Thursday, June 28, 2012

So What Are They Fighting About in a Semi-Solid SF Setting Anyway?

Most space opera is pretty much the modern world dressed up in a space setting. You have farmers, even if they are harvesting moisture with vaporators. You have mines and miners, merchants, peddlers, pawnbrokers, doctors, politicians, bankers, clerics, soldiers of fortune, princes and princesses, either entitled royalty or their new money equivalents. You have countries, kingdoms and nations and thus you have trade routes, territories, and regions of influence.

The economics are so familiar that nobody actually gives them much thought, anymore than people give serious thought to explaining what food is, why bathrooms are necessary, and how those two things are linked. Explaining money, resources and scarcity is no more necessary than going into gravity or breathing.

But if all a space opera does is translate modern problems into a setting with spaceships and rayguns, is there really any point? A Song of Ice and Fire could be translated to a space opera easily enough. Star Wars could be recast as a fantasy. The choice of setting is little more than aesthetic. But sometimes there's a compelling reason to pick a genre. Lord of the Rings would feel different if the magic was just sufficiently advanced technology. Frankenstein's monster could have been a homunculus or golem but those would have been monsters of the occult, old and familiar. The Creature must be a product of modern science, a magic not stolen from the gods but of man's own devising. Gepetto making Pinocchio out of wood relegates it to fairy tale but Noonian Soong making Data out of a positronic brain and blinky doodads makes it science fiction, somehow more plausible.

I'd like to have conflicts that remain believable but require a scifi setting. Star-crossed lovers? That could be in Verona or LA. Two brothers struggling for control of the family business? That could be Memphis, either Egypt or Tennessee. But the lovers might not be of different classes or races but different species. A freeborn prince of the financial empire falls for a genetically-engineered pleasure slave? Different. The brothers are actually a series younger clones and their "father" pits them against one another to see who is the worthy successor? A little more interesting. 

So, what are the conflicts? 


It comes down to something that makes sense. Nobody has to take a lot of time explaining it.

Economic. You want a new market to sell your products to, access to raw materials, or transit through a region to get there. Someone stands in your way. Or you don't feel you're getting a fair shake and you can't settle your differences in the marketplace. 

Territorial. They have land you want. Access to markets isn't enough, you want it all. 

Practical Politics. Who is in charge, who calls the shots? I subscribe to von Clausewitz's suggestion that war is politics by other means. "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war," as Churchill said, but sometimes the only way to get what you want is to take it. This could lead to war between polities or civil strife within a polity. Power struggles often turn ugly. 


This is not going to be a necessary conflict, though the people involved may feel differently.

Religious. Something about what the other guy believes is so repellent they must be disabused of it by any means necessary. Could be an understandable moral failing like slavery or something silly like sexual practices.

Philosophical. Presented as more reasonable than a religious belief. Slavery can be presented as evil in light of reason but the same righteous reason can be applied to a conflict over eating toast butter-side-up or butter-side-down, something that is ultimately quite silly. And while one person argues capitalism vs. communism has the same weight as slavery, another will argue it's buttered toast. I would also call this impractical politics.

The practical stuff is all familiar. Hitler wanted another country for lebensraum, Space Hitler wants a planet. Same difference. Imperial Japan wanted access to oil and raw materials, Space Japan wants access to antimatter and magnetic monopoles. The United States sends Nixon to China to normalize relations and open markets, Space America sends Bat Durston to the Empire of Space Amazons. It's all familiar. Maybe Space Germany is flooding the market with cheap automation machinery that ruins the value of labor on your planet. That last one is called the luddite fallacy by economists who insist new jobs will always open up for the displaced. We're entering an era of structural unemployment where there simply aren't enough jobs and entire classes of people will be shut out of the economy. It's actually going to be a very immediate problem and not something for the realm of scifi.

