Since the fairly cringe-worthy Hugo Awards ceremony a few days back, there’s been a big argument in the SFF world going on about the Science Fiction Canon, such as it is. What is it? How much is it worth? Do you have to read it? So on, so forth.
I waded into this debate and, admittedly, stepped in it a bit when I was having a discussion with a friend of mine regarding whether writers need to read the classics of the genre in order to write good work today. My response was this:
“Yup! My thing about the classics is that you should read them if you want to, but they aren’t strictly relevant to what is happening now. In fact, I would ascribe *zero* relevance to anything published before 1980/1982 or so. Then it incrementally increases as you go.”
Now, this was interpreted (and understandably so, if taken out of context) to mean that no work prior to 1980 has relevance for readers or worth as literature prior to 1980, which is not my point at all. My point is, rather, that the current milieu of science fiction and fantasy as it exists in the market today begins in the early 1980s and if your intention is to publish inside of that milieu, reading stuff published prior to that time is not essential. You, as a writer, need to know what is going on now in the field, not what was going on in the field in 1965.
I had a number of productive discussions about this online with a couple intelligent people. I had a lot of retweets accusing me of ignoring history or suggesting works like 1984 and Brave New World aren’t relevant for modern readers.
Now, I would insist that many (in fact the majority) of pre-contemporary works (defined broadly as the early 1980s, where we moved away from cold war paranoia and into a more cyberpunk/environmental catastrophe/corporate capitalist villain era) do not really resonate as well with a modern audience. The sexism of Bester and Asimov and Niven and Pournelle really shows their works’ age. The writers from the 30s and 40s still hope to find canals on Mars and wonder about the jungles of Venus. Everybody thinks atomic power is the cat’s pajamas. The amount of racism and Orientalism and colonialist underpinnings is overwhelming when examined with a modern sensibility. We can learn a lot about what people thought then about the world, but how it affects our world now is less clear.
Furthermore, much of what was done back in those days had begun a trend that has carried along to this very day! If somebody asked me whether they should read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigades, it’s a no-brainer that I’d suggest Hurley. Why? Well, because it’s still military scifi and it’s still got the first person perspective and thrilling fights and cool tech, but Hurley’s book is about now and Heinlein’s book is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century Cold War (and this is above and beyond the latent fascism contained in that specific book, but that’s a topic I’ve explored before and don’t care to repeat here). You don’t have to read 1984 to understand dystopia – the modern authors who have written about it, at length and with great skill, are numerous. Can you read it? Can a modern reader still glean important and interesting lessons from reading it? Yes, of course. Go ahead and read both!
That, though, not the question I’m seeking to answer. The question I’m trying to tackle is to what extent do modern authors owe fealty to the writers of the distant past to the point where those distant works are essential for their ability to tell compelling stories in the present day. I would argue that once you go past 40 years ago, there really isn’t any requirement because the publishing universe of that era bears no similarity to the one today. They were not writing to the same kind of audience, they were not dealing with the same kind of editors, and they were not facing the same kind of marketplace. Even the ideas they pioneered have been re-imagined and re-imagined again, so that you are entering a dialogue among authors that is a half-century old by now. You don’t need to read that original foray to join that conversation, but you must read the latest entry or you won’t make any sense.
The thing about lionizing the traditional canon (in any genre) is that you are centering the voices of people who lived in worlds alien to our own and then demanding that they be paid homage, when really what they have to say can be taken or left depending on our own interests. None of it is required. It can certainly have value for the right person at the right time, but we ought not ascribe these works more importance than the ones that have followed and, most especially, by those being produced today.
Now, as is the case with all list-building and hard lines in the sand, there are plenty of works from the 70s and earlier that still stand up just as well today as they did then – people like Le Guin and Philip K Dick and so on. But those folks are the exception, not the rule.
In short, if you intend to study the field of science fiction or are just a huge fan of classic books, by all means read the classic fiction of the mid to early 20th century – you will enjoy a lot of it, for sure. However, if you plan to write science fiction or fantasy novels, you don’t owe those old novels your time if you don’t want to give it. You can do it without them, just by reading on your own without any pre-set requirements. The canon is not a law, it’s simply a recommendation list. Feel free to ignore it. Read something else. There are a lot of good books out there, and you’ll never have time to read all of them, anyway.
