This Post is a Vacation Post

Hello dear readers! I’m grateful to those who tune in every week to read and I know it hasn’t been that long since our last break but I was on vacation with family for most of this week and just did not do as much writing as I would have liked. As a result this week’s post will be delayed until next Friday. Thanks for understanding,

Nate

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Chapter Delay – With Apologies

Hello faithful readers,

I’ve been under the weather this week, nothing serious but enough to scatter my brains while writing. I went over this week’s chapter last night and found that it really didn’t come together – not all the plot points followed, the dialog wasn’t great, that kind of thing. The next few chapters are pretty important, lots of character development and important lore bits coming, and I want them to be good so that the build to the climax really nails it. So I’m going to delay this chapter and polish it up with a clearer head, and hopefully the story will be better for it. Thanks for understanding,

Nate

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Nine – The Failsafe

Go back to Chapter Eight

“You can’t patch the thrusters in here. This is an auxiliary system. Look, it’s got the yellow and black emergency stripe.” Lang shook his nanosealer at Dex. “Do you even know what this is?”

“It’s a nanosealer. It uses nanotechnology to take things apart and put them together again.”

Lang growled in exasperation then pointed at the lever by the van’s driver’s seat. “This. Do you know what it is?”

“Nope.” Dex grinned. “Do you? Because if you don’t, we won’t know when to activate it anyways.”

“That’s not the point. Auxiliaries are there as a failsafe. If we’re taking it out we should at least know what kind of shit we’re risking.” Lang shook his head and considered disconnecting the thruster control from the mystery lever.

“You could just ask someone familiar with this control scheme,” Dex said, prodding gently.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this wasn’t the fifth time he’d brought it up. “No. We’ve spent too much time thinking we can make headway by playing nice with two low ranking technicians from the Terran government. We’re spacers, ground bound in hostile territory. It’s time to start acting like it. Just because Earth is the homeworld doesn’t mean it’s going to be any more hospitable to us than anywhere else.”

“I get it, Lang, but-”

He pulled the mission log recorder out of its leg pocket and shoved it at Dex. “Do you want this? Because I seem to recall that you and Priss were pretty eager not to get stuck with it. Was it because of shit like this? Was it this fucking shit you wanted to avoid?”

Dex looked down and away. “It was this fucking shit.”

“Thought so,” Lang muttered, shoving the log back in its pocket and sealing it. An uncomfortable silence fell around the van for a minute. After letting his temper settle Lang tapped the mystery lever and said, “Why this set up for the thruster activation?”

With a deep inhale Dex shook himself off and looked back at the setup. “It’s a simple connection point. We can let the thruster computer we pulled do most of the think work that needs to happen, so long as you tie it into your AI it should fire thrusters in the direction you’re steering whenever you pull the lever. It’s pretty much the best access point for the system that doesn’t require us to try and parse the van’s onboard computer language and patch it in that way. We could try that, of course, but it’s another point of failure for the system. And we’ve already got two.”

“Two?”

“The van chassis isn’t built to handle the kind of stress the thrusters put on it. And, even nanosealed to the chassis, there’s a chance the thrusters will rip free when you fire them, so I guess that’s kind of two problems.”

“I assume there’s another one coming?”

Yes.” Dex kicked the underbody of the vehicle. “We’ve attached the thrusters to the bottom of the chassis. Because that was the only way to secure them to it safely. But it also raises the possibility that they’ll knock the van airborne when fired. And it isn’t built for hard landings, either.”

“So switching them on can kill us in any one of three fantastic ways already,” Lang mused. “Why run the risk of dying because they won’t work?”

“That’s the logic, yeah.”

It was a good argument. “Is there anything else we need to do if we don’t change the control system?”

“Not really. Just close it up and she’ll be ready to leave tomorrow.”

“Then do it. We leave for Priss’ datahub first thing in the morning. And have Priss take stock of our supplies and work out how long they’ll last with the dietary needs of our prisoners factored in.” Lang turned and stalked towards the building, mood still foul. Priss looked up when he burst through the door but didn’t try to stop him as he took the stairs up, buried in his own thoughts.


The roof of the library was a flat, unadorned stretch of gravel punctuated by pipes of unknown material and purpose. Other than the small room at the top of the stairs that held long dormant machinery there wasn’t anything that approached a significant feature. Lang found the bleak solitude peaceful, and he’d been enjoying it for the last hour or so, since he’d left the others after dinner. The Terran sunset was much more spectacular than what they got on Copernicus. Probably something to do with the cloud cover – the terraformers were still trying to work out the nuances of a healthy water cycle back home. By definition, Earth already had it perfected.

