Monday, February 24, 2014

Realm Makers-- A Story Idea Engine


When I created my blog, I wanted it to be distinctly different from most author blogs. That's partially because I find stories more interesting than how stories are made, ideas more interesting than the people who think them up.

It's perhaps an unusual bias, one that might imply that I don't like or am not interested in people. But that's not true at all. I actually do enjoy the company of my fellow human beings, especially those that share with me an interest in speculative fiction storytelling as a Christian--or with a Christian twist--or from a Christian point of view.

In August of 2013 I attended the first Realm Makers conference, the first conference devoted specifically to Christian writers of speculative fiction. I had fun making new friends and meeting in person for the first time people I'd only known online, but more to the point, my conversations and interactions with fellow authors inspired and honed a number of the story ideas I'm so keenly interested in. I got a sense of what sorts of plots have been done and are being done. How can I improve some of the stories floating around my brain. What the prospects are for story media other than print. You could call the conference a "Story Idea Engine."


(The above photo has me seated as part of an author panel to the left of Bryan Davis with the microphone, author of the Raising Dragons series, Celesta Theissen is on his other side and Jeff Gerke and Morgan Busse are also in the pic.)

The Realm Makers 2014 conference on 30-31 May in Philadelphia is one I'm looking forward to attending. I in fact have the privilege to be one of the speakers, discussing the effects of danger/combat on characters both human and non-human. I'd love to inspire some unexpected story ideas. I'm sure other speakers will if I don't :)

I almost forgot to mention the key speaker will be best selling author Tosca Lee--whom I've only mentioned in this blog in a critical light (in regard to Demon a Memoir)--which might possibly prove to be interesting... Which of course has nothing to do with the fact that I'll be delighted to meet her.

If you're interested, check out the Real Maker's link. And the raffle html below this. :)

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Kaiser's Interplanetary Cold War


As per a Facebook discussion I've had with some friends, I'm imaging a story setting in which Germany won WWI and from that time worked to build a German Empire that expanded off planet Earth. This would touch off a cold war of sorts in space.

Germany very nearly did win the First World War, not only in 1914 when their initial invasion of France nearly succeeded (brought to a halt by the First Battle of the Marne by reserve French forces advancing unexpectedly, many ferried by taxicab drivers from Paris who volunteered for the task), but also in 1918, after the defeat of Russia led to Germans shipping more troops west to fight the nearly-successful Spring Offensive of 1918. It so happens that the key battle that defeated that massive German offensive was the Second Battle of the Marne, in which US troops played a key role (the US Third Infantry Division that held their ground there is still to this day called, "The Rock of the Marne"). 

In my story, the Zimmerman telegram that proposed a German alliance with Mexico in the event of a war with the USA, a message that when exposed did much to arouse US sentiment against Germany, is immediately shown to be a fake. So in this alternate history, when the vote for war comes to Congress, it is narrowly defeated. No US troops arrive in France (even though the USA would continue to sell supplies to the Western Allies), so the Germans win the war in the Spring of 1918.

The Treaty of Versailles still happens, but it is France and the UK that pays Germany rather than the other way around. Germany is economically strong, even relatively so in the stock market crash that still happens in  1929. Germany attempts to build an overseas empire to rival that of the UK and France, but finds the best territories have already been taken (to which the British and French and others hang onto tenaciously in opposition to the Germans--the liberation movements that happened in the 1950s-1970s in our world never succeed in this alternate history). When Robert Goddard's rocketry experiments take place in the USA during the 1920s, the German Empire sees a new means of territorial expansion--into outer space. They employ Wernher von Braun (born in Germany in 1912) to create a rocket program focused not on missiles, but on outer space exploration. Early by our world's standards, say in 1952, the Germans put a man in orbit.

A German victory of this sort would create a sort of international cold war in which all other major powers--the USA, Japan, the UK, and perhaps the Soviet Union and France, scramble to catch up with German technological might and try to put their own colonies in space. It is true that such a cold war could have kicked off something like WWII anyway, but for the sake of this story idea, I'm assuming it does not. With no captured German examples to copy off of, other space-faring nations find themselves a decade or more behind the Germans before they found their own space colonies. By then, the Germans would be well-established on the moon, though inevitably other nations would try to build bases there, perhaps on the far side.

I'm offering this story idea to anyone, but I hope to have time to develop it myself one day. In my version, the Great Depression would not be so bad as it was in Germany in our world, but it would still happen. Nationalist parties would still rise up in protest of unemployment and Communist sympathizers. They would never overpower the Kaiser's government, but they would influence it and wind up being incorporated into it. In particular, an Austrian who had served in the German Army, one Corporal Hitler, would find prominence during the Depression, but in this world in Austria rather than in the Germany of our reality. Austria under this Hitler's influence would petition to join Germany, bringing about a major expansion of German-speaking manpower available and bringing also a major influx of strongly racist and nationalist ideas. Jews would be persecuted but not executed en masse. Israel might still have wound up being founded as a homeland for Jews, but it would be a very different Israel...

