In case you didn’t know, my fellow indie author and KBoards member Elle Casey has put together a book giveaway, and she was kind enough to include a couple of my books in it. If you would like a chance to win a free ebook copy of Genesis Earth or Star Wanderers: Fidelity (Part II), head over to her blog and check it out. I’m giving away 10 electronic copies of each title, but I’m only one author of many so if you sign up for my books there’s a very good chance you’ll win one.
The giveaway has a lot of different kinds of books, but they trend more toward YA and New Adult (a recently coined categorization that eludes me). Out of all my books, Genesis Earth and Star Wanderers seemed like the titles that fit best, so those were the ones I chose. But there are a lot of others to choose from, with no limit on how many you sign up for, so feel free to take your pick!
Tomorrow (Wednesday) is the last day of the promotion, so be sure to act quick!
So I have a bunch of ideas for blog posts I’d like to write, and I’ll probably get around to them eventually, but I thought I’d drop a line now just to let you all know what I’ve been up to. It’s been a pretty good week, with some decent progress on the current WIP (Lifewalker) and some other random stuff that may be of some interest.
First, Lifewalker. It’s coming along quite well. I’m averaging around 2k words a day, so more of a leisurely pace than a white-hot creative heat, but not too bad. It’s kind of turned into a post-apocalyptic Western, mostly because I can’t write about southern Utah without the landscape taking over. This video should give you an idea why:
At the same time, the character’s voice really seems to be taking shape in a way that I like. He’s kind of drifting right now, but the way he writes about it is very much like an old man reminiscing on the course of his life, lingering on the regrets as well as the triumphs, with some rather wistful commentary on each. This is really a character that I can just pick up and run with–the story is practically writing itself.
It’s not just the voice, either. Random stuff is just finding it in–powerful stuff that makes the story awesome. For example, just in the last chapter, the characters were holding a meeting to see what they should do to rescue some of their friends who had been kidnapped. Out of nowhere, one of them pulls out a skull from a human baby, with beads and feathers dangling from it like some sort of totem. He brought it out to show that the people who’d attacked them were not just normal bandits, but cannibals from the Nevadan wastelands, which put them in a whole new category of badassery. Stuff like that comes out of nowhere every time I write, and it’s awesome.
I’ve had a lot of time to write, though I don’t feel I’ve been using it all productively. Still, I’m on track to finish this thing by the end of the month, which will be extremely gratifying.
In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting a lot with cooking and gardening. Just planted some tomatoes in 3-gallon ice cream buckets (with dirt instead of ice cream, of course), and those are growing nicely. It’s fun to have something to water in the morning, and when they start to yield fruit, I’m sure it will be awesome as well.
But I’ve also been experimenting with the old Egyptian kushari recipe I picked up after the 2008 study abroad. It always seemed to be missing that one thing that would make the other ingredients come together and achieve that delicious synergy. Well, I think I’ve found it: chickpeas and cumin, with maybe a touch of vinegar. It might not be 100% authentic, but when I cooked it this time with that stuff, it tasted heavenly.
So this weekend, I’m going to try to perfect the recipe, something I’ve been wanting to do for years. I’ll try cooking the rice in chicken broth, and adding more onions and garlic with maybe a little tomato. Also, coriander–I know that coriander and cilantro are basically the same plant, but I think the coriander will go with this better than cilantro. Also, it helps to fry it with a little oil after taking it out of the refrigerator, rather than sticking it in the microwave. I haven’t had a microwave for over a year, and I think I actually prefer cooking without it.
Speaking of food, my roommate’s sister’s roommates dropped off a bag full of crap from their kitchen, since they’re moving out for the summer. We’ve been having an interesting time combing through it–found some pretty good stuff, actually. One of the more useful things is a bag full of buckwheat, which is AWESOME because kasha was one of my favorite dishes in Georgia. Kasha and lobio–delicious!
So yeah, I’ve had food on my mind a lot this week. If things work out, maybe I’ll post a recipe or two. Kushari is delicious, cheap, filling, and healthy–a winning combination if ever there was one. Kasha is pretty simple, but that’s what makes it so great–a simple, hearty food that leaves you feeling warm and whole.
