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Science Fiction

Thoughts on Star Trek: Enterprise

I recently read an article about the failings of Star Trek: Enterprise and it made me want to spell out my own problems with the series. Star Trek: Voyager remains my most hated series and it’s the only one I stopped watching episodes of. Even then, when they announced their last season, I watched the last season — including that shameful series finale where they basically rubbed their greatest success being Star Trek the Next Generation in the face of Enterprise’s fans. I watched both J.J. Abrams films to my shame. There is a real problem I and other Star Trek fans have to cope with that we will watch ANYTHING labelled Star Trek. That really has to stop.

Anyway — Star Trek: Enterprise.

So, first and foremost, I HATED that theme song. It was just terrible. And the theme song for the Mirror-Mirror episodes was SO good, why couldn’t they have just used that theme? Opening with subtle threat and menace before building into music befitting a young, inexperienced species taking its first steps into a universe fraught with peril? It would have been great.

The Vulcans… I know some people consider the treatment of the Vulcans to have been one of Enterprise’s flaws but I consider it one of their greatest successes. I LOVED the way they treated the Vulcans on Enterprise. Logical doesn’t equal nice. The Vulcans were a logical race in a hostile galaxy with as far as I can tell only the humans, a very minor species/government at the time, as allies. They would have had to have been more militant to survive. The words “Vulcan Combat Cruiser” alone I found thrilling and fresh, as well as the scene where the Vulcan captain says the specs on their tractor beam technology are classified. That the Vulcans treated Earth as a third world country fit the setting and was a jarring, fresh take on Star Trek that dramatically differed from the super-powerful super-benevolent Federation we’d gotten used to.

Having a Vulcan First Officer/Science Officer aboard was a far cry from the “welcome shout out to an older, beloved series.” Spock as a half-Vulcan wrestling with human emotion was awesome. T’Pol was just boring. She’s the only character I’ve ever known who could have an illicit shipboard tryst with another officer and have THAT be boring…

The Andorians were awesome. I loved the Andorians every moment they were on the screen and their ships looked fantastic! The Vulcan ships looked great too. I would have loved to have seen a regular Andorian character on the show. Jeffrey Combs character would have made a MUCH better alien first officer than T’Pol. And the possibilites for scenes between him and Malcolm would have been terrific.

About the ships in Enterprise, the appearance of the Vulcan vessels has given rise to what I call “the Vulcan engine problem.” Namely, why didn’t the humans abandon the nacelle design and go with the round warp engine design the Vulcans used? On the surface of it, the Vulcans are more advanced than Humanity. They’ve been in space longer. They’re logical guys. They’ve got better technology than us. Bottom line, if we’re just trying to get out into space and the Vulcans have better drives than we do, why not just copy the Vulcan design? The problem with that is you don’t know WHY their drives are different. Oh, you might assume that it makes the ships faster or more efficient, but the Vulcans can be, if you’ll pardon the word, a bit inscrutable. They might use round warp engines because its more efficient or better in some way that’s really important to them but that is less important to the rest of us. For example, if the warp field created by the round drive is more stable than that created by two overlapping nacelles, but it makes the ship slower and/or less manoeuvrable, that might be something the Vulcans might go for but other species not. And then there’s the whole history of technology just on this planet to consider. There might be legal ramifications of all things. Vulcan patent law or insurance provisions might mandate the round design. Round warp drives might make more efficient use of some element that’s rare on the worlds the Vulcans have colonized but is plentiful in human space. Who can say? The point is that I’ve learned that you can’t just blindly imitate the work of someone more advanced or proficient than yourself. You may be copying things that don’t aid your efforts and even, in fact, work against them.

I didn’t care much for Archer as a captain. I suppose that it took me this long to even mention him demonstrates how little regard I had for the character. He was boring. Picard was sanctimonious and annoying but I’ll take that over boring. Picard, at least, was a product of his time. He, with his every word, conveyed the philosophy and beliefs of the Next Gen Federation and while I didn’t always agree with him or his decisions, Patrick Stewart did an excellent job of conveying Picard’s position.

I adored Porthos.

