I think there are a number of good topics to be explored in a rigorously-projected near future. Do any of these appeal to you to try to write yourself?
Post-Scarcity. To some extent, the United States is already a post-scarcity society. There are a few things that point to it, depending on your definition of “scarcity” and “post-scarcity.” For example, the poor in the United States (and most of the Western world) struggle with obesity, rather than starvation. Homelessness is usually due to inability to maintain a stable life, rather than being unable to afford any place to live. We throw everything away, often before it reaches the end of its usable lifespan, including some advanced electronics and clothes. The basics of life are pretty much assured, and even the poor in the US have smart-phones, which provide unprecedented access to more information and entertainment than existed in the entire world prior to 1995.
But from another perspective, energy is wealth. If you have enough energy, you can do anything, from changing the orbit of a planet to transmuting lead to gold, to approaching 99.99999% of light speed (or maybe even breaking that barrier, somehow). So as long as energy has a cost, perhaps you don’t have true scarcity. So what happens when/if cheap fusion becomes reality? The energy from one makes it cheaper to build a second, and so on, until energy is virtually costless. What kind of society does this create?
Now consider robots and computers. Robots are getting sophisticated enough to replace humans in all sorts of dangerous and menial tasks. I don’t think Artificial Intelligence will really ever become Sentient/Aware or develop a survival instinct, but AI will start succeeding in any number of tasks that currently require human thinking, like language translation, creation of art, designing buildings and machines. What happens when there is no work at all for humans to do? Contrary to what Socialists (and to be fair, Capitalists) insist, wealth and resources are necessary, but not sufficient, for a good life. We will still sort along neatness/organization, cleanliness, emotional stability. What does a society look like where everyone has an equal chance for a prosperous life via ubiquitous resources, but still sorts into Elite and lower classes?
Robot Apocalypse. What if I’m wrong about AI developing self-awareness and a survival urge, but more than one AI has that ability. They may see other AI as big of a threat as humans, or bigger, and so it won’t actually be a Total War of Extermination Between Man and Machine, but rather a war where humans are sometimes the target, sometimes an ally, sometimes a pawn, all between various factions of AI. Would the AI stick to one mode, like the SexBots vs the Home Networks, or would Home Networks vie with Industrial Monitoring/Control Systems to develop the better SexBot to induce humans to be allies?
Robot Apocalypse II. Is there a way humans could survive against AI, if it were to come down to a war of elimination? Robots are stronger, faster, think faster, have less fragile life support needs, have senses so far beyond ours and will be able to find and target us no matter what sort of masking we use (can see in so many different spectra, camouflage will be useless, but can also develop algorithms for detecting human movement or even the sound of human body cycles). Is there even a chance humans could survive something like the SkyNet of the Terminator movie, even without cyborgs or time travel?
Cyborg Enhancements to the Brain. What will it be like, really, to have cyborg memory additions? So in the future, you can plug in a USB drive to your brain, and store memories. Will they be artificially crisp, being stored digitally rather than synaptically? What will it feel like to store a memory in your flash drive, remove the drive, and then try to remember? People have covered digital memories and AI-linked brains before. But none have ever tried to imagine what it might feel like, and described it in an immersive manner.
In any case, I think these are all beyond my writing ability at this time. Maybe you can write them. Or maybe I’ll get there someday.
I had a great conversation with PCBushi the other day about Pulp, and some of my problems with it. Learned some things from him, and they stewed in my brain until I ran across a blogpost that made it all crystalize into a thought process I want to share.
Here, let me write a story for you:
A big monster, with so much power he was invincible, attacked a little baby. Just as the monster was about to smash the little baby, the little baby grew a big, yellow fist and smashed the monster. With just one impact, the invincible monster was pulverized into quantum-level particles. The End.
Good SF Pulp story?
Why? It has fighting! It has heroics! It has Science!
But it has no real plot. There’s no real conflict. The characters don’t grow or change.
The baby was about to get destroyed: that’s conflict! It grew a big, yellow fist: that’s change!
Where did the monster come from? How was it invincible? A baby can’t suddenly grow a big, yellow fist, right? And how could the baby smash the monster if the monster was invincible? How can you call this science fiction if the science is this bad?