Besides cooking exotic foods, I’ve also been reading a lot of Freefall. I discovered it just last week, and I have to say, it is awesome. One of the better webcomics I think I’ve ever read. Like Schlock Mercenary, it’s a space opera comedy romp, but where Schlock kind of turned dark in recent years (which I’m not complaining about, don’t get me wrong), Freefall has still stuck to its happy-go-lucky roots. And just like Schlock Mercenary, the humor is not only entertaining, but often wonderfully insightful.
But by far, the best part of the story is how compelling the characters are. My favorite is Florence Ambrose, an artificially bred Bowman’s Wolf who is kind of a human-wolf hybrid. She’s one of only 14 members of her species, and the corporation that created her considers her more as property than an individual. She’s got all these biologically programmed safeguards that force her to obey direct human orders, no matter how ludicrous–but the only way for her species to survive is to convince the corporation that Bowman Wolves are profitable, so that they’ll make more (the whole 50-500 rule and all that).
Somehow, she becomes the engineer of the Savage Chicken, a down-and-out starship captained by the infamous Sam Starfall. Sam is basically a lazy, larcenous alien squid who wants nothing more than to steal everyone’s wallet and become famous doing it. At first, it seems like a horrible combination–Florence is basically a good, honest person, who wants to do good work and please everyone. But as the story goes on, the two develop quite a rapport, and start to rub off on each other.
Florence helps Sam to clean up and get his act together, and Sam helps Florence to learn ways to get around her difficult situation vis-a-vis her safeguards and lack of free will. More importantly, Sam helps her to stop feeling guilty long enough to recognize that doing the right thing sometimes means breaking (or at least twisting) the law.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s the whole cross-species romance angle between Florence and the biologist who rescues her back in one of the earlier subplots. As you might expect, it gets really lonely being the only Bowman’s Wolf on the planet–especially when the other 13 are frozen in cryo, on their way to a world several light-years away. Florence knows that she needs to do what she can to propagate the species, but she’s also got some emotional needs that demand to be satisfied now. Winston is kind of similar, a lonely parasitic biologist on a frontier terraforming project with only 40,000 humans and a 40-60 male-female ratio. Except for the whole cross-species issue, they make a really good couple. I’m riveted to find out what happens next!
So yeah, if I had to sum it up: good, honest, likeable person + insecure future + social limbo + unsatisfied emotional needs = really compelling story. Plus, she’s half wolf–how cool is that? What I would give for her incredible sense of smell…
In any case, it’s getting late, and even though tomorrow is Saturday, there’s a bunch of stuff I want to do tomorrow so I’d better cut this short for now. See you later!
Unlike dystopian settings, where society evolves (or is deliberately turned) into a horrible, hellish place, a post-apocalyptic setting represents a reboot of civilization itself, where one society has passed away and a new one is slowly picking itself up from the ashes. It has the potential to be a lot more hopeful, and to give the reader a lot more wish fulfillment. After all, who wouldn’t want to be one of the lucky survivors tasked with rebuilding civilization? Sure there may be zombies or nuclear nasties wandering about, but on the plus side, you don’t have to worry about your bills or your deadbeat job anymore.
Douglas Rushkoff has some interesting ideas about why this type of story is becoming more and more popular nowadays. In his new book Present Shock which he’s been promoting recently, he argues that many of us are so overwhelmed by a world where everything happens now that we wish we could end it all and start over. When we live in an ever-changing present without a coherent narrative to reference our past or our future, we long for something to restore that sense that we’re part of a larger story, even if that story is racing towards a horrible, tragic end.
But every ending is a new beginning, and that’s what lies at the very core of this trope. When our world passes away, what will the new world look like that takes its place? Will we learn from our mistakes, or are we doomed to repeat our worst atrocities? Will we eat each other like dogs, or will we tap into some deeper part of human nature where mercy and compassion lie?