But hey, that’s just one white dude’s opinion.
Paul Atreides kneels before the Reverend Mother.
“Put your hand in the box,” she says.
“What is in there?” Paul asks.
Dune has been on my mind lately, and not only because Denis Villeneuve’s version of the book is destined for theaters sometime after we are released from our coronavirus isolation. Indeed, my thoughts on this have been circling around Dune because of the virus itself.
In the book, Paul Atreides is tested by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim. She places a poison needle at his neck (the gom jabbar) and Paul is required to keep his hand inside a pain-inducing box until such time as she tells him to remove it. If he removes it before permitted, he dies. The test, she says, is to see whether he is a human. In other words, is he capable of overcoming instinct and impulse (to remove his hand from pain) by being aware of consequences (death). Since permanent death is obviously worse than temporary pain, the rational human being will endure the latter to evade the former.
Which brings me to our present moment:
If you do not have the virus, it can seem like the virus is not real. If Paul is never pricked by the needle, do we really know that the poison is ever there? The discomfort we are experiencing – social isolation, economic uncertainty, lack of haircuts – grows steadily by the day. Are we sure it’s necessary? As it gets worse, our instincts kick in – you’ve been to Baskin Robbins tons of times and lived! Why should this time be any different? For Christ’s sake, it’s only a haircut and the barber isn’t even sneezing! Isn’t this just like the flu? I’ve had the flu before and been fine, thankyouverymuch! LET ME GO TO TARGET!
Left and right and all over, people are failing the gom jabbar. They are proving that their impulses are greater than their reason. I suppose we should not be surprised – even Herbert made it clear that few could conceivably pass the gom jabbar, and that it would be unusual for a male to be able to do so at all (which, honestly, I find a pretty fair assessment: if there’s anyone in our society able to endure discomfort for – hopefully – long-term gain, it’s women. Want proof? Find a mother. Literally any mother.).
We are all of us sitting there with our hand inside the box, the poison needle poised at our necks. Needle may strike, it may not, but one thing is certain: it has struck down already some 90,000 of us. The great tragedy is, of course, that many of those who have died did keep their hand in the box and did prove themselves more than an animal. They were likely done in by the animals around them – who did not wear their mask, who did not keep their distance, who did not stay home.
Yes, I called these people animals.
Frank Herbert calls these people animals, too. For what is somebody ruled by impulse and crude desire but an animal? They certainly aren’t using their higher reasoning functions, are they?
Time plays funny tricks on you when you are in pain or uncomfortable. The minutes stretch into hours and weirdly also the days run together, until it is hard to tell where you are or when it is or what you had planned to do. The world outside becomes unreal, ephemeral. In the normal world, we act as aggressively as we can to stop the pain or avoid the discomfort – this is instinct. But we’re being tested in a different way, now. We are not being tested for how quick we can move or how decisvely we can act. We are being asked to endure.
I would be remiss, also, if I didn’t make a mention of privilege here, as well. Some of us can stay inside and guard ourselves in relative comfort. There are a lot out there who cannot – first line responders and essential employees, the poor and homeless, those with chronic illnesses or disabilities that require constant care. For them especially should we endure this test. It is also deeply ironic that those who have the most privilege are the ones least able to do as they are asked.
Unlike in Herbert’s story, all of us have the means by which to evade the needle. We only need to keep going. Someday the needle will be removed and we will have passed our test.
Today is not that day.
I’d like to talk about two science fiction properties today, one of which I like quite a bit and the other which I actively despise. These properties are the Netflix Lost in Space reboot and the abysmal, frenetically empty Rise of Skywalker. In an effort to keep this from becoming a rant on RoS (because that could go on for a while), I’m going to try and focus the conversation here and use the comparison to Lost in Space to draw out certain elemental weaknesses in Episode IX that make it, very basically, a terrible movie and a story poorly told. Spoiler alert, of course, but honestly it’s really hard to spoil a movie that’s about nothing. So, mostly spoiler alert for Lost in Space.
