Common Denominators: Fictional Realities


Here’s an essay on constructing credible science fiction universes. This will be making an appearance in the near future on a South African site as well.

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Common Denominators: Thoughts on Fictional Realities

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

If you’re a military history geek, you’ve probably heard the origin of the Gatling gun.

Designed by the American doctor Richard J. Gatling in 1861, he figured the multiplied firepower from a single weapon would reduce the demand for massive armies and large, set-piece battles, and ultimately show the world’s leaders the savagery and futility of war. Enter the American Civil War with 620,000 dead; more than the total American losses from every conflict from the War for Independence to Vietnam. Combined.

What about the theory of long-range, large-scale strategic bombing that was developed after the appalling carnage of World War One? Strike at vital war-making centers, shorten the conflict, save lives, right?

Unfortunately the theory didn’t quite play out as expected a quarter century later, as the residents of London, Tokyo, Berlin, and other cities can attest. Take as an example the city of Dresden, Germany, on which Allied bombers dropped almost 4,000 tons of explosives over the course of two days, demolishing 15 square miles of the city and an estimated 25,000 German civilians.

Remember when television and the internet were touted as world-changing educational tools that would raise the collective intellect of Mankind?

It’s the thought that counts. I guess.

The staple of Science Fiction is the notion that Society and Humanity will advance with Science and Technology. All Mankind needs is FTL or nano-tech or faster broadband, and eventually, inevitably, we’ll be lifted beyond the meat, the mud, the divisions into a new, enlightened phase of human existence in which we can boldly go where no man has gone before.

Nice idea. Only trouble is history says otherwise, with repeated tragic eloquence.

Let me be clear here: I’m not a scientist or sociologist. I’m just an debut author offering thoughts on constructing realistic science fiction settings, so sprinkle your grains of salt liberally as you read. Your mileage may vary.

1. “No matter where you go, there you are.” – Buckaroo Banzai

Whenever I approach a sci fi story as a writer, my foundational premise is this: Technology won’t carry Humanity beyond itself; it merely creates new avenues of expression for what we already are. So will nano-tech processors that can build anything imaginable given enough raw material eliminate economic disparity? Probably not. Sure they’d be revolutionary and incredibly beneficial. Absolutely true. But the first agenda of the powerful is to maintain power, so if you think people won’t construct value systems and some form of currency that enables them to accumulate influence, affluence, and social distinctions, you’re fantasizing.

Occupy Proxima Centauri! Good Luck with that. Rather than envisioning a Worker’s Paradise In Space, I think the real challenge for the Spec-Fiction writer is to hypothesize regarding that future economy’s mechanisms and how they impact society and individuals. Who will be the new Power Brokers, Refugees, Luddites? What drives them? What scares them?

If History is any indicator, Humanity is hard-wired against Socialist Utopia. People have equal value but not equal abilities. Cybernetics, bio-tech, gene-therapy will certainly be used to off-set disease and disabilities, but they will also be employed to increase those distinctions. Someone will always strive to be stronger, faster, smarter, ahead of the curve. The issue isn’t the Body, it’s the Heart. Technology is simply a new appendage.

2. “It’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” – Ulysses Everett McGill

In my opinion, the second important premise of good science fiction is that it isn’t about fictional science. Fact is, I loathe books that read like a doctoral thesis. Ark ship to Gliese 581c? I’m not interested in a physics-contorting treatise on practical FTL travel. I want to see people dealing with relative aging, extended space travel, leaving Earth and all known references behind for an alien planet, not read page after page detailing viable cryogenic hibernation or sustainable eco-systems in deep space, low-grav arcologies – except to the extent they apply to the characters in your story. Scientific theory may titillate the more cerebral reader, but people read fiction for more visceral reasons.

Good fiction that strikes that primal chord is about people’s struggles, their failures and triumphs. Good science fiction (IMO) is about people wrestling with the new iterations of those issues in the face of advancing technology and discovery. Any prescience in speculative fiction is the result of asking the right questions and discerning what impulses really move us as human beings.

William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel Laureate speech, said writers had “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” He ended with “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

I agree wholeheartedly, and confess that’s my ultimate target every time I write. I think one of the most mysterious yet infuriatingly recognizable feature of any century, any locale, any culture will always be the human heart.

3. “The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” ― William Gibson

A while back, I saw author Cory Doctorow on a Google interview and he said all futurists really did was throw shovelfuls of the present at the big gaping unknown around the next bend. Guilty as charged, yer Honor. The third thing I do is shove current trends off the edge. II extrapolate. I extend. So whether it’s another model of the M-series assault rifle, the dramatic rise of private military contractors, the exponential increase in robotics and remote-control drones in every field, or the latest U.N. numbers on the amount of people who don’t even have clean drinking water, (estimated 1 billion as of this writing, or one out of every seven people on the planet.) expanding common denominators makes the background familiar yet foreign.