I'd still have the USA develop the atomic bomb, but later, after the Germans land on the moon (and people realize it is an ideal base from which to attack Earth). They'd share this secret with the British and probably the French. The Germans would eventually build their own, as would the Soviets and Japanese.

My story would have these Earth-based empires jockeying for influence and power and interplanetary bases by the 2014 of this story world. Space expansion would be vastly more extensive than in our reality. But it would be a dangerous world, exploration carried out by atomic-powered and nuclear-armed interplanetary fleets, with most of the rest of the world loosely allied against Germany, no one really certain whose side Japan is on, bitter rivalries showing themselves between the Soviet Union and France and the UK and USA. The Internet would be a limited development at best as these empires focus on the things that matter to them more--secure communications on Earth and interplanetary space vehicles and weapons platforms and maybe even artificial intelligence in the realm of high tech.

With hundreds of interplanetary craft for each empire, each more heavily armed than a ballistic nuclear submarine on Earth, not only would the interplanetary cold war turning hot potentially vaporize every space colony human ingenuity would have managed to build, it would threaten the very existence of life on Earth...

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Realms of Exile from Siberia to Planet Zero

A realm of exile, a remote desolate place, where hardy adventurers find themselves struggling to survive has been a much-used setting in science fiction. Often, the exile is of a personal nature, such as Obi Wan Kenobi's voluntary exile to Tatooine. Or in a similar fashion, Arrakis serves as an exile of sorts for Duke Leto Atreides and his family in the sci fi classic, Dune.

But not all exiles are solitary or are reserved for the select few. Like the Russian Empire using exile to Siberia as a way to get rid of "undesirables," sending millions of people there over the centuries (while at the same time developing that miserably cold and remote stretch of northern Asia), some science fiction stories have featured whole societies founded by citizens fleeing to planets of exile, sometimes sent by deliberate acts of an empire or other government wanting to get rid of them.

A classic example is Ursula K. Le Guin's Planet of Exile, and other similar stories (e.g. Saga of Pliocene Exile). In general, the planet reserved for exiles resembles Siberia in being perhaps beautiful, but remote and deadly, difficult to survive. Or perhaps it is difficult to survive due to unexpectedly discovered hostile inhabitants of the harsh land. Part of the appeal of this sort of story has been to see the characters struggle through the basic tasks of survival in the challenging setting of their new land or world.

In the Colony Zero origins story universe I've had the opportunity to contribute to, the classic world of exile has been turned on its head. The government of a future Earth does expel its unwanted citizens, just like the Russian Czars used to send the oppressed to Siberia. Though in the case of Colony Zero, exiles are sent away specifically for being genetically "defective" or for demonstrating defective (i.e. criminal) behavior. The planet it sends them to, Planet Zero, at first glance seems even worse than Siberia--a planet tidally locked with one hemisphere perpetually facing a dim brown dwarf star (Y class), a place barely warm enough to live at best, with no significant oxygen on the surface, with perpetually rushing winds and every day and night darker than night on Earth. But the hidden reality is the planet contains underground treasures in caves of light, native plants, and breathable atmosphere. The world seems to be a harsh land of exile, but in reality is a place of sweet refuge and unexpected delight.

The inhabitants may also seem, at first, to be harsh and dangerous even. But the truth is that it isn't the exiles who are the ones that pose the greatest threat to peace. Rather, it's the people of Earth, the so-called "normal" or "desirable" ones, who show themselves to be dangerous, aggressive, and cruel...


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Friday, February 7, 2014

Living Clouds in Sci Fi and Fantasy Atmospheres

Imagine a world in which clouds are composed of round transparent membranes pasted together, living bubbles, that float in the air.

Here's how it would work: In a story universe I'm working on (Colony Zero) I've contemplated what it would take for an animal to breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. Clearly there would need to be an input of energy from the outside, since this chemical reaction requires more energy to process than it releases. But plants do this all the time with photosynthesis. What if there was a creature who likewise had a chemical reaction requiring outside energy input (like photosynthesis) that split water into hydrogen and oxygen?

