Friday, February 3, 2012

Common Denominators: Thoughts on Fictional Realities

I asked debut science fiction author Patrick Todoroff for his views on crafting believable science fiction universes. Below is his excellent essay on the subject. I should have posted this much sooner, but unfortunately life got in the way. Rather late than never...

A 1977 concept for a space station. Credit: NASA
A 1977 concept drawing for a space station. Known as the "spider concept". Image credit: NASA
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - "The more things change, the more they stay the same." - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

If you're a military history geek, you've probably heard the origin of the Gatling gun.

Designed by the American doctor Richard J. Gatling in 1861, he figured the multiplied firepower from a single weapon would reduce the demand for massive armies and large, set-piece battles, and ultimately show the world's leaders the savagery and futility of war. Enter the American Civil War with 620,000 dead; more than the total American losses from every conflict from the War for Independence to Vietnam. Combined.

What about the theory of long-range, large-scale strategic bombing that was developed after the appalling carnage of World War One? Strike at vital war-making centers, shorten the conflict, save lives, right?

Unfortunately the theory didn't quite play out as expected a quarter century later, as the residents of London, Tokyo, Berlin, and other cities can attest. Take as an example the city of Dresden, Germany, on which Allied bombers dropped almost 4,000 tons of explosives over the course of two days, demolishing 15 square miles of the city and an estimated 25,000 German civilians.

Remember when television and the internet were touted as world-changing educational tools that would raise the collective intellect of Mankind?

It's the thought that counts. I guess.

The staple of Science Fiction is the notion that Society and Humanity will advance with Science and Technology. All Mankind needs is FTL or nano-tech or faster broadband, and eventually, inevitably, we'll be lifted beyond the meat, the mud, the divisions into a new, enlightened phase of human existence in which we can boldly go where no man has gone before.

Nice idea. Only trouble is history says otherwise, with repeated tragic eloquence.

Let me be clear here: I'm not a scientist or sociologist. I'm just an debut author offering thoughts on constructing realistic science fiction settings, so sprinkle your grains of salt liberally as you read. Your mileage may vary.

1. “No matter where you go, there you are.” – Buckaroo Banzai

Whenever I approach a sci fi story as a writer, my foundational premise is this: Technology won't carry Humanity beyond itself; it merely creates new avenues of expression for what we already are. So will nano-tech processors that can build anything imaginable given enough raw material eliminate economic disparity? Probably not. Sure they'd be revolutionary and incredibly beneficial. Absolutely true. But the first agenda of the powerful is to maintain power, so if you think people won't construct value systems and some form of currency that enables them to accumulate influence, affluence, and social distinctions, you're fantasizing.

Occupy Proxima Centauri! Good Luck with that. Rather than envisioning a Worker's Paradise In Space, I think the real challenge for the Spec-Fiction writer is to hypothesize regarding that future economy's mechanisms and how they impact society and individuals. Who will be the new Power Brokers, Refugees, Luddites? What drives them? What scares them?

If History is any indicator, Humanity is hard-wired against Socialist Utopia. People have equal value but not equal abilities. Cybernetics, bio-tech, gene-therapy will certainly be used to off-set disease and disabilities, but they will also be employed to increase those distinctions. Someone will always strive to be stronger, faster, smarter, ahead of the curve. The issue isn't the Body, it's the Heart. Technology is simply a new appendage.

2. "It's a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”
- Ulysses Everett McGill

In my opinion, the second important premise of good science fiction is that it isn’t about fictional science. Fact is, I loathe books that read like a doctoral thesis. Ark ship to Gliese 581c? I'm not interested in a physics-contorting treatise on practical FTL travel. I want to see people dealing with relative aging, extended space travel, leaving Earth and all known references behind for an alien planet, not read page after page detailing viable cryogenic hibernation or sustainable eco-systems in deep space, low-grav arcologies – except to the extent they apply to the characters in your story. Scientific theory may titillate the more cerebral reader, but people read fiction for more visceral reasons.

Good fiction that strikes that primal chord is about people’s struggles, their failures and triumphs. Good science fiction (IMO) is about people wrestling with the new iterations of those issues in the face of advancing technology and discovery. Any prescience in speculative fiction is the result of asking the right questions and discerning what impulses really move us as human beings.

William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel Laureate speech, said writers had “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” He ended with “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

I agree wholeheartedly, and confess that's my ultimate target every time I write. I think one of the most mysterious yet infuriatingly recognizable feature of any century, any locale, any culture will always be the human heart.

3. “The future has already arrived. It's just not evenly distributed yet.” - William Gibson

A while back, I saw author Cory Doctorow on a Google interview and he said all futurists really did was throw shovelfuls of the present at the big gaping unknown around the next bend. Guilty as charged, yer Honor. The third thing I do is shove current trends off the edge. I extrapolate. So whether it's another model of the M-series assault rifle, the dramatic rise of private military contractors, the exponential increase in robotics and remote-control drones in every field, or the latest U.N. numbers on the amount of people who don't even have clean drinking water, (estimated 1 billion as of this writing, or one out of every seven people on the planet.) expanding common denominators makes the background familiar yet foreign.

I find this facet the most fascinating to research. I end up with pages of notes, video references, hyperlinks, and a fairly long reading list. Sometimes explained, mostly hinted at, all of it goes into the backdrop that forms and frames the characters.

4. " My stories run up and bite me on the leg - I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off." - Ray Bradbury

As I close, of course you're free to disagree and find exceptions. You read what resonates with you, and you have to write what moves you. I keep coming back to the notion authors are called to tell stories that fire the imagination, not deliver lectures that notify the intellect. Those are lectures, sermons. Fiction certainly can and does inform, but it's a horse of a different color. As far as constructing realistic fictional settings, I believe they are rendered most convincingly not when they're holding up not a "window into the unknown", but a mirror angled further down the road. Whether we take comfort or warning depends on what we see, but we must remember part of the image is a reflection of right now.

Should Humanity expand into our solar system and beyond, the simple fact is we’ll bring ourselves with us. Our elemental struggles will continue in different skin, under different stars. If justice, compassion, peace and genuine civilization prevail, it's won't be owing to robots and networks but because we carried them with us, and struggled mightily to establish them.

- P. Todoroff Dec. 2011

More about Patrick Todoroff:
Patrick Todoroff's debut science fiction novel, Running Black was published in 2010. His next installment in the Eshu International series, Shift Tense, is nearing completion and should be released this year. To find out more about his work head over to

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