Book review: The Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

The Children of the Sky, Vernor Vinge’s latest science-fiction novel, is the direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep (my review here). As such, I wouldn’t recommend starting the series with this book! That said, if you are familiar with Fire, I don’t think you need to re-read it – I enjoyed Children despite having read Fire so long ago, I only remembered its general premise.

 

Whereas Fire took place on two levels – a galactic storyline ran in parallel to events on the world of the Tines, the book’s featured alien species – Children takes place solely amidst the latter. Its plot was interesting enough to keep me reading, but I have a couple of complaints.  One, not only does the ending suffer from “middle book syndrome”, but the lack of resolution felt a bit strange to me in light of previous developments. If A, B, and C already happened, then surely <character>’s fate shouldn’t have been left open? Two, while Vinge normally writes effective villains – his future totalitarians in A Deepness in the Sky were far more chilling than lesser authors’ Space Nazis/Commies – he slips here. One villain in Children was so slimy, and in such a way, that it felt as though Vinge was trying too hard to manipulate the reader’s (my) emotions. (This character also represents something of a missed opportunity – had he been less black-and-white, I think that would have given one plotline a bit more heft.)

 

However, that one villain is the exception. Otherwise, Vinge’s characterisation and “micro”-level writing cement him in the top tier of space opera authors, and he particularly shines at depicting aliens. I could simply list what I like about his writing – clever concepts, lively dialogue, likeable aliens – but it would probably be more effective to point you to this excerpt from chapter one.

 

Notice how many things Vinge does right in that excerpt. He gives a clear sense of the characters’ personalities, right down to the doorman. He gives an especially clear sense of Tycoon’s personality, first through the environment Tycoon has created, then through others’ reactions, and finally through the introduction of Tycoon himself. He gives a good sense of the world, starting with the contrast between servants/merchants/royalty and the word “factory district”, and he gives a great sense of how humans might look through another species’ eyes. All that just from the first two and a half thousand words!

 

Of course, Vinge doesn’t fire on all cylinders for every page; that excerpt is probably one of the better scenes. But even if the book as a whole is probably “decent” or “good” rather than “great”, its best sequences are sheer delight. That delight is what I remember when I look back on The Children of the Sky, and that delight is what makes me recommend it, despite my complaints, to series fans.

 

You can buy The Children of the Sky from Amazon US here.

 

Spoiled by Greatness

When we want to praise a well-made device, a skilful cook, a more convenient way of doing things, anything, we commonly say, “It’s spoiled me.” Usually this is just a figure of speech. But as with many other clichés, there is a literal truth at the heart of this: sometimes, we really do find something so good that it takes away our ability to enjoy inferior alternatives. And I think this is the case with two of my preferred forms of entertainment, games and books.

 

My most recent gaming example is Total War: Shogun 2 (my verdict here); in mechanical terms, the best strategy game I’ve played in years. Shogun 2 didn’t just fix much of the Total War series’ traditional bugginess. It also fixed two endemic problems with the strategy game genre: the boring late game, and pointless diplomacy. Now, when I think about other games in the genre, I have a much more critical eye for those two issues (especially the former) after seeing them done correctly. One studio that might suffer as a result is Paradox Interactive. I’ve loved Paradox’s historical simulations for years and I have plenty of cool stories to tell about them (see, for example, my Byzantine adventures in Europa Universalis III), but they are not particularly fun after the early- to mid-game. So Paradox’s upcoming Crusader Kings 2 and especially Sengoku will have to surpass a bar that Shogun 2 set pretty high, and Paradox will have to work that much harder to convince me to buy them.

