top.

Alas, time moved on and we found out that there are no civilizations to explore on the moon or on the other planets; any civilization which happens there will be human settlers living in very highly technologized dwellings. They will live there, if they live at all, in little bubbles of planet earth which they’ve brought with them.

I grew up on Star Trek; there is something utterly magical about Science Fiction. But it seems very possibly that true, hard science fiction is as much a thing of the past as the wild west is. We may be in the unfortunate position that to recapture the magic, we must capture it in a genie’s bottle. And that will always leave us with the question of where we got the genie’s bottle, and why we take it for granted.

Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard

C.S. Lewis once propounded the theory that Scientifiction (what science fiction was called in the days when he was writing it) was really the modern form of the Greek epic like the Odyssey. In the days of Homer you could set a tale in a land where all the normal rules didn’t apply by merely putting it on an island no one has been to in the Mediterranean sea. Since modern man has been to all of the islands in the Mediterranean, we have to put the far-off lands farther off. In the 1800s it was still possible to put it deep underground, as in H.G. Wells’ Journey to the Center of the Earth, but in the 1900s the only real candidate was on another planet.

I think that this theory is essentially correct, especially as regards science fiction which is about adventurous exploration of places as yet unknown. I don’t think it applies nearly as much to space empires made up entirely of humans which are set in the far future as much to have a free hand with the political setup as for any other reason. But space exploration is the sort of story I’m writing for NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. But unfortunately, (so far) writing relatively hard sci-fi, where faster-than-light travel and free energy for propulsion are my only two main cheats, this brings me into language difficulties with encountering new species. There’s no plausible way in a relatively hard sci-fi way to have two creatures who developed along entirely different evolutionary pathways would have worked out the same language when they may not even both have heads.

I believe I’ve basically just committed myself to ignoring the problem of microbe contamination; when two unrelated species meet there’s an overly good chance that one or the other will contaminate the other with microbes to which the other has no resistance and thus inadvertently wipe most or all of the other species out. Basically, an even worse case of what happened when Europeans came into contact with Native Americans. This is basically an insoluble problem since we need our symbiotic bacteria to live. One could, possibly, confine everyone to leak-proof space suits on away missions, but that has its own problems, especially where the fun is concerned.

But language is just really a problem. If one can’t speak to another or even figure out that the other is speaking, it really cuts down on the dramatic possibilities. On the plus side, my story is set within a Christian universe so I could always introduce something like a “soul stone” which allows rational souls to communicate without words. For added fun, it could even be something like a statue to the archangel Gabriel.

Anyway, the point is that hard sci-fi is very difficult to write without plot holes for the sort of stories one often wants to write because the sort of stories we often want to write are not really about outer space in the future. That setting is just our excuse.

Why Science Fiction Will Never Die

Pictures like this are why science fiction will never die:


That’s Galaxy NGC 5194 in the visible light spectrum, with a smaller galaxy nearby. It’s pretty, but more to the point it’s full of possibilities. Every little white dot that seems to be a spec of dust is in fact a star, and we can’t help but imagine that many of them have planets in orbit around them. This is just too endless an amount of possibilities not to want to daydream about them.

That said, it also gives something of an indication of why galactic empires are kind of silly. NGC 5194 is approximately 60,000 light years across (our own Milky Way is estimated between 100,000 and 180,000 light years across). Galaxies are simply more immense than our imaginations are capable of comprehending. Even if one grants faster-than-light travel, a drive capable of moving a ship 10,000 times faster than the speed of light would require 6 years to cross NGC 5194. To put this in perspective, Alpha Centauri, the closest star to the Earth, is about 4.3 light years away. A ship traveling at 10,000 times the speed of light would get there in a little under four hours. Also to put this in perspective, according to Memory Alpha, that’s faster than the Enterprise at Warp 9. I should note, though, that Star Trek was never consistent about this and the chart is practically a joke since Voyager had an episode where Warp 7 was at least 4 million times faster than the speed of light.

