Alien invasions are a part and parcel of science fiction, especially in TV and film. I normally enjoy the video version of invasions. Unfortunately, as part of my job as a writer of military science fiction, hopefully intelligent fiction, I must examine what is wrong with these movies. Writers, who are expected to know something about the science underlying their stories, are not quite as bad in the mistake department. But movie makers, who brought us the car blowing up in mid air for no apparent purpose, seem to be clueless. As long as it looks cool on the big, or little, screen, anything goes.
OK, so why in the hell are the aliens invading in the first place? Do they just wake up one day, look at Earth, and decide we’re having too good a time? We have to be reined in. And nothing stops the party like a good invasion? So, if they want to ruin the party, why don’t they just drop rocks on it. As in big flippin rocks coming in at high velocity. No muss, no fuss, everyone’s happy. Well, except for the ants that get crushed under foot (us). But for some reason the aliens need to occupy the surface of our planet, and that means, drum rolls here, invasion. Do they come like Eisenhower on D-Day, or Cortez, with a handful of Conquistadors? And why do they come? In Independence Day they come for our resources. Sounds cool, huh? Except there are a lot more resources in space than there are within our heavy gravity well. One large asteroid has more metals than have been mined in the history of the planet, just there for the taking. In Battle of LA they come for our water. Water? There is more than enough water for anyone in a couple of Plutoids out in the Kuiper Belt. Probably more than enough in the alien’s home system as well, saving the need for a very expensive interstellar voyage to get a drink. In Skyline they came for our brains, like a bunch of otherworld zombies. And they used those brains to run their machines. If the aliens can’t make a better computer than our poor excuse at wetware, I don’t see a bright future for their interstellar dominion. Maybe they come for slaves? Again, why can’t they make robots? They are stronger, never get tired, and in most cases don’t foment a revolt when it is least convenient, like in the midst of a battle against another Galactic Empire.
Now the second problem with alien invasion movies is the way we fight them. Like all of our brains have flown into a black hole as soon as we see their ships. In Independence Day we use a nuke on one of the alien ships. No effect (while Jeff Goldbloom whines and screams about how crazy it is to use nukes. Dude, they’re going to kill everyone and everything. I think we can handle a little bit of background radiation if it lets the planet survive). Now how would the military handle this in real life? Most likely they would attack again, and soon, with a BIGGER NUKE. Or multiple nukes. You just don’t give up because one weapon didn’t work. Kind of like firing an antitank gun at a tank, watching the round bounce off, and just running away from the gun. No, you keep firing as long as you have a gun or ammunition. An even worse example was in Skyline. A nuke goes off in the air over LA, knocking all of the alien ships to the ground, supposedly destroying them. But wait, the alien ships repair themselves, and the U S Military looks on, throws their hands in the air, and lets the aliens go on about their business. Not only no, but hell no. We would hit them with another one just before they completed their repairs, then another, until they either stayed down or we had nothing else to throw at them. On the nuke thing, you would think movie makers would at least look up some of the tech they are using. A tactical nuke, one of the weaker examples of the weapon, will not knock a spaceship a quarter the mass of our moon out of the sky, much less blow it to bits. And the bits coming down on Earth will cause as much damage as the aliens planned for us.
The other problem comes when the aliens simply are not as advanced as you think they would be when they have the technology to cross interstellar space. In Battle of LA the aliens wore body armor that couldn’t even stop a small caliber military rifle. Also in Battle LA the invaders had no antiaircraft until they bring their own aircraft to bear. In Skyline the alien aerial vehicles weren’t a match for our aircraft, except in overwhelming numbers. And in Independence Day we were able to write a computer virus that attacked the alien systems. I mean, come on. You would think the aliens would be much more advanced in computer science. You would think they would use an operating system so different from ours that anything we wrote would just be gibberish to that system. Finally, if they used something compatible with Microsoft they deserved to be defeated, destroyed and forgotten.
I hope that the fiction I write is more intelligent than the examples above. Of course, if they are ever bought for a movie and butchered I will probably not care, as long as the money is put into my account.
