Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Tale in the making

As even the most casual of glances at the sidebar to the right of this page will make obvious, I am a fan of science fiction and, with certain reservations, of outright fantasy. Like most other readers, I occasionally have "good story ideas"; unlike (I assume, it's a solitary process by it's nature) most of my subject-matter peers, I also try to write these out.

I've decided to outline this process here. Perhaps this will effect my achievement of a more complete story, perhaps only a slightly better understanding of how I need to alter my process. In any case, what follows is my not-quite-random collection of the story inspiration and generation process as I experience it, an important distinction. Actual authors, pretty much by definition, do something entirely else as well.

IN THE BEGINNING (of my personal literary journey) there was Jules Verne, specifically his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was 7 at the time. It took me the entire two weeks the library allowed a book to be checked out for me to finish. Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein soon appeared over (and exponentially expanded) my intellectual horizon, along with a healthy helping of Louis L'Amour for even more speculative diversion.

Today's exercise arises from my casual interest in Immanuel Velikovsky's catastrophic history thesis, the concept of an "electric universe" and the notion that we humans are on the verge of becoming the physical manifestation of our ancestor's literal subjects of worship. Or, to put this in more "traditional" sci-fi-speak, is it to be many universes or straight up time travel?

Let's see what we've got to work with.

Whenever possible, steal from the best, I say. Jerry Pournelle has extensively covered much of the general material relevant to my story. Of particular significance is the e-mail exchange with Steve Stirling, aka joat-simeon (an amalgamation of the names of two characters from the novel he co-wrote with Anne McCaffrey The City Who Fought), on the first Dark Age that ended the Bronze Age period of human history. More on this anons ...

The reasonably near-term development of human capabilities as well as our technological accomplishments also comes into play ... you know, the god-like abilities who's pending arrival we all take more-or-less for granted? For examples and ideas, I rely on websites like Brian Wang's Next Big Future, Brian Westanhaus' New Energy and Fuel and the consortium that is Al Fin (in their many manifestations) for details and plain-language explanations of technology and scientific developments.

Of course, there are the many books examining the varied applications of the philosophy of bing fa and the science of strategy from Sun Tzu's seminal work The Art of War by Gary Gagliardi. These especially will always reflect heavily on any central character I imagine.

[Editorial Side Note: A regular problem for me is avoiding making my characters too much in agreement with my own beliefs and inclinations. How to approach in a positive manner a character I basically don't like or radically disagree with?]

Let me touch on one other matter while in preparatory mode; story rights. Basically, this is either a legal issue for my putative publisher to assist in defending or it's a non-issue. Which is the actuality to date. One has to have published something for there to be anything to which one can lay claim to rights to, don't you know. I hope this won't prove too controversial an assertion, but there really are no completely original stories left to tell concerning the human condition (there's a pretty convincing argument made that W. Shakespeare covered the lot - all since is mere reiteration). The best one can hope to achieve is an entertaining re-examination of an issue or circumstance - hopefully with some novel combination of obstacles and realistic-seeming mechanism's to advance the tale. If anyone else draws inspiration from my speculations here they will still be telling their own take on a well-established sci-fi convention. If I am ever able to complete my version, then that story will be different in ways unique to me.

Forthwith, the story:

Circa mid-2030's, we find a mixed US Naval and Marine Expeditionary Force (which largely consists of engineering specialists) playing host to a scientific team testing experimental stealth technology as that applies to ships under weigh. Somewhere in the mid-S. Atlantic, the assault ship (think aircraft carrier with internal well deck to launch LCAC hovercraft and other assault boats) and an escort vessel (a US Coast Guard cutter detached for foreign service and designed for littoral operations) take station upon each other at a distance of 100 yards separation. The science team initiate their test to distort lightwaves around the vessels to make them effectively invisible from observation by satellites monitoring from NEO.

Cue the heavy music and - hopefully not too predictably - it all goes dramatically wrong. Both ships and the water they are sailing through (to a distance of ~2,000 yards) "change" to (it is later learned) the exact point in Solar celestial orbit that the Earth inhabited X-thousand years in the past (however many millennium that works out to be - I'm assuming ~ 10k years).