Hoshi, Trip and Malcolm were wasted. Malcolm especially. The whole MACO’s thing was ridiculous. If I had been Malcolm, I would have resigned. “It’s Security’s job to see to the safety of this ship and its personnel. If the captain believes that an entirely outside force is necessary to do that job, then I have failed not only the service but each and every single one of my fellow security officers and thus tender my resignation, sir.” I’m sorry to harp on this but displacing Security like that was shameful, humiliating and obscene. Bringing a single MACO aboard as an advisor, or a senior one as an advisor and an enlisted one as a drill sergeant could have been used to good effect in building tension but Enterprise squandered THAT opportunity too. “I don’t know what this is but settle it!” “It’s settled, sir.” Right. Back to boredom.

I would have enjoyed the show more if they hadn’t kept violating the canon of Classic Trek. Meeting the Klingons day one, episode one, was a terrible indicator of mistakes to come. We shouldn’t have seen Klingons until season three. They should have just been this ominous presence people talked about on Enterprise’s travels, almost like the Boogey Man and then, when they DID show up — it should have been the Classic Trek Klingons not the new ones. And when they did introduce the Klingons, it should have been with the music from Classic Trek. That would have been UNBELIEVABLY awesome.

Cloaking devices. Cloaking devices. Cloaking devices. They should NEVER have introduced cloaks to Star Trek: Enterprise. “The selective bending of light rays is theoretically possible,” says Spock. How the FRAK can it be theory if a Starfleet vessel has encountered several ships equipped with cloaking devices and even knows the TERM!? They should have followed the canon of Classic Trek strictly — I mean, having a person on staff as a Continuity Cop and everything — and not violated it even once. And before you say, “but the Temporal Cold War changed things,” the “temporal cold war” was just a bad idea all the way around as was introducing time travel, Borg, Ferengi, etc. to an era that didn’t need them and could have introduced other technologies that were crucial and unique to the era but were flawed and later abandoned.

Transporters should never have been seen in the series. Classic Trek NEEDED a cheap way to get the crew down to the planet because they couldn’t afford to show shuttle landings every episode. That’s why transporters were introduced into the original series. Enterprise had the special effects to show shuttle landings, ship dockings and they did such things and did them repeatedly throughout the series. Eliminating transporters would have been one easy way to emphasize that this wasn’t any of the Trek series we’d seen before and it would have eliminated the whole “how do we keep them trapped where there’s danger instead of beaming out” problem EVERY Trek series has had to deal with. Dumb.

The missiles were the sort of thing they should have gone with but in more places. A technology that’s less advanced than what we’re used to seeing but that it’s completely understandable at a glance why we haven’t seen it in later era series.

I too thought they should have focused more on plots about how the Federation came to be, leading up to the First Romulan War, foreshadowing events that were spoken of in Classic Trek’s past, like Garth of Izar’s famous battles and things like that. I read that they had planned to go back to that sort of thing with the proposed next season that they had pitched doing on Netflix but it didn’t happen.

Doing the First Romulan War over two seasons, and I mean two full seasons, not that Next Gen crap of a war starting in the season finale and being resolved in the season premiere next episode, would have been terrific. Well, it would have been if they’d followed canon and had NO communication between the combatants. “No Earthman, Romulan or ally has ever seen the other,” is what Spock says and I would have stuck to that meticulously. If I violated it, I would have explained it with a “no one can know our most vicious blood enemy is genetically the same as the Vulcans” and had the crew sworn to secrecy or some such. Whatever it took so that all of Spock’s comments in “Balance of Terror” would have been logical and consistent.

Finally, I would have given almost anything for a “Man-Tzenkethi War…” (Larry Niven’s Kzinti were introduced to the Star Trek universe via an animated episode based on his short story, “The Slaver Weapon” which I believe Niven himself wrote. The issue of whether or not the Kzinti are or are not part of Star Trek has been questionable ever since. The only part of the Star Trek franchise that still ever uses the word ‘Kzinti’ is Star Fleet Battles and even then, when the time came to create Starfleet Command, a video game based heavily on SFB, they changed the name Kzinti to Mizak. Many people have used the Next Gen race name “Tzenkethi” as a replacement to refer to an entirely Star Trek hostile feline alien race.)