 

Something similar may have happened to me in books, although here it may simply have been that my taste improved as I grew up. When I discovered fantasy fiction in my early teens, I loved Raymond Feist’s tales of orphans-turned-sorcerers and swashbuckling young heroes. Then, over the years, I read George R R Martin, and Glen Cook, both of whom specialised in taking apart the traditional fantasy novel. Martin needs no introduction; Cook’s Black Company series depicts a traditional fantasy world, with centuries-old wizards capable of destroying armies in the blink of an eye – but from the perspective of the underdog, the common foot soldier. Now I can’t even remember the last time I glanced at my Feist collection. My tastes in space opera tell a similar story. I used to happily read military science fiction novels that were little more than glorified after-action reports. Then when I was 17, I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera novels – character- rather than explosion-driven, hilarious, moving, brilliant* – and I didn’t look back.

 

You can even see my own writing reflect the above trends in my literary tastes, albeit, it seems, with a lag. The first decent story I wrote, back around 2005 or 2006, was a heroic fantasy Tale of High Adventure, set in a world awash in magic and starring a hero who’s stronger, more cunning, and more superpowered than his foes. By late 2008/early 2009, when I wrote the first draft of The First Sacrifice, things had come down to earth. Artorius of Cairbrunn, the main character of The First Sacrifice, might be tough, clever, and a spirit to boot, but he’s decidedly short on superpowers. (To stretch an analogy, Artorius is the Daniel Craig to my earlier imagined Conneries and Moores.)

 

I’m not so sure whether I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, of discovering the good and being unable to return to the mediocre, in other media. Anime went in the opposite direction –  I discovered most of my favourite anime within the first few years after I started watching the medium. While I am unable to enjoy the majority of anime, I think this is more because common anime tropes annoy me than because I’ve been “spoiled” by watching the cream early on. And I don’t really watch enough movies or TV, nor am I sufficiently analytical when I do, to be spoiled for lesser works.

 

Is this phenomenon a blessing or a curse? Often it feels like the latter, when I just can’t find anything that interests me. On the other hand, bypassing the uninspired is what allows us to have time for the truly good. And if being spoiled is the price that must be paid to encounter greatness, well, I think it’s one well worth paying.

 

* You can legally read most of Bujold’s space opera series, the Miles Vorkosigan saga, for free here. Highly recommended if you like space opera at all.

One headline I’d like to see in a David Weber novel

The Honor Harrington series of space operas, by David Weber, features Space Commie bad guys who set out to conquer the galaxy when they realised their own treasury could no longer pay for bread and circuses to keep the mob happy. I can’t help but wonder, though, if events in the stories could have gone very differently…

 

***

 

BAILOUT IMMINENT FOR PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF HAVEN

 

This week, officials from the Interstellar Credit Fund arrived in the New Haven system to negotiate a bailout package for the People’s Republic of Haven. “We will never default on our debts,” said Chairman Pierre of Haven after meeting the ICF officials.

 

(PHOTO: The ICF delegation is greeted by anti-austerity protesters.)

 

Still, one policymaker close to the talks was sceptical. “Sure, the Havenites can trim their bloated defence budget,” said the policymaker. “Who do they think will invade them, anyway? But I question whether they have the political will necessary to reform their economy.” The source didn’t wish to be named, citing a lack of authorisation to speak publicly.

 

In other news…

Let me play a cyborg! The prevalence of high fantasy & classic space opera in games

Elf, dwarf, dragon, tavern.

 

Space pirate, FTL jump, space cruiser, space junk.

 

I’ve just summed up the settings of 50% of the science fiction and fantasy novels in existence. And I’ve also summed up the settings of 90% of Western* science fiction and fantasy video games.

 

These numbers are fictitious, of course, but I choose them to illustrate a point. High fantasy and space opera** are probably what most people associate with fantasy and science fiction, respectively, but they are a long way from comprising the entirety of the broader genres. On the other hand, they dominate gaming both old and new: to name just a few examples, consider Heroes of Might and Magic; Warcraft and its spinoffs; Master of Orion; Star Control 2 (as I discussed here); and Mass Effect, which I have running in the background as I write. These traditional settings can be done very well – Star Control is among my favourite games – but it should still be asked: why are they so prevalent?