This is all on my mind right now, because I’m writing a post-apocalyptic novel (with the working title Lifewalker) that takes place in Utah 200 years after the end. Humanity was hit by a plague that kills everyone over the age of 25, so that the only people left are orphans, teenage adults, and their babies. It’s fascinating to wonder what from our era would fall apart and what would remain, or what would be preserved and how the new society will take shape.
But it’s not the apocalypse itself that I’m interested in, so much as what happens after things stabilize. The main character is one of the few people who’s immune to the plague, so naturally he feels like a complete outcast. He’s walking the Earth, riding down the ruins of I-15 with a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn in his saddlebag. And the people he meets … well, let’s just say I wasn’t very kind to Las Vegas.
I think that’s another part of the appeal of this trope: it takes our own world and twists it into something fantastic, so that instead of having to wrap our minds around a whole new set of history and physics, we can build on the familiar in wild and interesting ways. A Canticle for Leibowitz did this very well, with another post-apocalyptic tale set in Utah. However, the most famous popular example is probably the movie I Am Legend. I love those long panoramic shots with Will Smith hunting deer in Times Square, or hitting golf balls off the wing of a fighter jet. Stuff like that really sparks the imagination because it combines something familiar with something wild and different.
Believe it or not, this trope has actually happened in real life. After the bubonic plague swept across Europe, whole cities were depopulated, with as much as 60% casualties in some places. When the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth, they were actually building over the ruins of a large Indian settlement that had been wiped out by smallpox just a few years before. And using DNA evidence, scientists now believe that all of modern humanity is descended from a small group of just 50 females who survived a global volcanic eruption some 70,000 years ago.
So yeah, this is definitely a trope I like playing with. I’m on track to finish Lifewalker by the end of May, so you can definitely expect to hear more about it in the weeks and months to come.
Also, for those of you looking for resources to help you visualize what the world will look like after the end of human civilization, here are a couple of excellent resources I’ve found. First, check out The World Without Us, an excellent book written by an environmentalist that poses a basic thought experiment: what would happen if all humans everywhere magically vanished, and all that was left was the stuff that we’ve built? What, if anything, would remain? (spoilers: not much) If you want to explore that idea but you don’t want to read the whole book, check out this wiki on Life After People, a series of History Channel documentaries that basically posed the same question. The answers may surprise you.
So, the A to Z challenge is over, and it’s back to things as usual. I hope you guys enjoyed it–I’ll probably compile the posts at some point, update them to add some more examples and references, and put it out as a $2.99 ebook. When I get around to it, that is. If that’s something that interests any of you, let me know and I’ll get it up sooner.
As far as writing goes, I just went back to work on Lifewalker yesterday, and the story is coming along swimmingly. This is the post-apocalyptic story about a guy wandering down the ruins of I-15 with a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. I checked with Peter and Brandon about that, and they said it’s okay. In fact, they think it’s hilarious. And it is, I suppose, though the book takes itself fairly seriously.
Just to give you an idea what I’m talking about, here’s an excerpt:
The first night, I stayed in a small village known as Sannakin. The people there were surprisingly friendly, though they assured me that they would have been more cautious if I had come from the south.
“What’s south of here?” I asked the village patriarch over dinner.
He shrugged. “Don’t know—never been that way. Get a lot of tinkers, though, and a merchant ever now and again. There’s people out there, that’s for sure—but it’s a wild and a dangerous country.”
I paid them for their hospitality by reading from Mistborn: The Final Empire. The story confused many of them, especially those who had never seen the ruins of a city. I explained to them that the forefathers used to live in great communes of thousands, or even tens of thousands of people. This sparked a vigorous discussion over how such a large community could possibly provide enough food for itself, and how it would handle the waste. Some people asked me if in the days before the Blight, ash covered the sky as it did in my book. I answered that it probably had, though doubtless the author had exaggerated it somewhat for the purposes of the story. This led to an even more vigorous discussion about the merits of fantasy stories in general, with most of the villagers forming a decidedly negative opinion of the genre. I strongly disagreed, of course, but held my tongue so as not to offend my hosts.