I find this facet the most fascinating to research. I end up with pages of notes, video references, hyperlinks, and a fairly long reading list. Sometimes explained, mostly hinted at, all of it goes into the backdrop that forms and frames the characters.

4. ” My stories run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” – Ray Bradbury

As I close, of course you’re free to disagree and find exceptions. You read what resonates with you, and you have to write what moves you. I keep coming back to the notion authors are called to tell stories that fire the imagination, not deliver lectures that notify the intellect. Those are lectures, sermons. Fiction certainly can and does inform, but it’s a horse of a different color. As far as constructing realistic fictional settings, I believe they are rendered most convincingly not when they’re holding up not a “window into the unknown”, but a mirror angled further down the road. Whether we take comfort or warning depends on what we see, but we must remember part of the image is a reflection of right now.

Should Humanity expand into our solar system and beyond, the simple fact is we’ll bring ourselves with us. Our elemental struggles will continue in different skin, under different stars. If justice, compassion, peace and genuine civilization prevail, it’s won’t be owing to robots and networks but because we carried them with us, and struggled mightily to establish them.

– P. Todoroff Dec. 2011

May you write in interesting times.

Recent blog-worthy thoughts have been run over like a frog on a freeway by the several stories I’m working on, as well as work and ministry commitments. I did just receive this article however, and wanted to pass it on. Nothing like facts to burst the bubble of well-cherished myths. Worth noting, IMO, are the sales numbers of ebook vs print, the reasons for the decline of paperback, and the self-pubbed “success” stories.

Bottom Line: Keep writing.

INTERESTING TIMES

The new year is a time of assessment and resolution for everyone, writers included. We are now a couple of weeks into 2012 and many of us have already lost at least part of our resolve. We are so busy looking ahead–or scrambling to keep up with the day-to-day–we don’t have much time to spend looking back.

Despite all, Writers.com took the time to briefly consider the “big” publishing stories of 2011 and ponder some future possibilities.

— Borders Group filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, leaving Barnes and Noble as the only national bookstore chain. Although the demise was anticipated, the results are just now being felt. The loss of physical shelves meant a loss not only of retail space, but also the loss of places for readers to discover new books and new authors. Borders was a community space for promotional events such as book signings (and attendant publicity) and even personal interactions between readers.

— Social networks and social reading (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/books/la-et-book-social-reading-20111222,0,6118980.story) are becoming the new “word of mouth/readers buzz” that publishers have always known was the best (if the most unpredictable) way to sell books. How effectively publishers use promotional platforms online is becoming even more important. And if promotion is digital, will this put even more emphasis on digital books?

— Digital readers and ebooks finally made a major impact in 2011, but even with the Borders bankruptcy–and plenty of media hyperbole about the “death of print”–print still made up the bulk of publishing revenue. According to Nielsen Bookscan, sales of print units (651 million) declined 9.25 percent for 2011. Ebook figures for the year have not yet been published, but according to BookStats about 76 million ebook units were sold in 2010. This figure is expected to have doubled in 2011, but even sales of 152 million ebooks is close to 500 million fewer units than print.

— The biggest format drop-off in print sales was mass market paperbacks: down 24 percent. Since 2008, unit sales of mass market paperbacks have fallen by almost 60 per cent. Were ebooks the reason? No. The closing of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks outlets was. The loss of places to buy a wide array of mmps may, however, have helped fuel interest in ereading.

— U.S. publishers are beginning to realize they may be able to lucratively exploit ebooks in the international marketplace. Ereaders and tablets are becoming more popular outside the U.S. though are not yet as popular as they are here. But sales of other devices that can be used for reading, such as smartphones, are already huge.

— Successful digital self-publishing was a big story in 2011, but the news stories seldom took into account how many writers made the attempt and did not sell many books. Yes, roughly a dozen different self-published ebook authors actually made the bestseller lists, but even the successful self-publisher/author J.A. Konrath admits the secret to his success is: “I simply got lucky….It took me twenty years and over two million written words.” Amanda Hocking, 2011’s self-publishing Cinderella, signed a $2 million deal with St. Martin’s. She went “traditional” because, as she stated on her blog, “I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full time corporation.” Luck, talent, hard work, and a lot of effort paid off for some digital self-publishing authors — but the same was just as true for the traditionally published.