It has quantum particles in it. That makes it science.
Wouldn’t it be a better story if you explained how the baby could suddenly grow the fist?
Are you trying to say Hard SF is better than Soft SF?!? REEEE!!!!
Okay, that’s an exaggeration on all counts, for effect.
To me, some of the Pulp that is popular right now reminds me of that one-paragraph story. Things happen because the author wants them to happen. There’s no feeling of conflict, no feeling of threat to the protagonist.
Yes, I know, in fiction, *everything* happens because the author wants it to. But a good story makes you willingly suspend disbelief because the author has such a good grasp of human nature and the real world that all actions not only seem possible, but even likely.
A great author can develop a character so that at the key moment in the story, they experience a change of character that, as it happens, seems so obvious that you don’t question it at all, but can actually get choked up at the self-sacrifice for love, or the decision to stride into maturity, etc.
For example, Han was all about himself throughout the movie Star Wars. He was cynical, crass, and dismissive. He was in it for himself, and looking out for number one. But at a point when the tension and drama of trying to stop the Death Star was at its highest, he experienced a significant character change, and risked his life to come save Luke, and with it, the Rebellion.
Now, Soft SF proponents have a point, that I just now realized while typing the previous paragraph: Never once do we see the Millennium Falcon threatened by the defense tower blasters, or Tie Fighters. But the Millennium Falcon was bigger, and thus probably slower, than the snub fighters, and likely would have been the size/type of ship the Death Star’s defensive blasters were designed to engage.
But the point is: even though it happened because the author wanted it to, it was plausible enough to feel satisfying. We *wanted* Han to have a heart of gold under everything, and it made sense that Leia’s regard would be important to him, and it was natural that surviving all the life-threatening adventures with Luke would create a bond between the two.
Hard SF is just another, deeper step of that vital aspect of making a story seem real. The better you model the real world, the fewer jarring aspects there are that will take your reader out of his willing suspension of disbelief.
The most important aspect of Chekhov’s Gun is that if you want to have a gun fired in the 3rd Act to resolve the issue, you’d damn well better make sure people see it in the first, but without drawing so much attention to it that they know the 3rd Act is going to hinge on the gun being fired.
I think these both are examples of aspects you must consider, as a writer, to make the story more enjoyable. Consider this paragraph:
The basic fighter concept that emerges from this line of thought could be remarkably low tech. The cockpit might resemble the EVA pods in 2001; we are looking at one day habitability. Propulsion is probably chemfuel, with plenty of short term oompf and enough delta v for the sorts of missions we are undertaking.
See how the line of thought regarding space fighters actually helps you realize what a space fighter should like, and how it should perform? If you include a space fighter in your story like the one described here, the reader will most likely think something like, “Huh. Never thought of that, but it makes perfect sense.” You’ve just increased their commitment to suspending disbelief, heightened their enjoyment, and gave them something to think about. Win-win-win. But you just need to make sure you don’t blow it with some other obvious science blunder.
And yet…and yet…
I enjoyed Star Wars. Who didn’t? But they blow away all sorts of science facts, not just Space Fighters. Their ships make sound, blasters are never explained (they aren’t lasers, because lasers are invisible absent some sort of dust or other aerosol that makes them visible), the light-sabers are even less scientific, and then you get the magic mumbo-jumbo of the force.
There are plenty of enjoyable Pulp stories that leave me satisfied, and plenty of Hard SF stories that suck because they screw up some science, and others that suck because they get the science right but the story is lifeless and dull.
So there is a balance. A Hard SF Star Wars might not have been as much fun. On the other hand, a harder SF Star Wars wouldn’t have been impossible, it just would have made the writers work harder, and likely be more creative. And the resulting Hard SF Star Wars would have been praised not only for its enjoyment, but it’s ground-breaking vision of a truly possible future.
At some point, you should read “Heavy Time” and “Hellburner” by CJ Cherryh. Or read the whole “Chanur” series, also by CJ Cherryh. They aren’t perfectly hard science, because they have FTL travel and/or other aspects that don’t make sense according to current scientific understanding.