 

In the case of fantasy, I suspect this is because the influence of D&D still runs strong, particularly in the RPG genre. And in any case, the situation is getting better; game developers are increasingly looking to the “modern” crop of epic fantasy authors for inspiration. At the AAA end of the spectrum, Dragon Age is pretty obviously influenced by George R R Martin; at the indie end, not only is Dominions 3 based off real-world mythologies (as I described here), but there’s even a minor spell inspired by the T’lan Imass from Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.  In another ten years, we might well see games inspired by Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, or Patrick Rothfuss.

 

Science fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t have that excuse. Sure, there’s probably a good reason why we don’t see hard science fiction games, but that still leaves a huge gulf. Where is the post-apocalyptic (other than Fallout and its predecessor, Wasteland), the near-future Mundane SF, the cyberpunk, the post-cyberpunk? Even when it comes to space opera, we mostly see the “classic” variety featuring a dozen alien species, but humans who are exactly the same as they are now, just with FTL drives. Where are the transhuman space opera games, with societies characterised by mass use of biotech (e.g. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cetagandans; and the Abh from Crest of the Stars), AI, and/or cybernetics?

 

As a result, there’s a lot of untapped potential. Imagine a Ghost in the Shell knockoff where, like a 2050s version of 2K’s upcoming remake XCOM, you had to solve cybernetic/AI-related crimes around the country, gathering evidence of a master scheme along the way. Or a Europa Universalis-style strategy game where you had to manage political cohesion across an interplanetary, or even interstellar, nation, in the face of social change driven by biotech/AIs/the Singularity. Or, as I mooted a few months ago, a steampunk version of Space Rangers 2 in which you could fly an airship around the world, fighting pirates, embarking on quests, and playing mini-games. Originality wouldn’t even be the commercial kiss of death, if Dragon Age (over in the fantasy realm) is any indication.

 

Again, game developers, I throw down the gauntlet. You’ve let me play Aragorn and The Lady, Johnny Rico and Han Solo and Mon Mothma. Now let me play Motoko Kusanagi and Miles Vorkosigan and Prince Alek of Hapsburg. You’ve already created so many worlds of wonder for me; surely you can show me a few more varieties?

 

* Japanese games might have their own clichés, but they’re not the same as those favoured by Western developers.

 

** For the purposes of gaming, I’m lumping together military science fiction and space opera.

How to make dilemma effective: Stargate SG-1, “Between Two Fires”

In real life, how often have you had to make an unpalatable decision because you felt it was the lesser of two evils?

Characters in fiction, though, get off easy (especially if they’re the heroes). Often, they’ll find some way to weasel out of the dilemma, a “third way” that allows them to have their cake and eat it. So this makes me admire the courage of the odd story that doesn’t present that as an option, that forces the characters to choose and then doesn’t shy away from the consequences.

My example here is Stargate: SG-1. (Warning: spoilers for “Between Two Fires”, an episode midway through season 5.)


***

In this episode, our heroes are called in to investigate skulduggery on the planet Tollana. By this stage, we’ve been familiar with the Tollans for several seasons, seen their lovely planet, learned that while they are technologically superior to Earth, their society is peaceful as a lamb. So imagine the shock when SG-1 learns that the Tollans are building weapons capable of devastating Earth – and that they’re doing so at the behest of the Goa’uld, the villains of the series so far.

Now, why would the Tollans do this? Why would they even go so far as to murder one of their leaders who was opposed to the idea? Was their benevolence a facade a whole time? No. They built the weapons because the Goa’uld arrived in overwhelming force and told them to do it, or be slaughtered (the Goa’uld themselves, for reasons previously established on the show,  can’t directly attack Earth, so they need a plausibly deniable proxy).

Of course, SG-1 thwarts the threat to Earth. They talk one of their Tollan friends, another recurring character, into helping them sabotage the new weapons for the greater good of the galaxy. He does so knowing he condemns his homeworld to annihilation. The weapons cache goes up in flames. The Goa’uld see the Tollans have not lived up to their bargain, and so they begin their assault. SG-1 manages to escape, but their Tollan friend stays behind to fight. Back on Earth, they hear a last transmission from him: “I just want you to know that—”

Static.