The last streaks of sun were fading from the clouds when the door to the roof swung open and Sean wobbled over to join him.

“Should you be up and about?” Lang asked.

“Probably not, according to Priss.” He slumped down, elbows braced on the ledge that ran around the roof. “Surprised you bothered asking. Is the health of prisoners a major concern for you spacers?”

“Hm. In general, I suppose. It can’t be priority one all the time but it’s not like we don’t think about it.”

Sean shook his head and went back to staring at the sun for a moment. “What would it take to convince you to send Aubrey back?”

“That’s not generally how prisoner exchanges work,” Lang said slowly. “And it’s not a thing I’m willing to consider out of the goodness of my heart, either.”

“I don’t care about prisoner exchanges or whatever. I’m willing to do all your maintenance work on the van until you get where you’re going. Dex can work oversight-”

“I appreciate the thought and, believe me I understand why you’re making the offer but I don’t intend to treat either of you as anything other than prisoners of war.” The last reflections of Sol were fading from the clouds above and the sky was getting dark so he turned from the scenery to his prisoner. “That’s not a threat or even a downgrade, really. Prisoners of war are entitled to very well defined treatment. We’ll feed you, keep you out of combat, even pay you for any work you do if-”

“Sapiens don’t use shit like money,” Sean said derisively. “It wouldn’t be worth anything. Why not-”

“Fine,” Lang snapped. “I wasn’t about to offer you work anyway, as you might have already guessed. I don’t care about your fucking holier than thou sapiens shit. I’m trying to explain how things are going to be going forwards. It’s important that these forms be observed, Mr. Wilson.”

“And why the fuck is that?” Sean pulled himself to his feet, wobbled a bit, then leaned back down against the ledge again, whatever movement he’d been about to try aborted. “No one on Earth cares about this shit, Corporal Langley.”

“Maybe. But one thing I know for sure about colonial governments, Sean.” He leaned in close to the off balance man, making him shrink down and away. “They can’t let people go off the reservation. By which I mean, betray the government or what it stands for. When people do that, they’re punished, and treason is usually punished by death.”

“Capital punishment is-”

I don’t care!” Lang adjusted his voice down from a yell before he continued. “I suspect your vaunted UNIGOV is bound by the same necessity as those of the Triad worlds – hell, even Rodenberry has executed a few people and they’re almost as sanctimonious as you. And what I know with absolute certainty is that they can kill any of you with that damn medical nanotech whenever they want.”

He pulled himself upright again and turned away, letting the stress bleed off a bit before he went on. “Look, I know you didn’t come out here for trouble and I’m sorry we’re the disaster that fell in your lap. But operational parameters call for me to get home in any way I can, with the smallest civilian impact possible. I want you and Aubrey to go home, but I can’t run the risk that letting you help us and then walk away will get you branded collaborators. You’ll be treated as prisoners of war, within the Triad Conventions, and be formally returned to your government at the earliest opportunity. That’s the best I can do for you.”

As Lang walked to the stairway door he heard Sean push of the ledge and take a few uncertain steps across the roof, saying, “Come on, Lang, that’s stupid. UNIGOV is a sapiens structure not – dammit, Langley, listen – ” A frustrated growl cut off the protest. Lang ignored it and stepped back inside, headed towards the stairs. Behind him echoed Sean’s parting, “Yeah, fuck you, too.


“Our prisoners are pretty tight lipped today,” Priss said.

After a second argument on the subject of prisoners with Dex that morning Lang really wasn’t in the mood to cover the subject again. He was about out of diplomacy, too. “Just because we’re away from the others doesn’t mean you won’t piss me off questioning this, Priss.”

“Who died and made you LT?” She muttered, going back to trying to dump the datahub.

He thought about reminding her that she, too, had passed on being the one in charge. Had practically pushed it on him.

First rule of space: Bitching helps nothing.

He walked away from the cluster of consoles where Priss was working to check on the jury-rigged power feed. When they’d arrived half an hour ago they’d found that the building basically just lacked power to run all the computers inside. The tech itself had basically been shut down and abandoned, much like many of the cars they’d seen in their drive over. Once again Lang wondered what, exactly, had happened forty years ago to leave the city entirely abandoned. With the new hostility between himself and the Terrans he doubted he’d get a clear answer by asking. Hopefully something in the datahub’s files could help.

