to Technofiction ... to Movieland
by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2013
In February 2013 I had the opportunity to talk on several panels at the Life, The Universe, and Everything Writers Symposium (LTUE) held in Provo, Utah. What follows are notes on what I talked about in those various panels.
The panels were:
o The Importance of Internal Consistency to Story Telling
o What Can You Do With Robots?
o Screenwriting and Scriptwriting
o Using History and Folklore to Enrich Your World
o The Engines of Exploration
o Space Travel without Warp Drive
Internal consistency in story telling is important, more important than is generally recognized. The evidence for this oversight is movies such as "Immortals" and "Prometheus" and "Skyfall". All these movies were badly damaged by inconsistency.
There are three big advantages to paying attention to internal consistency. The first is that your readers/audience won't be facepalming, giggling or headscratching as they get halfway through your story. They won't be saying, "Eh? You're saying what happened?"
The second is that internal consistency will lead your story into new and interesting twists. The ending will be "Neat!", rather than "Been there, seen that."
And finally, readers/viewers will like going back. If the story is consistent it's readable over and over.
I'm going to use Prometheus as a bad example, and one of my own stories with a similar theme as a good example: "Where does the 500LB alien sleep?" (found here and in my book Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol.1) Both have the theme of encountering a planet with alien civilization on it that can potentially be hostile or harmful.
Here are just three inconsistency highlights from Prometheus:
o starship lands on the planet
o no satellite surveillance before or during landing
o "The air is breathable," everyone takes off their helmets
These are straight out of cheesy 1950's SF movies. We know better now. Ever since the Enterprise we have known that starships don't land on planets, they send down shuttles. There is a lot of solid engineering behind this reality.
The crew gets surprised by a wind storm. Neat visual effects but... why did they get surprised? What bozos!
And speaking more of bozoism, I guess none of this crew ever read War of the Worlds. Taking off helmets! The other-than-dying-from-disease-problem with this is that nowadays environment suits such as these are the "outer me" -- they have a lot of monitoring and communication built in. Pulling off the helmet disables about 80% of the suit capability. Whew! Once again, how Ed Woods!
And the cumulative effect of all this inconsistency is to destroy story credibility: It can't be a good story because it's so silly!
Now let's look at a good example:
My goal in "500LB Alien" was to put a creature on the surface that was truly scary -- something that could do serious damage to the crew, and humanity, if mistakes were made. I chose a "Thing"-style creature, one that could imitate. Brr! That style give me serious creeps!
That choice made, now the consistency elements come in, and the first big questions is:
o How did that creature get there?
OK... it evolved there. It's native.
o Why did it evolve?
... In response to evolutionary pressure. Something was promoting it, and killing off more normal competitors.
... Hmm... Robots! Killer robots! These robots were killer robots gone wild. There had been a war, they had been set loose, they had gotten off program. They had killed off all the animal life on the surface, and been doing so for millions of years, long enough for the "critters" to evolve in response to them. The critters imitated robot technology, then infiltrated the robot infrastructure and screwed it up.
OK, now I had a consistent world for humans to approach. It was populated with robots and critters who were engaged in a now-neverending battle for survival.
Next, how are the humans going to approach this world?
This is where consistency leads to creativity. In this story the humans never do land on this planet. They research from space. In the story we see what the human probes see, and that becomes a mystery as the critters start taking over the human probes.
And to add drama when the humans decide to cut bait -- this place is too dangerous -- the robots give chase! Whoops!
o Why chase the humans?
...Um...Um... Because the robots are smart and they want human help! They know they are on the rocks and the humans, being star travelers, should have some advanced tech that can help them solve this mess!
And so, by being consistent, this story has taken some really neat turns and twists. This is an example of the benefit of being consistent.
Being consistent is especially important in mysteries because inconsistencies are clues.
Being consistent is like good journalism. Ask the "5 W's and H" questions and come up with good answers.
Again, the benefit is a strong story and one that readers and viewers can come back to and enjoy over and over. Lord of the Rings is a wonderful example of enjoyable consistent writing, the movies after the first one, less so.
First, a definition: Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrobiology
The search for alien life, xenobiology, has changed a lot over the last century. In science fiction it has changed from John Carter adventuring among the various colors of "men" on Mars to Curiosity and Opportunity exploring a currently dry, barren planet surface that may have had water billions of years ago and some kind of life.