I think that Doctrinal disputes will be the avenue for the most esoterically scifi of conflicts. We can see culture shocks and conflicts where ideas are seen as poisonous. What happens if biological immortality is discovered? What if brain backups and clones allow multiple copies of the same personality operating in a society? What happens if a post-scarcity society exists in the same geopolitical space as a scarcity society? We flip out over polygamy, homosexuality, incest, certain sex acts, cannibalism, etc. Blasphemy and apostasy are hot buttons for other contemporary cultures.

Could transhumanism cause the same level of disgust as transexualism does today? First and Last Men brought up the idea of creating successors to our own humanity and Brave New World had not just ubermenschen but untermenschen created to serve society. While it may be worrisome to imagine designing a superman, it feels as repugnant as foot-binding to cripple a human mind to make for a better service animal. Dune gave us a jihad against thinking machines. When what it means to be human becomes fluid and open to debate, some might decide to say "NO! It's not up for debate!" and tell us what the answer is. This sort of thing was postulated in the Night's Dawn Trilogy where those who embraced advanced biotechnology along with consciousness and memory transfer came to be known as Edenists and those who rejected it were Adamists. 

There's thinking that certain scifi technologies could be considered too dangerous such as causality-violation weapons, certain kinds of nanotech and bio-chem weapons. David Langford created the concept of an image that could hard-crash a human mind just by looking at it, something he called a basilisk. Other ideas that have been floated are perfected brainwashing techniques that could be every bit as effective as love potions from fairy tales. Simulation as Lotus Eater Machine and virtual reality =  the ultimate drug have come up before. Red Dwarf's take on the fatally addictive game Better Than Life is a personal favorite. It's easy to imagine a Women's Christian Temperance Union going after VR saloons.

So, this is not new, the idea of things that are taboo because they are too inherently dangerous, morally corrosive, or distasteful to be tolerated. But this is the future. Can we think of really good new ones? Or bring up old ones that have been forgotten?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Interstellar Travel in the Age of Hypersail

So I've gone into why classic space opera makes no sense. I've also given one example of how we could try to get around that, the Into the Void setting.

The Age of Hypersail is another special case that tries to work with a limited number of assumptions to provide for a properly operatic setting without insulting our intelligence. I want to have stealth in space. Humans must remain important, not easily replaced with machines. The individual commander's initiative can shape the course of events. There are no push-button ships or push-button wars. This isn't going to be hard SF but semi-solid. Ships need to radiate heat, orient themselves with gyros and reaction control systems, burn rockets to move in realspace, don't have shields or artificial gravity, and, except where duly noted, operate according to the laws of physics. But the special case assumptions are clearly not hard SF. That's fine. I just need everything to be self-consistent and avoid obvious plot holes like having a genie in a lamp and not wishing for more wishes.

My notes on the concept of hypersail are a work in progress and by no means complete. But they're sufficiently progressed to invite discussion. I have them shared via Google Docs. Assuming permissions are correct, anyone should be able to view it without the need to sign in. 

Click here to enter the Age of Hypersail. As always, discussion is welcome. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Star Trek Repaired

Had a conversation with a friend about how the new Trek film was almost a good movie. They had a competent cast with chemistry, very watchable. I didn't care for the special effects, had a bit of a design school splooge fest with wonky camera angles and lens flares everywhere. It's like when bands deliberately include feedback in their recordings: no, it doesn't make you sound raw, real and authentic, it makes it sound like you don't know what you're doing.

As a writing exercise I'd like to explore the possibility of doing the Star Trek movie in a way that doesn't suck.

Most story problems begin with the script. You have a bad script and can't recognize the fact (George Lucas), you have a bad script and are too proud to seek help in fixing it (George Lucas), or you have a bad script imposed on you from outside (The poor bastards saddled with making Battleship). Of course, there's also sociopathic script apathy that explains any Hollywood production that isn't a vanity project.

What's Wrong with the Star Trek Franchise? 

There are a number problems associated with it, the first part being that it's a franchise.