I remember two books, among others, that I read when I was a child. On The Beach was an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. Everyone dies in the end as the creeping radiation advances on Down Under. Some die in the pursuit of an adrenaline rush, crashing in fast moving vehicles during the planet’s last race. Others commit suicide, injecting themselves and their families with cyanide. Alas Babylon only killed off half the population of the planet. The featured cast struggled to survive in my home State of Florida. And survive they did. I thought both books were very good. I liked Alas Babylon much better than On The Beach for one basic reason. On The Beach was a downer. The human race, and every other species of animal on the planet, dies. Not really the feel good story of the year. In Alas Babylon there are survivors, and they maintain civilization. On The Beach was the more critically acclaimed of the two (something about downer endings seems to attract the critics like flies to a corpse). It even spawned a movie. I feel that Alas Babylon was the more enjoyable work. And, if modern scientists are to be believed, the more accurate. Sure, it’s a bummer when half or more of the human race is wiped out, but it’s not even in the same category as extinction.
Even though we realize that mankind probably couldn’t have wiped itself out in the Twentieth Century, there are always more destructive forces on the horizon. Dinosaur killer asteroids, universally fatal bioweapons, aliens intent on taking our planet for things they could get just as easily in space, even more and more destructive nukes and antimatter weapons. Two movies that came out in the last year come to mind when it comes to alien invasion. Skyline presented an alien invasion where our brains are the prize (which seems kind of silly when you think of it. Surely a race which can navigate between the stars can come up with computers better than our poor gray matter). The aliens win and all of our cities are turned in abattoirs. In Battle Los Angeles the Marines kick ass and beat the aliens, whose body armor can’t seem to stop an M16. I came out of the movies with different feelings. Skyline made me feel dejected. The effects were good, it had a lot of action, and we lost. Battle LA also had a lot of problems as a movie, but I felt better walking out of the the theater. We won. The good guys won. And yes, I am biased, but I am also human.
The Road would seem to be the ultimate downer story. The world is almost dead. There is ash everywhere, bands of roving cannibals prowl the countryside, even the oceans are dead. The little kid’s dad dies at the end. What saves the movie, and makes it a story of hope, is the family that finds the child at the end, rescues him from hopelessness. They’re disgustingly dirty, but they care. They even have a cute dog, for God’s sake. We are left with a story of hope. I believe we all are looking for hope in the stories we read. I will never write a novel that ends with “and they all died.” There may be some bummer endings, especially in series. Evil must triumph at times to allow the story, and the conflict, to go forward. As said above, the critics seem to love these endings. They seem to feel that they put us in touch with what it’s like to be human. Maybe, but to me they are simply not enjoyable. I write for enjoyment. My own, and hopefully that of my readers. So I may not become a critically acclaimed writer. I’m cool with that. As long as the books are fun.
On an earlier post I used this term to describe an idea about a future fantasy novel, meaning set in a future time, not in my future. This weekend I spent some time thinking about the idea, mostly while driving from one place to another, or in the shower, or other down times like that. The idea went something like, what if a civilization developed which used magic instead of technology? I know, this has been done a million times, in just about every High Fantasy ever written. But has it been done in a future sort of way. As in Interstellar exploration and war sort of way. As in massive organic starships that are worked, propelled, and defended through the ritual manipulation of energy, otherwise known as magic. Instead of teleporters we have teleport spells. Instead of force fields we have magical fields of negation. Fireballs and lightning bolts for offensive weaponry, or maybe something else. Rings of protection instead of space suits. All kinds of possibilities here. Today in the shower, getting ready for a basketball game, I solidified the idea. What about two races, one evil, one good. The evil could visit the Earth of now or the near future, looking for their major power source, souls. Of course we would have to believe they are using some sort of advanced tech, in the Arthur C Clarke definition, that only seems like magic to us. Of course the real magic uses on Earth, who are shunned and disbelieved by the majority, will know what is going on. They might even be able to resist, a little. But we are essentially doomed, destined to be swept away as a civilization, used for our fast reproduction rate and the souls it grants our conquerors.
Enter the good guys, who also use magic to traverse space, the natural enemies of our bad guys. They don’t harvest souls for energy, instead tapping directly into the soul of the Universe. And why don’t the bad guys do this? Because they are evil, and the soul of the Universe isn’t in a giving mood as far as they are concerned, or something like that. Would this idea take off? Or would the scifi types be turned off when the M word is mentioned, even though many popular scifi series and movies use philosophies akin to magic. The Force anyone? And would the High Fantasy types be turned off by the use of space travel and star spanning empires? Or would a demand develop for this type of tale? Maybe it has already been done. I am very well read in the genres. Meaning I have read and digested a very small percent of what it out there. Want to steal the idea? Go ahead. I am sure I will do it better when my turn comes, after I have finished the many novels I haven’t competed, and sent off the many that I have.
