Oct 202013

A while back, I wrote a post about aesthetics vs. practicality in designing science fiction spaceships, which also extends to any sort of speculative design.

Recently, a discussion exploded on the same board over an initially small misunderstanding that went rampant really fast. You can read about it here, if you care to (it spans three pages). The short version is that I pointed out some conceptual flaws in this particular artist’s explanation for how the FTL1 drive works. After some back and forth, wherein the artist got increasingly hostile to having their idea poked at, they fired off a massive post/rant. I almost gave into the temptation to respond to it, but that little voice in the back of my head said, “Dude, get real. They’re not listening. They’re not going to listen. They’ve got too much baggage going into this for your points to get through. Just leave it.” So I did. I apologized for upsetting them, restated that my only goal was to share information/correct misconceptions, complimented them on their model, and wished them well on their worldbuilding. Then I bowed out.

This all played out from 10/17 to 10/18. Yet I’m still thinking about it. I don’t feel any better now than I did when it all played out; if anything, I might be feeling even worse. Enumerating all of the reasons why would take too long, but there’s one point that I wanted to home in on because I see it everywhere and it needs to die.

in case nobody told you…the FI in sci fi means Fiction!!! The concept of this system is based on an assumed understanding of physics that guess what? We don’t and may never have

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. The fiction in science fiction serves the exact same role as it does in fantasy fictioncrime fiction, literary fiction, romance fiction, and every other stripe of fiction out there: it serves to indicate that the story, characters, and setting are made-up. Period. Done.

The science in science fiction clarifies the broader genre: these are made-up stories, characters, and settings where science is the driver behind what is different. New technologies, alien species, and so on; just as magic–the truly fantastic–drives fantasy fiction. There can absolutely be overlap: technological magic, magical technology, whatever you like. But these are the distinguishing features of the genres that give them a unique place.

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  1. That’s “faster than light”…but if you’re not familiar with that term, then most of this post is going to seem even more ridiculous to you. []
Jan 192013

This is a cross-post from a CG forum I frequent, spurred by discussion relating to the size of weaponry on ships in Star Trek. It’s highly nerdy1, but it’s something I care a great deal about.

Three comments spurred my response. The first comment mentioned how small the weapons on a particular ship seemed, when compared to something like battleship guns from a WW2-era seagoing ship. The second comment, in response, defended the smaller size by pointing out that phasers don’t need to worry about bullet or shell size, and so can be smaller. The third comment, posted by the same person that posted the first comment, then said:

You could also say that the beam generator IS huge, but is inside the hull, and all we see is the final beam steering mechanism. That’s kind of like the way that all you see of a WW2 gun system is the turret housing and barrels, not the spaces beneath devoted to powder storage, shell storage, powder and shell elevators, and rotation/elevation gear.

I just find it a bit irritating that so much stuff in science fiction is so SMALL. 20-foot fighters, shuttlecraft with no place that you could fit a modern car engine, stuff like that. Apparently, I’m in the minority with these thoughts, though.

I replied:

I think there’s a certain balance to be struck.

On the one hand, a lot of designs are all style and no substance, which gives rise to your examples of tiny fighters or shuttles with no place for internal machinery. I absolutely agree with you about this: an artistic rendition of something intended to represent a real thing in the context of the world in which it exists should have some level of engineering sense behind it, not just aesthetics.

That’s not to say things can’t be built impractically because of aesthetics — look around at the world for plenty of examples of this! But at the very least, the thing being presented should be internally consistent enough with its setting so as to stretch suspension of disbelief to a minimum. This is something I feel strongly about and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read someone use “Well, it looks cooler this way” as a justification for a nonsensical design decision. I cry a little (on the inside, where no one can see) every time I see someone say something along these lines. Breaking reality “because it looks cooler” rarely ends up being true; reality has a lot of really cool stuff to offer if one takes the time to explore the “real” options!

On the other hand, I think this particular comparison is unfair for a few reasons.