And that is the last we ever see, or hear, of the Tollans.

***

The moral of the story is, for a dilemma to be effective, a storyteller must make the sacrifice matter. A hard choice must truly be a hard choice. “Avoid cop-outs” sounds so simple – but it works. And it made “Between Two Fires” one of my favourite episodes of SG-1.

Storytelling in Star Control II: Playing space detective

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.

 

 

If you were a hero, tasked with saving the world from an overwhelming menace, how would you go about it? You would gather information about your foe. You would arm yourself with the best weapons possible. You would recruit allies to your banner. And while you might wish for these things on a platter, in order to find them, you would have to explore the world. You would seek out clues and piece them together, one hint leading you to the next, until you found what you were searching for.

 

No game captures this experience as well as Star Control II (SC2), the 1994 game from Toys for Bob (rereleased for free as The Ur-Quan Masters). SC2 cast you as a starship captain from a long-lost settlement, given command of a rediscovered ancient wonder weapon. As far as you know at the start of the game, your objective is simple: journey to Earth with your starship, rejoin the fleet, and help defend humanity against the alien Ur-Quan. And after one of the best opening plot hooks I have seen in a game, the stage is set for you to explore the galaxy in pursuit of that goal. Along the way, expect a fantastic storytelling experience, delivered through a combination of (a) top-notch writing and (b) gameplay mechanics that place the responsibility for uncovering that story in your hands.

 

What made SC2’s writing so good? If you were to read a synopsis of the game’s universe, you would find it pretty familiar if you had any previous experience with space opera (say, Larry Niven’s novels, the Wing Commander games, or even Star Wars). Your wondrous starship was originally built by long-vanished Precursors. There is a craven species, the Spathi, who echo Niven’s Pierson’s puppeteers. There are warlike species, the proud Yehat and humorously stupid Thraddash, echoing the Kzinti and Kilrathi.  There are space merchants, the Melnorme and the Druuge. There are even blue space babes, the Syreen. So far, nothing really out of the ordinary.

 

But what was out of the ordinary was the quality of the game’s writing and dialogue, which allowed SC2’s universe to transcend the dry summary I provided above. Most of the time, it was hilarious, often because it explored what a given space opera trope would REALLY look like. To name just one example, the Thraddash were not the first alien species to love a fight, but here, their entire backstory is structured around that trait, with… entertaining… results. For another example, try boasting to the Spathi about your “unique” Precursor starship. But SC2 could be serious when it wanted to. The tragic backstory of another race did not excuse its deeds in the present, but it did make me understand, even empathise, with why they chose the path they did. SC2’s writing proves that it doesn’t matter if someone else has used a concept before; the important thing is execution.

 

Beyond the writing, SC2’s gameplay also helped flesh out its alien species. Each species used a unique spacecraft in combat, with its own speed, defences, firepower, and special abilities. And these designs usually reflected the personalities established through dialogue. For example, the Spathi weren’t just cowards when you spoke to them. Their spacecraft’s most powerful weapon points backwards, so taking a Spathi ship into battle requires that you think and act as a Spathi would, in other words, that you run away. The slave-trading Druuge reveal the depths of their wickedness in battle, where their special ability allows them to recharge energy by throwing slaves into their ships’ furnaces.