The question sometimes arises, what speculative literature time period to write in. In fantasy there seems to only be a couple of choices. In High Fantasy the era is probably some sort of Medieval, though the ancient world and possibly the Renaissance are possibilities. Unless one is writing Urban Fantasy, in which case it is set in the present. I have written one fantasy novel still in rewrite process in which the time period is the turn of the 19th-20th Century. I thought it might be considered Urban Fantasy, but was told by a published writer that it fit the category of Steampunk. I have also thought of writing in a world in which magic is the dominant technology of the future, and the stars are explored through the use of the ritual manipulation of energy. Kind of like Star Trek meets Dungeons and Dragons. The good thing about time periods in Fantasy is they exist in a different world. Eras can be mixed. The writer does have to be careful to not use 20th Century thought patterns and morality in their characters, and some historical accuracy is to be desired. Otherwise, anything goes, as long as there is consistency.
Alternate history is the easiest in my opinion when it comes to picking a time period. If it’s World War 2 it has to be set in the late 1930s through the 1940s. New characters can be created to fill roles. Real characters can die before their time. In fact the situation may require a character to die before they really did. Hitler comes to mind. If Germany has a chance in Hell of winning the war, then the supreme idiot needs to be taken out. Now if it’s set in the future it is not alternate history.
In science fiction the writer can go in two directions, the near or the far future. I guess the story can also be set in the past, such as in Turtledove Balance series, in which aliens come to conquer Earth in the middle of WW2. Though called alternate history, I think it fits the mold of science fiction. Near future science fiction is set within the next ten to fifty years. Depending on the age of the writer, he or she runs the risk of being dated. Say I write a story set in 2020. 2020 rolls around and nothing I have written about comes to pass. In fact, the real world looks like nothing like the world I have described. The book is dated, and most probably forgotten. I say most probably because much of the literature of the past is still popular even though the things described by the author did not come to pass. Now the convenience of near future fiction is characterization. I expect most people ten to twenty years from now will act more or less like people today. I may be wrong. The hundred thousand survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse may not act like people today, when survival is the main goal. But if the world continues as today the people should be more or less the same. People will raise families. People will plan for their future. Some will scheme and cheat and steal to get what they want. Wars will probably be fought. Unless civilization falls things will probably go on. There may be some changes. Look at the state of families today compared to when I was a child. In the 1960s it was a badge of shame for a woman to have a child out of wedlock. I currently work for a State Agency dealing with children, and today I am almost surprised when the child has the same last name as the mom, and when siblings have the same last names.
Now in the far future I may not have to worry about being dated. If someone is reading my work four hundred years from now I really don’t have to worry about what they think. The challenge of writing in the distant future is characterization. Will people still behave the same as they do today? Will they have the same goals and motivations? In the world of Star Trek, where the accumulation of material wealth is not a concern, will greed be a motivating factor? Is it really possible for someone to farm for a living on a desert world when technology can create anything, like Luke’s uncle and aunt in Star Wars? How about longevity and its effects. If people live forever, or even three to four hundred years, will they engage in less risky behaviors, in order to protect the life span? Or will they engage in more risky behaviors out of boredom? What about children. If confined to one world the population will soon outstrip the ability of the planet to support it. If people don’t die then children cannot be born. What would society be like if children are only one percent of the population? Less? Will they be treasured members of society, or ignored by most? If people are able to access any information they need from a computer directly to their minds will there be a need for the experts treasured by a society? Will there be Doctors, Lawyers, Scientists? One idea I have for a far future tale is a society in which everyone gets whatever they need, all provided for them whenever they want, with no need for any real world skills. And then the world collapses, and it is back to the strong, and the lucky, survive.
I was recently posting a message to a friend’s Facebook site, and read a response she had sent over the summer. One of the questions in that missive was, where do you get these ideas? Good question. And really I have no idea where some of these ideas come from. Many of them seem to spring from my mind like Athena from the head of Zeus. As if there really is a living Muse whispering into my psychic ear. After the initial idea there is quite a bit of work involved in development. Days of research, pages of drawing, then maybe short outlines. One thing that helps me is reading a variety of fiction and non-fiction, watching TV and movies, watching people as I go about my day to day business. A word of warning to the uninitiated. If you are around a former mental health specialist or Psychologist, you are being watched, your behavior cataloged. We just can’t help it, and it’s nothing personal. Anyway, having tons of stuff running through your head is a good way to generate ideas. Sometimes the ideas come out in dreams. Many are the times when I have awoken in the morning with a dream running through my head. A bizarre dream, a disturbing dream, or maybe just a fun dream. The dream starts a train of thought. The train of thought sparks an idea for a story. And voila, there is a ready to write story flowing through my strange mind.
