(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.
The Far Far Better Thing, Book 4 in The Saga of the Redeemed, is available in e-book!
I’ve been interviewed about the series in a few places, too.
Go to MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape to hear all about the series as a whole and why you might like to read it.
If you want to know more about my inspiration and underlying intentions for the book, check out my interview here on Beauty-in-Ruins!
And for those of you waiting for the paperback version, it comes out next Tuesday (3/19), which is a mere 6 days away!
In Short Fiction News…
I’m happy to report I’ve sold re-print rights for my novelette “The Masochist’s Assistant” (which you might remember from the July/August 2017 issue of F&SF) to PodCastle, which means there’s going to be an audio version of the story! Very exciting news!
I’m going to be at PAXEast on Thursday, March 28th on a panel dealing with how to use Improv in your tabletop RPG game – I, along with a number of other performers, writers, and incredible gamers with whom I have shared a table on many a game night will talk GM-ing, gaming, plotting, planning, and everything in between. This is an excellent panel and I highly recommend it. I hope to see some of you there!
I just submitted a novel to my agent (a time travel caper) and I’m right now looking into what novel I’m going to write this summer (currently undecided), but of course I’m still writing short stories and novels and submitting things and pressing on. Ever forward – that’s the business! If there is any more news, you folks will be the first to hear about it!
Thanks for all your support, and we’ll talk soon!
I’ve been (slowly) re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space 9 for the last few months or so and I just got to that episode in season 3 where Nog, son of Rom and nephew to that scoundrel Quark, declares to Commander Sisko that he wants to apply to Starfleet Academy. It was a subplot I had sort-of half forgotten about but then came raging back all at once – Nog’s struggles, his long journey, and his eventual triumph. I just love that subplot. In fact, it might be my favorite Star Trek subplot of all time.
Now that I’m watching it as an adult, this storyline has some extra resonance for me. Besides being an author, my day job is as a college professor – a teacher – and Nog and his quest represent a very important lesson we teachers need to remember. To look at Nog from a distance, the kid is obviously a fuck-up and a lost cause. He gets bad grades in school, he is always goofing off, he gets arrested by Odo on a semi-regular basis, and his uncle Quark is a known criminal and low-life who associates with known criminals and low-lifes. To top it all off, he’s a Ferengi! No culture is more opposed to what the Federation represents – they are greedy, dishonest, selfish, and cowardly. There’s just no way in hell a kid like that has any business wearing a Starfleet uniform.
Sisko knows this. Hell, Nog knows this! Nog knows nobody expects him to amount to anything. His father is a permanent, laughable loser and his culture would never accept him going to Starfleet even assuming he could get in! But you know what this kid does? As soon as he comes of age, he scrounges together what money he has, walks into Sisko’s office (Sisko – the most powerful person on the station by far), shakes his hand, looks him in the eye…
…and offers him a bribe.
Because of course he does! That’s how Ferengi society works! This, to Nog, is what being a man is all about. This is responsible, adult behavior. And Sisko – bless him – realizes this. Everything tells him to show this kid the door – it’s probably a trick, a trap, some kind of prank – but…he hesitates. Sisko does something that makes me love him forever: he gives this kid a chance. He decides to trust him. He gives him a day alone with a cargo bay full of valuable stuff and lets Nog prove himself.
And you know what? Nog earns his trust. He proves he’s the hardest working kid on the station. He wants to be taken seriously. He wants this.
What I take away from all of this – the person I identify with – is Sisko. As a teacher, one is often faced with students who are…well…less than impressive at first glance. They show up late. They sleep in class. They don’t seem to be taking their education seriously. But the thing that I need to remind myself of is that I just don’t know what this kid is actually capable of. I can’t judge them based on superficial characteristics. Yeah, maybe they aren’t much good in my literature classes, but this person could very well become an excellent doctor or nurse or scientist. Hell, they might even have within them to become a wonderful writer or artist. As a teacher, it is part of my job to give them that chance – to allow them the opportunity to prove themselves, no matter what they look like or even how they act. Will I be let down? Sure, sure – happens all the time. But if a kid who’s been goofing off all semester comes up to me and asks if I can help them clean up their resume or give them advice on how to bring up their grades or ask me to recommend books for them to read to improve themselves, I remind myself of Sisko, sitting in Ops, looking at that sack full of latinum from an eager young Ferengi…
And I say yes.
And, like Sisko, I am often pleasantly surprised.
I’ve got a new story out! Check out “Applied Linguistics” in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Analog! It’s available online or in print form, and I’m pretty damned proud of it – it’s about language and learning and how cultural context can change, inform, or even create behavior and self-knowledge. And shape-shifting aliens on alien prison planets, so that’s cool, too!