Their portable generator was enough to get a few of the computers running and the patchwork connection they’d scraped together was holding up for the moment. They were eating through fuel at an alarming rate but hopefully the solar panels on the van could make up for the power shortfall a little bit. It’d take some more tinkering.

“I’m in.”

Lang pulled himself out of the mental bookkeeping and hurried back over to look over her shoulder. “Let me see.”

“I’m just going to dump these drives as fast as I can,” Priss said, holodisplays flickering hypnotically as her AI worked to parse all the information pouring in. “Anything I should filter for?”

It did make more sense to grab everything so they could digest it at their leisure. “Grab current events or historical documents first. Then technical information. Then whatever’s left.”

She nodded and kept working. Lang moved over to one of the robocrates, fishing for portable data storage to swap for the drive Priss was using once it filled. He’d just found one that read as mostly empty when the cast of the hololight behind him switch from a peaceful greenblue to an angry red. He bolted upright and said, “What happened?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of lockout is trying to kick in. The AI is keeping it back so we’ve still got access but something’s also wiping the files.” Priss was working overtime but Lang knew she wasn’t trained in infotech warfare. Suddenly the building around them came to life, dormant machines kicking to life for reasons unknown. “Shit. Wiping all the files. Some kind of malware buried in the – Fuck.”

“What?” Lang tried to parse everything happening on her holodisplay but most of it was unfamiliar screens. He was completely lost. So he went with his gut. “Is there some kind of self-destruct in this facility?”

“No. But it just radioed someone somewhere.” Priss glanced up. “My guess is, UNIGOV did not want anyone digging through the past, and they installed a failsafe to wipe the data and tell them someone was here if anyone tried.”

“Break off, pack up.” He was already keying the generator’s remote shutdown. “It’s time for us to go.”

On to Chapter Ten

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Three – The Martians

Chapter Two

“We’re not from Mars,” Lang said, amused at the idea. “We’re actually from Copernicus, one of the Triad systems. I’m Corporal Martin Langley, Copernican Spacer Corps. Could I ask the two of you to step out of our drop pod?”

The three of them pulled back to give their guests room but neither one seemed very eager to come out into the open. The woman eyed them suspiciously and said, “We wouldn’t be in here if you hadn’t pushed us.”

“Sorry, but we weren’t expecting company.” Not entirely true, but what they had been expecting was either military or emergency response, not civilians. “We had to improvise. And decide what we were going to do with you all.”

“And what is that?” The man asked, his suspicion better hidden but still very present.

“For starters, invite you out of the pod.” Lang gestured meaningfully with his left hand. After a moment of silent deliberation the two decided to climb out of the drop pod and back onto solid ground giving a better look at them.

Both were wearing backpacks with belts in addition to the shoulder straps and a light frame to keep the weight distributed evenly. There was a spot for a water bottle on the right side of the pack and some kind of heavy plastic case on the left – at a guess he figured it was some kind of food storage. Each had a half dozen tools stuck through loops in the backpack belts and, while he couldn’t identify them all by name, it all looked like archaic wrenches or electrical tools. The backpacks and tools were where the similarities stopped.

The woman was short by the standards of Copernicus Prime, perhaps a hundred and sixty to a hundred and sixty-five centimeters. Her long blond hair hung straight and her lithe figure was covered by a set of khaki colored capri pants and a deep red button up shirt or light jacket. Both looked to be made of some kind of synthetic fabric that had a slight gleam to it under the right light. With the hiking boots to top it off she reminded Lang of nothing so much as a student terraformer headed off to check on one of the many still ongoing projects in the mountains or ocean valleys.

The man was a good ten centimeters taller and built incredibly broadly. He looked like he could have played some kind of contact sport if only he bothered to bulk up. As it was he was more of a gawkish figure, like a kite had grown arms and legs and started walking around. His clothes looked to be the same material as the woman’s but he wore dark blue pants and his shirt was a simple pullover with a gray torso and blue sleeves. Neither one was obviously armed but…

“Dex, check their packs?”

Dex nodded and slung his plasma carbine then worked his way around them to rummage through their backpacks. The man shot them a resentful look and said, “There’s nothing in there but some food and old auto parts. And my sleeping bag.”

The woman was doing her best to keep an eye on Dex without letting Lang or Priss out of her field of vision. “And do we get to know your friends’ names?”