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Thursday at 6 pm CST on FOX Sports 1280 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black

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Cairo By Gaslight Table of Contents

Brandon Black
・Introduction

David Ducorbier
・Discerning Eye

Jay Wilburn
・Grain

Alexandra Bartoli
・Cairo Delight

Matthew Bright
・Antonia and Cleopatra

Alexa Templeton
・Words to a Slave Girl

Matthew Wilson
・Last Throw of the Dice

Dionne Cherie
・Daughter of Heaven and Earth

Hope Erica Schultz
・Cairo Sunset

Evelyn Grimwood
・The Gods Return

Damir Salkovic
・The Infernal Device

Garrett Piglia
・Days of End Conquest

Brandon Black
・Camryn Bey and the Yeti from Mars

Gary Bourgeois
・Rescue at Crocodile Island

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black


Cairo By Gaslight

My apologies to everyone for the interminable delays but Cairo By Gaslight, the first Egyptian-themed steampunk anthology and the second book of Black Tome Books’ By Gaslight series, is finally on its way into print. I have the proof copy in my hands right now and in a few days, it’ll be live on Amazon.com. Before the end of November, it’ll be available to libraries and bookstores and I’ll get the contributor copies out to the authors as well. I really don’t know what else to say. I’m thrilled that this book will finally see the light of day. Its authors deserve that.

The book is currently only available via Createspace’s e-store but you can rest assured, I’ll keep you apprised.

You can get a copy right now at: https://www.createspace.com/5417991.

In other good news, I’ll be clearing The Other World from the backlog soon as well. So you can expect to see that volume make its debut some time in the near future.

Regrettably, I’m going to have declare Space Pirates & Bounty Hunters a wash. There simply weren’t enough quality stories to justify the book. A lot of talented writers gave it their best but I think the flash fiction restriction was just a bad idea. Which I take responsibility for. Black Tome Books is a new press and a small press and the only way we’re going to make any headway gaining notoriety for our authors is to take chances. The flash fiction thing didn’t pan out but rest assured, we will be tackling this exciting theme again some time in the future!

Cheers,

Brandon

#NewOrleansWritesSF

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.

All content copyright © Brandon Black


The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part II

The second part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy is that good writing in any particular genre should seek to do that which that genre does particularly if not uniquely well. Fantasy shouldn’t try to be science fiction. We don’t require a scientific explanation for Pern’s dragons after all. A horror story set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a western, although it could be. Where it lands on that spectrum depends on the tropes used and the dominant mood generated by the piece and the author should be seeking to control where it lands on that spectrum through a deliberate selection and use of those tropes and dominant mood.

Fantasy is largely about a nostalgic view of a mythic past based on existent real world historical civilizations. We tend to see much of fantasy set in pseudo-medieval worlds with parallels to Western Europe, knights, sword-fighting, Vikings, castles and so forth. It would be perfectly possible to create a fantasy world eschewing all of these but many people may complain it doesn’t feel like fantasy. We could have a fantasy world entirely bereft of Humanity, but containing magick, fantastic beasts, medieval technology, etc. But if the two sides’ contending combatants fighting with swords are eight-foot tall talking cockroaches, the audience may not find it to their liking.

You can make the argument that that should be irrelevant to a definition of genre, that if the dominant tropes and emotions hold true, then it should be classed in that genre. My take on these matters, however, is practical. This discussion of literary theory is being pursued to develop a rubric for the creation of professionally publishable works of fiction and what the readership wants always has a place to play in such matters. Much of fantasy avoids Tolkienesque dwarves, orcs, elves and halflings at all, even as other works embrace them. The elements that are conventional are used as a counterbalance to the ones that aren’t so the reader doesn’t feel helplessly dropped into a universe where they don’t know any of the rules at all. For example, we don’t excuse incoherent characterization of human beings in fantasy merely because the rules of the universe permit dragons or magick. Characters have to have understandable, reasonable motivations or we aren’t satisfied.

What I’m struggling to say is that that nostalgic view, that mythic past, is important to fantasy. And since we can change up some tropes, we can have, as we have seen in recent years, a move to explore cultures other than Western Europe in our fantasy literature. More and more we are seeing worlds built on a mythic past set in Asia, Africa, Australia and Central and South America and that’s all to the good. And it doesn’t mean you can’t introduce something new or different. We can have eight-foot tall insectile warriors as part of the fictive background, as Burroughs did on Mars, but it just means we also need to introduce more conventional characters as well or to take our time easing the reader into the new society to avoid them feeling overwhelmed. Although describing Burroughs’ other Martians as more conventional may be deceptive, his voluptuous Martian princesses are egg-laying after all.