— Amazon acquired a NYC-based children’s publishing imprint and hired Laurence Kirshbaum, former CEO of the Time-Warner Book Group, to head a New York-based publishing office. They also hired science fiction and romance editors. Will Amazon becoming a publisher make a difference in the industry? It’s far too early to tell. Publishers have long been nervous about Amazon usurping their role. Note, though, that Barnes and Noble became a publisher in the 1970s, and then moved more aggressively into the field in 2003 with the acquisition of Sterling Publishing. B&N is now seeking a buyer for Sterling.

— In February, Random House joined the other five biggest U.S. publishers in using the “agency model” (publishers set the price for their ebooks across retailers) for selling ebooks. This was big news because, theoretically, it offered other retailers (and even publishers themselves) a chance to compete with Amazon’s dominance of the ebook market. However, in December, the Department of Justice confirmed rumors of a pricing antitrust investigation of the original five publishers and Apple. Will this be a big story for 2012?

— Libraries and ebooks: HarperCollins set 26 as the number of times one of its ebooks can be circulated. Penguin delays library access to high-demand e-content such as new releases. Hachette refuses to sell any new ebook releases to libraries. Two other members of the publishing “big six” — Macmillan and Simon & Schuster — don’t allow their ebooks to be circulated in libraries at all. Library patrons are increasingly clamoring for ebooks; publishers fear losing sales. Librarians want to serve the public. Authors want their books in libraries. Where will it all end?

If nothing else, the year 2011 was an interesting year for the publishing world. We expect the changes to continue making news in 2012.

— Paula Guran

Alter-ego Activity

Have two Drop City short stories in the chamber and a third in progress, all slated for the end of the month. In the meantime, my glazier side is doing what it usually does during the Winter quarter, which is take advantage of the slow down and make retail panels. One is pictured above. For those who are interested, here’s a link to my ETSY shop: ETSY SHOP HERE Enjoy your weekend.

Drop City: Zoning and Ordinances

For all you interested authors and readers, here are some Drop City specifics:

KEPLER 22
Discovered and developed by an international consortium of corporations, the entire Kepler 22B solar system was designated an “Autonomous Trade Zone” at it’s founding in 2156. For the last eighty-five years of Mankind’s inter-stellar Diaspora, it has remained outside the jurisdiction of the established interplanetary Governing Bodies, and to this day remains strictly neutral space, patterned after the old Earth nation of Switzerland. This twin dynamic of independence and free enterprise has been the defining factor for the system’s inhabitants.

Officially designated Kepler 22-C, the third planet from the Kepler 22 star is an ocean world roughly 2.4 times the size of earth. With multiple small landmasses, a majority of which are located in the planet’s tropical zone, there is only one large enough to hold a Space Port with all critical ancillary facilities. This spaceport, and the surrounding urban build-up, is called Drop City; a name which now extends to the planet itself.

THE TTA
Far from being lawless, the Kepler 22 system has a strong central civil governing body: the Trade and Transit Authority, or TTA. Run by an Executive Board of seven members, the TTA regulates all commerce and shipping in the system. Its regulations govern every aspect of commerce, and it is responsible for all Business, Transit, Exploration and Development, Orbital, and Habitation Licenses in Kepler 22 space. The rulings of the TTA and its Board are final.

THE CE
Central Enforcement, or CE, is the police and military compliment of the TTA. Responsible for keeping the peace and enforcing TTA law on all planets, habitable moons, Orbitals, and stations in system. they are a highly trained force equipped with the latest hi-tech gear.

DROP CITY PROPER
Spreading out like a massive coral accretion, Drop City is centered around the all-important Bradbury Spaceport, with urban build-up occurring in roughly concentric circles. Each ring is named after the Danger areas of a blast radius; an old habit leftover from the early settlement days when landing accidents were more common. The Red Zone is the Spaceport itself with all its infrastructure and support facilities. A heavily industrialized zone, there are also massive storage areas arrayed to facilitate rapid shipping and receiving of off-world cargo.

The next ring is the Yellow Zone. Home to numerous businesses, banks, unions, clubs, low-rent living units, this is the most dense and populous area of Drop City. A veritable warren of concrete, steel and holo-adverts, you’ll find the neo-classic St. Joseph of Copertino Cathedral, Central Enforcement Headquarters, the massive green armor-glass Trade and Transit Authority Arcology, and the famous Le Guin Hospital. The Yellow Zone is where the street-level action is.

The next ring out, and the most narrow, is termed the Green Zone. This area is home to Drop City’s upper middle class and features hundreds of gated-communities, upper-tier schools, universities, and numerous cultural and ethnic centers. Quiet, orderly, clean, most temples and places of worship are here, along with various Corporate Campuses, NGO headquarters, and the main Central Enforcement Training Facility.