Today, I wrote a passage where the main character had to mediate an argument between two scholars over who was the primary god in the forefather’s pantheon: Batman or Superman. In a few chapters, he’ll rescue a girl from a band of bloodthirsty cannibal slavers infesting in the ruins of Las Vegas.
As you can tell, this book is a lot of fun.
As for the publishing side of things, I’m working with an illustrator to get the cover ready for the first Star Wanderers omnibus. It’s going to be for Parts I through IV, but don’t worry–if you’ve already bought the parts individually, there won’t be any new content except the author’s note. I’ll either publish that here or send my newspaper subscribers a link for where they can read it.
I’m not sure if anyone really reads the author’s notes at the ends of my books, but I enjoy telling the story behind the story, so I’ll keep doing them. Besides, I figure some of you have read them, since you’re signing up for my email newsletter and sending me an occasional fan emails. I really enjoy those, by the way, so thanks for sending them!
That’s just about it for things over here. In unrelated news, I recently discovered an excellent sci-fi webcomic. It’s called Freefall, and the archives stretch waaaaay back to 1998 (!!!). So yeah, I’m going to be busy for a while.
But don’t worry, I’ll still find make time for writing. I’m doing about 2k words per day right now, so at that rate, the first draft of Lifewalker should be finished before the end of May.
Aaand my roommate wants to sleep, so I’d better get off the computer now. Later!
They say that the golden age of science fiction is about twelve years old. That’s definitely true for me.
My first exposure to the genre was Star Wars: A New Hope. I saw it when I was seven, right around the height of my dinosaur phase. Everything about the movie completely blew me away, from the Jawas and Sand People of Tatooine to the stormtrooper gunfights and lightsaber duels. After watching Luke blow up the Death Star, I spent the next few hours running around the yard pretending to fly my own starfighter.
In a lot of ways, I’ve never really stopped.
My parents made me wait until I was nine to watch The Empire Strikes back, because it was rated PG. Without any exaggeration, I can say that those were the longest two years of my life. I was literally counting down days by the end, and to pass the time without going crazy, I read up on all the books about space that I could possibly find.
My father bought the original X-wing flight simulator game somewhere around then, and I soon became totally engrossed in it. Since the 386 was our only entertainment system (no Super Nintendo–I had to visit a friend’s house for that), X-wing became the defining game of my childhood. I spent hours and hours on that game, to the point where I knew exactly which simulated missions the characters from the books were flying and how to complete them faster and easier.
I thought The Empire Strikes Back was a little slow the first time I saw it, but it’s since grown on me, to the point where now it’s my favorite film in the whole series. Thankfully, my parents let me watch Return of the Jedi the next day, and for the next few months my life felt utterly complete.
Around this time I discovered the Star Wars novels and soon immersed myself in them. The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton soon became one of my favorites, as well as the Heir to the Empire trilogy by Timothy Zahn and the X-wing series by Michael A. Stackpole.
But it was Roger Allen McBride who first introduced me to a different flavor of science fiction with his Corellia trilogy. As I mentioned in V is for Vast, those books had just enough of a touch of hard science to intrigue me about the other possibilities of the genre. That was the last Star Wars series that I read before branching out into other works of science fiction.
The Tripod trilogy by John Christopher was my first introduction to the dystopian / post-apocalyptic genre, depicting an enslaved humanity after an alien invasion. Those books really captured my imagination for a while. The Giver was also quite interesting and thought provoking, though since it didn’t involve spaceships or aliens it wasn’t nearly as compelling.
I read a lot of fantasy in my early high school years, including Tracy Hickman, Lloyd Alexander, and (of course) J.R.R. Tolkien. While I enjoyed those books and immersed myself in them for a while, my true love was still science fiction. For almost a year, I watched Star Trek: Voyager religiously with my dad. And every now and again, I’d pick out a science fiction book from the local town library and give it a try. That’s how I discovered Frank Herbert’s Dune.
In eleventh grade, my English teacher had us choose an author and focus our term papers solely on their books for the entire year. She suggested I choose Orson Scott Card, but I chose Cormac McCarthy instead. I’m not sure if that was the worst decision of my high school career, or the best decision, since assigned high school reading tends to make any book feel like it sucks. I discovered Ender’s Game the following summer, and finished it in a delirious rush at 3am the morning after checking it out from the local library.