The reason I think this comparison should work pretty well is that Lost in Space has a lot of the same weaknesses that Rise of Skywalker has. Namely, the technical details of the story don’t make
any sense and the pacing is frequently breathless and frenetic. For example:
In Rise of Skywalker
- The idea that the Sith planet is hidden and yet hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people need to have traveled there to build the secret fleet makes no sense.
- The idea that a fleet of Star Destroyers could just be hidden underwater while being built makes no sense.
- Lightspeed Jumping makes no sense
- The whole thing with the Sith Dagger makes no sense.
- The fact that Poe’s helmeted friend from that rainy planet gave him the Only Way Off The Planet and then managed to get off the planet anyway later on makes no sense.
- Palpatine’s plan to have Kylo kill Rey only to have him not kill Rey so that Palpatine could not kill Rey only so that later on he could kill Rey MAKES NO SENSE.
In Lost in Space
- Sailboats don’t work like that.
- Re-entry doesn’t work like that.
- Ice doesn’t freeze that way.
- What the hell did the horse eat on the space station for 7 months?
- You mean to tell me nobody thought to look for the kid on that space station for SEVEN MONTHS?
- Everybody’s got computers on their wrists collecting all kinds of data about them but not BIOMETRIC DATA?
- What did the raptors on the desert planet eat before humans showed up?
- So that whole forest is, like a year old? WHAT?!
Both properties have the characters in near-constant peril, sometimes arbitrarily. There is always somebody yelling something at somebody else, such as “GET BACK TO THE SHIP!” or “HURRY UP!” or “RUN!”
And yet, Lost in Space is a hundred thousand times better than Rise of Skywalker. When watching LoS, I am usually at the edge of my seat, holding my breath, cheering, and so on. In Episode IX, I was laughing at the movie, throwing my hands up in frustration, and rolling my eyes. The big question, then, is why?
In Lost in Space the peril is always character oriented and the moments of downtime are spent setting up character relationships. In Rise of Skywalker the peril has very little to do with any of the characters and the downtime is spent setting up the next set-piece or maguffin-related errand.
Look, we all know that none of the Robinsons are going to die (well, I’m pretty sure – not all the way through Season 2 yet) just like we ALL know that Rey, Poe, and Finn are going to live. We all know the good guys are going to win in the end – it’s light space opera, so it’s basically guaranteed. When that’s the case, the trick to getting the audience invested in the peril that you’ve devised is getting you to hook into the emotional state of the characters themselves. You, sitting on your couch at home, are well aware that the Robinsons live through this, but because you are so connected to the Robinsons on an emotional level, you are still anxious for them. You have empathy for their situation. It builds this empathy with flashbacks to the kids’ relationships with their parents back on Earth, with tender moments among the family or even by themselves (the Christmas celebration! Penny’s book! Will’s toy robot! Don and his pet chicken!). The “clever” plans that save the day? They come up with them in seconds and implement them through montage and then whammo, we’ve turned a spaceship into a sailboat and (hand waving) it works or something.
See, we (the audience) don’t ACTUALLY care about the technical details of a story that much. I know, I know – right now you’re trying to marshal arguments to the contrary, about how this or that science fiction movie or book or whatever had crappy science and it knocked you completely out of the book. And here I am, calling you a liar.
That’s right, I said it.
You know what beloved scifi franchise has shitty science and NOBODY CARES? Firefly. Garbage, guys – just straight up crappy world-building on several intersecting levels. Do you care? No.
You know what else has garbage technical details? Star Trek. YES, STAR TREK. The holodeck? C’mon now.
You know what else? EVERY SINGLE STAR WARS MOVIE, YES EVEN THE GOOD ONES!
Even The Martian hand-waved away crucial details to make the plot work!
The reason technical details knock you out of the story is not because the technical details were bad – you’ve forgiven those before and you will again – it’s because you didn’t connect or engage with the emotional content of the story or the characters’ conflicts.