“Corporal Priscilla Hu, Copernican Spacer Corps,” Priss said without missing a beat. “You can have my service serial number if you want that, too. Do we get to know your names? Because we can just keep saying ‘you’ all the time if it makes ‘you’ feel better.”

The two exchanged a glance and a barely noticeable shrug. “I’m Aubrey Vance.” The woman said. “This is Sean Wilson. We’re not in a Corps.”

“Didn’t think you were, ma’am,” Lang replied. Dex finished his rummage through the backpacks and gave an all clear sign before moving back over to the other two. “Why don’t we sit down and talk a few things over.”

“Sure, why not,” Sean grumbled. “It’s not like you’ve already barged in here pointing weapons everywhere.”

“To be fair,” Dex said, “your defense satellites kind of blew the shit out of our mothership early this morning so I’d say we’re even.”

“What defense satellites?” Aubrey asked, looking confused. “UNIGOV doesn’t maintain defense satellites. It’s a sapiens government, not a martian one.”

“Yeah…” Lang gestured towards a weapons locker – contents currently split between himself and Priss – in an invitation for the two of them to take a seat. He settled down on a portable generator and laid his plasma carbine over his knees and waited for them to sit. Once they had he said. “Let’s start with with that. What do you mean by a martian government? I’m guessing you aren’t referring to the government of Borealis colony on Mars.”

He got a pair of blank looks. “There’s no colony on Mars,” Sean answered. “No sapiens colony, anyways. Never heard of there being martian one either, but I could be wrong. And it’s not clever to bring up the shared Latin root, just because we’re on a different planet doesn’t mean we’ve never heard of wordplay. That joke is as overdone here as it is on Copernicus or wherever you come from. I’m guessing that you – or your ancestors, really – were a part of the martians that left after the Last War?”

Priss and Dex were sharing confused looks that proved they were just as lost as he was. “Okay, look. It’s been nearly two centuries, more or less, since the Departure. I’m not going to pretend to have any idea what’s happened on Earth since then, and ancient history wasn’t my strongest subject when I was in school, so why don’t we wind it all the way back to the beginning. Assume I don’t know anything. What do you mean by martian?”

“You know. Homo martian,” Aubrey said. When Lang’s blank stare and accompanying silence grew uncomfortable she added, “One of the two sapient species that have existed on Earth since the beginning of recorded history?”

“Homo… martian.” Lang felt as if he’s suddenly landed on Copernicus Minor where the gravity was 1.2 times standard, confused and heavy, his sense of balance suddenly slightly off. “And the other sapient species is homo sapiens. Is that right?”

“Yeah.” She said it far too bluntly to believe it was anything other than the truth.

“Wait there. Don’t get up.” Lang got to his feet and motioned for Priss and Dex to follow him into the next room. On the way he pulled his AI and had it monitor the perimeter scanners for subjects leaving the building as well as those approaching. Once they were out of earshot of the civilians – their prisoners, as he was starting to think of them – he asked, “Does anyone have any idea what the fuck is going on here?”

“Nope.” Dex punctuated his one word denial with an eloquent shrug.

Priss was busy with her own AI, going through some kind of records. “Here we go. Shortly before the Departure there was speculation about prolonged exposure to solar radiation, microgravity and the other environmental pressures of space travel might give rise to a new subspecies of human. Several potential designations were floated – none of them were homo martian, by the way – but nothing ever came of it. Before the Departure.”

“So maybe something happened after.” Lang mused. “Not that the Triad worlds ever needed something like that. Spacers and grounders there are indistinguishable.”

“Yeah, but the colony ships were spinners and we solved unified field theory and artificial gravity a decade after Settlement,” Priss pointed out. “That may have been less of an issue here. We still don’t know much about the long term effects of microgravity on human physiology because it’s never been relevant.”

“None of which seems to matter that much because Aubrey there said there’s been two species of human since the beginning of history.” Lang said. “That doesn’t add up. Priss, did anyone in the comm center get ahold of Borealis before shit hit the fan?”

Her shrug was less eloquent than Dex’s but just as disappointing. “I think the Tranquility was supposed to signal Mars as soon as we dropped subluminal. But it’s still more than ten minutes from Lunar orbit to Mars and back again. If they got a message back it was after Major Rainer ordered the Armstrong abandoned.”

