Just this past weekend I had the privilege of playing one of the world’s biggest, best boardgames, the monstrous Twilight Imperium (4th Edition). For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a massive game involving the founding of a new Galactic Empire and the political, military, and economic machinations of the numerous aliens species vying for hegemony. It costs $150 to buy, weighs as much as one of my kids, and takes about 8 hours to play.
But OH MY GOD is it good. So, so engrossing. Just the exact right amount of complexity – at no point was the game tedious or pointlessly fiddly – and even after playing for about 9 hours straight, we all looked around the table at each other and realized we were not actually tired of the game itself. We were tired because it was late, but I, for one, could have sat down happily the next game and played it all over again. I think a lot of my friends felt the same way.
I will decline to summarize the blow-by-blow of the game (though I probably could), but what struck me most about playing it was how the game treated warfare. Now, it just so happens that we drew objectives that weren’t *explicitly* martial – they were mostly technological and political type things – but even with all the more militaristic objectives being drawn, fighting wars in Twilight Imperium (while tons of fun) doesn’t seem to be a great way to win the game. Fleets are expensive to build, both in resources and opportunity cost, and can get destroyed rather quickly. Going to war often doesn’t secure the strategic goals it seems to and, in any case, there are often ways to secure those goals without blowing up your neighbors. This struck me as an immensely curious thing for an ostensible wargame (all those little plastic ships? Yeah, those are for waging interstellar wars.) to include.
But, is it? Twilight Imperium was first published in 1997, but three of its four incarnations have their roots firmly in the 21st century. This is interesting because, well, the history of warfare in the 21st century (and even the late 20th) has not been one of glorious conquest or territorial expansion or even real victory, exactly. War in our era is long, almost interminable. It never seems to achieve what it was meant to (and we wonder whether it actually can or even ever did). When wars happen, we don’t expect a clean resolution. There will be no surrender and not even any declaration – one minute we’re bombing somebody for (reasons) and the next…we aren’t. Did anything change? Not that we can tell.
This is distinct from the military victories of the early 20th century – World Wars that came to thunderous (and bloody and exhausting) conclusions in which the USA was victorious and filled with the optimism and self-righteousness that such victories can cause. From this comes an ocean of games where battle is the inevitable consequence and victory at war the goal. Axis and Allies, Risk, even Diplomacy ask the player to marshal their forces, outwit the enemy, and secure power by naked force and deadly cunning alone. Scorched earth tactics and untrammeled war-mongering are the hallmark of so many games, and I might suggest the appeal of such games is firmly rooted in that 20th century outlook – if we have the brains, the will, and the technology, our armies will secure out goals and benefit our civlization (at the expense of others).
But TI isn’t like that. Indeed, there are lots of games running around these days that reject that principle. Warfare is a regrettable end in Twilight Imperium that may seem like a good plan at first, but then later on, when nothing has improved and nobody has really “won,” you realize how foolish you were. That is, in the end, how I won the game. I didn’t go to war very much at all (only once, when the opportunity was there and my opponent was building Death Stars with abandon) and, while my forces were not the most powerful by far, they were more than sufficient to defend myself and enable me to win a diplomatic and economic victory. Second place came very close using scientific research alone.
If only the real world used such means over and above violence. Then maybe we’d all be better off, yes?
Anyway, this is the stuff I was thinking about while my collectively intelligent tree-aliens slowly gained control of the galaxy.
So, another summer draws to a close. Another fall – my least favorite time of year – looms. Sigh.
There’s a lot of stuff I don’t like about the fall (I’m deathly allergic to most of it, for one thing), but chief among these is the fact that I basically see an end to my dedicated writing time. As a college professor who teaches a lot of freshman composition courses, I have a pretty gigantic workload of student papers to grade and classes to teach and lectures to prep for and so on. I just don’t have the mental real estate to write very much on top of that (though I do a little, it amounts to one writing day a week, and even that is often compromised by my responsibilities). Frankly, reading and grading literally thousands of pages of student work every semester turns my brain to goop and there’s nothing I can do about it.
(and please, SPARE ME the whole “you can just assign less work for them!” comment. Just assume I take my job seriously and what I assign I consider actually instructive. I also don’t find the “throw the papers down the stairs to grade them” thing particularly clever, either.)
Now, if I sound a little salty about this, it’s because I kind of am. Not because I don’t like my job (I actually do, most of the time), but because I always finish every single summer feeling as though I’ve failed as a writer somehow. I look around at all my writing associates who have different work lives than me and a different writing process and know that for the next six or seven months or so they’ll be cheerily writing away and submitting stories and finishing novel drafts and I’ll feel like I’m stuck on the sidelines, unable to compete. And yeah, it’s not a competition – I know this intellectually – but it often feels like a race. A race I’m losing. People are out there living that authorial lifestyle and I just…can’t. I’m watching my friends go on without me.
But that’s all bullshit.
Each summer for the past several years, I have completed a novel draft and revised a separate novel. Each summer I tend to finish a handful of short stories that I then set about submitting for publication. Each summer I seem to publish about 2-3 stories, usually in professional markets. Each year for the past several, I have published a novel. Ordinarily that should (and often is) enough for me to hold at bay the persistent brain weasels that tell me I’m not doing enough or working hard enough.