More than any other book, Ender’s Game cemented my love for the genre, and showed me just how powerful and moving the genre could be. It opened so many insights into the world and human nature, reading that book made me feel like I’d opened a pair of eyes that I didn’t even know I’d had. Looking back, that was probably the moment when I knew I would be a science fiction writer. I’d known I was going to be a writer ever since I read A Wrinkle in Time at age eight, but to be a science fiction writer specifically, that goal was probably cemented by reading Orson Scott Card.
After high school, I served a two year mission for my church, during which I didn’t read any novels or watch any TV or movies. When I came back, though, Orson Scott Card and Madeline L’Engle helped me to ease through the awkwardness of adjusting back to normal civilian life. When I left for college, I expanded my horizons even further, starting with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Edgar Rice Burrough’s Princess of Mars.
When I discovered Pioneer Books in downtown Provo, I knew I’d found my favorite bookstore in Utah Valley. I have so many fond memories sitting cross-legged on the floor in the science fiction section, browsing through the musty used books for hours at a time. That’s where I discovered C.J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, and numerous other authors who are among my favorites today.
When I discovered Spin, Robert Charles Wilson soon became one of my favorites. I picked up that novel as a free PDF from Tor, and read it over the summer while studying abroad in Jordan. Once again, that same hard sf sensibility I’d gotten from Roger Allen McBride touched me in an unforgettable way. But it was the human element of that book that really moved me–in fact, it’s always been about the human element. The world building in Downbelow Station was great and all, but the romance of Merchanter’s Luck had a much more lasting impact. Starship Troopers had some good ideas, but it was Mandella’s personal journey in The Forever War that moved me almost to tears. The intrigue of the Ender’s Shadow series was quite entertaining, but it was Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead that really taught me what it means to be human.
I finished my first novel, Genesis Earth, shortly after returning from that study abroad, and tried to capture the same sensibility from Spin as well as the intimately human element. Since then, I’ve written several more sci-fi novels, some of them tragic, some triumphant, but in all of them I’ve tried to get as close as I can to the personal lives of the characters. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a character portrait so intimate as Shevek’s in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but I certainly hope to someday.
For me, science fiction started out as a wonderfully exciting entertainment and turned into something much more meaningful. If there’s anything the genre has taught me, though, it’s that the two aren’t mutually exclusive–that you can have your adventure and learn what it means to be human as well. Indeed, the more imaginative the adventure, the greater the truths I’ve taken from it.
Because of that, even though I’m almost in my thirties now, I can’t possibly foresee a time when science fiction isn’t a major part of my life. It’s a love affair that’s grown just as much as I have, and continues to grow with each new author I discover and each new book I write. When I’m old and grizzled and pushing eighty, I’m sure there will still be a part of that twelve year old boy in me, still running around the yard flying his starship.
Of all the evils of our modern era, perhaps the most heinous is the systematic extermination of an entire race or ethnicity. These acts of genocide not only cross the moral event horizon, they create specters and villains that live on from generation to generation. Just look at how the Nazis are portrayed in popular culture–even today, they are practically mascots of the ultimate evil.
And for good reason. There really is something evil about the total annihilation of a foreign culture. It’s one of the reasons why terms like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are so controversial, especially in conflicts that are still ongoing–and there are so many unresolved conflicts where the systematic and purposeful annihilation of a race or culture is still happening.
Is wholesale genocide a phenomenon unique to our modern age? Probably not, but modern science has enabled it on a scale that was previously impossible. This became all too clear to us after World War II. Only a generation before, great numbers of people believed that we were on a path of progress that would eventually culminate in world peace. If there was any of that sentiment left, it was shattered with the liberation of Auschwitz and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly, we realized that systematic mass destruction and genocide were not only possible, they were a modern reality.
It should come as no surprise, then, that science fiction immediately began to explore this issue. From Frankenstein to 1984, science fiction has been full of cautionary tales of science gone wrong, issuing a critical voice of warning. But after 1945, it went much further, exploring the issue in ways that can only be done in a science fictional setting.