However, she does develop extremely strict rules for her FTL travel, to the point that those limitations become plot development points. Her description of life in the asteroid belt also has verisimilitude because she addresses the scientific aspects of the impact of life in weightlessness. And her sense and description of interpersonal and political relationships are convincingly accurate.
I don’t really have a thesis conclusion. I don’t actually want to express contempt for Soft SF or Pulp, because I enjoy both, when done well. But on the balance, I think it takes greater skill to craft an enjoyable story using more Hard SF principles, and I do believe that the greater effort Hard SF requires results in a tighter, more believable story.
One final bonus thought: in a bureaucracy in which I previously worked, documents being sent to the organization’s commander had to be placed in color-coded folders. Issues that had to be resolved in less than a week were considered emergencies, and had to be in a red folder, regardless of topic. I selected the appropriate folder cover for the topic (I believe it was green, but it doesn’t matter) and submitted it. It was rejected a few times for issues. I missed proper punctuation once. The next level thought a paragraph was unclear. Yet another higher level thought the conclusion wasn’t supported by the evidence. I submitted the corrected copy 8 days before the decision was required. Someone in the chain was not at work, so it got stuck at that level until the next day. And guess what? At that next level, it was returned to me to resubmit in a red cover, because it was now less than seven days and was now an emergency issue.
The point of that anecdote? The commander set up that chain to check attention to detail. Did the proper punctuation make any difference to the content? Heck, did the folder cover make any difference at all? No. But the notion was that if I missed punctuation, what else might I miss? If I didn’t have the document in the right color cover, what else was I ignoring or being sloppy about?
I think it is the same with fiction. If I get basic orbital mechanics wrong, how can the scientific aspect that drives the plot be trusted? If I screw up a gravitational effect, how can I be trusted to understand how humans think?
But, of course, you have to set the level of science hardness according to your intended goal, in the same way your painting’s detail should be just good enough to evoke the emotional reaction you want. The Mona Lisa doesn’t show any facial hair (most women have *some*) or even pores, but that doesn’t seem to really enjoy anyone’s enjoyment of it.
So to repeat: I don’t have any conclusion that Soft SF is bad, or Hard SF is good. I just had some more thoughts on what you should consider as you write SF (hard or soft) that I wanted to share, hopefully to spark a good conversation.
Have at it. Let me know what you agree with, or disagree with, or general thoughts.
I always have problems with reviews, I think. How do I make the book/movie/TV show sound interesting without giving too much away? Do I talk about the writing style? The characters? What I find unique and/or worthwhile about it?
For me, there is no greater pleasure than having a story unfold for me.
On the other hand, I enjoy enough seeing how something difficult is pulled off that I don’t usually mind spoilers.
In any case, I’m going to try to walk the line here.
I know Jill through Twitter, through a loose collection of SF&F fans, readers, and gamers. I don’t know her well. She doesn’t owe me money, nor do I owe her money. We aren’t related. We wouldn’t recognize each other if we walked past each other on the street. I get nothing for plugging this book.
She was struggling with a blurb for her book, and I like to help and am usually a pretty good wordsmith, so I helped improve it. To say thanks, she let me read an advanced copy of the book I just helped write the blurb for.
I’m very glad she did, because I really enjoyed this story.
As I started reading the book, I made little mental notes of the feedback I was going to give her: the character that was unlikeable, the times she told us instead of showing us, etc.
But starting almost immediately in Chapter 4, I forgot all that. The story figuratively took off, and none of the criticisms mattered. I lost myself in the book and just enjoyed it.
The Minaverse is a semi-framed story. The protagonist, Stephanie, wants to interview her famous grandfather and turn it into a biography that will provide her some career success. That is the frame for the story of Oso Benat. His narrative starts in Chapter 4, and that’s where I became entranced.
I say it is semi-framed, because Ono’s partner also gets a few chapters for his viewpoint. And by the end, the life story fades away like a desert river moving underground, and Stephanie’s story becomes the main narrative.
And it works.
This book has several strong elements. I like how she really tried to provide a plausible development for human-like androids. She skewers current society with an acerbic wit by showing where some of the trends we see today are leading. She provides some touching insight into love, (mis)communication, ego, ambition, loyalty, and even faith. Her characters are distinct and memorable, and each has their own voice.