To cross one tenth of NGC 5194, at 10,000 times the speed of light, would take seven months. That’s significantly longer than crossing the Atlantic Ocean by sailboat. Except instead of having a small colony with access to vast resources, one would get to an entire planet with an entire planet’s resources at its disposal. So if an empire located in the center of one tenth of NGC 5194 wanted to subdue a planet on the edge of its territory of roughly equal technological prowess, it would have to commit thousands of ships to a three and a half month journey to have any hope of mounting a militarily significant force when it arrives at the planet. If some other planet, especially on the far side of empire’s territory were to cause trouble, those thousands of ships couldn’t possibly help. This was the basic problem which the Roman Empire faced, and a big part of why it crumbled. Granted, there was degeneracy from rich living, but the empire was simply not tenable. Rome was big, but it needed far too many troops to possibly police the entire area. A galactic empire would face a very similar problem.

And there’s the further problem with a galactic empire that one must ask why it’s bothering with all this conquest. The Roman Empire conquered in order to steal, especially resources which were not easily available near Rome, and to enslave the conquered. But people who can construct tends of thousands of faster-than-light battle cruisers can presumably build themselves washing machines, and they already have access to all the resources that are going to be found within a solar system anyway. It would be possible for them to conquer just on the principle of the thing, but that’s approximately the only reason they might want to conquer anyone else. At which point administration would become a huge headache. It takes an awful lot of soldiers to pacify a few billion people. Probably the best bet would be some sort of insectoid species which produces millions of children per generation; they could at least populate a world fast enough to not need to send a tenth the population of their native planet in order to occupy someone else’s.

Anyway, all of these are solvable problems if one needs an evil galactic empire for a story, but I think it suggests that keeping things smaller is more manageable; one of the great things about vast distances is it gives people a chance to actually be different from each other. And surely this is one of the great things about science fiction, especially in the modern world where every corner of the globe has a McDonalds on it—we can tell stories about people who are genuinely different from ourselves.

Be Careful How You Flesh Out Villains

In Star Wars (Episode IV), Darth Vader was what you might call a cardboard cutout of a villain. We never had any inkling of his motivations, hopes, desires, or fears; we knew nothing of his inner life at all. Yet Vader was a great villain. This goes against a doctrine in fiction which became popular in my youth that “two dimensional” villains were bad. Villains must have backstory and motivation!

Where did the doctrine of the three dimensional villain go wrong? It went wrong by not understanding perspective. A cardboard cutout is uninteresting because you can clearly see that the two dimensions are all there is to it. A shadow, by contrast, is interesting, because you know that there is something far more complicated to the shadow which you’re just not seeing. Further, villains are very difficult to make interesting for the very simple reason that in reality evil is banal. “The banality of evil” is, I believe, a phrase coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt when she observed (and possibly interviewed) the leaders of the Nazis after the fall of the Third Reich. They had done monstrous amounts of evil, but were utterly unimpressive as people. Not only unimpressive in their persons, they were unimpressive even in their hatred. The men who had (through orders given to others) murdered millions of Jews didn’t even hate the Jews particular more than other people. It seemed like there should be something equally grandiose to the magnitude of the evil done, but there were just some small, unimpressive, even pathetic, men. This of course follows necessarily from the fact that evil is a privation of good. A man can be very, extremely good, but the maximum amount of nothing he can be is, well, nothing.

All of this adds up to the fact that realistic villains are very hard to make interesting. That is perhaps why so many people, in their desperation to do so, turned their villains into misunderstood heroes. It is not impossible to make genuinely interesting villains who are fleshed out—of these, Shakespeare’s Iago is the greatest—but the fact that it is hard means that those who are not up to the task should not try. In cases where you can’t show something, it is best to only hint at it. Readers have imaginations of their own, and if you give them an outline they will flesh it out, with more imaginative readers fleshing it out better than you would have. And even where they don’t, people can be content to not know everything, trusting that what they don’t know is rationally consistent. And as long as you don’t give inconsistent details in your shadow, that’s possible. It’s also where so many villains in the 1990s (and beyond) went wrong—they were fleshed out in ways that were completely incompatible with their actions.