Consider Rise of Skywalker, then. For the first 45 minutes of the movie, almost no one gets to finish talking without being interrupted (I timed it). Any character relationship building that is established is rushed, hasty, and clearly playing second fiddle to the external conflicts. Christ, look at poor Finn – he’s gone something important to tell Rey and the movie literally never gives him the opportunity to say it. What the fuck is that about? We want to hear what he has to say! No, we need to hear what he has to say or we’ll NEVER CARE ABOUT IT! And caring about what happens to the characters is literally the only thing that matters in any story, or, if not the only thing, the thing that needs to happen first before anything else will work.
Much like in the initial Abrams Star Trek reboot, any sympathy or connection we have with the characters in Rise of Skywalker is largely residual – we like them because we already know them from previous properties. There is just about no character building that occurs in the movie itself, with the possible exception of Rey and Kylo (and even that was inhibited by all the planet hopping and macguffin chasing, rather than aided by it). To make matters worse, the few moments where something happens that might affect how the characters think and behave are all erased by the film shortly thereafter. Chewie? Alive. 3-PO? Gets his memory back. Poe’s old flame? Makes it off the planet. Finn’s secret? Doesn’t matter. Hux’s betrayal? Not only nonsensical but discarded arbitrarily in the next scene. That kiss? What the fuck was that about?
Peril, danger, external conflict does not work if the audience has not invested in the characters on the screen. And that is an investment you need to keep investing in. You can’t do in once and expect it to ride for the next three films or six episodes or whatever. The audience is a fickle beast, sitting there in their comfy chair eating Raisinettes and popcorn, and looking for any opportunity to check out of your nonsensical thrill ride. However, once you hook them, suddenly you can violate the laws of physics (or even your own world-building) and almost nobody will care because, like it or not, we are creatures of the heart more than we have ever been creatures of the mind.
Because I am known to write battle reports from time to time – chiefly for Warhammer 40,000 or Age of Sigmar and on other websites – and I have now played The World’s Biggest Board Game, Twilight Imperium, twice now, I have elected to write a report of my last game of this huge, huge undertaking. If you aren’t a gaming fan, this may grant some insight one man’s obsession with narrative and with gaming. Or maybe it will be monumentally boring.
In any event, one of the things I like about games is the stories they create. I’m obsessed with storytelling, as you may guess, and games that tell stories are the very best kind. So, here I am taking my this 9 hour boardgame and turning it into a story. I will be eliding certain details of the game in the interest of streamlining and also because so many damned things happen in this game that I couldn’t possibly keep track of everything. But it will all make some sense in the end.
The Imperial Throne on Mechatol Rex stands empty, vacant these many, many years. Only the Winnaran Custodians sit in the Eternal City, maintaining the ancient mechanisms of rule for the day when they are utilized again. From an age of civil strife have emerged new aspirants to the throne…or, perhaps not so new.
The Kingdom of Xxcha (Played by John)
The peaceful reptilian species, learned and wise, are nestled in the galactic southwest upon the lush planets of Archon Ren and Archon Tau.
The Barony of Letnev (Played by Brandon)
Deep beneath the surface of the sunless world, Arc Prime, the ruthless Baron plots with his ministers to restore the Letnev to glory. Situated in the galactic northwest, they rest at the other side of a series of lush and fertile systems, ripe for plucking.
The Yssaril Tribes (Played by Dave)
A newcomer to the galactic stage, the once primitive arboreal species known as the Yssaril (think “Ewoks, only less fuzzy”) have emerged from their jungle homeworld in the galactic north having appropriated the technology of their would-be colonizers and with a huge network of spies and assassins bent upon ensuring they will never be subjugated again.
The Emirates of the Hacan (Played by Adam)
Their cluster of homeworlds in the galactic northeast relatively bereft of resources, the noble and leonine Hacan are a species of merchants and traders, known throughout the galaxy. They see it as natural that they should be the kingmakers in the Empire, as it is only through their efforts that civilization has persisted in these dark times.
The Mentak Coalition (Played by Fisher)
A loose confederation of pirates, privateers, and renegades based on the rugged Moll Primus in the galactic southeast, they are surrounded by asteroid fields and vast areas of empty space and uninhabitable, worthless rocks. They are free, though, and unwilling to bend the knee to anyone.