This summer has been, by my own admittedly unreasonable expectations, not a terribly successful one. Why? Well, I did not finish a complete draft of any particular novel and the revisions I made to another novel have been sent back for more revisions and so I feel like I haven’t completed that, either. Basically, I’ve been beating myself up all month; I feel like a failure. And, just to show you how unreasonable that is, let me list out what I actually wrote and/or published this summer:
- A failed draft (meaning I need to start over again) of a scifi novel (working title The Iterating Assassin): 55,000 words
- An incomplete draft of a humorous urban fantasy novel (working title One Dollar Wishes): 25,000 words
- 1 complete revision of The Day It All Went Sideways (time travel novel): 88,000 words and a second incomplete second revision of same.
- 1 novelette (“Season to Taste”) at 8500 words
- 1 novelette (“Stanley Armageddon”) at 8200 words
- “What the Plague Did to Us” in the July/August Galaxy’s Edge
- “The Masochist’s Assistant” in PodCastle (episode 586) – this a reprint from the story of the same name in F&SF a few years back
- Short story “Three Gowns for Clara” to F&SF
So, okay, that works out to 103,000 new words written, about 100,000 words edited (not counting the number of little rewrites I’ve done of those stories and other things), two things published, and one top-shelf pro sale.
Yeah, and what am I complaining about, exactly?
That’s just it, though – this way I feel, this sinking feeling in my guts that makes me feel like I’m never going to manage to publish something again and nobody in the world is ever going to care – is flagrantly irrational. All writers, no matter where they are in their career, feel this incredible weight of self-doubt each and every day they aren’t writing. And also when they are writing. That’s because this is an uncertain business, one that refuses to conform to regimented schedules and predictable outcomes. It sucks that way.
But, honestly, that’s also what makes it magical. If this shit were easy, everybody would do it. Right?
Anyway, that’s what I tell myself sometimes. I’ll let you know if it ever works.
My story “The Masochist’s Assistant” is now up on PodCastle. It’s a free audio production of my work and it, more generally, a fabulous site if you dig fantasy (and check out companion sites PseudoPod and Escape Pod for all your horror and scifi needs, too). I’m very proud of this story (which was originally published in F&SF) and narrator Matt Dovey has done an excellent job reading it! Do check it out if you’ve got a chance!
Also I’m going to be in Dublin for WorldCon very soon! If you’re there too, I hope we cross paths. I’ll be sitting on a couple panels (both on Saturday – one on Improv and its uses for Writing and one on Luddites of SciFi) and it should be a great time. I’ll be traveling a lot leading up to the con, so I won’t be posting here until afterwards. I’ll see you all in Dublin and, barring that, I’ll let you all know how it goes!
A while back I posted a list of ten commandments I think all DMs/GMs should follow to run a great game. It occurs to me, though, that while I focus a lot on the GM side of the table when writing about gaming here on this blog, I haven’t really spent much time talking about how to be a good player. I think it’s important that I do so, since the players are responsible for most of what actually happens in a game. The GM, while essential, is the referee and guide, but they absolutely cannot play the game without players and they absolutely cannot run a successful game without the players doing most of the work. If you look at my commandments for GMs, almost all of them are oriented around getting players to trust you and giving players the opportunity to make the game great. It is time, then, that we talk about the other side of the equation.
As mentoned in the other post, I have been playing or running tabletop RPGs for (now) 27 years. I have played or run almost every system you could name, played with scores of different people over the ages, and played in almost every conceivable setting. The rules I set out here are how I try to play a game when I play, and I don’t always live up to them. However, I do think that the better everybody lives up to these statutes, the more fun everyone will have. So, here we go:
#1: Thou Shalt Show Up
The first, the most basic thing you need to do is to be present. Now, when you’re a teenager or even in your twenties and you haven’t got shit else to do, this is a low, low bar – the game is set, you go. As life gets more complicated, though, this gets tougher and tougher. You have a more demanding job. You have kids. You’re married or in a committed relationship that takes up a lot of time. Things get crazy and the game can easily slide by the wayside.
Now, I am not saying the game should be more important than your kids, your spouse, or your job – no, not at all. But what I am saying is that a game can’t work if you’re not there. If you blow off a session because you’re too tired or whatever, then everybody’s fun suffers. Sure, sometimes this has to happen, but you owe it to everybody you play with to make sure this happens as little as possible. If it happens all the time? You should bow out of the campaign and just play in the next one, when you’ve got a little more time and things are under control.
A good GM should give you a very solid idea of when they’re planning to run the game, how often, and for how long. After that, you need to wrestle with your own schedule and carve out time if you want to play. If you can’t, don’t play. An empty chair at the table disrupts everything, and you should avoid doing so.
Oh, and show up on time, too. And prepared.