The search for life on other worlds can be broken into two broad categories: searching for where can humans thrive (terraforming) and searching for what other life systems are out there (xenobiology).
At this stage it seems that carbon-based life occupies a distinct niche in the universe of life-making possibilities. It's hugely prolific in terms of both amount and variety of materials involved and the complexity of what can be created with it. There don't seem to be any systems that are "sort of like it, but not the same", such as silicon-based life or life with chlorine gas as the oxidizer rather than oxygen.
There may be other, way more different, styles of making life such as some kind of life living in solar plasma, but if they exist these are so different they are hard to identify and would be even harder to communicate with. Solar plasma life, for instance, would likely have a lifespan of milliseconds rather than years because things move around so fast and energetically in plasma.
Given all of the above big issues, where are we likely to find life we can identify?
Searching for life means searching for anomalous relations in energy flow. Example: Oxygen gas is highly reactive. It's not going to exist for long in any environment that has large quantifies of reducing agents available, such as carbon, hydrogen or metals. The fact that Earth's atmosphere has a lot of native oxygen in it is a sign that something is "pushing" the atmosphere and surface chemistry of Earth into an odd state, and has been doing that pushing a long time. That pushing is life. If we see other environments where the flow of entropy is being locally reversed in a dynamic way, as Earth's atmosphere is, that's a place to be looking for life. However, entropy and free energy flows are not quick and easy to measure, so this kind of research takes time.
And most life is not likely to be a prolific as Earth's life is. The more likely version will resemble life around thermal vents deep in the oceans. It will be sparse and simple, which will make it hard to locate.
In sum, the search for xenobiology is not going to be an easy one.
For more information check out my two essays Special life-creating things about the Earth and Another Miracle of Life on Earth: Its Magnitude. Both of these are also in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book.
Robots are a wonderful example of what I call "The Birds and Boeings" phenomenon: There is a vision which inspires inventors, but what they produce comes out very differently from the inspiring vision. In the case of flying the inspiration was birds, and jet planes are the product of that vision. Jet planes and birds fly, but that's about all they have in common. We still haven't seen airplanes for humans that will let us routinely land in trees or even on front lawns.
Robots are having a similar trajectory in their development. The inspiring vision for robots was the robot butler -- robot personal assistant. An early famous example of this was Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet who later became "robot" in "Lost in Space" famous for saying, "Danger! Will Robinson". The first widespread implementation of real-world robots was as painting machines in auto assembly plants. They and Robbie both had computer brains, but little else in common. As with human-carrying planes that can land on front lawns, the robot butler is still a long way from reality.
So the question of what robots can do must be amended to what can robots do effectively? That's a lot, but far from everything. They can explore Mars, they can answer phones, they can clean floors. In the near future they will drive cars.
In the near future they are likely to shoulder most of the burden in manufacturing and service jobs. When that happens the question then becomes "What can humans do?" The answer to that is, "Things that depend on human instinctive thinking, and top of that list is entertainment." This question of human-robot relations in fifty years is a question I'm devoting a lot of thinking to these days. Here are some speculations.
Movie script writing is a form of story telling, but it is different from prose story telling. It is different in many ways. The first is that the layout on the page is both standardized and distinctly different from prose. Another is that what is talked about and how it is talked about are different: movies have hard limits on their length, and they are much more "show me, don't tell me" than prose is.
The best way to deal with the first issue -- proper formatting -- is to get a script writing software package and master it. There are several available, some costly, some free.
And here's a related tip from this grizzled computer veteran: whichever ones you work with, save your final results in both the native format and some widely read second format such as Word or Adobe PDF. Do this because companies change and with them their support for proprietary formats -- if your Scriptwriting company closes its doors, or even just moves on, your native format files could become unreadable.
Beyond that, read scripts. Pay attention to how things are described. Oh, and expect that your prose writing will change as you become more sensitive to the issues of screenwriting. If you look at the Harry Potter series you'll see that about book five J. K. Rowling changes her style to get more visually oriented -- she's been reading the scripts of her books and it's spilling over.