Don't break the franchise. McDonald's has product that sells dependably. It's not haute cuisine, it's not even home cooking comfort food. It's all cheap, mass-manufactured food-like substances indifferently prepared by unskilled, low-pay workers who only have jobs because they're cheaper than automation. People know what a Big Mac is. It's not impressive, it's not something to look forward to, but you can be dependably disappointed in a consistent way each and every time. You don't mess with success and Star Trek is a franchise. But it's also worth noting that there are gourmet burger restaurants popping up to compete with McDonald's and they're profitable. Franchise is a trap and a hard one to dig out of. No executive is going to want to be the one who killed the goose that crapped the golden turd and thus we are locked into a cycle of mediocrity.

But even if the quality in a franchise is quite high, success will breed stagnation. The executives won't understand how they caught lightning in a bottle and so will prevent evolution and renewal in the production. "Is this fresh and new? Good! Change nothing but keep it fresh and new." Taking risks is how you can ruin a franchise. But at the same time, keeping it static is how people lose interest.

Writing by Committee. Lacking any strong editorial direction, each Star Trek series is usually a mess of meandering themes, aborted arcs, and filler episodes that exist solely to round out the network's order for the season. Committee writing combined with franchise preservation means the results are going to be terrible.

Is there even any story left worth telling? The Batman question. They've been publishing Batman comics for how many decades now? He was based on the Shadow who was based on Zorro who was based on folk heroes and it's turtles all the way down.

Negative space wedgie stories. They're ruining everything. Time travel, time loops, mirror universes, space anomalies, problem that arise from techno-babble and are resolved through techno-babble which is pretty goddamn boring.

What's Wrong With the 2009 Movie?

Trying to do too much in too little time. We have an origin story with Kirk's dad in a fight he can't win, young Kirk being a punk, older Kirk getting into bar fights, then Starfleet Academy, then getting onto the Enterprise, the parachuting business on the drilling rig, exile on the ice moon, fistfighting with Romulans, etc. There simply isn't enough time.

A stupid plot to begin with. Time travel stories are difficult because you always end up asking "Well, why didn't they do this?" So Nero runs a mining ship and is trying to get help before his star goes nova. He's sent to the past instead, somehow. His wife isn't dead at this point, she simply hasn't been born. But if he and Spock can fix the star in an unobtrusive way as possible, the timeline might remain unaffected. He could fly his ship up near lightspeed to effectively halt time for himself and come back right about the time he should be leaving on his fateful journey. He's reunited with his wife, still a hero, all is good. But no, he's going to blow up stars instead because he's a terrible villain terribly written.

By the numbers story beats. Must have action set pieces regardless of whether they make sense in context. Must have fistfights on starships because hey, that's what Kirk does. Must have character conflicts that are artificially induced by hamfisted writers.

Poor characterization and motivations. Kirk is played like a guy who can get away with a lot of crap because he's charming, except he isn't. Spock has a Vulcan stick lodged up his butt and his demeanor is constipated rather than logical. And all the other characters remain affable yet ill-defined.

How to Fix It? New Background

It's the start of a retelling of the Trek. Blowing up Vulcan was a way of saying "This is a different take on Trek." Sunrise handles the Gundam metaseries in similar fashion. Some shows belong in the main timeline while others follow clearly alternative timelines. They all have giant robots of iconic design, the combatants are usually Zeon and Earth Federation, and lots of stuff blows up. But new fans aren't hamstrung by years of continuity. A new show can be viewed without having to have seen all the prior ones. Common themes will be explored, deconstructed, reconstructed, and turned sideways.

What are the primary themes of Star Trek? That humans can be better than we've been. We can bring about an end of war, poverty, and starvation, make a civilization worthy of being called such. We can break the cycle of history. It is about optimism. Now, just because we've got peace on Earth, that doesn't mean we'll find it elsewhere. These ideals will have to be defended with diplomacy and good intentions but backed up by force. Where does conflict come from, essential for good storytelling? At the borders, where the Federation comes into contact with other cultures, and internally, when Federation citizens reflect on the validity of their own beliefs and practices. When things go wrong, we will set them right. Optimism is the main ingredient.