 

But as good as Star Control II’s writing, dialogue and alien design were, ultimately it stands out for the gameplay-driven way in which its story unfolded. Most games that I’ve played will give you a clear objective and tell you what to do. Even in open-world games such as Brutal Legend, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, the main quest is clearly marked: Go to such-and-such a place and talk to such-and-such a person, who will tell you what to do next. Star Control II, however, gives you a scattering of clues and then makes you play detective. For example, you might be told:

 

1.     Strange signals were detected coming from the direction of Rigel;

2.     Humanity’s old allies discovered something interesting in a certain direction from Procyon;

3.     One species’ homeworld is in the Gruis constellation.

 

Following up each of these clues would lead you, in turn, to a few more hints. What might you discover at the source of the strange signal? What would the aliens at Gruis tell you? And then there’s what you’d discover from exploring worlds along the way,  A warlord might give you a device you need, if you retrieve something whose location he can’t pinpoint with any more precision than “near a yellow star in a constellation shaped like a long, thin beast”. A trader might offer to sell you information about the history of the galaxy, which you’d then use to make sense of some of the other facts you’d learned. At each step along the process, you would take notes (this game was from the days before quest journals!).  Ultimately, while you would start with a few pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, it was your responsibility to look for the rest, and once you’d found them, work out how to put them together. In other words, you would do the things that a space captain would have to do in-world: exploring, interviewing, recording and then analysing data. And with that, SC2 conveyed what it would be like to be the main character.

 

When all is said and done, Star Control II offers one of the most unique storytelling experiences I’ve seen in a game. And it provides a lesson to all game designers caught between the two sides of an old argument: is it better for a game to be well-written and packed with snappy dialogue, or to provide gameplay mechanics that allow you to feel as though you’re telling a story of your own? By excelling in both areas, Star Control II shows what a false choice this is.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! If you’d like to play Star Control 2 for yourself, you can obtain its free remake, The Ur-Quan Masters, here. There are install files available for Windows, MacOS X, and Linux.


To quickly find this, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

A sneak peek at Lois McMaster Bujold’s upcoming “Ivan book”

EDIT: My review is up!

 

No heroic tale would be complete without supporting characters: Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, Franz d’Epinay, Lieutenant William Bush, Issun… Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan, Miles Vorkosigan’s cousin and sometime sidekick, is more than just comic relief. He is a point-by-point foil for Miles: tall and handsome where Miles is stunted and deformed, determined to be an invisible everyman where Miles wants to be a hero, lazy where Miles is hyperactive. Yet when the chips are down, he is a brave and loyal ally – and now, following on the heels of Cryoburn (which I reviewed yesterday), Lois McMaster Bujold is working on the long-awaited novel starring Ivan. (In fact, I understand she got partway through the Ivan book, then took a hiatus to promote Cryoburn).

 

Best of all, we don’t have to wait for the book to be done in order to get a sneak peek. (Spoiler warning, obviously.) There are Youtube clips of Bujold reading Scenes #1 and #2 of the Ivan book – and although I wasn’t able to make out what she was saying due to sound quality, a couple of people have transcribed those scenes! You can read Scene #1 here and Scene #2 here.

 

Those readings certainly served their purpose for me. I waited patiently for years for an Ivan novel, and even after I learned that one was on its way, I took the news in my stride… but then I read the transcripts. After laughing aloud five or six times during those two scenes alone, I have no doubt that the series is back in its usual witty form, and that the book will be a blast. Ivan, get out of the word processor and onto the page!

 

Update: The Ivan book now has a title and a release date! Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is due out on 6 November 2012.

Book review: Cryoburn

CRYOBURN

 

Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, is something of an odd beast. It lacks the sparkling wit and manic energy which I typically associate with the series. In exchange, it offers excellent worldbuilding as Miles ventures to the cryogenics-saturated world of Kibou-daini on an Auditorial investigation.

 

Plot-wise, this is probably one of the weakest novels in the series. Normally, in a Miles book, it is crystal clear what is at stake and what Miles must do. Not so here. The two principal plot hooks more or less resolve themselves, and the main plotline felt muddled and only tangentially connected to the other hooks.

 

And while Bujold’s prose is as easy to read as ever, unfortunately this is also one of the least funny novels in the series. There are a couple of amusing moments in Cryoburn, but nothing compares to the dinner party, the bathtub full of ice cubes, or “Miles’ mad soliloquies”.