A final argument I would make regards the difference between fiction and film. So many of my fellow emerging writers are terrified adherents to the theory of “show not tell.” But fiction isn’t film. Film tells things poorly, even crudely. Voice-overs, opening scrolling text and lengthy conversations in which people relate facts they should all already know are ugly ways of conveying information. But authors of fiction shouldn’t be so terrified of telling a story that they can’t give the reader key and vital information in a sentence or two, or even a short paragraph. It is called “storytelling” not “storyshowing” after all. There are things we want to know about the author’s universe, things that might not be easily worked into a conversation between two people who have lived in that universe for their entire lives and take those things for granted. A paragraph on the operations of a key technology, such as how FTL functions in your universe or how your magick works, is no sin. Cruder, more ham-fisted techniques can be used, such as the youthful ignorant character who needs everything explained to him but your reader may find it stretching credulity when your character, even if he’s young, has been alive in a world where priests heal wounds and broken bones by touch or the city’s politics are dominated by its ruling class of wizards, and yet he knows nothing of magick as an excuse for the reader to be told these facts as they are told to him for the first time. The emotional response of “how dumb is this guy” or “has he lived entirely under a rock not to know that much” may be what you elicit from your reader.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black


The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part I

There are some people with the belief that a story is a story is a story and that what makes a good story in one genre applies equally well to all types of fiction. Those people are wrong.

Genres are defined, largely, by the contents of their tropes. Fantasy stories have magick and fantastic creatures, and typically fantastic settings when we aren’t talking about urban fantasy or paranormal fiction which seek to depict the fantastic lurking in the shadowy corners of the “real world.” Science fiction stories centre on advanced technology and science, giving us tales of adventure on far-flung planets, or aboard distant starships or space stations. The degree to which a genre story is good depends on how well the author has made use of that genre’s tropes to create an interesting, compelling tale.

Now some will find that a shallow definition of genre. But the western genre best demonstrates this concept, the fragility of its foundation on tropes. A western is a story set in the Western United States, in the 19th century, typically revolving around characters, objects and tropes you would expect to find there, cowboys, Native Americans, firearms, prostitutes, trains, horses, outlaws, plots focused on revenge, a tendency to resolve conflicts through showdowns, etc. You can easily remove any one of these elements and still have a western but remove too many of these tropes and your story is no longer a western.

You can have a Sherlock Holmes story set in Victorian times, involving firearms with a plot based on revenge and it be in no way a western. But should a murderous outlaw flee Oklahoma for China and a relentless ex-lawman bent on avenging his fallen family pursue him there, we still have a western.

I had an acquaintance once whom I used to tease by saying that horror wasn’t a genre; it’s a mood. It’s an emotion. If the primary cumulative emotional effect of the film is to generate fear, or more accurately trepidation, in the viewer, then it’s a horror film. You can have a horror film without any supernatural elements whatsoever. There doesn’t need to be a demon or a doorway to hell for you to be telling a horror tale. Alien is clearly a science fiction film. There are astronauts, suspended animation, alien life forms, starships, advanced technology of all kinds, an overarching corporation dominating Humanity, etc., etc., etc. But we think of Alien primarily as a horror film.

That overlap of tropes is important, especially in the Alien series. While I would define Alien as a quintessential horror film as well as being a film of science fiction, I would define it’s sequel, Aliens, as being more an SF film than a horror film. There’s still the isolation of the characters, the danger presented by the alien lifeforms, and the struggle for survival, but the primarily military cast and their ability to defend themselves to some degree with force gives the film more of a “bug hunt” film than a “lone monster is picking us off one by one film.”

And so we see that genre is defined equally by tropes and by emotion. Each genre has a dominant feel to it, a dominant emotion or emotions conveyed by the bulk of its works. Horror is about fear. Fantasy is about wonder and a nostalgia for an imagined past. Science fiction is about exploring the possibilities of the future as expressed through science and technology. Wonder is a key emotion to much of sf as well but we can have a high-tech dystopia where wonder is absent and still have a work of science fiction. Westerns aren’t just about the Old West; they’re about expressing those emotions we tie to our cumulative cultural understanding of this now mythic setting. A love story with a purely interpersonal conflict between two lovers set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a Western. Such a love story, moved to a starship, isn’t science fiction.

Let me take the time to simply say “backdrops don’t count.” If genre elements are visible in a piece but they have no relevance to the story or the plot, they don’t count. If the story is about Bob’s inability to trust again impeding his new relationship with Joan, then it’s a love story; it’s romance, and it doesn’t matter if it takes place on a space station. That’s not good science fiction. Now there are some allowances to be made for individual chapters and episodes but if in a short story, the whole story could be moved to a new setting and nothing serious would have changed in the plot or characters, that’s bad writing. Backdrops don’t count.