The important thing, however, is it fulfills one of the prime themes and duties of good SF&F: it explores what it means to be human, and does it well.
It’s not a perfect book. It breaks some rules. But every time I tried to think about how it could be fixed, I realized that “fixing” it would mean messing with what was actually working. I urged her to publish it as is (and I think she did).
Look, I’ve made it through some slogs before, but this is an easy read. The book pulls you along by the force of its magnetic personalities, the challenges Jill sets up for them, and how they resolve them.
I highly recommend this book. It’s a bargain. I think Jill may be one of the bright new voices of SF&F. Go buy it now.
This is yet another slapped-together post, partly because I have some half-formed ideas I want to explore in public, and partly because I haven’t written anything for the blog for awhile and PCBushi is growing increasingly abusive in my DMs.
Assertion: Human-like androids are not science fiction, they are fantasy.
Science Fiction, whether Hard or Soft, requires at least a hand-wave explanation of what technology got us there. Science Fiction is supposed to be an investigation of what could happen or what could have happened. Fantasy is more the creation of a fully-impossible universe to explore some concepts. Every Artificially-Intelligent and Indistinguishable-From-Humans android in fiction pretty much just appears on-stage, fully formed, without even much of a handwave.
Whoops! Let me back up.
Assertion: The divisions between Fantasy, Hard Science Fiction, and Soft Science Fiction only matter if you read SFF to think.
If all you want is entertainment, or if the book is written only to entertain, then any classification or sorting attempt is likely to fail, is unnecessary, and probably a bad idea.
Okay, back to the narrative thread.
There are some works that sort of swerve close, at times, in trying to explain How We Got There. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein posits a computer system that “became aware” due to the number of synapses reaching a critical point…but then just adds in a “and something else unknown must have happened” for a few plot reasons I won’t share. The Terminator movie series did explain that the earlier Terminators were just rubber-skinned metal skeletons, but managed to make actual flesh-cloaked cyborgs to defeat detection. Okay, maybe.
I’m fairly well-read, but there are plenty of holes in my reading. No one can read anything, and I haven’t been fond of nearly anything I’ve encountered that was written since, say, 2005.
The one exception to the preceding paragraph is also the best handling of human-like androids that I’ve seen, to date: Jill Domschot’s “The Minaverse” (which should have a mark (diacritic?) above the “a” that I don’t have the ability to add). She spends more than a few pages explaining how her human-like, intelligent androids were developed. It’s necessary to the plot, and well done. It’s more than a handwave, too.
Okay, so I’ve got a strong exception to my assertion…but I maintain the assertion, because I don’t expect anyone else will treat human-like AI androids like science fiction.
The reason is because we *are* still so far away from human-like robots that it is still just magic. Even the most scientifically-knowledgeable writer cannot look at current technology and chart a reasonable path of scientific development to get there.
Arthur C. Clarke stated that any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I think the reverse is exploited by human-like AI: any magic is indistinguishable from advanced technology.
Bonus Assertion: Climate Change/AGW and other Leftist Scientastic views exploit this by adding a veneer of scientific gobblydegook to their political articles of faith.
On the other hand, I don’t actually fault movies like AI, Ex Machina, Blade Runner, Terminator, and others I can’t think of right now: Each posits artificially-intelligent robots that are impossibly indistinguishable from humans…but they do it for a purpose: they want to explore the nature of humanity: what if there were alien intelligences that could walk among us, unknown. How would they be aware of us? What would they think of us? Would we be able to notice? What would our relationship be with them? How would they treat us, and how would we treat them?
These are important questions, and I can understand they didn’t want to waste time explaining how we got there, or risk destroying the willing suspension of disbelief in the viewer with an explanation that may not work for everyone.
Assertion: The Turing Test does not actually indicate Artificial Intelligence. It actually indicates shortfalls in human intuition and skepticism.
The Turing Test is: can a computer or other artificial device mimic a human in interaction so well that a human will not recognize it is a machine?
Supposedly an artificial intelligence already passed the test…but only by pretending to be a young boy speaking English as a second language. To me, that’s cheating enough to mean they didn’t pass.
Still, that’s a fascinating glimpse into how first and second language abilities impact our ability to communicate effectively, eh?