Returning to the little round bubble body concept I mentioned, imagine the creature I'm describing filled it's inner sack with the hydrogen it produces. (It probably would also need to absorb CO2 and convert it to oxygen to get building material for its body, not to mention energy, but that's a bit beside my point here.) So each one of these life forms would be like a floating jellyfish. Clumped together in a huge colony, these creatures would be nearly indistinguishable from a natural cloud. I'm imagining them about as intelligent as a jellyfish as well, though someone could make each one communicate with each other in a such a way that a single cloud could function as a collective intelligence.

The interesting thing about these clouds is in theory someone could walk on them, depending on how tough the body membranes of the cloud creatures are. If they are very weak, you'd fall through the cloud, but it would slow your fall. If a bit stronger, you'd sink into them like quicksand. Stronger still and you'd be able to walk on them like walking on a jump castle or a trampoline. A bit firmer still and they'd give you a bit of a bounce, but you could walk normally.

Especially if they were relatively firm, a human being could build a literal castle or other structures on one of these clouds. Or other creatures, especially flying ones like griffins or dragons, could nest up there. (Note that a careful planner could build on a relatively soft cloud by spreading a wide foundational platform that avoids breaking bubbles.)

Please note that being filled with hydrogen would make these clouds highly flammable (the Hindenburg, anyone?). In fact someone might say that these clouds would be impossible due to the build up of electric charges between ground and air that naturally occurs. One lightning bolt between the colony and the ground and it's game over for the living cloud creatures. However, this could be mitigated by making the membranes of the creatures naturally flame resistant. Or they could somehow fill themselves with hot air instead of hydrogen (I think that's a bit harder for a simple animal to maintain, but it could work for story purposes).

Or perhaps these cloud creatures could maintain long tentacles that trail down to the ground and drag them along as the cloud moves across the sky, serving as a ground (or "earth" if you're in the UK) to equalize the charges, preventing a deadly lightning bolt from striking in the first place. This would allow for some interesting possibilities, such as the cloud getting anchored to a tree by accident or a strong human or other being having the chance to climb up to the top of the cloud using one of the tentacle ropes. In fact, the problems of tentacles would probably imply a creature with enough intelligence to be able to raise or lower the tentacles, a single living creature floating on hydrogen instead of a colony.

As a final note on this story idea, while it is true what I'm presenting is original to me, I know that some similar ideas have been proposed. Especially in the atmospheres of gas giant planets it's been suggested that floating creatures could exist (I recall Carl Sagan saying so back in the 80s). I also know that I've heard of floating animals in a fantasy context. I haven't heard of floating animals that look just like a cloud in other stories, but I would not be surprised at all if another writer has used this idea before.

But as you can see, this story setting concept has quite a number of different potential applications. I doubt all of them have been used. I don't as of yet have a story of my own using this idea, but I may get to it someday. May other writers and story lovers find the possibilities as interesting as I do!

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Dolphin Rocket Jockies and Interstellar Navigators

I was just contemplating the idea of sports played in microgravity or low gravity by human beings. But I think humans would have trouble with 3D sports. Our mindset is very often linear. Or planar--two practical dimensions, width and depth, that's how we think. It seems to me that most humans would get confused in playing a truly three dimensional game.

While its true that there are humans who pilot aircraft in the three dimensions of the atmosphere and other humans dive in the ocean, managing to do well enough in liquid three dimensions to get by, my sense is true mastery of three dimensional movement is something human beings are not especially good at. Even aircraft combat tactics tend to find planes to fight in from what I've read on the topic (though this is in part because airplanes don't move in all directions with equal ease).

So what if in the future humans finally discover how to communicate well with dolphins and enlist dolphins as fighter pilots in combat spacecraft? Or as interstellar navigators? Dolphins deal with three dimensional movement every day of their lives and probably do a lot better job of it that a human being could ever naturally do.

Note that what I'm suggesting does not require dolphins to be fully as intelligent as humans overall. My speculative idea in fact only considers dolphins superior in mastery of motion in 3D. Though in a story setting one could imagine they are as smart or smarter even in every way. Or alternatively that their spatial motion ability is their only special mental trick. For the record, I don't believe dolphins are as fully intelligent as humans, but that wouldn't stop me from using this idea for a story.

Perhaps instead a story could feature a human-dolphin hybrid, able to use language the way human beings do (and perhaps also with human aggressiveness), but every bit as much a master of all three spatial dimensions of the universe we ordinarily experience. I wonder what such a hybrid would look like? And how would such a creature be produced in the first place? And by whom?

If I were to use the phrase "Dolphins in space," that might sound like a corny science fiction movie from the 50s. But dolphins have in fact been featured in serious science fiction stories by writers as well-known as Larry Niven and Anne McCaffrey. But this particular angle, the mastery of three dimensions being the primary reason dolphins would be in space, has not been focused on in science fiction to my knowledge...

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