Pre-Contact Earth. Earth has 21st century troubles, goes through a global crisis, big population drop. The close, personal encounter with oblivion slaps some sense into the survivors. The era of rebuilding is one of peace. Strong AI is never developed but expert systems can run vast swaths of the economy. Third Industrial Revolution automation means that few people are required to keep the lights on, food in the supermarkets and goods on the shelves. This means that people are free to devote their time to doing things they feel have meaning, labors of love. Volunteer work can be a full-time occupation. Heavy staffing in education, medicine, the arts and sciences, sports and entertainment; not many office jobs and endless TPS reports. Now certainly economists and technologists will debate how this could happen but it's part of the assumptions that go with the Trek setting. One of these big labors of love is space exploration and this is how we discover warp theory, invent the first warp drive and the Vulcans drop by to say hi.

Contact. Turns out that not only are we not alone, we've got family. Sufficiently-Advanced Aliens visited Earth in the past and seeded worlds around us with Earth-like life. (More on this later.) The Vulcans fill us in on local history.

Galactic History. The galaxy is in a period of peace following a big war. The Vulcans were the first race to develop warp drives. They did so after suppressing their emotions that had led them to repeated civil wars on their own world. They explored the galaxy and made contact with the emerging humanoid species. They mistakenly shared their technology without considering the consequences. A race of  dullard imperialists decided to build an interstellar empire. The Vulcans, not being warriors, found themselves at a loss for what to do.

Some of the Vulcans tapped into suppressed emotion to become effective warriors. This created a philosophical schism that resulted in the Romulans breaking off. While not enemies, Vulcans and Romulans do not see eye to eye. A series of sporadic wars would be fought as the Dullard Imperialists  would try to conquer a new planet and the Romulans wound mount a defense. Sometimes they would win, sometimes they would lose.

The  Dullard Imperialists made a fateful error when they enlisted a newly discovered race as mercenary warriors, the Klingons. Klingons were at a steam age tech level and warred constantly. They were intelligent and quick-learning and adapted to starships and disruptors easily enough. They eventually became too powerful and slipped beyond the control of the Dullard Imperialists. The dullard empire was reduced to remnants and the Klingons took the best parts for themselves. Imperial retreat means many subject worlds with intelligent species are free for the moment.

The Klingons have grown in number and are looking to expand their territory. It appears the peace might come to an end.

Aliens. Every bumpy-headed alien that gets played by a human actor will be a result of this. Humans, Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons, all descending from common ancestors, thought the genes were tinkered with by Sufficiently-Advanced Aliens. There will be aliens that are from modified Earth stock that can't be handled with makeup and would be handled with practical and CG effects. They can still be humanoid but clearly inhuman. There will also be alien-aliens, but they will be handled by CGI and puppetry and very, very alien. Worlds for them may have been seeded as well. The humanoid aliens, being human in so many ways, will come into conflict for understandable reasons.

Something vaguely similar to this idea was broached in the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode "the Chase" but the writers never mentioned it again. Who are the Sufficiently-Advanced Aliens? We don't know. They've left no artifacts behind and we can only infer they exist because there's no other plausible explanation.

The Federation. The humans propose uniting civilized planets into a federation to promote peace and the common interest. This is a Big Idea that the Vulcans never thought of. Earth and Vulcan are the first member planets. The Romulans remain French to the notion and refuse to join. Naturally, the independent worlds are sick of war, sick of empires and don't want any trouble.

Starfleet. Explorers, humanitarians, police, military, evangelists for the Federation. They have a broad mandate.

Conflicting Viewpoints. Earth is effectively a paradise. What sort of thing drives young men and women to leave heaven to journey out into a scary galaxy on a mission of mercy? Are they saints or lunatics? And not everyone they evangelize to takes to the message. Why are people compelled to leave the Earth to setup colonies on new worlds, embrace hardship and uncertainty, risk their very lives when there's no threat of persecution back home? Some people simply aren't capable of handling paradise. Without something constructive to do, they go stir-crazy.