#2: Thou Shalt Buy In
Be enthusiastic about the game. Play because you really want to play, not because you feel obligated or can’t think of anything better to do. When the GM tells you the concept for the campaign,
you should be hyped to be part of it. You should want to contribute to that vision and make it work. If the GM says “okay, the game is set in 1930s Germany and you’re monster hunters fighting Nazis,” your response should not be to make a character, play the game, and then the first time you slay a Nazi werewolf you say “monsters are lame – I want it to be more historical.”
Buy-in is essential because it makes the game vastly more fun for everyone if everybody is playing the same game. It’s not like one of you is constantly on their phone and only half paying attention. No – you guys are totally into it. You are planning what to do in your free time! You are deeply invested in your character and the world the GM has described. You contribute to that world by offering cool details and fleshing out subplots that tie into the main plot (a good GM will let you do this, BTW). TTRPGs only work if everybody works together. Buy-in is how that happens.
#3: Thou Shalt Play Thy Character
Characters in a roleplaying game should be played as a role. As I’ve said numerous times before, I dislike D&D (or really any TTRPG) as a purely tactical enterprise. I mean, sure, if that’s what you and your friends want to play, then have at it and disregard this. However, assuming you want to play an RPG and not a strategy or resource-management game, playing your character as a character is extremely important to the game as a whole. Your character sets up a series of expectations for the DM (your choices on your character sheet are saying “this is what I want my character to be and what I want to struggle with”). The DM builds the campaign around those choices and tries to give you opportunities to struggle and shine at the role you’ve chosen. If you blow off your own character concept because you’d rather not make things complicated, the whole narrative structure of what you’re doing can fall apart very quickly.
Consider this: if you are playing a game where you are merchant explorers in a Age of Sail setting and you decide that your straight-laced lawyer character wants to commit an act of piracy because it would be convenient, you have to understand that what you’ve done is totally violated your own character concept and that either the character must now change fundamentally (and change the entire trajectory of the campaign, possibly) OR nothing in the game makes sense anymore. That’s on you, not the GM – the GM was presenting you with a legal bind because they knew you’d made a lawyer and is giving you the opportunity to lawyer your way out of it. Now you’ve blown it out of the water, and what follows is chaos. This doesn’t mean you can’t come up with innovative solutions to problems, but those solutions ought to be made through the lens of your character, not the lens of “this will cost me the fewest HPs”
#4: Thou Shalt Get In Trouble
A close tie-in with #3 is this: get your character in trouble. Trouble, contrary to popular belief, is good. Trouble breeds conflict, conflict breeds adventure. The harder your work to prevent any kind of trouble occurring, the less fun things are likely to get. I tell you truly that the most fun anybody ever had is when things do not go to plan and everyone needs to scramble to overcome unexpected obstacles.
This is a tough one to adhere to because players are inherently risk-averse. You don’t want your character to die, so you aren’t going to walk down that dark corridor by yourself in the middle of the night because you know this is a horror game and there is almost certainly a monster down there. But consider this: if you don’t walk down that corridor, then no monster is discovered. This is a bad thing for a horror game! You want dangerous monsters! If you didn’t want that, then why are you playing a horror game (see Commandment #2)? So yeah – play your character! If your character is curious or arrogant, they’re going to walk down that corridor, monsters be damned. And then when the monster grabs your ankle, well, that’s when the fun begins!
#5: Thou Shalt Not Be An Attention Hog
I know, I know – there you are, on time, having bought totally into the game concept, excited about your character, and more than willing to cause trouble and you just can’t wait to express your million ideas to the table…
But wait. There are four other people there. They also want to have fun. They also have ideas. They also are part of the group.
Remember that RPGs are a collaborative exercise. You are there to work together to make the best game possible, and sometimes the best way to do that is to shut up and listen to what the other people at the table have to say and weigh their ideas with the same consideration you’d give your own. I would even go so far as to say it is part of your responsibility to make sure everybody has a chance to contribute – if somebody at the table is shy, ask them their opinion, see if they want to contribute. The GM should be doing this, too, but the GM is just one person and needs your help to make this work. This isn’t a solo affair, it’s an ensemble piece.
#6: Thou Shalt Know Your Own Rules
We all know that the GM is the ultimate rules arbiter in any given game, but you can’t reasonably sit at a table and expect the GM to keep straight every stat on everybody’s sheets. It’s unreasonable of you to expect so. So, as a courtesy, learn how your character works and remember the basic mechanics that apply to them. When the GM asks you “what’s your Armor Class” you should know where to find that info on your character sheet and also know what they mean when they ask it. Failure to do this slows down the game and interferes with play and can knock everybody out of the scene while the GM needs to flip through a rulebook.
#7: Thou Shalt Respect the DM/GM
This commandment does not mean kissing the GM’s ass or thinking everything they do is pure gold. What it does mean is that you need to respect the work the GM has put into the game and allow them the opportunity to show off their work and be appreciated for it. This means not laughing at them when they read a piece of fluff text you happen to think is lame. This means not shouting over them when having a rules discussion. This means not holding a grudge against the GM for something that happened to your character or accusing them of cheating just because you don’t like how something went. They are the GM because they wanted their friends to have fun so much they spent nights and weekends preparing this cool adventure for you to go on. They like you. They are not your enemy (hear that GMs? You are not their enemy!) and if you treat them as such, the game can go sour very quickly.