The most egregious example which comes to mind is the Reavers in Firefly/Serenity. When they were mysterious, it was possible for them to be part of some ultra-satanic cult of madmen. Once they were turned into scientific zombies, they became ridiculous. Once fleshed out as victims of a peace-drug experiment, it made precisely no sense how they could cooperate well enough to pilot space ships, even space ships they didn’t take the best care of. The problem with high technology is that it requires complex maintenance. The Firefly would, fairly often, have gone nowhere had it not been for Kylie’s work in engineering. Somehow we’re to believe that rage-monsters managed to keep spaceships going with less work? Why? Did the rage-monsters luck into brand-new spaceships which could go ten thousand light years before their first scheduled maintenance? How did the drug-addled rage monsters even manage to navigate from one place to another? Because they were flesh out badly, there is no rational consistency possible for the viewer to imagine exists.

In short, the golden rule of story telling is: only flesh out what you can flesh out well.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head

I recently got a collection of Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. I’ve already reviewed The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention. It has elements which remind me of the current pulp revolution, which made me curious as to its publication. Unfortunately, publication information is not easy to come by; why books which collect short stories don’t see fit to include this information I cannot fathom. Anyway, this book says that The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head was first published in volume 61 of Pearson’s (a literary magazine) in June of 1926, so I don’t know if it would technically count as a pulp, but despite being about Lord Peter Wimsey, it definitely has pulpy elements. Since it’s approximately impossible to discuss short stories without giving spoilers, I will simply give a spoiler warning here and then discuss the story with spoilers. I do recommend the story—it was an enjoyable read.

(This is your last chance to go read it before spoilers, just so you know.)

We might loosely divide the story up into three acts. In the first act Lord Peter is in an old book shop with his ten year old nephew, who buys a damaged version of an old book which would be valuable in good condition. In the second act, a man approaches Wimsey and tries to buy and then steal the book. In the third act, Wimsey goes off to the home of the original owner and discovers that the book may be the key to a family legacy of pirate treasure.

The first act is rather prosaic, and has probably the most familiar elements of Lord Peter novels—interesting characters and engaging dialog. One gets the most flavor of Lord Peter’s banter when he is not active, so this is the part of the story which has the most Lord Peter flavor.

In the second act we get to see Lord Peter’s burglar alarms which, given the publication date of 1926, verge on being science fiction. The action was over relatively quickly, but in an expert fashion which reminded me of the supreme competence of the man of bronze, Doc Savage. Not nearly as over-the-top as Doc Savage, but then compared to Doc Savage most things are barely a fifth of the way up. Still, a theme in short stories from the time seems to have been hero worship; short stories are often forced to do a lot of telling rather than showing and there was clearly an appetite for the glories of achievement through hard work in those days. There was also, interestingly, a reference to Sexton Blake (in the quality of the rope-work used to tie up intruders). Mystery has always been a self-referential genre; it is a very long-standing tradition for fictional detectives to reference other fictional detectives as fiction. I think it works within mystery fiction better than it would in most other genres, which do better to pretend that their genre doesn’t exist within the fictional world in which they’re set. Science fiction characters should not, as a rule, read science fiction novels, just as sorcerers shouldn’t read fantasy novels and people in a love story shouldn’t read romance novels. (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I suspect that these are sensible rules.)

The third act takes place in the decaying family estate from which the book came to the book seller. It’s also interesting to note that while modern retrospective dramas such as Downton Abbey or The Crown take place in families which still have money and therefore can afford the miniature villages which great houses could be—if they could afford to employ most of the villagers—when mysteries of the early 1900s were set in great houses, it was usually in great houses that were falling apart from (relative) poverty and neglect. This is no accident, of course. A house that is lived in has its secrets, but many of them can be found out simply by asking, and even the ones that can’t are often at least partially known by people who weren’t supposed to know them. A house that had been lived in requires investigation to find out most of its secrets. There’s also a much wider scope for motives to strange actions in a decaying great house since a functioning great house takes care of most of its occupants’ needs.