How to Fix It? New Story

We need a ship, a crew, and a mission.

The best stories about wooden ships and iron men centered around the frigates. They would operate alone, far from friendly ports, patrolling for pirates, escorting merchantmen, and scouting for enemy fleets in times of war. The name for this kind of independent operation was cruiser. 

However, the Federation also needs ships to show the flag, to symbolize the organization's ideals and be a prestige piece. Dedicated warships exist within the fleet but, being optimized for combat, are not good for much else. The majority of the war fleet is kept in port and is only activated for annual training exercises and emergencies.

The Enterprise. A symbol of the Federation, civilization, and security. She is fast, sufficiently armed to kill what she can catch and run from bigger threats. She has long legs and can operate independently for months. She is armed with heavy phaser banks and photon torpedo batteries give her a powerful punch. She carries a squadron of heavy shuttles that are more powerful and capable than the ones typically portrayed in the shows.

Kirk. He was on a fast-track for command before the disaster. Due to politics, he's given command of the Enterprise at 35, the youngest human captain in Starfleet history. He's the only hero in the [Insert Name] Debacle. He's promoted and given command. Some people think it's too political. He has a reputation for winning but it's not clear whether he's good or lucky. Some detractors feel he's cocky and takes too many risks.

Spock. The first human-Vulcan hybrid. Joins Starfleet because he would rather see the universe himself than learn about it back home.

McCoy. Toured the frontier as a young man, wrote a very successful travelogue. Settled down to civilian life practicing medicine and became utterly bored. Wants to see space again.

Rest of Crew. Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, all assigned per usual crew selection and rotation. It doesn't take Fate going through gymnastic contortions to get everyone together.

Story Starts 

How Kirk gets command. We know Kirk is the the only hero of a debacle. (I'm undecided about the particulars, this is only an example.) He's the XO of a Federation ship visiting a recently-contacted and highly-developed world considering joining the Federation. Diplomatic blunders by the captain make it appear he's taking a side in an internal dispute and the other side makes a sneak attack against the ship. It is severely damaged. The ship is in a decaying orbit and will make an uncontrolled reentry. He evacuates the crew and shapes the reentry trajectory so it will impact in an unpopulated ocean basin. With the transporters shot, he has to make it out in a shuttlepod.

This is all backstory and would not be in the film itself. However, turning it into a 20 minute short feature would be excellent promotion material. Release it to Youtube a few months before the main feature to whet the appetite.

First Act

The Crisis. The Enterprise is conducting a shakedown cruise when a crisis erupts on Beaumonde, a colony world claimed by both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. There's a local population of Klingons left over from the disruption of the war against the Dullard Imperialists generations ago. They'd reverted back to a steam age economy when the Federation encountered the world. Since they'd apparently been forgotten by the Empire, they were more than happy to share the planet with the new colonists in exchange for access to higher technology. Things were going fine until a faction within the Empire decided that allowing Klingons to play nice with the Federation was a bad idea.

Through the briefing we discover that the Klingons are not a monolithic and united government but a coalition of clans who are normally at cross-purposes whose alliances and goals will shift with the political tide. This means that one leader cannot speak for all and even things agreed to by most Klingons are not binding for those who do not. This means that the bulk of the Klingon fleet can mobilize for a suitable cause and likewise melt away due to a change in the wind back home.

This particular colony has been claimed by the leader of a smaller clan who is trying to burnish his credibility. He is a charismatic upstart, hungry and dangerous. He presents the argument that Klingons are being brainwashed and subverted by the Federation and it is his duty as a great leader and defender of his people to save them from the filthy humans and their soft ways.

Up to this point there has been no bloodshed. Klingon ships have been harrassing commerce around  Beaumonde and it seems like invasion is only a matter of time.

The First Encounter. A war of nerves bluff between the Enterprise and a Klingon warbird. Our first sense of what the crew is capable of and Kirk's mettle.