#8: Thou Shalt Go Along With It
This is both related to #2 and #7, and what it basically means is that you will allow the game to move on rather than stall it just to satisfy one esoteric desire of your own. Okay, so maybe you want to open up a shop to sell dry goods to miners, but everybody knows that the point of this game is to go slay a dragon, so maybe you let your little dry goods idea ride for a bit in favor of everybody else’s primary concern about going along with the adventure.
This also applies to those tedious “we all meet in an inn” scenarios. Yes, we all know they’re cliche, but can you just play along so the party can meet and things can move forward? Nothing is worse than having the whole party paralyzed in the first 10% of the adventure because one player just won’t stop hitting on the barmaid and you have to roleplay out their whole stupid date and all of this is before they’ve even met any of the other players in-game yet.
Just move it along. Please.
#9: Thou Shalt Work As a Team
This is closely related to #3, #4, and #5. Unless specifically told otherwise, no campaign is about screwing over the other players or torpedoing their plans. Sure, you need to play your character, but you also need to not be an asshole. Would it be funny if your character, while drunk, stole the Paladin’s holy avenger sword and tossed it in a lake? Yes, yes it would. But it also needlessly delays the storyline, creates pointless tension both in game and out of it, and we all know you did that just to be a dick, not because you were just “playing your character.”
You need to understand and support the fact that your fun is equally important to everyone else’s. Not better, not worse – equal. If you do something you think is hilarious but everybody at the table is glaring at you, you done screwed up. That doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities for you to cause mischief for other players or that everyone won’t sometimes find that sort of thing funny, but it needs to be set up in a way that everyone sees it coming and is okay with it. If you’ve been playing a cowardly wizard for the whole campaign, nobody is going to be surprised if you spend the big fight against the Hydra hiding in a corner and not casting fireball at it – fine – but they will be rightfully pissed if you don’t do anything to help the party at all. Play your character, but still contribute in some way.
#10: Thou Shalt Talk With the GM and Fellow Players
Ultimately, fun is the goal here. If you aren’t having fun, you need to let the GM know. If a player is irritating you, you need to tell them (politely) to knock it off. Fun cannot be guaranteed, but it certainly can’t happen if you keep it all bottled up inside. Talk with your GM and players and work out your differences. Be open to having such discussions yourself when confronted by other players or the GM. As mentioned, this is a collaborative effort, so collaborate.
In conclusion, it is my fairly well-considered opinion that these rules will lead to long, healthy, and greatly enjoyable adventures for all. Go forth and happy gaming!
Hey, everyone! I’ve got a new short story out (well, a flash story – it’s very short) out in this July 2019 issue of Galaxy’s Edge. I’m in a great issue, too, alongside such brilliant writers as Robert J Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Kevin J Anderson, Gregory Benford, and more! The best part is this: for this month only, you can read my story and others for free online! Just go to the website and check it out!
My story is my take on the zombie apocalypse and it is like, maybe, 1500 words, so you have no excuse not to read it. Go and check it out now!
So, Readercon this past weekend was a lot of fun, even though I was only there for one day. I saw two very interesting and engaging talks, one by Graham Sleight about Instrumentality and Science Fiction (is SF useful as a predictive tool for the future) and one by Austin Grossman about the origin of genre. Both fascinating, both mixtures of things I didn’t know and things I did, and both of which I’ll be chewing over for a while.
I was on a panel about World’s Worst Jobs that was great, great fun and I heard a bunch of crazy stories (and got to tell one, too). I gave a reading from Dead But Once that had a small audience, but was well received. To wrap it all up, I went to the launch party for Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War, which just sounds like an amazing book you should all go out and buy right now.
So, overall a great experience at another great Readercon!
I continue working through the summer on not just one novel, but two. Well, in truth, the first draft of the first novel I wrote this summer crashed and burned last week and I need to let the wreckage settle while I consider how to make another attempt (probably not until after Christmas). So I’m working on a second one now, which I won’t have time to finish before the Fall Semester kicks in, but I’m hoping I can at least get a sizeable chunk done. What kinds of books are they? Well, the first is a gritty space opera full of bizarre aliens and no humans whatsoever and the second is a more humorous thing set in a modern mall involving mythical creatures. So, in other words, totally different things. Is this good? Bad? Unwise? I don’t know. My agent seems to think it will be fine, but one wonders nevertheless.
In any event, onward and upward! Talk to you folks soon!
Readercon is THIS WEEK – located just outside Boston, it will be a weekend full of good times, interesting panels, and a fun mix of everyone involved in the speculative fiction world. It’s this particular convention’s 30th anniversary, which means it’s as good a time as any to come on down if you haven’t before.
I’ll be there myself (primarily on Saturday, but possibly making an appearance on Friday evening), and I look forward to connecting with old friends and making new ones. Memberships for the full weekend are still available at their website, so check it out!