In The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, the almost mandatory unkempt gardens  and Chinese pagodas symbolizing the bad taste of someone who came into money later in life are actually a key to the mystery. This is, I think, a good example of Chesterton’s dictum that the culprit should be, whenever possible, someone we would never suspect. Chesterton warned of the problem of there being only one person we’ve never suspected making that person the obvious culprit, of course, and praised Conan Doyle’s story Silver Blaze as being the best example of this trick (spoiler alert), since the horse’s presence is completely explained by the owner keeping horses for racing. In the same way, though the scenery isn’t a murderer, it is hiding the treasure and I think it a very good construction that the scenery we assume exists only to denote the conventional bad taste of a progenitor actually served the progenitor’s purpose; in a man-made lake the burier of the treasure actually made his little Islands to correspond to an ancient map in an ancient book. This may be the only example I know of in which the treasure map came first and the treasure was buried according to it. It is an ingenious device for disguising the treasure map.

Overall I strongly recommend this short story; unlike the previous one I reviewed I do expect to re-read it on occasion.

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention

I was recently given a complete collection of the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. Some of the Lord Peter novels are among my favorite detective fiction—especially those involving Harriet Vane—but oddly I hadn’t really enjoyed the few Lord Peter short stories I had read. My mother—who introduced me to Lord Peter—gave me the collection saying that it was a mixed bag and I had the bad luck of picking the worst of them.

As I’ve mentioned before, in detective fiction short stories have a very different structure than novels do, not merely because the normal differences between the two media, but because a completely different sort of story is possible in a short story. Specifically: the puzzle. A short story permits a complex setup which is then unraveled in the end to the (possible) astonishment of the reader but a novel simply doesn’t permit of that sort of story. The thread can’t be stretched that far without breaking; there is no possible excuse for the detective spending so long without revealing what he knows. (TV shows have this problem, though TV episodes are more similar to short stories, and solve it by having the detective suddenly remember or realize something, in order to give the viewer time to figure the solution out.)

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention is interesting in that it’s almost a very short novela rather than a long short story; certainly it lingers on the characters and atmosphere in a way that is more the domain of novels. The characters and atmosphere being one of the strengths of Lord Peter this is a point in its favor, but it never really fleshes the characters out enough for any of them to be really likable. I know that likability can be overrated; perhaps it’s better to say that we never really learn enough about the characters for any of their concerns to matter. Lord Peter views his surroundings with a sort of detached air and nothing counterbalances this. This is true of almost all of the Lord Peter stories, but in the good ones he has some other character to counter-balance this with attachment. Even where that isn’t Harriet Vane, as in, for example, Clouds of Witness, there is still the fact that people Wimsey cares about care whether Wimsey’s brother will be hanged for murder. Here, Wimsey doesn’t want to be involved and gets dragged in by others who don’t want to be involved either. This doesn’t ruin the story, but it certainly doesn’t help.

The mystery itself is really several (related) mysteries, but they’re not at first obviously related to each other. Even that would be fairly normal, except that there is no particular reason to solve the first mystery except for the sheer curiosity of Lord Peter. Granted, a ghostly coach passing in the night would arouse curiosity, but at the same time the solution simply drops when Lord Peter discovers it. It has no significance at the time. In fact that’s probably my real complaint: the story never sets up the mystery properly; everything happens and then we’re presented with the mystery and its solution in rapid succession. On the other hand, I will say that I appreciated Lord Peter ruling out a supernatural explanation of the ghostly coach no on a priori grounds since that would be unsound, but because the apparition didn’t bother his horse at all, as one would expect a ghost to. It was a nice touch of rationality in a character who does not believe in the supernatural (Sayers famously said that Lord Peter would consider it an impertinence to believe he had a soul).

Overall I enjoyed reading the The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention, but it’s hard for it not to be marred by comparison to Sayers’ best work. I recommend reading it, but I doubt that I will reread it often.