 

Character-wise, the book is in line with the rest of the series. As is usual for Bujold, everyone is vividly drawn, from series regulars down to the supporting cast. Jin the street urchin, Suze the tough old lady, and Raven the doctor all feel distinct, though nobody particularly resonated with me.

 

However, where Cryoburn really shines is its worldbuilding. In this book, Bujold gives us one of the most interesting settings in the series: cryogenics technology made its debut quite a few novels ago, but this is where it pays off. We see some of the implications of widespread use of cryogenics: a cranky old “revive” who can’t sell his story to the press, because there is such a glut of people like him; other revives who huddle together in themed communities set up to resemble the eras of their youths; and just what happens when cryo-storage equipment and know-how become cheap enough for anyone to get their hands on. And we see its economic effects, too, in the “cryocorps”, the industry that grew up around cryogenic storage. We see glimpses of the cryocorps’ business model, the extent of their profitability, their strategies and bright ideas. In both cases, the overall impact is perfectly tuned: not enough to drown the reader in irrelevant detail, but enough to add a lot of flavor to the world, and make it clear that the author gave serious thought to these issues and did her research (in the case of the cryocorps). And Cryoburn does so good a job with the concepts introduced earlier on, I can’t wait to see the next entry in the series explore one particular innovation from this book.

 

In conclusion, Cryoburn is not the pageturner that its predecessors are, and I certainly would not recommend it as a starting point for the series: not only would a new reader not be familiar with its characters, but so much of the book’s appeal to me was that it was the payoff for concepts introduced earlier. However, that same payoff – amongst other reasons, which I’ll not describe so as to avoid spoilers! – makes Cryoburn a worthwhile read for Vorkosigan fans.

 

You can buy Cryoburn from Amazon here.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

 

Freebie highlight from my archives: “The Only Thing We Learn”, by Cyril Kornbluth

Do you like space opera, high fantasy, and other tales about bold heroes single-handedly bringing down mighty tyrants? And do you like story worlds that have been shaped by the ebb and flow of history?

 

If yes, then check out this short story by Cyril Kornbluth, “The Only Thing We Learn”.

Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep


Vernor Vinge
The galaxy is divided into Zones, different laws of nature applying in each. The long-forgotten Earth is in one where intelligences are tightly constrained, nanotechnology breaks down rapidly, and nothing can travel faster than light. Further out, FTL travel becomes possible, and ultimately, in the Transcend, godlike Powers live, post-singularity beings as comprehensible to us as we are to goldfish. One day, a foolhardy expedition into the Transcend awakens the Blight: a long-dormant Power, actively evil and mighty enough to drive all before it. Yet all hope is not lost: the expedition’s last survivors crashland a ship with the countermeasure far away, upon a world populated by doglike creatures with pack minds and medieval technology. Now not one, but two races are on. Two factions on that planet, each the beneficiary of technology from the wrecked starship, each asisted by a child survivor of the crash, engage in a war that will determine the destiny of their world; meanwhile, a rescue team speeds to the planet, one step ahead of the Blight’s agents.

 

Continue reading “Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep”

Stargate SG-1: The mysterious vanishing Jaffa helmets

In the Stargate movie, and in the early seasons of Stargate SG-1, the bad guys are resplendent in animal-head helmets: Horus guards (from the movie) wore falcon-headed helmets, Apophis and his serpent guards from SG-1 make their first appearance in sinister snake helmets, and when SG-1 meets Heru-ur, their first new System Lord other than Apophis, his goons are wearing the falcon helmets again. However, after the first couple of seasons, the helmets disappear. Why?

Out of universe, I have a pretty simple explanation. As the later seasons introduce more and more Goa’uld System Lords, it would just not have been practical (or affordable?) to design and build unique helmets for each System Lord’s Jaffa. Thus, the vanishing helmets reflect real-world constraints.