“So no help there, unless we can talk to the fleet.” Lang thought for another few seconds. “Okay, let’s assume Borealis Colony is gone and the Fleet is getting no intel from there. We need to do a few things. In order of priority, first we need to move away from the drop pod. Sooner or later someone else is coming to look at that and I don’t want them finding us.”

“What are we doing with the other two?” Dex asked.

“They’re going to be our native guides,” Lang said. “Because second, third and fourth, we need to find intel on what the hell this homo martian thing is about, why the former most powerful nation in the hemisphere has a random empty city in it, and how we can get back into orbit without getting caught.”

“Based on how your last attempt at talking to them went, I’m not sure how well any information gathering will go,” Priss said. “We don’t even have enough of a common frame of reference to ask questions it seems.”

“No worries,” Lang said with a grin. “We’re not getting our answers from them.”

The other two exchanged a skeptical look. “Then where are we getting them from?”

Chapter Four

Star Trek: The Final Frontiers

There are at least four productions in motion that, in one way or another, carry the torch of Rodenberry’s future. We’re not going to do an in depth look at all of them, but, if our looks at Voyager and Enterprise left you doubtful of the relevance of the Star Trek brand, well… let’s disabuse you of that notion right now.

We start in 2009, with J.J. Abrams and the latest installment in the Star Trek film franchise. Four years after Enterprise went off the air was not too far removed to have built the new film franchise around Archer’s crew but the fact was, Enterprise was never popular enough to inspire that kind of investment. Most of the cast of the other franchises’ casts were aging or no longer available, whether because of other engagements or death. So the Abrams films spun out a new timeline and built it around a time travel story, bringing back Leonard Nimoy and sending him back in to meet his younger self. There was some nonsense about vengeful Romulans and a bit with Vulcan getting destroyed. It worked, to a degree.

The so-called “Kelvin” timeline was a shaky foundation for an ongoing story, working more as a light action flick without a lot of personality or strong characterization to build off of. While Nimoy and Zachary Quinto (as the young Spock) were fun to watch and seeing the original Star Trek setting updated with modern effects was nice, there wasn’t much substance there. The second entry tried to fix that by calling back to the franchise’s greatest film, Wrath of Khan, but wound up stuck in the shadow of its predecessor. It was enough of a disappointment that I never bothered to watch the third film, although the buzz around Star Trek Beyond was pretty positive. There’s been no buzz about further films in the franchise, and I’m mostly okay with that.

While a Trek film every couple of years was scant pickings for long time connoisseurs of Star Trek it was something to remind us the franchise had not been forgotten. Then, in November of 2015, Star Trek: Discovery was announced. Excitement ran high for a many, myself included, but when CBS decided to put it behind a streaming service paywall it was a bit of a disappointment. Exploiting a free trial period got me access to the first two episodes and, while Star Trek has always had rough pilots (DS9 excepted), Discovery was particularly dismal.

None of the optimism that defined the franchise seems present, a lot of poor design decisions were made, many of which ignored long established parts of the franchise (coughKlingonscough) and the characters were uniquely unlikable. I haven’t followed the series since, and the fact that they’ve apparently tied the second half of the season and the backstory of at least one central character directly to the mirror universe isn’t inspiring me to go back any time soon. It’s very possible that the very values Rodenberry hoped for the future – post scarcity economics, racial blindness, harmonious human relationships – no longer resonate. While it’s true these ideas were always silly in the face of human nature they were still things we agreed would make the world a better place. Perhaps now, they’re not.

Or maybe they still are. The third torchbearer to Rodenberry’s vision was so excited by Star Trek he muscled his way onto the engineering deck of Archer’s Enterprise for two episodes. In 2011 he expressed a desire to reboot Star Trek as a director in an updated take on the franchise. But in the end, Seth MacFarlane would have to wield his considerable influence with Fox to get his own scifi tale of optimism, exploration and conflict. The Orville is the most pitch perfect take on this idea of the four battling for the top dog spot in space scifi this decade.

While Discovery has lost the tone and much of the thoughtful, high concept storytelling that defined Star Trek for most of its life, The Orville has seen fit to add a light seasoning of comedy to the classic blend and updated the commentary with critiques of social media and modern gender politics. At the same time, that commentary never gets in the way of thoughtful, high concept scifi – in fact, it blends them expertly in several cases, such as “Majority Rule”. The Orville has secured a second season and promises to bring more of the same. That could prove an issue – as noted before, one episode already bears a very strong resemblance to an episode of Voyager and there’s always the danger the creative team of a show will run out of ideas.