The L1Z1X Mind-net (Played by Myself)
Little do these newcomers know that the descendants of the last Imperial Dynasty – the Lazax – have re-emerged. But not as they were – no – as something far worse. Cybernetic beings of cold logic and long-burning hatred, they see the galaxy as theirs by right. Hailing from their secret planet in the galactic south, known only as 0.0.0, their arrival is a surprise to the other species, and one the L1Z1X plan on capitalizing upon.
The early objectives in the game were to conquer four planets of the same type and develop a variety of technologies, both ship-upgrades and pure tech. I, as the L1Z1X Mindnet, was fortunate enough to be in proximity to a LOT of cultural planets. The trouble was a lot of them were in the sphere of the peaceful, contemplative Xxcha. A deal was struck early on–we exchanged promissory notes for future ceasefires, to ensure a demilitarized border, and split the planets equally between us. My cyborg minions expanded quickly, conquering five planets in short order.
The other civilizations in the galaxy followed suit, to varying degrees of success, expanding their borders. The Hacan and the Yssaril, while trying to make a similar accord as the one between myself and the Xxcha, tried to split two planets in the Arrian/Meer system, which was a diplomatic arrangement that would cause both powers no end of logistical problems as they tried to keep their navies from shooting at each other (better, I think, to start shooting and have done).
In the West, the Letnev stumbled on early objectives, starting a failed border skirmish with the Xxcha and having planets annexed out from under its heel by careful peace treaties pursued by the patient, reptillian Xxcha. It played a variety of action cards dispatching emissaries to the Custodians of Mechatol Rex, feeling out the idea of the Baron of Letnev one day occupying the Imperial Throne.
Up until this turn, the galaxy was fairly peaceful, despite the L1Z1X developing improvements to its Super-Dreadnought technology (the much-feared Super Super Dreadnought!). That changed, however, when the Yssaril made the bold move to land troops on Mechatol Rex and claim the planet for their own!
The diminutive forest dwellers were welcomed as heroes for a new era as they marched through the grand Imperial square and the ambassador, clad in loincloth, climbed the podium and uttered the first words the people of the Imperial planet would hear from their new rulers: “YUB YUB!” It echoed from the stately facades of the buildings, and the revelry went long into the night (reports of cannibalism and playing makeshift xylophones out of their enemy’s helmets is unconfirmed).
In response to this insult (a slave species? Claiming the Senate? Outrageous!), the Baron of Letnev sent a punitive fleet to the Tar’Mann system, wiping out the Yssaril garrison there and claiming the planet. This was followed by the grand armada of the L1Z1X, led by its flagship, the 0.0.1, blockading the space around Mechatol Rex by destroying that Yssaril fleet. Alas, their moment in the sun was fleeting, at best, and never again did the Yssaril reach such heights.
What was strange was that the L1Z1X did not invade Mechatol Rex. In their (my) arrogance, I considered all other civilizations a minor threat, at best, and claiming their toy – the Imperial Planet my people had abandoned so long ago – held little interest for them. This was short sighted. Nevertheless, the Grand Armada invaded planets belonging to the Hacan next, crushing their fleets and claiming a series of planets good for mining rare minerals needed to sustain the L1Z1X war machine.
This new war was accompanied by a new and strange alliance. The Mentak Alliance, long a thorn in the side of Hacan trading interests (and stealing trade goods from them multiple times every single turn), made common cause with the sinister L1Z1X Mind-net, striking at Hacan outer systems in exchange for access to specific world needed to improve their technology. The L1Z1X, seeing the space pirates as a useful nuisance, used the distraction they caused to extort their home system with a ceasefire promissory note. This was again unwise – better I had negotiated for the Support the Throne note for a free victory point, but oh well.
The Hacan made an attempt at a counter-attack before this happened, trying to invade the Lodor system, only to have it smashed (at great cost to the L1Z1X fleet), exiling a lone dreadnought to the asteroid-strewn badlands around hostile Mentak space.