However, I think I like my in-universe explanation better. Remember the scene from the original Star Wars where Luke rips off a stormtrooper helmet and exclaims, “I can’t see a thing in this helmet!”? Well, maybe the Goa’uld decided that SG-1 could regularly defeat whole armies of Jaffa because the Jaffa couldn’t see what they were aiming at. Of course, the Jaffa’s accuracy doesn’t seem to improve even after they start running around bare-headed, but perhaps the Goa’uld thought it was worth keeping up the experiment…

Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart

Crest of the Stars and its sequels (Banner of the Stars I – III) are some of my favourite anime of all time. Based on a series of novels (Seikai no Monshou and Seikai no Senki, by Hiroyuki Morioka), they succeed on so many levels. They tell a tale of conflict within the heart, against a backdrop that combines an epic clash of empires with an imaginative exploration of what humanity’s descendants may look like.

Continue reading “Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart”

Stargate SG-1: Glad to be proven wrong

As I make my way through season 6 of Stargate: SG-1, I’m glad that the show has addressed my key gripe. Some spoilers in the paragraph below…

Continue reading “Stargate SG-1: Glad to be proven wrong”

Freebie highlight: “Firstborn”, by Brandon Sanderson

There is a lot of good, free fiction (and games, and other media) on the Internet, and from time to time, I’ll highlight something that I particularly enjoyed.

Our first freebie is “Firstborn“, a piece of short fiction by Brandon Sanderson (author of novels such as Elantris and the Mistborn series, and the guy who’s completing the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death). We’re used to galactic empire space operas, and we’re used to the swaggering, invincible heroes who normally populate the genre. In this story, Sanderson very neatly subverts the formula, and does so in a way that has a little bit of personal resonance for me. Check it out!

Stargate SG-1 and the importance of creating a believable world

I’ve seen the first five seasons of Stargate: SG-1, and so far, I quite like it. The pilot episode was as close as we’ll ever come to a TV adaptation of UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense, and although the following filler episodes were a big step down in quality, the series eventually regained its stride. It’s moved past Pre-Industrial Society / Monster / Mysterious Alien Plague Of The Week and now, it seems to be striving for epic space opera. That it does well, and intelligently.

The secret, I think, is how many things – some little, some large – make the world feel believable. The show avoids familiar howlers such as the “Always Chaotic Evil” alien species (admittedly, it is guilty of a few of its own). The characters are generally pretty intelligent when it comes to solving problems – and sometimes, this backfires, when they do something that makes in-character sense but turns out to be wrong, because they don’t know the full story.

And most importantly, the show has a sense of continuity, most obvious in its overarching story arc. But it operates in so many smaller, yet vital, ways as well. Real people remember what happened to them a week ago, or two, or three, or ten. They gripe if it was bad, crow if it was good. So do the characters of SG-1. Real people remember how they previously solved problems, and make preparations if they think they’ll encounter the same issue again later. So do the characters of SG-1. When the show needs minor characters – an ally has come with vital information; the heroes are saved because “the enemy of their enemy” has provided a distraction; a red-shirt to accompany the heroes – it draws on the world it’s already established instead of creating a wholly new disposable character.

And yet, it only takes this so far. Earth itself is locked in stasis; SG-1 never recovers any artifacts that would dramatically shake things up; alien technology never leaks out into the wider world; society remains unchanged. For all I know, this was intentional and the creators weren’t interested in telling a story about how contact with alien societies/advances/species, even in a gradual trickle, might change the modern world. But it disappoints me all the same.

Cyclic history?

Cyclic history – and specifically, the notion that empires will inevitably rise to galaxy-spanning heights, then decline not to mediocrity or middling-power status but to utter oblivion – is deeply embedded in the DNA of science fiction. Asimov did it in the Foundation series, of course, but you see it everywhere in space opera: the backstory of Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye, Poul Anderson’s Flandry series, any number of David Weber novels, the Traveller tabletop RPG,  the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy (http://www.rocketpunk-observatory.com/spaceguideF-L.htm)…

Yet, to the best of my knowledge, it has nothing like the same prominence in fantasy. Why’s that?