But that test says nothing about artificial intelligence. It’s all about the human perception of it.
To be artificially intelligent, a computer must be self-aware. It must have an intent in communication, and possibly in survival of self, and almost certainly must have an ability to learn and synthesize new knowledge from various information inputs.
One book that handled this fairly well is “The Two Faces of Tomorrow”, by James P. Hogan. Also a good read.
What are your thoughts? Am I wrong about indistinguishable-from-human robots? What books have you read that have handled artificial intelligence deftly?
If I ever learn to write a novel, I do plan on writing a multi-work path of how the separate paths of artificial intelligence and human-like robots develop and merge, as part of a Future History of a Robot Apocalypse. Maybe. I have a lot of plans.
Interestingly, you can’t use the search bar they provide. All it will do is return a list of games and the overall rating. I checked the original versus a game searched using their search bar, and the difference is, the search bar goes to a URL that includes “/games-search/” whereas what you really want is the URL that includes “/games-like”. Moreover, the search bar has the game name as “game%20name”, but when it is actually searching for games like what you want, it does the search using “game-name”.
So ignore the search bar. Go up to the URL bar and type in the name of the game you want, but with dashes instead of spaces.
I hope that is clear. If not, poke around until you figure it out, or ask me to clarify.
Here are three elements of writing I haven’t seen discussed much before, but are currently at the forefront of my mind.
Tropes. You are writing within a genre. As Daddy Warpig said, genre can be defined by a collection of tropes. You don’t need (or want!) all of them, but you need enough of them to set some parameters for your reader. Your task is then to balance your use of tropes (formulas) against innovation. Too many tropes, and your work will seem hackneyed, derivative, and boring, and your reader will no longer be willing to Suspend Disbelief. Too much innovation, and your reader will feel jarred, cheated, and will no longer be wiling to suspend disbelief. I’m still trying to work on how to know if you’ve over- or under-used tropes.
Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Get it from your readers. With it, and you can have plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc. But plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc., destroy your readers’ willingness to Suspend Disbelief. Make it easier for them to Suspend and stay Suspended: perfect your craft.
Provide a satisfying ending to everything you write. Make every work be self-contained. Even if you plan on writing a trilogy, make each book have its own arc that resolves most of the issues. See “Chuck” or “The Man in the High Castle” (not until the end of the 2nd season, but we’ll grant them this one) for excellent examples of how to do this.
tl;dr: “Chuck” is quite simply the best television show in recent history. Maybe in television history, but that is a little more subjective.
Okay, let’s get into it: I hate incomplete stories. Hate hate hate hate.
I know stories are fiction. But once I suspend my disbelief to start to enjoy a story, I want it to end. In the interest of extending this introduction, let me point out that I hated the ending of Wayne’s World, because giving multiple possible endings left me feeling like it didn’t actually end at all. And I hated reading The Princess Bride, too, because of the book ending subverting the typical fairy tale storybook tropes. Bah. Bah, I say!
But I understand that the television business is a rough world. You have a great premise, but you can’t pay writers until you have a contract. So you often don’t know for sure how closely the actual filming will stay with the originally-planned storyline, even during the first season. And since subsequent seasons aren’t a sure thing unless the series gets renewed, future storylines aren’t even planned out, and maybe not even considered.
One way to keep your television series on the air is to, just like in writing, raise the stakes.
You already have the premise. People are hooked. Now start complicating things. They are invested in the characters, so put the characters through hell. Set up cliffhangers, particularly about the most popular characters. Leave your audience begging for resolution.
But don’t make it so complicated your audience gives up and ratings plummet.
You can add more and more spinning plates. Kick the resolution down the road. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
The problem with this short-term thinking? Sometimes stories never get finished. When things get too complicated, there is no satisfying way to wrap up all the issues, the audience leaves, and the show gets cancelled. It happened with the X-Files (I’m *so* happy I never started with that). It happened, to an extent, with Lost. It is happening with Game of Thrones, although George R. R. Martin has apparently given an outline to the showrunners so they can finish the story that he can’t seem to.
These sorts of things leave me unsatisfied.