History and folklore are invaluable in story building because human thinking is relatively unchanging -- a good story can be a good story for generations and the history of exciting events is told for thousands of years. This means that incorporating parts of a good story or well-known history into your work will be comfortable for readers. It helps build familiarity.
You can use elements of an existing good story, or come up with your own. An example of using an existing good story shows up in a couple of my stories: I have the protagonist meet Aladdin and his genie. (here's one) The reader is familiar with the Aladdin story, so I don't have to spend a lot of time explaining him. I introduce him, then get the story moving along. (I spend a little time explaining him because I modify him for my stories. I give him different motivations.)
A wonderful example of creating background pretty much from whole-cloth is the Lord of the Rings series. Tolkien does a wonderful job of building back story -- so wonderful that I love the appendices of Book Three as much as I love all the other parts. The big benefit of his background story building is that it builds the internal consistency of the main story, and internal consistency is one of the big reasons I read it again and again. It makes it great.
So, yes, use folklore in your stories. Don't plagiarize, but do incorporate. Doing so will help make your story familiar and comfortable to readers and you can get it moving along faster. (An example of lots of incorporation is my Technofantasy book Rostov Rising.)
People explore strange new worlds for two reasons: for the fun of it and to make money. It is the latter people who fuel lots of exploration. If your world is going to have commerce -- lots of people moving in lots of craft -- there has to be lots of money being made.
After some people have become rich beyond imagination, then the people with causes can join in on the parade because the parade will be a big one.
An example of this difference is the difference in what happened after Eric the Red found North America and Columbus found it. Eric came back and his people said, "That's nice..." and did little. History nearly forgot him. When Columbus came back, millions of people and dollars started moving across the Atlantic -- that's why we celebrate Columbus Day, not Eric the Red Day.
In contemporary times Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren are facing this same fading issue. With no humming-and-buzzing Lunar or Martian colonies following them, they are becoming, "That's nice..."
Over time, commerce gets more mundane. These days, there is solid profit in moving stuff around the world, but not amazing profit. In your world building you need to decide which era your commerce is in: just being developed, or now taken for granted.
I've written a lot more on this topic here and in my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. Take a look at the book.
Writing stories with only slower-than-lightspeed travel (STL) presents a big challenge, but it can be done and the results are very rewarding because they will take you out of the standard Space Opera story-making format. You will get interesting and surprising results.
Rocketry revolutionized space travel. Before its feasibility was recognized SF writers were launching people into space with cannon, and saying nothing about how they would stop when they arrived -- H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds is an example.
Rocketry was the game changer that opened up Golden Age science fiction of the 1940's. Ahh... but then came the harsh reality of the 1960's. Because chemical-based fuel is so heavy and nuclear proscribed as too dangerous to mess with, real rocketry became the boost-and-coast variety -- which is soooo slow! It's good for getting probes around the solar system and people to the Moon, and that's about it.
In response to this harsh reality writers either abandoned space stories or turned to warp drive in its many incarnations to get around that long journey problem. Nice, but not a hope of being real. And it introduces a story-telling consistency problem: If everywhere can be gotten to quickly, everywhere becomes a suburb of LA. Over time, why should there be any differences between LA and Zeeopolis on Planet X orbiting Alpha Centauri? "Want a DVD of Avatar on Zeeopolis? No problem, I'll warp drive it."
An alternative I researched that has a possibility of becoming real is constant acceleration propulsion -- the engine keeps pushing throughout the journey. This makes the journey a lot faster than boost-and-coast -- traveling around the solar system drops from years to days or weeks, and nearby stars can be reached in years, not millennia. We don't have it yet because fuel is such a big problem, but it's physically possible...
I then took up the challenge of writing an interesting space exploration story with constant acceleration propulsion at its heart. I drew a lot from the history of the sailing ship breakthrough that let Europeans sail to the Far East -- a years-long but hugely profitable journey. The result is The Honeycomb Comet, and it's an interesting result. It's not your daddy's space opera story! I have also written at length about constant acceleration space travel in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book. If you're interested in exploring constant acceleration stories, start with these two.
The LTUE panels covered a rich trove of writing topics. I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate. I hope these notes prove equally inspirational to you. And, if you like what you are reading here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.
to Technofiction ... to Movieland