Is genocide ever morally justifiable? In our current world, probably not, but what if an alien race was bent on our destruction? If their primary objective was the utter annihilation the human race, and negotiation was impossible? Wouldn’t it be justifiable–perhaps imperative even–to stop such a race by annihilating them first?
This is what is meant by the term “xenocide.” A portmanteau of “xenos,” the Greek word for stranger, and “genocide,” it denotes the complete extermination of an alien race.
Xenocide forms the core conflict of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series (hence the title of the third book) and features in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Battlestar Galactica presents an interesting twist, where the cylons debate the ethical questions surrounding the complete annihilation of the humans. And then, of course, there’s all the time travel stories involving Hitler–let’s not even go there.
The interesting thing about xenocide stories is that even though they describe a dilemma that does not currently exist in our modern world, they inevitably come down to issues of Otherness that lie at the very core of the evils of genocide. In order for xenocide to be morally justifiable, you have to know your enemy well enough to know that there’s no possibility of forging any sort of peace with them. And to know them that well, they cease to be quite so alien. It’s one of the major themes in Orson Scott Card’s work–that to defeat an enemy, you have to know them so well that you can’t help but love them.
In our modern world, genocide is only possible when an ethnic group is relegated to the position of Other–when they are made out to be so different and unlike us that we can never possibly relate to or mix with them. They become “sticks” (Germany), “cockroaches” (Rwanda), “animals” and “barbarians” (Israel). That is precisely why it makes us uncomfortable in stories about xenocide–because it turns the well-intentioned saviors of humanity into knights templar, or possibly the very monsters they are trying to destroy.
By positing a situation in which genocide might actually be justifiable, science fiction helps us to understand exactly why it is so reprehensible–and that’s only one of the ways in which the genre can uniquely explore these issues. That’s one of the things I love so much about science fiction: its ability to take things to their extreme logical conclusions, and thus help us to see our own real-world issues in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
Since most of my characters are human, xenocide as such isn’t a major theme in my books, but genocide certainly is. In the Gaia Nova series, the starfaring Hameji look down on the Planetborn as inferior beings and think nothing of enslaving them and slagging entire worlds. That’s how Prince Abaqa from Stars of Blood and Glory sees the universe at first, but by the end of the novel he’s not quite so sure. Stella from Sholpan and Bringing Stella Home also deals with these issues as she comes to realize how it’s possible for the Hameji to hold to such a belief system.
If genocide is one of the ugly skeletons in the closet of this screwed up modern world, then xenocide is science fiction’s way of taking those skeletons out and dignifying them with a proper burial. By wrestling with these issues in stories set on other worlds, we are better able to humanize the Other and prevent these horrors from happening again on our own. In this way and so many others, science fiction helps us to build a better world.
If you don’t know anything else about the universe, you should know this: it’s big. Really, really,REALLY big.
How big, you ask? Well, for starters, take a look at Earth in the picture above. Can you see it? It’s the pale blue dot in the beam of starlight on the right side of the picture. As Carl Sagan so famously put it:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The picture was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft more than a decade ago. At the time, the spacecraft was about 6,000,000,000 kilometers from Earth, or 5.56 light-hours. A light-hour is the distance a particle of light can travel in one hour (assuming it’s traveling through a vacuum). To give you some sense of scale, in one light-second, a particle of light can travel around the circumference of the Earth seven and a half times.
And lest you think that’s actually a distance of any cosmic significance, consider this: the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is about 4.24 light-years away. That’s more than 6,500 times the distance in the photograph above–and that’s just the closest star!
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is between 100,000 to 120,000 light-years across. If you were on the other side of the galaxy and had a telescope powerful enough to get a good view of Earth, you would see a gigantic ice sheet over both of the poles with no visible sign of humanity whatosever. The light from all our cities, from our prehistoric ancestors’ campfires, has not yet traveled more than a fraction of the distance across this galactic island universe we call home.