Here’s my schedule for the weekend, if you were hoping to find me:
Panel: The Worst Job You’ve Ever Had – Saturday, 7/13, 12:00 noon, Salon B
Bring your best stories of terrible jobs outside the literary world to this story circle of anti-nostalgia. Whether they inspired your writing or left you blocked for years, share the pain and get some validating cries of horror, peals of laughter, and grimaces of sympathy.
Reading – Saturday, 7/13, 7:00 PM, Sylvanus Thayer
Not sure what I’m reading yet (possibly something totally new!), but it should be a good time! Please come – the more the merrier!
That’s about it for me at the moment. I’m looking forward to this weekend! See you there!
The inevitable “Who Would Win: Star Trek Vs Star Wars” conversation I find endlessly tiresome these days. Oh, yes, back in my younger years I’d debate phasers vs turbolasers and Klingons vs stormtroopers all you’d want, but now I’ve come to understand that the argument is fundamentally pointless. Since none of the things introduced in either universe are real and any technical specifications given to them are essentially made-up numbers, there is quite literally no point in debating who would win in an “actual” fight, since there is no “actual” to be used and Trekkies and Star Wars fanatics simply cannot agree on common assumptions in order to have a reasonable argument.
Even as I write this, whole legions of people are out there in the darkness, sharpening their sticks to come for me if I don’t declare their faith the winner.
But I’m not here to argue this (again). I’m just not. The side which wins is whichever side the plot is on, ultimately. And anyway, my favorite answer is “Neither – it’s the Imperium of Man of Warhammer 40,000.” On that score, pretty much anybody whose spent much time delving into 40k lore are forced to concede the point, if only because the Imperial Navy of the 40k universe is RIDICULOUS in scale and destructive power and everything else.
And, of course, even as I write that, there are those people out there, sharpening their spears and baring their claws, ready to pounce.
So I’m here to do something totally different. I’m going to suggest that Star Wars, Star Trek, and Warhammer 40,000 all exist in the same universe. Don’t buy it? Okay, but listen to this:
The Galactic Empire
The Star Wars universe is described as being a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away. This means they can easily exist in the same universe, but the odds of them every crossing paths with the Federation or Imperium are exceedingly unlikely.
Compared to Star Trek, vessels in this galaxy are much faster than those in the Star Trek universe. Hyperspace is clearly a superior FTL system – more than just a warp drive, it is something that actually punches through the material universe of spacetime into a hyperspace dimension, enabling speeds that would make Mr. Scot insanely jealous. Their weapons technology is comparatively crude, but very powerful – turbolasers and blasters, in terms of their effects on targets, seem to have a lot in common with disruptors or phasers. Blasters even have a stun function (if rarely used).
Shields and armor are less sophisticated than the Star Trek universe and many ships suffer from glaring design flaws, but the ability for the engineers in this universe to build macro-structures (like the Death Star) cannot be underestimated.
And then there’s the Force. The people of this galaxy are connected by some interstellar energy field, indescribable and extremely powerful. Those who can commune with it can navigate ships through hyperspace, move things with their minds, even transcend death. Star Trek has very little comparable with this, but this is because they are a galaxy of much younger spacefaring species, as will be made clear soon.
The Federation of Planets
Meanwhile, in a galaxy distant from the Star Wars world and many ages later, a new (nascent) series of starfaring species are seeded onto many worlds throughout this galaxy. These beings more-or-less achieve interstellar civilizations at about the same time, astronomically speaking – within a few thousand years of one another – and spread out, come into conflict, make alliances, and so on. Their method of FTL travel – called Warp Drive – is a more primitive version of hyperspace, in a sense. It warps spacetime, but does not puncture it; ships glide along the wave made by the dilation effect (subspace).
Ships in this environment are small in comparison to Star Wars. Given that these civilizations are very young and there is no purpose (yet) for larger ships, this makes sense. Their weapon systems are similarly effective as those in the Star Wars world, though their computational, sensory, and command systems are vastly superior. Shields are better, targeting computers are better, and so on. If a battle were to occur between the Galactic Empire and the Federation, individual battles would be determined by the commanders involved. However, the sheer scale of the Galactic Empire and the vastly superior interstellar speed of its (more numerous) fleets would eventually crush the Federation, almost inevitably.
Then there is the matter of the Force. The Federation has no weapons to combat this since they are scarcely aware it exists. They don’t know it exists because they have yet to puncture spacetime in a way that would lead them to become aware of it. However, such powers do exist in the Star Trek world: the wormhole aliens of DS9, the “subspace predatory” species from another dimension described in one episode of TNG (can’t remember the title – the one where they discovered some aliens were kidnapping crew members and dissecting them without anyone’s knowledge), and even the empathic powers of the Betazoids. These can be seen as certain manifestations of “the Force” being used in material space. Psychic powers.
Parts of the Warp…
The Imperium of Man
Star Trek is set in the 23rd-24th centuries. The Imperium of Man exists from the 301st to the 400th centuries. Yes, that’s right – as much as 37,000 years in the future. Humanity is an elder starfaring race – they have, at this point, forgotten more about space travel and technology than either the Federation OR the Galactic Empire have ever learned. The Imperium rules a million worlds, possibly more, and is engaged in deadly, existential-threat-level wars on all sides at almost all times.