So this is the first part of my argument, the first part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy — that good writing in any particular genre depends upon using several of its dominant tropes to achieve one or more of that genre’s dominant emotions in a story where the plot depends upon those tropes. The film Brazil is a terrifying look at the future, a retro-style bureaucratic dystopia, and yet, it is a science fiction film, not a horror film. Technology and our focus on the future is what its fear is built upon and so we class it as sf.

The television series Angel, despite having a main character who is a vampire and a host of other horror tropes, such as demons and magick, is more of an urban fantasy than a horror series. Demons, for example, in the series, are much more like aliens than implacable forces of evil. Joss Whedon uses the trope of demons as a cypher for those individuals who don’t fit into society. They look strange to our eyes. They have strange manners and customs, but ultimately, Angel portrays rank-and-file demons just as people trying to get along like the rest of us, with no greater propensity for evil than any human. They may have strange powers but they aren’t defined by them. As people, they have goals and lives and many of them simply wish to be left alone. This isn’t a horror series, it’s an urban fantasy that uses a lot of modified horror tropes.

I have a friend who postulates a theory that technologies need not be detailed in stories of science fiction. His theory is that we don’t go on about the details of cellphones or laptops or cars; we simply use them. We don’t say, “And now, I’ll get to the docks using my mechanised horseless carriage which uses tiny detonations of atomised incendiary fluid to drive pistons whose motion is transferred via gears to the wheels.” Although, such a statement might actually be fitting for a steampunk story. No. In the modern setting, the user and the reader are both acquainted with the technology in question and so there is no need for such detail.

I disagree with this theory because science fiction is all about new technologies and developments of science and these are technologies we as readers and viewers aren’t intimate with. We need the author to go on about his fictional technologies in detail because we need to know the rules of his universe for the story to make sense. We also need that detail because that’s a large part of what the audience is here for — to read about mile-long starships being flung by fusion power through hyperspace from world to world. While the character may be jaded and uninterested in the details of his craft’s propulsion, we should feel quite cheated as readers if all we ever get of the starship’s technology from the author is “and Bob went to Proxima Centauri.”

It’s necessary to develop these world-building technological details in science fiction, at least a little, in order to prepare the way for their use as plot elements. Space Battleship Yamato has a scene I remember about their space warping technology. Space Battleship Yamato, known in the States as Star Blazers, had two different FTL systems, one, the wave motion engine, an FTL drive that allowed the ship to “fly” through space at superluminal speeds, and space warping, where large distances were traversed instantaneously. In one scene, the ship and crew get into trouble and Wildstar (known as Kodai in Space Battleship Yamato) asks, “Why don’t we space warp?” I remember this scene particularly because I had asked the question out loud word for word a few seconds before Wildstar did. Sandor, the ship’s science officer, responds “Think you’re a cowboy, Wildstar?” He then proceeds to explain that space warping requires the synchronization of the ship with certain ambient waves traversing space (be they gravitic or tachyon in nature, I don’t recall) and that this is a delicate matter requiring precise calculation and it can’t be done in a hurried rush. Thus we get useful world-building which reinforces the general mood that we are dealing with realistic-sounding technologies in a realistic future. (“Realistic” as a word has limited utility when talking about Space Battleship Yamato. It is a series about a space-going WWII battleship after all.) We also get the plot utility of an explanation of why this plot element that can be used to help explain how our heroes are going to cover 180,000 light years of distance in just one Earth year can’t be used to get them out of every fight. And that’s incredibly important.

The point I’m raising is that we can remove one or more of the key tropes of science fiction from any particular sf story but if we remove too many of them or we fail to include one of its dominant emotions, wonder/hope for the future, fear/trepidation of what may occur in the future, we no longer have good sf, but something other. Remove too much technical detail and we get science fantasy rather than science fiction. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if you’re trying to write science fiction. If you’re trying to write fantasy, then you should write fantasy. Scientific or even “realistic” definitions of magick usually fall flat on their face. We need to know the rules that magick generally follows but Lucas’ attempt to explain the Force with midichlorians was contrived, unnecessary and silly. Again, there is no list of mandatory tropes and explanations we need for any particular genre, just enough presence of its dominant tropes being utilized to generate one or more of its dominant moods. And Star Wars is far more about action and adventure than it is about serious science or technological detail.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black


The Snake Woman

In my cabin, the stars at her back, she stands naked before me. My blood runs cold as my mind races.