Seriously, the universe is huge. If you don’t believe me, download Celestia and take yourself for a spin. In case you haven’t heard of it, Celestia is basically like Google Earth, except for the universe. Everything is to scale, and there are all sorts of plugins and mods for exoplanets, nebulae, space probes, and other fascinating celestial objects.
I remember what it was like when I first tried out Celestia back in 2010. I was at the Barlow Center for the BYU Washington Seminar program, in the little library just below the dorms. I think it was twilight or something, and I hadn’t yet turned on the lights. The building had a bit of that Northeast feel to it, like something old and rickety (though not as old as some of the buildings up here in New England). I turned off the ambient light option to make it look more realistic, and began to zoom out.
Let me tell you, the chills I got as the Milky Way disappeared to blackness were like nothing I’ve felt ever since. So much space, so much emptiness. It’s insane. The vastness between stars is just mind boggling–absolutely mind-boggling.
I got my first introduction to science fiction when I saw Star Wars IV: A New Hope as a seven year old boy. In the next few years, I think I checked out every single Star Wars novel in our local library’s collection. It wasn’t enough. Whenever I was on an errand with my mom, I tried to pick up a new one. I think they even left some copies of the Young Jedi Knight series under my pillow when I lost my last few baby teeth.
One of those summers, we drove down to Texas for a family vacation. I picked up the second Star Wars book in the Corellian trilogy, written by Roger Allen McBride. It was completely unlike any of the other Star Wars books I’d ever read. In it, Han Solo’s brother leads a terrorist organization in the heart of their home system of Corellia. They hijack an ancient alien artifact and use it to set up a force field that makes it impossible for anyone to enter hyperspace within a couple of light hours from the system sun. The part that blew my mind was that without FTL tech, it would take the good guys years to get to the station with the terrorists.
All of a sudden, the Star Wars universe didn’t seem so small anymore. And it only got crazier. Roger Allen McBride did an excellent job getting across the true vastness of space. At one point, Admiral Ackbar mused on just how puny their wars must seem to the stars, which measure their lifespans in the billions of years. For the ten year old me, it was truly mind boggling.
That was my first taste of science fiction that went one step beyond the typical melodrama of most space opera. And once I had that taste, I couldn’t really stop. As much as I love a good space adventure, real-life astronomy offers just as much of a sense of wonder. When a good author combines the classic tropes of science fiction in a space-based setting that captures the true vastness of this universe we live in, it’s as delicious as chocolate cake–more so, even.
I try to capture a bit of that in my own fiction, though I’m not always sure how much I succeed. In Star Wanderers, the vastness of space is especially significant for the characters because their FTL tech is so rudimentary that it still takes months to travel between stars. All of that time out in the void can really make you feel lonely–or, if you have someone to share it with, it can bring you closer together than almost anything else. It’s the same in Genesis Earth, which is also about a boy and a girl who venture into the vastness alone. The Gaia Nova books lean closer to the action/adventure side of space opera, but the same sensibility is still there.
The best science fiction, in my opinion, both deepens and broadens our relationship with this marvelous place we call the universe. It’s not just a fantastic setting for the sake of a fantastic setting–it’s the universe that we actually live in, or at least a plausible version of it set in a parallel or future reality. The universe is an amazing, beautiful place, and my appreciation for it only grows the more science fiction I read. If I can get that across in my own books, then I know that I’ve done something right.
In science fiction, whenever two characters from different planets or different alien races have to interact with each other, they almost always speak the same language or have some sort of universal translator that magically makes them able to communicate with minimal misunderstandings. This is especially common in Star Trek, though it happens in just about every franchise involving a far-future space opera setting of some kind.
I’ve got to be honest, I think this is a cheap plot device that almost always weakens the story. As a writer, it’s tempting to have something like this so you don’t have to deal with any pesky language barriers, but when you do this, you remove a major potential source of conflict, thus violating the rule of drama. Also, you make your fictional universe feel a little less grand, your aliens a little less alien. After all, if everyone can perfectly understand each other, then there must not be a huge difference between Earth and the far side of the galaxy.