There are a lot of other very cool stories by very talented authors in there, too. I especially liked “Ring Wave” by Tom Jolly and Adam-Troy Castro’s latest Draiken tale was a lot of fun. Check it out – you won’t regret it!
When I teach my expository writing students to do research, I usually tell them something along the lines of this:
Do not enter a research project with preconceived notions of what you will know when you are done. The point of doing research is to learn. It is your duty to read widely and get as full a picture of what you are studying in order to formulate an opinion about that topic. Your thesis (your argued point) comes after the research is done, not before.
This, I think, is good advice for scholarly research of all stripes. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas. Keep an open mind. Read deeply and widely.
Then, when I write novels, I don’t do anything of the kind.
I hasten to note that I’m not writing historical fiction, here – I’m writing speculative fiction. Scifi, fantasy, time travel – stuff like that. Everything I’m writing is, on some level, verifiably false. I’m making shit up all the time. So, the extent that I’m interested at all in actual facts – whether historical or scientific – is somewhat limited. That limit is the very low bar that is suspended disbelief.
Basically, if I can fudge some actual aspect of history without knocking the audience out of the story by violating their suspension of disbelief, then I can totally get away with it. Because, sure, they didn’t have potatoes in medieval Europe. But they also didn’t have magic or elves or gnomes. And this also isn’t medieval Europe. So what’s it matter, anyway? They’ve got potatoes in their stew – deal with it.
Now, of course, some audiences are going to be more sensitive towards this stuff than others and, furthermore, certain kinds of stories are going to require you to meet a higher standard of suspension of disbelief than others. For instance, I’m currently writing a time travel novel and, since it involves my character traveling back to actual places and times in actual Earth’s history, I have had to do a variety of research to make those places seem authentic. I’ve done research on 18th century American currency, military honors of the Roman Empire, card games played in Port Royal Jamaica in 1670, and who the Lakers were playing on December 8th, 1976 (the Pacers – the Lakers lost).
This research, though, takes a different form than what I would call actual academic research. I don’t need my answers to be correct, exactly – I just need them to be plausible. Furthermore, when I’m doing research like this, it’s to establish a very specific effect in a very specific scene that often happens only once in the whole book. I do some research online for a little while and, if I can’t find an answer that looks suitable, I change the scene so that I no longer need that specific answer anymore. I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book on the urban development of South Boston in the 1950s just so two paragraphs in the novel are 100% accurate, nor am I about to subscribe to a special research service or trek to some distant library just to know what color Ben Franklin preferred to wear when out about town. It just isn’t that important, ultimately.
So, in other words, I do research for books like this in the exact wrong way – the way I tell my students not to. I go in with a preconceived goal in mind (“I need a cool card game for my protagonist to play against pirates”), I do the barest minimum of responsible research (YAAAAY Wikipedia!), and I glean just enough information to make it look like I know what I’m talking about without, you know, actually knowing what I’m talking about.
I am bringing this up mostly because, in the last few weeks I’ve asked some people some relatively minor historical questions and received, well, rather extensive details that, while appreciated, aren’t really necessary. This has been from friends of mine who are academics and librarians and historians for whom I have the greatest respect, and therefore I kinda feel bad telling them “well…actually…I really don’t care what the answer is anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” Because I’m not really an academic or a librarian or a historian. I’m a showman. All writers are, ultimately. And while we might enjoy doing research about this or that, the research is not the end we seek. We’re telling a story. And story always, always comes first.
Hey, folks! I mentioned a few weeks back that I had a story in this month’s Analog (on newsstands now!), but I’m back to tell you that I have an article up on their blog right now which is probably the closest thing to an academic paper I’ve written in a long while (and it is very, very far from an actual academic paper). Check it out here! It’s all about optimism and pessimism in post-apocalyptica!
After having a conversation with my agent the other day, I’ve decided my next novel project is going to be time travel based. I wasn’t really planning to write this particular novel at this particular time, but he feels its the best career move right now and that’s basically what I’m paying the guy for – his advice – so why wouldn’t I take it? Anyway, the point here is that I’ve been thinking (a lot) about time travel in stories today and I want to share some of my ramblings.
One of the questions I’ve gotten recently is how the character in my time travel story is going to travel through time. What are the rules, in other words? Is time linear or non-linear in this story? Are we going to be dealing with the Grandfather Paradox or the Butterfly Effect or what? What about free will? Now, it just so happens that I have answers to these questions, but I’m not going to list them out here today. Instead, I’m going to talk a fair bit about how those questions aren’t actually that important. Or, at least, not as important as they first appear.
Time travel stories, you see, are really never about how time travel is accomplished. Never. Time travel stories are actually all about why the characters in question are traveling in time in the first place. This is also true more broadly of many science fiction stories of whatever subcategory – the special technology is usually more a metaphor for something present and actual rather than a literal exploration of technological progress – but it is particularly true of time travel, since, of all speculative technologies, time travel is possibly the least plausible outside of traveling at relativistic speeds (and then you could only go one direction – the future). If you want to go back in time instead of just forwards (in other words if you want an actual time machine), you kinda have to throw away most known physics anyway. If you’re doing something that impossible, does the fact that you’re traveling by Police Box or hot tub or phone booth really matter?