Where did she come from? The ship hangs in open space. How did she even get aboard?

The power of her gaze grips my spine as a fist. She rips the cold dripping fear flowing down my vertebrae from me as she approaches, slinking closer, ever closer.

My eyes are made to follow her green and brown diamond-tattooed curves as her full, gravity-defying breasts, erect, pointed nipples and wide, flowing hips wash back and forth. Her will draws my eyes down to the neat trimmed triangle of brown fur between her legs. I feel the heat of her yoni reach across the room. I inhale her musk.

Unbidden, empty, with no desire, my tongue follows where my eyes have already travelled, down and across her tattooed mottled skin.

I pull back. I apply the mental disciplines I’ve been given, filling my mind with numbers and mantras but to no avail.

Her grave stolen might, alien magick she did not forge and did not possess the rigour and discipline to develop dominates my mind.

She turns my manhood into an iron shaft with a gaze, a laugh and a single stroke of a long-taloned finger.

As an afterthought, she fills my heart with passion.

Pushing me back onto the bed, she mounts me. Her warm, velvet cunt envelops my cock.

Her hips undulate against my own. I perform as bidden.

She climaxes. She releases her grip on my mind.

I collapse. Spent. Disused.

A piece of meat.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.


On Logic and Internal Consistency in Speculative Fiction

Science fiction and fantasy are genres in which, in great part, the quality of the story depends upon the internal consistency of the piece. This is primarily due to the fact that nearly anything can happen. This is true more of fantasy and science fantasy than true science fiction but even in science fiction, the author is granted the ability to introduce and explore One Big Lie.

The “One Big Lie” concept holds that in a short story, a science fiction author can establish one great divergence in his or her universe from what we know of physics and the operations of the cosmos. A story can establish the existence of psionics, or faster-than-light travel or some such. And often, an sf author chooses to have several big lies rather than one.

The point is that these lies, these departures from the norm, have to be spelled out and explored in depth by the author even if not all those explorations and details are presented in the work in question. To do otherwise is to produce poor speculative fiction.

Fiction set in the ‘real world’ doesn’t have this problem. We have an unspoken understanding of what can and can’t be done in real life. We know how books and cars function so we don’t have to wonder why the hero didn’t pass the test by sleeping with the textbook under his pillow and absorbing its knowledge or wonder why the heroine didn’t get to the hospital in time by using her Honda’s teleportation drive. Books and cars just don’t work that way.

Even in genres that stretch that somewhat like action films we still have a pretty common understanding of the way the universe works. When the hero fires a million shots from a revolver and doesn’t reload, we notice that. When the hero jumps from off the top of a high-rise office building and survives, we notice that and we all groan. That’s clearly just bad writing. But in general, fundamental things like the way the universe works and how certain technologies or spells function don’t have to be explored outside of speculative fiction, lightening the author’s burden.

And it is the author’s burden we’re talking about here. Lazy writing is bad writing, period. If you introduce a technology we don’t have in the real world and fail to account for obvious social and economic implications of it, that’s just plain bad writing. Even Dungeons and Dragons manages to bring up monetization of healing magick, for example.

This doesn’t even touch upon bad science. I mean really, the transporter splitting Kirk into good and evil versions of himself, both with the same mass as the original? Was he split into his goodons and evilons? And then merging the two back into a single person of the same mass as the original? An interesting philosophical study to be sure but bad science fiction.

The obvious point has to be raised that you and I may have different views of what constitutes poor science fiction or poor fantasy. You may enjoy a “lighter” piece and be willing to just go along for the ride and not require much in the way of explanation. I get that. It’s pretty much why there is science fantasy such as Star Wars and the Fifth Element. I’d even go so far as to argue that Fifth Element isn’t even science fantasy, it’s French surrealist fantasy.

I would however argue that Fifth Element, for example, is appallingly bad science fiction. A person is reconstituted by an organic 3D printer from a surviving piece, her arm I believe. No part of her brain was recovered and so, how could any of her memories, knowledge, personality, etc. survive reconstitution intact? This isn’t explored by the film.