  • First, Starfleet’s ships are military vehicles in part, not wholly warships as WW2 battleships were and modern Navy vessels are. It is reasonable that their armament would not be their primary focus.
  • Second, we’re talking about very different mechanisms with very different engineering requirements (see my tirade above). A large-bore projectile weapon needs to follow certain design guidelines to address: containing the propulsive explosion that propels the projectile (i.e. big, thick barrels); guiding the projectile’s path so that it can predictably hit its target (i.e. length of the barrel, rifling?); a turret motor strong enough to turn this large, heavy barrel or set of barrels (one governing factor in the size of the turret); and a turret mounting fixture robust enough to handle the recoil of such a large-caliber explosive. All of these factors inform how big the guns are on a battleship.Flip it around and look at the design requirements for a phaser. Phasers are either pure beam weapons or some form of accelerated particle beam (they’re often referred to as “nadion beams” in the shows and are explained in the TNG Tech Manual as dependent on the “rapid nadion effect,” though it makes no explicit mention of these being part of the final beam). In either case, they’re described as using plasma as an energetic first stage. If they’re “special lasers” (i.e. beam weapons), then one may suppose they’re some form of gas laser; if they’re “nadion particle beams,” then they’ll have the requirements of particle beam weapons. In either case, there’s a lot less recoil; the “barrel length” equivalents are a lot shorter; and the resulting machinery necessary to move the “barrel” equivalent is a lot smaller.
  • Third and finally, history shows that as technology advances, things get smaller per unit performance they provide as operating and design principles are better understood, manufacturing technique improves, and dependent technologies advance alongside. Suppose materials science introduces a manufacturing medium that provides all of the necessary resiliency requirements of the materials that go into big, heavy ship turrets, but at a tiny fraction of the size and mass. This will lead to a reduction in turret size with no loss in performance. When we’re discussing a ship ostensibly built 200-300 years from now, and compare the technological advances to the state of the art from 1713 or even 1813, supposing that “heavy guns” take up less space is not entirely unreasonable, so long as the earlier point about accounting for the underlying design holds true.

The key quote in all of that, though is this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read someone use “Well, it looks cooler this way” as a justification for a nonsensical design decision. I cry a little (on the inside, where no one can see) every time I see someone say something along these lines. Breaking reality “because it looks cooler” rarely ends up being true; reality has a lot of really cool stuff to offer if one takes the time to explore the “real” options.

This isn’t just true in the realm of visual arts, either. To stick with a Trek example, take the recent Star Trek reboot/alternate universe/alternate timeline/whatever movie. For me, one of the biggest science issues in the movie was the reference to a “supernova” that threatened to “destroy the galaxy.” Supernovae are huge explosions that absolutely can release enough energy to wipe out life…in the immediate area. Also, this energy travels at the speed of light. Even if a star did go supernova, the faster-than-light society of Star Trek would have a great deal of advanced warning about it, and no2 supernova is going to threaten the entire galaxy, or even the entire Federation3 or Romulan Empire.

Sure, the movie had things like warp drive, Red Matter, time travel, transporters, and so on, but those are part of the setting: they are inventions that the creators request that we, as an audience, suspend our disbelief and accept. We do so because it is plausible that, in the framework of the narrative they’re presenting, such devices might exist. It is not plausible that a supernova–a real thing that we know something about–would threaten the galaxy. It’s a single line of dialog and most people aren’t scientifically literate enough to have even noticed, which I often see trotted out as an excuse to not worry about changing it. That’s just it, though: tweak a single line of dialog by consulting with someone who knows a thing or two about supernovae and other energetic spatial phenomena and you can change that line into something that doesn’t ruin the plausibility of your narrative for those that do know how supernovae work.

Justifying things and understanding the functional underpinnings of your fictional mechanisms that stand to challenge your audience’s suspension of disbelief is good for maintaining that suspension of disbelief, but make sure your justifications and explanations don’t break reality, unless you have a very good explanation for why and understand the consequences thereof.

  1. Are you shocked? []
  2. At least, none about which I’ve ever heard. []
  3. Given the size the Federation is routinely depicted as spanning []

Counting down

 Posted by at 11:42  No Responses »
Oct 152012

We are now halfway through October. The day after Halloween, I begin the final draft of the book, with an eye to publishing by Thanksgiving. My book will be in the wild, available for purchase during the holidays. I am excited and terrified by this.

I’m looking forward to my beta readers’ feedback. I don’t entirely know what to expect. I’ve received some really heartwarming praise and some curiously intimidating intimations about criticism yet-to-come, which I suppose spans an appropriately wide gamut.

Meanwhile, I’m knee-deep in worldbuilding my next book. Rather than the second book in the fantasy trilogy, this will be the start of a science fiction series. I’m having a great deal of fun with the worldbuilding, which I take as a good sign for my level of engagement with the story-to-be. If nothing else, I’m two for two on crafting worlds that I’m excited about. Whether or not the world at large feels the same remains to be seen, but if I’m not writing something I’m excited about, no reader is going to enjoy it.

