Monday, February 1, 2010

Epic Scale and Painting the Floor

I've got more of the "artistic temperament" in me than I like to admit. There are days when I quite simply don't feel like being creative. At all.

Today was one of those days.

But, my schedule said that I'd be writing this post: which meant that I had to come up with something, anything, today. I don't like deadlines, but they have their uses.

'Star Trek Syndrome', Cordwainer Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

Don't get me wrong: I was a great fan of Star Trek in the sixties. And I've enjoyed watching those movies and series of the franchise which I had means, motive and opportunity to see.

But the original Star Trek suffered from an affliction that's endemic to the various science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy genres. Since Star Trek is a pretty big landmark on the American cultural landscape, at least, I'll pick on that venerable series and call this condition the "Star Trek Syndrome."

It's where stories with a setting 'in the future' are written with a general idea of what "the future" is like: but filling in details as the stories are done.

It can be done: and Star Trek was enormously successful. But I think that approach has intellectual landmines set under some of the well-traveled paths.

The original Star Trek series was set at some point in the future: they settled down to somewhere around 200 years. No problems there, as far as the technology was concerned. Not as far as I'm concerned.
Future Tech
Now, faster-than-light spaceships, transporters, sentient (and occasionally downright temperamental) computers? If the series had been set 20 years from now, I'd have felt my willing suspension of disbelief stretched to the breaking point. Beyond, if there wasn't some really good explanation: like a bunch of MIT students on break, stumbling on a spaceship that had crash-landed with most of the equipment in working order.

I've heard that the Romans reverse-engineered what for them was alien technology - a Phoenician ship - from a wreck they found. Ancient Romans were never really at home on the sea, and hadn't developed shipbuilding skills. They were, however, top-notch engineers: and with most of a working model to start with, they could fill in the blanks.
Future Astropolitics
Even as a teenager, though, I started wondering about the timeline of the United Federation of Planets. 200 years is a long time: but the implication in Star Trek was that we'd gone from living on one planet to having interstellar settlements and a political entity which included these grown colonies (and had members that weren't human).

In under two centuries. Well under two centuries.

That's fast work. Really fast work.

I think that a case can be made that a bunch of seriously ADHD humans barged into an existing interstellar community, decided it'd be great if everybody started living in peace, harmony and the human way - and got the United Federation of Planets going before older and wiser heads realized what had hit them.

But I'm getting off-topic. Nothing new there.
Cordwainer Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S.Lewis
All writers, I think, are 'subcreators' to some extent. That is, they create a fictional world in which their characters act. The world of some stories are barely indistinguishable from present or past reality: the chief differences are the presence of the characters.

Even science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy stories don't have to involve a great deal of work on the fictional world. There's quite a lot of off-the-shelf material.
  • Science Fiction
    • Ray guns
    • Space ships
      • With optional antigravity
    • Aliens that act like funny-looking human beings
    • Toxic waste that turns people into zombies
  • Fantasy
    • Swords
    • Horses
    • Flashy magic
    • Petty kingdoms
    • An economy that sounds feudal
      • Even if it isn't
Using any or all of these conventions doesn't make a story bad. Look at Robert Asprin's "Myth Adventures" novels: but then, he seems to have done some intense - and funny - analysis of fantasy's shopworn cliches.

Or take C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories. They're set in a fantasy world, and the seven of them add up to a tale that's epic in scope. But I think Lewis concentrated on the characters and plots - not on creating a heavily-detailed, internally-consistent, fully-formed subcreation. And they're good, solid stories, in my opinion.

The Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien, I think, is more of a complete world than Narnia, with a more fully-developed history and set of interrelationships.

Then there's the universe of Cordwainer Smith. Particularly as it grew, it became more like the complexly-patterned world of Tolkien, than the slightly more generic land of Lewis's Narnia stories.

I like the work of all three. But I'm aiming at something closer to Tolkien or Smith, in terms of setting. What I actually accomplish - that's another matter.

Think, Plan, Then Write?

Comparing my productivity to that of #3 daughter, I may not be approaching this the right way. She's got a small but loyal fan base for her stories - which add up to a massive work - and has been making up the setting as she goes.

She's been doing what I'd call speculative fiction stories - with the same sort of issues when it comes to setting that I've got. But she's written quite a few stories. My output is - zilch, when it comes to something finished.

Like I said, I may be on the wrong track.

Or, not.

Like today.

Plan First, Then Varnish the Floor

In my youth, a stock cartoon situation was someone who had painted himself into the corner of the room - with nowhere to go. Some were funny, and all depended on the occasional lack of foresight that people exhibit.

Today, since my creative energies were nowhere to be found and my muse was on furlough, I decided to do a little research and review. I have a timeline for a particular setting that I'm rather fond of, I'd done some work on it late last year, and again this month: and it was time to go back and do a little checking.

Good thing I did.

I changed the names of several Chinese dynasties that don't exist yet (and probably never will - except in this 'future history'): for the better, I think.

Then, I took a look at the timeline I had for the future history as a whole, the voyage of one particular ship, and the transportation technology I'd assigned to this setting.

And found that I'd painted myself into a corner.

The times simply wouldn't work.
The Butler Couldn't Have Done It
It's like a ill-conceived old-fashioned mystery, where the master detective unmasks Jukes, the butler, as the murderer of Lord Thriply.

Just one problem: the author had demonstrated that Jukes had been several miles away, and couldn't have had an accomplice.

Dashing fine story, full of suspense and pathos, but the facts just don't fit together.
The Colony That Wasn't There Yet
I've got Our Heroes visiting a colorful, slightly exotic and - I hope - interesting world in one of the stories. A world where something like a quarter million people live. They're descendants of - well, that'll wait.

The point is, when I checked out the timeline: the original settlers would have arrived 10, maybe 20 years before the story starts.

They couldn't possibly have gotten to where they were - a small but thriving culture - in that length of time. Never mind the technology. The way I figure it, they'd need something like 200 years to grow from about a thousand people to a quarter million, building maybe a dozen settlements along the way.

If I'd already published something, I could have faked it - invoking some sort of technobabble as a solution.

As it is, I just shoved the story's date ahead by a couple centuries.

And, in the process of making the development of my 'space drive' - if not plausible, then internally consistent - I discovered another set of 'the butler couldn't have done it' situations.

That was good news, really, since I got an idea (born of desperation) for making a particular conflict into more than just one more 'space battle' built around 19th and 20th-century military technology that's been renamed.

It's late, and I need sleep.

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