The Diplomatic Meeting. Planetside, face-to-face meeting between all parties. Kirk, the charismatic Klingon leader, delegates of the local government. We get the local flavor of what's been going on.

There is a member of the Klingon High Council present as an observer. She finds Kirk intriguing.

Second Act 

Conflicts on planet, things are going to crap.

Spock had demonstrated the Vulcan neck pinch on the ship earlier. Chekov tries using it in a fight. Doesn't work on a Klingon so he knees him in the nards instead. "Vulcan crotch pinch."

Kirk Bangs Alien Babe. Kirk believes he's seduced the Klingon councilor over a dinner and cocktails. She clarifies a few misunderstandings about the empire.

Funny fact about Klingons: the majority of the scientists and engineers and workers are women -- they are the people who keep society working. What we discover is that the Klingons fell into civil war after defeating the Dullard Imperialists, turning their advanced weapons against each other. The whole idea of conquering a Klingon Empire was suggested by the women as a suitably glorious endeavor for proud Klingon warriors. It actually served as a way of getting the most violent and stupid of the males out of their hair so they could put things back together. Proper Klingon worlds are actually very peaceful and civilized since the warriors are usually off conquering things, fighting amongst themselves or endlessly training.

The High Council finds the charismatic leader to be troublesome. He's pushing for a war that the rest of the empire does not yet feel prepared for but cannot say so openly. Politics, you know. Kirk asks if this means war will be coming at a later date. She says that such concerns are for later as well -- better to stop the war you can stop today.

The solution is for the charismatic leader to make a misstep that is dishonorable. This will neuter his political support. She advises Kirk that if the charismatic leader goes to war, he should invoke an honor duel. While normally this is only reserved for ritual combat rules between Klingons, he may feel compelled to extend it to an outsider since the whole alleged point of this conquest is showing that proper empire honor is better than the soft stuff promoted by the Federation. It thus becomes a demonstration to the Klingon locals and the warriors back home.

The subject of where he spent the night and with whom should be the source of a good comedic exchange: McCoy showing incredulity at Kirk's sexual prowess, Spock offering a raised eyebrow in agreement.

Betrayal?! After this, we see the same councilor meeting with the charismatic leader and spinning an entirely different story! She says that the High Council is too timid and needs to be shown the way of the warrior by a Klingon with fire in his belly. He is unsure he can defeat the Enterprise and she gives him a data crystal that will be the key to victory.

Third Act

Big fight between the leader and the Enterprise. Federation has reinforced the Enterprise with three more starships and are staring down against the charismatic leader's fleet.

Pew! Pew! 'Splosions! Rocket's red glare, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, the smell of napalm in the morning, it's an all-out, gratuitous space battle.

The Enterprise gets the advantage and the charismatic leader has to use his trump card. Turns out the data crystal has Kirk's prefix code to turn off the Enterprise's shields, or so the councilor claimed. Surprise! There's no such thing because only an idiot would leave a backdoor open on a starship that could allow a remote exploit of control systems. But by trying such a trick when he's fighting under honor rules, the leader just crapped all over his reputation. It might have gone unnoticed in the heat of battle but the councilor was monitoring the entire exchange and uncloaks in her own warship immediately after he sends it.

I'm undecided as to whether she blows his ship out of the sky or sends him home in disgrace. I like the idea of leaving him alive so that we can see how his approach changes with this defeat. If he's really a smart guy he might gain some wisdom from this and become a more dangerous foe.


Scotty has a laugh about the idea of a prefix code on a starship and lets slip a few curses about backdoors and remote exploits.

Kirk has a conversation with the councilor via comscreen where we clear up who seduced whom. The councilor makes it clear whose bedpost gets the notch carved in it. You can tell these two are going to have a history together.

Final Thoughts

I've kept the character elements above a little thin. What do the secondary characters do to make us love them? What are the comedy bits, the little failures and victories? That's all important but it's flesh added to the bones of the plot. Without a skeleton to hang from, even the loveliest flesh is just a puddle of skin suffocating under its own weight.

Feel free to discuss!