Meanwhile, in the galactic west, the Letnev and Xxcha, reaching an uneasy truce, made steady gains in material, technology, and political power.
The Mindnet Wars served to exhaust the Hacan, the Mentak Alliance, and even the mighty L1Z1X itself. The war essentially ended with the Hacan conquering the Mentak homeworld of Moll Primus and the L1Z1X, no longer interested in the Hacan or the pirates, now that the minerals had been extracted, abandoning the two minor powers to their fates.
In that time, however, the Letnev had grown steadily more powerful. With a huge industrial base to draw from, a steady truce with the Xxcha, and the Yssaril too weak to interfere directly (despite their many legislative riders and political ploys on Mechatol Rex earning them resources), the Barony seized control of the Imperial Planet and essentially controlled the Senate for some time, with no other power trying to dislodge them.
The L1Z1X took action against them in the Tar’Mann system, destroying a Letnev Fleet and claiming the planet. In their arrogance, however, the cyborgs had not fully reckoned on the Letnev’s strength – all the move did was anger the mighty Baron. Now, the formerly floundering barony was the most powerful civilization in the galaxy, amassing accolades and prophesies from the halls of Mechatol Rex, which they had established as their own capital.
In their anger, they marshaled the forces of the senate and their power as Speaker to have the L1Z1X ambassador publicly executed (and I lost all my action cards). The, as the Mind-net plotted its revenge, the Xxcha violated the ceasefire at Resculon – war, now on two fronts! And no mere merchants or pirates these, either – the hardened, sophisticated fleets of Letnev and Xxcha, bolstered by years of prosperity and steady growth.
At this point, lagging on victory points and spread too thin, the mind-net (i.e. myself) realized that it had left itself far, far too vulnerable. The Letnev struck, driving my forces out of Thibah, and my counter attack destroyed their fleet there, but could not re-take the planet. I needed to weaken the Letnev and keep my ships in range to support my home systems when the Xxcha attacked. So, I gambled everything on one last, big battle – a full invasion of the key Letnev system of Mornar Xuul.
It was my flagship, two super-super dreadnoughts, a carrier full of infantry, and four fighters against a Letnev dreadnought, two destroyers, and three fighters. My fighters were wiped out by the destroyers in the initial volley, while I had to work through his own to get at his capital ships. Despite being outnumbered, I destroyed the Letnev fleet, but not before a lucky shot from a Letnev Dreadnought destroyed my flagship and, thereby, wiped out my own bid for hegemony.
The Xxcha marshaled themselves for a last-turn invasion of my homeworld while the Mentak Alliance won a stunning victory over the Hacan to reclaim their own homeworld. By this time, however, the Letnev were unstoppable. They scored a last 3 victory points in one turn and won the game. The Baron of Letnev was crowned Imperial Emperor, the threat of the L1Z1X was ended, and the Xxcha, seeing the wisdom of peace over warfare, joined the Letnev in Mechatol Rex as advisors.
This is a huge, huge game and so I can’t possibly comment on every little decision made. I can, however, theorize what I did right and what I did wrong. Now, I’ve only played the game twice and this is the first time I tried to play aggressively (last time I took the slow-build strategy that the Letnev and Xxcha employed in this game and won as a result). Aggressive play is really difficult, since you have to keep moving around and it is really easy to get spread too thin and to find yourself working too hard for VPs. I think threats and extortion was the way to go, but in the future I’ll be sure to extort Support the Throne cards instead of Ceasefires.
Not landing on Mechatol Rex was a mistake. It represents a potential 1VP per turn, is way easier to defend than other distant systems, and I should have taken it when I had the chance. I also should have tried harder to become Speaker and, therefore, possibly grab the Leadership Strategy card. I was working with a dearth of command tokens for most of the game, hence why my forces were so bare by the end.
Anyway, despite 8.5 hours of gameplay, we all had a great time and we look forward to doing it again soon. Except I probably won’t be writing too many reports. This is way harder to keep straight in your head when compared to a mere game of Warhammer 40K.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who came out to play! I now return you to your regularly scheduled musings on fantasy, scifi, and writing.
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!
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.
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!