Once the fantasy book is in the wild, I’m going to dive head-long into the writing of the sci-fi book. The goal, other than writing and publishing another book, is to take everything I learned writing the first book and use it to write this book faster. The goal, ultimately, is to be able to publish 4-5 good titles each year, representing a release cycle of three months or less. We’ll see if I can hit that or not. At the very least, spending the time on a solid outline should preclude the need to do a “second” draft akin to the fantasy book’s second draft, which was really a complete overhaul of the seat-of-the-pants NaNoWriMo story. Outlines are our friends.

I’m toying with the idea of releasing at least the first chapter of the book for free, right here, once the final draft is done. I’ll be making a great deal of noise on Facebook and Twitter, too, which I’m sure will be a joy to all the people who follow me. I apologize in advance and hope that you will endure the shameless self-promotion. Hell, I hope you’ll help spread the word!


 Posted by at 16:55  No Responses »
Jan 092009

It’s been a while, so it seemed high-time to talk about some of the things I’m working on.

Novel: Gold (tentative title)
This past November, I participated in and “won” NaNoWriMo by completing a 50,000 word manuscript.  It’s the story of a young woman that wakes up in a strange, burning office with an unfamiliar voice in her head urging her to jump out of the window…to save her life.  Once I completed it, I sent it to a number of people for a first review.  I haven’t touched it since, taking the advice of Stephen King to let the first draft sit in a drawer for a while before returning to it.  My parents have recently finished reading it and are going to be sending me their feedback this weekend.  I’m still waiting to hear Cody and a few others’ thoughts as well.  Once I have the combined feedback of everyone, I’ll set to work writing the second draft.  My hope is to publish it sometime this summer.

Film: Wec: The Sequel
Wec 2 has been in stasis for a while, superceded by work, more immediate hobbies and diversions (Xbox games, Fallout 3, novel-writing, etc.).  However, I do still plan to finish it.  It’s hard to bring myself to work on it specifically because it’s a film that deals with an entirely different era of my life.  I’m not that guy anymore, and so the movie’s personal relevance to me is greatly diminished.  However, with Ron’s help, I still think the movie itself is salvagable and will actually be interesting.  I recently showed Wec: The Movie to a co-worker of mine in preparation for a new project (see below), and I realized (again) how inane that first movie is.  I want the second one, as silly as it is, to actually be enjoyable for more than the sheer lunacy value.  I think it can be.

Film: Untitled Star Wars Fanfilm
I’ve played with the idea of doing a Star Wars fanfilm many times in the past.  A few weeks ago, an image formed in my head that caused inspiration to strike: an X-wing, floating “hidden” behind an asteroid, and then maneuvering like a real spacefighter (a la BSG).  This prompted the idea of creating a film based on a some X-wing pilots, in the vein of BSG.  It would play with established SW conventions (i.e. X-wings would actually maneuver like space fighters) and make a more “hard” sci-fi version of Star Wars.  

Co-worker and fellow SW fan Steve was intrigued by the idea when I told him about it and with a bit of convincing I’ve gotten him pretty enthused about the project.  We recently asked Ron to help us with the writing, and the last week has had us working through the first draft of the treatment he wrote up for us.  He’s now busily working on the second draft that Steve and I will use to write the first draft of the script.  Once we’ve done that, it’ll go back to Ron for a dialog polish (George, why didn’t you do this?) and we’ll start material pre-production (set building, costumes, etc.).  So far, the film will star Steve, Cody, and myself, along with a cameo by Steve’s wife and children.  

Other Novels
I have several other novel ideas that have been banging around in my head, begging to be written.

  • A mostly-hard science fiction novel dealing with the rammifications of space warfare after the advent of practical defense shields.
  • A science fiction novel dealing with the setting that I’ve had in my head forever, first implemented in any practical form as the UEDF Illustrious Defender e-mail RPG.
  • A sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel wherein a character joins a guild of assassins and uncovers a plot that led to her father’s murder.

There are more, but those three are the most fully-formed.

RPG: Vampire
At some point in the near future, I also plan to resume my Vampire game.  I’m not totally sure when this will happen, though it is likely to take place on Saturday evenings.  The timing is up in the air right now because many of the players are currently in unstable situations (as it pertains to regularly meeting on IRC, that is).

So, that’s about it from my neck of the woods.  Going to be a busy year!