However, changes to modern life and modern production techniques promise to keep the creative juices going well enough. Already the production design of The Orville is light years closer to what we’d expect of Star Trek than Discovery – although it’s not likely to rival the muscle of Abrams and the Kelvin timeline.

Finally, Space Command is the hardest Star Trek related franchise to weigh among Rodenberry’s successors simply because it is still in the planning stages. Announced in 2016 and headed by a number of longtime Star Trek writers and directors, it promises to be a rousing adventure set in our solar system and exploring the challenges humanity will face as it expands towards the stars. While the design looks much closer to 1920s pulp scifi like Flash Gordon the creative minds behind it promise a good, fun and optimistic look at the future.

The fact is, Gene Rodenberry lived at a time when the shape of the future was hard to judge and, if his example is anything to go by, our own guesses as to what the future might be like are likely to be equally off target. His concepts for human development were idealistic, and that was what drew people. But his predictions of the future socially and technologically were wildly off target and tying all the iterations of his dream into a single vision is no longer feasible. While few people believe that his ideals will ever become reality they’re still charming to dream about and, at its heart, that kind of daydream makes for better entertainment than reality so it’s no surprise that, even when the Star Trek brand has lost interest in them, the ideals carry on. I hope you’ve enjoyed looking back at them with me. I’ve been surprised by how much I had to say on the subject, but now it’s time to move on to something else.

Maybe some high concept stuff. Wait. Didn’t this blog used to publish fiction? Maybe we’ll do that too….

Genrely Speaking: Horror

Some people love getting scared, particularly when they know they’re actually totally safe. Full disclosure: I’m not one of them. But this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to tackle a genre I’m not a fan of so today I want to look at the modern horror story, something cinema has simply dubbed “horror” though it’s a bit different from traditional ghost stories or scary campfire stories.

Horror relies on tricks of production in setting it’s scenes and drawing readers in much more than most genres. Consider the impact of music in films like Halloween or the eerie claustrophobia of the handheld camera in The Blair Witch Project (the original). Edgar Allen Poe, mastery of written horror, achieved a similar restricted and unreliable point of view using first person narrators in most of his famous horror stories.

That said, these flourishes are not the pillars that hold up this aesthetic genre. Rather, those hallmarks are:

  1. A sense of isolation. It’s very hard to feel scared in a group of people. Even strangers provide a sense of camaraderie and empathy for most people that builds confidence and helps you avoid horror. So characters must become isolated from those around them in some way before we can get truly scared for them. Poe’s stories almost never mention characters outside the immediate circumstances. The Evil Dead puts it’s characters in an isolated cabin far from civilization that they wind up stranded in due to circumstances. It Follows achieves isolation by making it’s monster visible only to the person it afflicts, leaving the victim alone with the creature even in crowds.
  2. The threat of death. And actual death. Horror requires us to be well and truly scared for the characters in order to work. Death is the most effective threat there is, period. Even horror stories that aren’t chock full of actual death pile death symbolism onto their stories. The unnatural appearance that drives the apprentice to kill his master in The Tell-Tale Heart, the way the girl’s head spins entirely around in The Exorcist, the deaths of the crew in Alien, all of these make it clear to us that the stakes are real.
  3. The unknown. Things we understand are not as scary as those we don’t. Consider the contrast between Alien and Aliens. At first Ripley and company didn’t know what a xenomorph was, what would work against them and what wouldn’t. When Ripley killed the alien and escaped only to face xenomorphs again in a new context the xenomorphs are not presented in the same way as before. While Aliens is certainly a thriller it’s not a horror story like Alien is because the weird biology and full shape of the aliens are known to Ripley and us, the mystery that’s half the horror is gone. This is why so many horror stories have supernatural monsters in them – these creatures can operate by their own rules, rules the audience won’t know until the story tells them, keeping us jumping as we try and figure out what is going to happen next.

What are the weaknesses of the horror genre? The biggest weakness of horror is that it’s grown very trope reliant and characters often make decisions purely because they serve the plot. Going places alone, being dismissive of supernatural forces that have proven their potency and malevolence, these are things that no person with even a passing knowledge of pop culture would do but horror story characters routinely indulge in. This can leave the audience very frustrated with the story and is one of the primary reasons I can’t stand the genre most of the time.

Another weakness is the need to provide the unknown. It’s very easy to wind up with contradictory events that are never explained or previous things known about what characters are facing getting undone just to provide new “mystery” about what’s happening. This is a particular problem in long running horror franchises.