There are some times when having a universal translator allows you to broaden the story and focus on other conflicts. For example, if some sort of interstellar legislation is under review in the grand galactic council, you can’t spend all your time focusing on basic communication difficulties.
However, if this is the case, then you can usually overcome the language barrier through other means–a galactic lingua franca, for example, or translation tools that may or may not misfire on occasion (much like Google Translate). Of course, if you’re writing a comedy like Galaxy Quest (or parts of Star Control II), then falling back on a universal translator is forgivable. But if you’re going for believability and a sense of wonder, this trope isn’t going to do you any favors.
While linguists and technologists have been working on translation programs for some time (and admittedly making some significant breakthroughs), I’m extremely skeptical that we will ever develop a perfect universal translator in real life. If we do, I expect we will have to develop a sentient AI as a prerequisite, since the nuances of language are so inseparable from the things that make us human.
Here’s how translation services like Google Translate work:
They amass an enormous database of language material by scanning websites, newspapers, and other documents.
They analyze this database to look at word combinations and frequencies, observing the likelihood that any one word will appear in combination with any others.
They compare these combinations and frequencies with those in other language databases to match words and phrases.
This data crunch method of translation works fairly well for simple words and phrases, but it falls apart in the more complex grammatical structures. I see this any time I try to use Google Translate with an Arabic source. Arabic is an extremely eloquent language, with all sorts of structures that simply don’t work in English. One mistranslated word can completely change the meaning of the entire text, and even when it works, the technically correct English translation sounds as if it’s full of errors.
The methodology also falls apart for languages that are too small to have much of an electronic database. The Georgian language is a good example of this. It’s spoken by only about 4.5 million people worldwide, most of them in the country of Georgia, which is predominantly rural. Internet access for most of the population is very limited, and most Georgians who do communicate online tend to use the Roman or Cyrillic alphabets more often than their own. As a result, Google Translate for Georgian is utterly useless–seriously, you’re better off just sounding out the letters and guessing at the meaning. There are some other sites like translate.ge that try to fill the gap, but they seem to rely on actual lexicons, not databases and algorithms.
All of this is between entirely human languages that developed in parallel on the same planet–indeed, languages between human cultures that have traded and shared linguistic influences for thousands of years. What happens when we encounter an alien race whose biology makes it impossible for them to make human-sounding noises? Or an alien race that communicates through smell or electromagnetic impulses instead of sound? What happens when humanity is spread out across hundreds of star systems, each of which periodically becomes isolated from the others for hundreds or even thousands of years? When our definition of human is stretched so thin that we would not even recognize our far-future descendents as anything but alien?
There is so much wasted potential whenever a science fiction story falls back on a universal translator. Case in point, compare Halo I, II, and III with Halo: Reach. In the first three games, the Master Chief’s universal translator enables him to hear exactly what the enemy Covenant troops are saying. This is great fun when you’re chasing down panicked grunts, but it tends to get old after a while. In Halo: Reach, however, the human forces haven’t yet developed a universal translator, so everything the Covenant say is in their original language. All of a sudden, the game went from a hilarious joyride to a serious war against aliens that felt truly alien. That one little change did wonders to the tone and feel of the entire game.
Needless to say, you won’t find a universal translator in any of my books. In Star Wanderers, the language barrier is the heart and soul of the story–it’s a science fiction romance between two characters from radically different worlds who don’t speak the same language, and yet overcome that to develop a strong and healthy relationship. In Sholpan and Bringing Stella Home, Stella knows a language that is fairly similar to the one spoken by the Hameji, but there are still words and phrases that elude her. This detail is critical because it impedes her ability to understand and adapt to the Hameji culture, leading to some major conflicts later in the book.
As someone who’s lived for significant periods of time in Europe and Asia and learned languages very different from English, I can say that the language barrier is not something that we as writers should avoid, but something that we should embrace. There are so many interesting stories that can be told when two characters don’t speak the same language. Please, don’t be lazy and write that out of the story through a cheap plot device! Let your aliens be truly alien, and your worlds and cultures so fantastic that we can’t help but feel hopelessly lost in them. More »