Their means of FTL travel? They enter what they call “the Warp” – a vestige of the ancient term bandied about by early humanity’s conquests in the age of Star Trek. But this is not a simple dilation of spacetime – they rupture it entirely, traveling into a kind of hyperspace. However, this hyperspace is now full of the psychic shadows of all the creatures who have lived before and been perverted by their thoughts and ambitions and dreams. In other words: the Force has long since fallen massively out of balance. There were no Jedi to keep the peace or, if there were, the Sith long ago rose up and destroyed them utterly. Now, hyperspace/The Warp is a realm of pure, terrifying chaos. It can, however, blink fleets across vast distances at speeds even the Galactic Empire cannot duplicate. Alternatively, it can devour fleets whole or send them lost and spinning through the mutating swirls of a hell dimension for millennia.
Star Trek exists in what the Imperium’s historians refer to as “the Dark Age of Technology,” where humans achieved dizzying heights of power and progress, but never realized that the Warp was as dangerous as it was. Eventually, they were cut off by warp storms and their civilization collapsed. The Imperium rose from the ashes, fighting every step of the way. It has blighted entire planets at a rate that would make the Death Star blush. It has access to technologies that would baffle any Starfleet engineer. Their elite soldiers are genetically engineered soldiers that would make Khan look like a designer baby intended for a photoshoot, not a firefight.
The Imperium obviously wins any battles with those other settings. They have psychic soldiers and psychic hunters the equal of any Jedi (the Culexus Temple, anyone? The Grey Knights?), they seem to have actually assimilated the Borg at some point in their history (Servitors), just as Q predicted (“you will surpass us”). They have gone so far beyond exploration that now they are the moldy remnants of a once great species in a way the Federation could scarcely comprehend. Humanity did it – it conquered the stars – only to discover that the stars are a terrible, cold place where war is unending and death assured.
And all of that is part of the same history of the universe – the Galactic Empire, in the thousand years before their time and ours, doubtlessly fell to the same conflagration that threatens to devour the Imperium of the Federation’s far future. The refugees of the Star Wars universe possibly seeded the very galaxy where humanity was born. Star Trek is the placid island in between two war-torn eras, where humanity still sees endless potential and hope for the future. But sooner or later, the daemons of the Warp will twist the hearts of mortals, and the Fall will begin anew.
(Author’s note: what follows is a bit of world-building for my current novel project, tentatively titled The Iterating Assassin)
There is a simple and clear distinction to be made between the Great Races of our Union and the Lesser Races. The Great Races are those species who have overcome the Great Filter and achieved interstellar civilization. This has most commonly culminated in the achievement of FTL travel with slipdrive, but not necessarily. The Voosk, for instance, achieved it with slowships of incredibly ingenious design and the Bodani with sublight, self-propagating probes, even if both species went on to steal slipdrive technology later in their development.
Those species who have failed to achieve interstellar civilization are, by definition, lesser than those that have. This can be seen as unjust, but this is not a question of justice, but merely a practical question of social and intellectual maturity. The Great Filter is the single most important challenge any civilization faces, and any civilization that has never grappled with it and won cannot be considered equal to those who have.
So, the Filter exhibits as a series of converging crises. Any one of these crises can destroy a planet-bound or even system-bound civilization utterly, and every one of them is inevitable. These crises are as follows:
The Resource Crisis
Any successful civilization reaches the point where it uses more resources than any given planet or star system can reasonably provide via what we shall generously term “conventional” means (i.e. means outside of quantum or dark matter sources). Without tackling the Resource Crisis, the civilization will starve itself out of existence.
The Belligerence Crisis
Any sufficiently advanced civilization has at its disposal weaponry able to destroy itself. Civilizations that cannot find a way to cooperate and avoid self-destruction obviously will never overcome the Filter, as they will become extinct.
The Population/Travel Crisis
Advanced civilizations will have a positive birth rate. Inveitably, this birth rate will exceed the civilization’s capacity to provide for that population. This can be a direct side-effect of the Resource Crisis, but even if provided for materially, the growing population will lead to added instability, exacerbating both the Billigerence Crisis and the Contact Crisis. There is some argument among scholars whether this is a distinct crisis at all, but rather just a side-effect of other crises. This is also called the “Travel Crisis” for some, since this crisis can be alleviated (however temporarily) by being able to escape the confines of a single planet or series of planets.
The Contact Crisis
Advanced civilizations often will make quite a lot of interstellar noise. This attracts the attention of interstellar species, who frequently seek to make contact. In the best case scenario, a system-bound species that encounters an interstellar species is quickly overcome and becomes a vassal state to the more influential and more powerful species. In the worst case, one of the planet-eating Marshals discover the civilization and consume it.
So, the barrier to becoming a Great Race involve solving the Resource, Belligerence, and Population Crises before the Contact Crisis happens and the civilization in question reaches a satisfactory resolution to said First Contact episode. This is a rare thing indeed, and hence there are only six Great Races (eight if one counts Skennite and the Marshals).