The Blue Zone is the latest area designation. While not strictly a concentric ring, the phrase refers to the outermost perimeter of Drop City environs and includes small islands, marinas, and stationary ocean platforms up to 60 km from the City Center. Home to Drop City’s affluent and influential citizens and celebrities, island estates, mega-yachts, and platform mansions are as common as they are opulent. The Blue Zone also contains the CE Shipyards, the Naval Academy, and numerous undersea research facilities.

GRAND TECH/STREET TECH
Both Faster-Than-Light travel and Anti-Grav technology have been developed by 2156, however they remain closely guarded secrets, rarely seen or used due to the inherent dangers and massive power requirements. The possession of planetary governments and a handful of corporations, FTL and AG vessels are reserved for military and high-priority scientific ventures.

The Feed however is another matter. Every habitable planet, moon, asteroid colony and space station has its own wireless infrastructure, with citizens able to access the internet any time, night or day via a personal device called a “Charm”. Based on Sixth Sense Technology and Holo-PDAs, Charms and the Feed have radically changed how humans interact with information and each other.

Watch this for more information:

That’s all for now. Thank you for attending this Drop City Information Session.

Once upon a time…

She made an effort to be nice but the word slipped out with a hint of distaste usually reserved for insects or a nasty rash. “I hear you write stories now.”

I make no secret of being a Christian or having been a missionary and a pastor. Despite my cynicism, it is a privilege to know God and to have served in any capacity, let alone in a full-time office. The past can’t be undone. I have to leave questions of destiny and results in God’s hands.

Why do I write “stories” now?

Well first off, it’s not all I do. Aside from the common responsibilities of being a husband/father/grandfather, I run my glass studio, lead a Bible Study, am active in church, etc, etc. I write sermons, lessons, essays, poems. I’ve written dozens of full-length plays and sketches.

But writing stores, specifically speculative fiction, (i.e. SciFi, Fantasy, Supernatural Thriller genres) has the effect of drawing out interesting and varied responses from fellow believers that in turn require a thoughtful response.

First of all, I’m weary of the hand-wringing and hand grenades of vitriol that are lobbed by fellow believers in the name of the “Culture War”; a surreal conflict that strikes me as a bit “Wag the Dog” anyway. Oh, I’m aware of hostility and an anti-Christian, anti-definite faith bias in society. My disbelief in the “war” at large was founded on the opinion that until fairly recently Christians hadn’t even engaged their opponents. Criticism isn’t conflict.

I’m convinced there is no area on the planet that does not belong to God. (Please lose the 2D flannel-board theology. That’s not the God I have faith in or am referring to.) If areas of culture and creative expression have fallen prey to anti-religious bias, I believe it’s largely by default. My fear is that – save for a brave few – Christians abandoned those fields in the name of “sanctification” and retreated to the relative safety of intellectual ghettos and echo chambers.

I’d like to reclaim those territories. Not to impose Inquisitorial censorship (No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!) or choke the venue with mediocre, pious trash, but to bring vibrant, viable Christian faith back to the Open Marketplace of Ideas. That includes the realms of Speculative Fiction. Thankfully in modern America I have the opportunity and the right to do so, and in Christ, I have the liberty and a commission.

Secondly, I write stories because I can’t not write. The characters, the scenes, the ideas, keep coming the same way sermons and Bible Studies do. Call it a “Gift” or “Inspiration of the Holy Ghost” or some form of “Ministry”, whatever … I’m not looking to apostolicize myself. Creativity is a central aspect of God’s nature. From the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, to Exodus 35 and the inspired artisans working on the tabernacle, to the New Jerusalem, to the sheer astonishing breadth of creation, to every single sunrise and sunset, God is an Artist, an Author, an Architect.

I’ve come to believe a vital facet of Redemption is the re-ignition of a person’s creative faculties. No, not that everyone who receives Christ should buy a Bible and a “plein air” watercolor set – I’m referring to a renewed sense of constructive wonder and hope. I’m intent on exercising good stewardship over my inspiration, talents, and opportunities. Like any Christian would. I am endeavoring – however imperfectly — to tell the stories I receive.

Lastly, I believe one person can make a difference. In a Christian context, Obedience is a window into the reality of God. I pray that He will breath on my efforts, however clumsy they are, and infuse them with a measure of encouragement, sanity, compassion or grace that will turn a person’s heart and mind toward Him. Fame? Fortune? Foreign Language Rights? Film Options? Sure, I’ll take ’em. But People are the Treasure of Eternity.

Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.
– C. S. Lewis

A trio of poems

I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “Bad poetry is worst of all, sincere.” Put up three Christian-themed poems from several years back. I know I was sincere when I wrote them. Here’s hoping you won’t find them too bad. Click on the POEMS tab.

Best