Many of the writers I follow offer advice freely to their readers who aspire to write. One common piece of advice is to read what is out there. It is necessary to gain an appreciation for the genres in which one writes. If you are a visual person like myself it also helps to watch movies and TV shows. The imagery will get the creative juices flowing. Does that mean only read and watch the best of the genre. Not at all. I get some of my best ideas reading something of less than stellar value. And believe you me, their are lots of examples to draw on, some from best sellers. I come away with a righteous rage toward the author, a feeling that I could have done much better. Sometimes with the feeling that a trained Chimp could do much better. So I come up with an idea that uses some of their background, but with what I hope is a more intelligent twist. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But it does keep the ideas flowing.
About half of the main characters I create are female. Strong characters who take no crap, and kick ass when crap is offered. I have a rage come over me when I see women characters in film and literature mistreated. And don’t even get me started when it comes to real life. So I see a woman being mistreated, raped, beaten, even killed. And my line of thought goes something like this: What if she was a vampire, or a mage, or a cyborg warrior. Wouldn’t the assassin be surprised if after pumping three rounds into her stomach with the silenced pistol she slumped to the floor. Then looks up at him with a smile on her face, bares her fangs, and laughs.
I read a book recently by a guy named Rory Miller called Violence, A Writer’s Guide, which I highly recommend for anyone trying to gain incite on the mental status of violent people. I write violence. I don’t usually commit it. I think my last fight outside of sparing was in Elementary School. In the book Mr. Miller stated that he is a Violence Geek. He means that he knows what real violence is like, and finds fault in the writings of those who know nothing about it. He also states that there are Geeks in every field. I consider myself a multiple geek. Weapons, military history, ancient civilizations, basic physics. I look at everything in the world of fiction with a jaundiced eye. And when I find a mistake it is just grist for my creative mill. I have found errors in the works of award winning multiple best sellers. I try to be careful in my own work not to commit the same mistakes. Meaning I probably commit new mistakes. Which someone else will find and comment on.
In my humble opinion, writing in the worlds of the fantastic is a very different prospect from creating a work set in the real world. Most people have some conception of the modern world. They know what a computer looks like, a car, a gun, the inside of a McDonalds. They may not have any idea what the writer of the fantastic is doing, what they are attempting to describe. Most people have a general idea of what a dragon looks like, a Tolkien elf. This may not be exactly like the dragon or elf I am trying to describe, but it gives a starting point. A reference to hang the details of my dragon or elf on. This actually becomes more of a problem with science fiction. I may be trying to describe a fifteen million ton battleship powered by matter-antimatter reactors, carrying hundreds of high gee missiles and a battery of lasers that can pump out terawatts of energy. Unfortunately, many readers may see the Enterprise, or maybe even the Galactica, images I am not trying to evoke. They may be used to seeing space fighters banking in a vacuum, not realizing that this is impossible. There is not air resistance to bank against in space. Sometimes a writer has to spell this out to his audience. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes not.
Back in the bad old days when science fiction could get away with wooden characters and stupid stories, as long as the setting was cool, writers could get away with using cheesy dialogue to get their point across. Fantasy didn’t have as big a problem with this, I guess because it dealt with settings that were already familiar in some ways to people from fairy tales and mythology. Science fiction, not so much. So they would have characters say things like “As you know Phil, the matter-antimatter injectors move antimatter into the reactors, where they annihilate each other and produce gigawatts of energy. And this is used to power the hyperdrive, which….” and so on. I can’t count on one hand the times I have used dialogue like this when giving someone a ride in my car. “As you know Pete, when I turn the key the gas is injected into the cylinders at the same time as a spark is generated in…” In fact I don’t need a hand to count how many times I have done this, which is never. I would have a reputation as a total idiot in my neighborhood. The secret is to try and get across the information with natural sounding dialogue, which means spooning it out a little bit at a time. Now I believe some description is OK. I have seen it used by a lot of successful modern writers. The missile leaving the tube and flying to the target. Dialogue might sound strange in this area. A weapons tech describing the flight of the missile to the captain, who should already be well versed in the dynamics of missile flight. And how little is too little. I have read several books where I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on until two thirds of the way through the story. And I only continued through innate stubbornness. I can imagine a number of readers who would have given up in the first quarter of the book, totally confused by the setting. I believe that the reader deserves to have a good grasp of the world, the technology, the politics, before the first quarter of the book has passed. Therein lies the challenge.