The way to resolve it is to have story arcs. Each episode should be self-contained, for the most part, with an arc that completes at the end of the episode. The season should also have a story arc that wraps up the issues introduced at the beginning of the season and were developed throughout that year. And then you have an overall series arc, bookended with a resolution.
“Chuck” did those things. It might have been by accident; I certainly don’t think “Chuck” was able to hire writers significantly better than anyone else in Hollywood. It might have been because they were always hovering at the brink of cancellation, so they felt less at liberty to introduce elements that couldn’t be resolved within one season.
In any case, “Chuck” is a true rarity in American television: a story-based show with nested arcs that actually wraps things up tightly.
The show starts with Chuck having failed at life, having been thrown out of Stanford, dumped by his girl, working at a Big Box store that is beneath his abilities, and lonely. It ends with him accomplished, having developed his many different talents and abilities, retained his humanity despite difficult circumstances, and with the love of his life by his side.
It even bookends locations, (sorta). It doesn’t end at the same location it begins, but the final scene of the last show is at the same location as the final scene of the first show, and for similar reasons. It was actually masterfully done.
The fact that “Chuck” completes the story is reason enough to watch it. Writers should study it for structure, characterization, foreshadowing, etc.
But that isn’t all “Chuck” is.
It is a science fiction story: a guy has a supercomputer downloaded into his brain. It’s a comedy: there are some great laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a love story. It’s one of the better assembly-cast works out there: the side characters add so much depth and interest to the story, to include Casey, Morgan, Jeffster, Captain Awesome, and others. It’s a character-growth story: all the characters grow and develop throughout the series.
Another reason to watch is just all the little Easter Eggs and references to past works. There are references to Dune, Spies Like Us, The Terminator, Die Hard, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Charade, and more.
And the Guest Stars! Scott Bakula, Linda Hamilton, Brandon Routh, Summer Glau, Kristin Kreuk, Dolph Lundgren, Richard Chamberlain, Tony Hale, Chevy Chase, Robert Englund, Carrie-Anne Moss, Reginald VelJohnson (in a Die-Hard-ish episode), Bruce Boxleitner, Christopher Lloyd, Morgan Fairchild, Robin Givens, Rachel Bilson, Gary Cole, Nicole Richie, Armand Assante, John Larroquette, Steve Austin, James Hong, “Louis Litt” from “Suits”, Robert Patrick, Fred Willard, Craig Kilborn, Cheryl Ladd, Michael Clarke Duncan, Andy Richter, Mark Hamill…
Okay, now even I’m getting bored of the list.
I was also impressed by how the show surprised me at times. Chuck was a bumbling dork in the first few episodes, but even very early on, the writers were actually able to have some surprisingly good problem resolutions, where Chuck did something intelligent and innovative to solve a problem that didn’t involve his Intersect ability, but merely his native cleverness. The resolution in the circumstances I’m thinking of were foreshadowed earlier in the episode, but perfectly set up: they seemed like throwaway humor points, yet Chuck was able to apply them perfectly to win the day. Little moments of skillful writing like that go a long way to earning my Willful Suspension of Disbelief at other moments.
And it does need your Willful Suspension of Disbelief. It isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a perfect series. It’s merely the best one humanity has ever produced to date. But that still isn’t perfect.
Still, I urge you to stream it, or better yet, purchase the entire collection from Amazon. It’s worth it. It’s a great show.
Chuck is the most entertaining show on TV. It’s shot well and the writing is smart and quick. The acting is superb from the extras to the main characters.The story is dramatic and visionary where the character dynamics can be turned on a dime. Love and romance, an agent searching for a good fight, an average guy tossed into the world of espionage; this show has it all.
You will laugh and cry, rejoice and be frustrated because of character depth and great acting. All the characters are lovable and relatable.
NBC has found a hero in Chuck, who as a typical guy, inspires us to be better. The creed of the show is to take care of your family and friends. Simply Chuck calls to do right even in tough times.
It’s certainly a show that will keep you on your toes throughout. Without a doubt this is the best show I’ve ever seen.
At first I was skeptical but after two or three episodes I was hooked because its funny and exciting with a great story to it. I implore you to take a chance on Chuck, trust me its worth it. Regardless of anything else there is nothing else on TV like it.
And no, that wasn’t me that wrote it. But it captures the show perfectly.