And what of the Lesser Races? Well, that is a complex tale, perhaps best illustrated with a case study: the Quinix of Sadura.
The Quinix are arachnids of great size and intellect. They seem to grow indefinitely, but the largest specimens have
been recorded as being some 3.5 meters in diameter, from leg to leg. On average, they are between 1 and 2 meters in diameter, with eight legs, each of which sporting a three-fingered “hand” of remarkable strength and dexterity. They have six eyes and can see deep into the infrared spectrum, which serves them well in their very dim natural environs.
Quinix are omnivorous, but have a noted preference for meat. Like most arachnids, they digest their food outside their bodies using a venom injected via their fangs. Given their large size, their fangs are not of considerable size. The Quinix do not kill with their fangs, but usually use tools or even their thread and cables to kill prey before eating.
The Qunix have spinnerets, like many arachnids, and are able to weave fibers of incredible strength and elasticity from their bodies. A single adult Quinix can weave several kilometers of fiber before exhausting their stores and needing to rest. When working as a group, they are capable of building complex structures of all manner of shape and size, all with their bodies.
The Quinix are clan-based organisms by dint of biology. Quinix females only lay a single egg during their lifetime (and the process of laying the egg and caring for it is usually fatal for the mother). If successfully fertilized, that egg hatches to produce many hundreds of offspring who are, as of that moment, a single social entity. These young clans receive guidance from their father’s clan and revere their mother’s clan as holy and sacrosanct. A complex web (please pardon the pun) of social and clan relationships governs Quinix society, tied together by a mind-boggling network of relationships. Mortality on Sadura is high (the vertical environment, the constant tectonic activity, the predators, and wars between so-called “oblique” clans – clans with no familiar connection) and therefore population numbers are low, overall.
As the Quinix live in a subterranean environment (and have to – the surface of Sadura is a radiation-soaked wasteland thanks to its proximity to its red giant sun), they have no conception of night and day. Indeed, they have a very poor reckoning of time in general and, to the extent that they do tell time, it is only via generational figures (clan related, again). They follow erratic circadian rhythms that are difficult for other species to tolerate, and do not seem to rush to do much of anything.
Additionally, their concept of life and death are likewise complex. For the Quinix, one’s life includes not only the animate existence of their body, but also the continued existence of their woven cables and webs. Without destroying the cables that they wove in life, a Quinix is still considered “alive” by all social standards. Therefore, buildings woven out of Qunix fibers are quite literally “alive” in a sense difficult for other species to understand or appreciate. Cutting a cable on purpose is an act of fatal violence.
Due to the confluence of these physiological and social factors, the Quinix have not and never will be able to exceed the Great Filter. While they developed metal-working technology (made difficult by Sadura’s highly flammable high-oxygen environment), their natural building abilities hampered their interest in exploring more complex materials science that would have allowed them to progress from the construction of iron-based tools and trinkets. They therefore have never and would never develop the technology capable of destroying themselves, are not successful enough to have a resource shortage, have (or had) a near-zero birthrate, and would eventually have been discovered and consumed by a Marshal if they ever developed a radio transmitter.
Fortunately and also unfortunately for them, they were discovered by the Dryth Solon, Kaskar Indomitable in C30.10, and have spent the last two and a half cycles as a Lesser Race under the auspices of the Union of Stars. This means they they will not be haphazardly eaten by a passing Marshal (good), but also means that any further technological or social advancement will be under the influence of the Great Races that have come to their planet. They are in a permanent state of arrested development.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more unfortunately, the changes wrought by the Union to make Sadura more hospitable to the Great Races has had an exacerbated effect on Quinix society and Sadura’s ecology. Stabilizing the tectonic activity has permitted huge cities to be built, resulting in a spike in the Quinix birthrate but also nowhere for those Quinix to go except into off-world settlements. They are a servant species on their own planet, their old clan wars and dreams of dominion crushed beneath the off-worlder’s technological superiority. The Quinix are gradually losing their cultural identity and are no longer masters of their own environment. It is difficult to say what will become of them, but whatever it is, they will never again control their own destiny. Unjust? Perhaps. But also inevitable and unavoidable for those who fail to overcome the Filter.
All things considered, being relegated to a servant species is vastly superior to many of the other alternatives: ecological or military extinction, or possibly being devoured by a void-dwelling macroorganism.
Haven’t posted here in a little bit – been busy, starting new projects, editing old ones, and keeping up with the day job, etc.. I also had a little conversation with my agent recently that kinda knocked me on my ass, because I don’t really know how to respond to it.
Basically, in discussing my next novel, he made the comment that I’ve proven that I can write in a wide variety of styles and, furthermore, that I am able to write convincingly in all of these styles. But then he asked me this:
I’m just curious what an Auston Habershaw novel would sound like if it didn’t sound like something else.
What whooshing sound you hear is my self-esteem escaping through a crack in the door.