In other words, the rules, in large part, are arbitrary. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to tell a time travel story in terms of how the deed is accomplished and the rules surrounding said deed. Do we really question that the time machine in the Terminator can only send organic matter? I mean, it makes no sense, but do we care? Likewise, in Back to the Future, the Flux Capacitor makes absolutely zero sense, but, again, we don’t really care. We don’t care because we aren’t watching to movie to learn about how time works. We’re watching the movie to revisit our past.
And that’s really the crux of it: the journey through time is always (always) a metaphor that directly pertains to the main character’s conflict. Sarah Connor has to face the reality of her world ending and how best to prepare for that (the precise dimensions of that preparation and what it symbolizes varies from film to film). Marty McFly has to come to terms with his own parents and, thereby, his own identity. It is a crisis of self confidence, not a Hill Valley crisis. Even the Doctor and his TARDIS aren’t exploring space-time to teach us lessons about history, but rather to explore the human condition (and an outside observer’s opinion of it) in infinite contexts and scenarios. It’s not a show about aliens at all – it’s a love letter to humanity.
So, if you’re going to put together a time travel story, how you have the character traveling through time is a question subservient to why you want them to travel through time to begin with. Depending on what your purpose is – what themes you want to explore – the way time travel happens will itself be altered to fit your narrative goals. And you can do this, too! Time machines are impossible – as impossible as magic and even more impossible than things like hyperdrive or lightsabers or giant battle robots. In other words, it’s something of a blank slate – tell the tale you need to. Your audience isn’t tuning in for technical merit – they’re expecting a story about the human condition.
I’m reading a book right now. It is not good.
It is also not bad.
This is infuriating.
Bad books are easy to discard. Long, long ago I shed that absurd “completist” affliction where I felt the need to finish any book I started (and for that, I thank you, Doctor Zhivago). Now, if I am not feeling a book within 50 pages/20% (whichever comes first), I drop it and move on with my life. This has saved me oh so many hours of pain. If you don’t do this yourself, do it. Your life will improve.
On the other hand, of course, good books are pure pleasure. They fly right by. I can’t wait to read them, I regret having to put them down, and I finish them within a week, no matter how long they are.
The ones in the middle suck. They suck worse than the bad ones. See, they have the audacity to be interesting enough to keep me reading, but the
temerity not to be any good so that I actually want to keep reading. These books are eminently put-down-able. At every chapter break, I quickly set the book down and look for something better to do. It is notable that I mostly read on the train these days and frequently I can, in fact, find something better to do than read the book in question.
I will remind you that I am on a train underground.
Of course, the natural impulse should be to jettison said snooze-fest of a book and move on to bigger, better titles. But wait! There’s still potential there! Maybe it will get good in the next 50 pages? It had such good reviews! The concept is so interesting!
So I keep reading, page by torturous page, as the book plods and stumbles towards its lackluster conclusion. These stupid books eat whole months of my life. I hate them.
Very often, the thing that causes the book to fall into this category is the characters. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the rest of the book. It really doesn’t matter how cool the idea is, the characters and my capacity to identify with them and care about their plight is essential. This means that the characters need a plight, for one thing. They also need to be sufficiently real and interesting that I can connect with them. They also need to do things about their situation. A lot of books (a surprising number, actually) don’t really do this. They have this wizbang cool idea behind them, but the book isn’t really populated with “people” as much as “placeholders for people.”
I could name a lot of names, here, but I don’t like ragging on fellow authors and, honestly, my tastes are not necessarily your tastes. Suffice to say that I’m reading a book right now with one of those super cool high-concept science fiction worlds, but the characters seem to be shoehorned in. It seems as though somebody told the author that they needed actual people in their futuristic techno-thriller and the author sighed and say “Oh, okay – here’s a guy with job and a girl with a katana – that good enough?” The answer is “yes,” but only barely.
Now there are plenty of books that go the other way – really interesting characters in drab, low-concept, predictable conflicts in mundane settings. Those, however, are way more palatable. I could watch Han and Chewie doing anything, you know? Even if it’s a book about Han and Chewie making ice cream for 75 pages, I bet I’d still like it. Character, to me, is everything.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll probably ought to read more about…this crap I’m reading. How far am I through? (checks Kindle). 54%? That’s it?
But I’m more than halfway now…so…(sobs)
Hey, the real world is full of bad news today! Need to escape? Come join me and a bunch of other authors to chat about writing. 1pm EST and 8pm EST. The handle is #SFFChat. See you there!