The flying car sequence demonstrates exactly why you’d never see human-operated flying vehicles in such density in a city. When the police open fire on the flying taxi — they miss. Those bullets are going somewhere. Office buildings, schools, churches, pedestrian walkways, coffee shops, outdoor restaurants — all those hundreds of rounds are going to wind up somewhere. When the hero tries to evade the police by diving his flying taxi through the extremely dense corridors of flying car traffic, there was the potential there for him to have caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. And so, without an explanation, we are left wondering why any society would permit such.

At the end of the film, when the unspecified Great Evil draws near, the heroes have to activate the Device with the Five Elements. This device is used once every thousand years and if it isn’t, some untold catastrophe will occur costing possibly billions of lives. The film creates tension first by the lack of instructions or a big red button and so the heroes have to figure out how to use the weapon and then by the need of the hero to create fire. He only has a single match and its already been used. He manages to re-ignite it and the day is saved. If he hadn’t had that, everyone would have been doomed. Who would build a weapon like that?

Don’t even get me started on including an artificially created person as a part of a weapon system and then giving her the capacity to feel bad about war.

The most recent J. J. Abrams Star Trek film is an even worse violator. The film introduces transporters that can function across star systems removing the need for starships altogether but this is never dealt with. It introduces “super-blood” which can resurrect people from the dead but this medical miracle is not dealt with in any way other than a one-time use to save the hero.

This is how you write bad science fiction.

Yes, these films were both popular which, by definition, means someone, somewhere, actually enjoyed them. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re appallingly bad science fiction. “I’m trying to reach a mainstream audience” shouldn’t be a cypher for “I’m a lazy writer who doesn’t mind producing crap.”

The best, the greatest works of science fiction have been those stories which explored not only the internal consistency of the wonders introduced by the author, they also took the time to work out the socio-economic implications of the introduced technologies. When MIT students crunched the numbers and revealed that Larry Niven’s Ringworld was unstable without attitude jets, Niven worked that revelation in the plot of his sequel, the Ringworld Engineers. Star Trek: The Next Generation dealt with the issue of holo-addiction: if you have the ability to create life-like worlds of your own choosing that follow your precise commands, why would you ever want to leave?

Truly great works of science fiction deal with the implications of the technologies introduced in ways that logically follow suit from the circumstances of their introduction yet those implications aren’t something the reader or viewer is readily aware of until the author makes the point. Those revelations are golden and part of why we enjoy the best the genre has to offer. “The Cold Equations” is a great example.

That said, it does have to be acknowledged that some ideas need to be nebulous and mysterious in order to function properly. Magick given in infinite repeatable detail is just science by another name. Midichlorians were just a bad idea. The Force (by virtue of its very name) needs to be nebulous and mysterious. It needs to be only partially understood. Trying to give it a scientific explanation only leads to our wondering why people don’t routinely try to manipulate it with technology, which is what technology is for and what people do. If midichlorians are microscopic lifeforms that connect people to the Force, why not breed them in petri dishes by the millions and inject them in people to make Force users? And if you think that’s silly, remember the Classic Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” where Dr. McCoy pretty much does exactly that. The locals dominate Kirk and company with their telekinetic powers, Spock and McCoy work out there’s some substance on the planet that gives them their powers and McCoy injects Kirk with a bigger dose than any of the bad guys have and the day is saved. To make a fair criticism, though, this incredibly useful ability is never seen again. It would be easy, however, to simply establish that the substance in question is both exceedingly rare and exceedingly difficult to replicate. Many of these problems can be dealt with if the author isn’t lazy and just telling his readers “to shut up and go along for the ride.”

My point is that I acknowledge that there’s a need for some things to be kept mysterious, that not every question needs to be answered. But glaring plot holes need to be fixed or we can’t count those stories as being good ones. Plot holes are a flaw.

This need to provide explanation is in large part to avoid deux ex machinas. A story is not satisfying when someone or something just shows up out of the blue as an attempt by the author to resolve the conflict. Hence much of fantasy having some sort of agreed upon limits as to what divine entities can or cannot do. Otherwise, we risk having the tension of the story drained away by Zeus just saving the hero in the end.

Furthermore, anything that takes us out of the experiential realm of a work of fiction is bad. If instead of enjoying the piece, you spend your time scratching your head asking “why did they do that,” or “why didn’t they just use this thing they introduced earlier in the story,” or “what in the world government would allow THAT to be legal,” then the story isn’t working for you. I freely acknowledge that a story might work for you that doesn’t work for me but I also think we can agree that the best stories have as few of these jarring moments as possible.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.