Now, my agent said he did not consider this a criticism, per se – merely an observation. See, the book he just read of mine has a wildly different style from the Saga of the Redeemed. Part of this is because it is a first person narration, part of this is because it’s a time-travel caper and not an adventure fantasy, and part of it is because, to be honest, yes, I am a bit of a style chameleon. I can write in just about any style convincingly.
But what I heard from him when he asked that question was that he isn’t sure I have my own voice and, instead, I’ve been doing “funny voices” to entertain people. Like an impressionist. That I don’t have a style of my own – there’s no way for you to see me inside the words – and it felt (a little) like being accused of having no soul. I’m some kind of doppelganger, cursed to mimic others without ever being authentic.
I don’t think my agent meant it that way, but I’ve been wondering about what he said and also wondering if that is what it means even if he didn’t mean it.
Of course, I feel like I do have a style (you’re reading it). Everybody does, honestly – style is like a fingerprint in your work and you sort of can’t avoid it. Except maybe that I can. But wait a minute, though – if I’m embodying the voice of a character, shouldn’t I be obscured? I think so. But of course, I suspect my agent thinks so, too, since he went out of his way to point out that this wasn’t a criticism, just a question. He wants to know if I have some kind of natural voice inside me. He’s pushing me to be better, and that’s a very valuable thing. All that said, though, I can’t escape the idea that I might be derivative, and that I very much don’t want.
Hence my defensiveness.
So okay, let’s accept for the moment that I have a malleable style that mirrors other work very ably but is not distinct to myself. How does one even go about changing that? I mean, I have no real idea what it means to “be myself” when I’m writing from the POV of others. Who am I, and why would you listen to me, anyway? I want to take you on grand adventures, not putter around my study with a mug of coffee and a faded sweatshirt (note: I don’t drink coffee, but you get the idea. Another example of me not being me, maybe?).
Anyway, I’m not sure what to do or even if I should worry about it. I’ve resolved, for the moment, to just let it ride, keep working, and see what develops. Ironically, my current WIP is about a shape-shifting alien with a variety of identity and self-esteem problems, so that seems weirdly appropriate. Perhaps, in Faceless, I’ve found myself after all.
Time will tell, I guess.
For my money, one of the greatest tragedies in modern American storytelling was the complete failure of the Star Wars prequels to tell any kind of compelling story. They were pretty, they were fun, but they ultimately lacked pathos or human emotion, no matter how hard the actors tried to sell it.
The thing that kills me about it was that it had all the necessary pieces to make it work. They cast a brilliant Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor remains the finest part of that series by far), had a nigh-unlimited budget, had the goodwill of millions of fans, and had the perfect set-up: a good man becomes Darth Vader, the nightmarish villain. Even the Clone Wars – at that point a totally blank slate – were rich with possibility. Then they made Anakin a little kid (?), wasted a whole movie on Naboo, channeled an extremely stalker-y vibe into Episode II, confused the hell out of everyone with the Clone army, and then had Ani go from “whiny brat” to “child murderer” in about fifteen minutes. Oh, right, and then the entire Star Wars universe can’t seem to handle a complex birth and Padme dies of nonsense causes. But it could have been so good!
But it wasn’t. It just totally wasn’t. You can disagree with me, sure – whatever – but my critique stands. I’ve watched those movies a lot by now, and I say with complete confidence that they were Not Good and definitely worse than any other Star Wars movies made before or since.
You know why?
The first reason should be obvious: I am not a child. I understand that sometimes life is disappointing and Hollywood doubly-so and I just change the channel to something I like better. This is called being an adult.
The second and arguably more important reason is that I think it is essential that writers, directors, actors, producers, artists, and all creators across the full spectrum of entertainment and literature be allowed to tell the stories they want to tell, no matter what the audience thinks of them. Now, does this mean that I want garbage like The Sopranos finale? No, of course not. Does this mean I don’t think people have a right to complain about bad storytelling? No, absolutely not – complain away! But what I don’t think the audience has a right to do is demand the artist change what they did.
No, absolutely not. Don’t even ask.
Because the work that the artist/artists created is not yours. I’m going to repeat that:
THE WORK THAT THE ARTIST OR ARTISTS CREATE IS NOT YOURS!
They made it, not you. If you don’t like it, that’s fine – feel free to complain, feel free to boycott. But you can’t force them to tell the story you want them to, no matter how much theirs sucks. You sure as hell can’t go around threatening them or their livelihood because the fictional story they presented wasn’t what you wanted it to be. That’s completely insane.
Do you know what happens when storytellers tell the stories that everybody expects them to tell? Boredom. Repetition. Basically 75-80% of everything that comes out of Hollywood (or in book publishing, for that matter). The job of the artist is to try and give the audience something they didn’t realize they wanted. This is hard. It involves taking risks, working without a net, flying by the seat of your pants, etc.. Sometimes (often?) it doesn’t work. Better artists than you or I have failed in landing franchises half as impressive as Game of Thrones. If we ever want it to work, we need to let them try, though, without living in mortal terror of what the “fans” will do to them.
Now, maybe you’re right. Maybe you could tell a better story than that in your sleep. Hell, I encourage you to try. Go ahead – show them how it’s done.
But you’re going to have to get your own story.