Finally the threat of death hanging over every character means many writers never bother to develop the characters who are dying so their deaths can wind up feeling meaningless and lacking impact. This also makes it easy to pick out who’s going to live just by looking for the well developed character or two. Kind of undercuts the suspense which, in turn, is half of horror.

What are the strengths of the horror genre? As said in the opening, the thrill of something scary happening to someone who’s safe is very powerful. Poe’s horrific stories also provided a glimpse into the worst side of humanity from a place of safety, a benefit I’ve advocated for previously.

Good horror is also a great place to find good examples of narrative tension, story pacing and great villain ascendancies.

Personally I don’t plan on tackling horror in any of my writing and I’ve no desire to dig through the pulpy backlog of “classic” horror. But I’ve read Poe and I do know two things. The best horror has a razor sharp understanding of human nature and refines every step of its tales with the single minded focus of the master craftsman. If those are skills you need examples of you can find them elsewhere but I wouldn’t fault you for seeking them in the horror genre either.

Fail Faster

Time for a postmortem of my latest novella. Normally I’d just write an afterwords and move on but this time there were a lot of issues with Out of Water beyond what I’d normally write about in this space so, instead of doing a standard afterwords, I though I’d write something a little more technical.

“Fail faster” is a common adage in the creative community; whether it be in terms of art or general “design” the notion gets bandied about a lot. In point of fact, one of the few groups of creative people who don’t say it a lot are writers. There’s good reason for that as I now understand. See, the notion is to start doing something, screw it up and then immediately stop, examine what went wrong and start over on a newer, better product. It can be hard to leave your babies behind but iterative work is a big part of improving on craft, whether it be carving, painting or furniture design. The faster you can make something and judge it’s effectiveness the faster you can get started on hammering out the flaws and trying again.

Of course, writers do have fail faster safeties if they want them. That’s why they can outline, for instance. Making character sketches is another tool in this vein. But the ultimate test of writing comes when you set pen to paper or pixels to bytes and start your actual writing. Some flaws in your story just don’t become apparent until you’re writing it.

The writing equivalent of fail faster is kill your babies.

I knew, somewhere around chapter eight, that Out of Water had gone off course. Not just because I was really busy at the time, although that certainly didn’t help. No, there were fundamental problems with the story and how I’d gone about executing it, namely –

  •  I’d tried a new method of outlining. Normally I use the beat outline but I thought I’d experiment this time around and, long story short, the method I’d decided to try out did not match my writing style well and I hadn’t seen problems I probably would have noticed otherwise.
  • There was too much in the story. Again, I might I have noticed it with a better outline but I was trying to tackle a story with too many subplots and characters for the format I was trying to execute in.
  • Speaking of, the novella format was chosen without regard to what the story actually needed. I’ve had a rough outline of what I wanted to happen with Oscar, Herrigan and the whole nation of crusty former prison colonists for years. Tossing the Australians into the mix was something I definitely wanted happening at this point but I didn’t stop to ask myself whether a novella would work for that story – it didn’t – I just set out to write one because I really enjoyed writing The Antisocial Network earlier this year.

As soon as these problems were apparent I should have stopped, posted a quick apology and shifted content to other stuff I’d been wanting to write about. I even considered doing it for a week or so. But I decided to press on and the story truly felt worse as a result.

The fact is I wound up with two stories, one establishing a trio of new Australian characters and just as many new trenchmen, with all the dynamics and tensions that many characters are naturally going to have, and another focusing on Herrigan, Lauren and the question of how a society can draw boundaries without being hypocritical. I’d always thought of Alcatraz as a uniquely libertarian kind of society as a kind of rebellion against its prison roots and I wanted to explore the limits, pros and cons of how such a society might deal with law breakers, especially as compared and contrasted against one more like the modern West.

Unfortunately I don’t think Out of Water was that story.

While it may have been better to terminate Out of Water early and start afresh I did learn the lessons of the story clearly. The new outline format was interesting to experiment with but I won’t be using it going forward. In the future I’ll be especially mindful of how much I bite off for each story and how the format meshes with it. I don’t know if an expanded version of Out of Water is in the works or not, given that a big part of failing faster is moving on quickly to new projects rather than dwelling on those that may not be salvageable. Time will tell… but I would hold my breath.

Tune in next week and we’ll talk about something (or somethings) evil. And no, they’re not vaguely bad thematic puns.