Friday, March 12, 2010

Interstellar Empires, Imagination, and an Occasionally-Sozzled Detective

I suspect that there's a bit of megalomania in many writers of science fiction/speculative fiction. Or should be.

Think about it: your typical detective novel writer writes about people who live in the contemporary culture. If the story is set in, say, Chicago, the author may want to do a little research. It'd be embarrassing to write a story that takes place in Chicago's Rockefeller Center. There's a Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, but the place with the skating rink is in the Big Apple.

Any story written in a contemporary setting, though, involves at most elaborating on, or re-imagining, an existing locale: and then providing characters whose job descriptions are in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

It's not that stories set in a close analog to the world we all live in aren't imaginative. On the other hand, their settings are largely off-the-shelf material.

Which may be why the settings of so many science fiction/fantasy/whatever stories are so - familiar. Sometimes there's good reason for having the action of a speculative fiction setting take place in a world where people go to shopping malls, get stuck in rush hour traffic, and watch television.

For example, the animated series, "Ghost in the Shell," is set in the 'day after tomorrow.' Well, not quite: but we're very close to having quite a bit of the technology. Cultures haven't changed all that much by the time of "Ghost in the Shell." Which shouldn't be much of a surprise: thing's have changed a bit in the last, say, 50 years. On the other hand, styles notwithstanding, we're wearing pretty much the same sort of clothing: and even using many of the same buildings.

While I'm thinking of it, related posts in another blog:

Tales of the Far Future and Galactic Exploration

I started out with megalomania. That's "a psychological state characterized by delusions of grandeur". (Princeton's WordNet)

Maybe not exactly the idea I had in mind - but that term's close. Someone who's serious about writing speculative fiction/science fiction somewhere past 'the day after tomorrow' and this Earth of ours is making the tacit assumption that he, she, or they have what it takes to imagine a complex, internally-consistent universe. That'll probably involve at least a few items from this list:
  • Humans who aren't quite like us
  • People who aren't human at all
  • Jobs that don't exist today
  • Ditto economic and political systems
  • Worlds with life
    • As we know it
    • As we don't know it
    • As we don't recognize it
      • Until we start messing with something it's interested in
"Delusions of grandeur?" Maybe.

But that's what I'm having a shot at doing.

It may help, if I don't take myself - or what I'm writing - too seriously. Two gifted (my opinion) cartoonists wrote - and have re-issued - a series of comic books about an alcoholic detective who's down on his luck: in the early stories, anyway.

Sound almost drearily familiar? It's a sequence of detective stories - pretty much - set in a vast interstellar civilization with weird-looking aliens by the bushel.

I don't think the Foglios intended Buck Godot - zap gun for hire to be taken very seriously.

On the other hand, they put more thought into their setting than I suspect many dreadfully earnest authors did. Two excerpts from a sequence of text sections of the Buck Godot cycle:
"...Even so, one of the real reasons races stay is the realization that there are wonderful things to be learned from those other races, even those annoying fellows with entirely too many ears. Things that, once explained, one can do ones self for free. To be sure, this annoys some of the races that have brought some of these wonderful ideas to the Galaxy's notice; such as the Choaten, who tried and failed to patent the concept of blue as a source of nutrition. Happily, most races realize that since there are more of 'Them' throwing ideas around than there are of 'Us', you tend to get more out of it than you brought into it. This is a universal concept that appeals to everybody...."
Buck Godot - zap gun for hire (January 3, 2008)
Hats off: There's a certain appreciation for the long-term benefits of trade here. In some settings, freely sharing the knowledge your ancestors collected and developed over generations is not being altruistic. Not if other people are doing the same thing.

Getting a meeting ground like that started might be a challenge. Once started, though, I think it'd be so mutually rewarding that most members would pitch in to keep the intellectual 'free lunch' coming.

That business of "blue as a source of nutrition"? Maybe it's just silliness. On the other hand, blue is one of the wavelengths that plants absorb to feed themselves. "Plants" have stayed put and photosynthesized while "animals" moved around and ate plants - and other animals - for the last few hundred million years here on Earth.

But I don't see why that has to be the way to run life. For that matter, I photosynthesize a small but important chemical component in my biochemistry. If you're human, you do too: vitamin D.

Odds are very good that's why my ancestors were so melanin-deficient. They lived in a part of the world where for months at a stretch they'd do well to get sunlight on their face for a few minutes each day.

I'm getting off-topic again.

Writing about these 'trade' centers:
"...these are primarily organizations dedicated to promoting communications, and the vast majority of sentients cannot directly communicate with each other. Some species operate on different time lines, or are out of phase with the four dimensions we can perceive, are too small or too large or, if they had to acknowledge us, they would have to kill us. So even when an atomic matrix life form that feeds off the microwave hum left over from the Big Bang and excretes time lines is in the same solar system with your typical silicon-based life form that eats rocks and excretes hydrogen, communication between the two may be close to impossible...."
Buck Godot - zap gun for hire (March 19, 2009)
Hats off again. Again, I'm not so sure how serious the Foglios were: but they were thinking about what forms people might have - and be 'people' in a reasonable sense of the word.

Good grief. I've set a comic book about an inebriate detective as my standard of excellence.

Vaguely-related posts:

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