The question of "who were the pre-Bronze Age people who's ultimate society failed so spectacularly as to be known as the First Dark Age" is thus answered. Or, at least, who their ancestors were.

Is it time travel? Is it travel into an alternate universe? Is their some measurable distinction between the two that makes any practical difference to the protagonists? All are distractions and entirely beside the point, but getting to that realisation contains rich fodder for the many characters potentially available (about 2200 total between the two ships).

I'm thinking that a useful device might be to scatter as many brief references to individuals as possible into the narrative introducing or examining the effect of some bit of technology or capability present aboard the ships. Whether or not that person re-appears will depend upon where (and how long) the story ends up going, but I don't want to find myself later limited by not having a plausible character or mechanism to effect an eventuality.

There are limits, of course.

No strong AI for one, that's too much like magic for my purposes (thank you, Sir Arthur). Another is the ability to manipulate the chemical/physical bonds at the molecular/atomic level to create materials or effect changes in people. I think it plausible to assert that there exists a tendency for artificial materials to revert back to their natural state over a sufficiently long period of time. Thus, the science team, sailors and Marines aren't really ageless or especially physically superior to the historical norm without regular maintenance and continued upgrades to both themselves and their equipment.

Any of the crew or scientists aboard has the technology to download much of the Library of Congress into internalized memory-storage and interface technology and access it in usable fashion, but that doesn't equate to a physical ability to accomplish such a learned task without suitable (if largely virtual) training and practice of the physical skill sets involved.

The Marine Corp tradition of all Marines being riflemen first notwithstanding, the Marines aboard are a Combat Engineering Battalion with a heavy leavening of Civil Affairs specialties and Navy independent-duty medical Corpsmen. They possess an extensive collection of the basic skill sets required to survive and prosper without external support in addition to the basic capability to overcome direct human efforts in opposition. Their primary mission is to force access to a littoral region, overcoming both deliberate and natural obstruction as circumstances warrent.

Finally, in an effort to pre-position disaster relief capability, there exists an extensive store of supplies on-board both ships as well as a useful (if limited to one-off production) rep-rap capability combined with raw material mining sea water technology (which is limited in scope as well).

So, how to tell this complex tale? I envision a central character modeled to arguable degree upon myself. Quelle surprise and all that; go with what you know, I say. Thus, Our Hero (a character trait yet to be firmly established) will be in his mid-80's chronologically, be physically extraordinary for a non-enhanced human in his early 30's and have a wealth of experience and knowledge almost unparalleled in human history.

He also won't even come close to being the most capable individual aboard either ship by any metric except, possibly, for diversity of actual personal experience. Despite his quite dated military experience, he is a technician on the science team, all of whom have somewhat ambiguous positions within the ship-board hierarchy in any case. They are "civilians", but have assimilated military ranks as DOD contractors. They can be made to fit in, but none too comfortably for all involved. As a senior technician, our man is equivalent to a CWO-4 (the most senior rank of Warrant Officer).

There seems ample room in all of that within which to work, but there yet remains a problem. The perennial question, "What next?"

Frankly, my knowledge of Bronze Age and early (or any other period, to be honest) Greek history owes more to cinematic rather than cerebral pursuits. The story as outlined so far is all preparatory to something else happening, else it has no real point to the telling. I could always cheat and go with the, "..., but that's another story" ending, but that really doesn't satisfy. Besides, all the old Greek (and other) legends and mythology is basic to the circumstance, isn't it? Who built the Cyclopian Walls, the appearance and dis-appearance of just-off-shore islands, the origins of the Oracle of Delphi, the various "gods" and their interactions with humans, Ezekiel's Biblical accounts of "supernatural" encounter; history is a succession of potential examples that can be made plausibly relevant to a small group of "ordinary", "modern" humans forced into interaction with only just barely pre-historic humans.

I suppose this would make for a reasonably plausible vehicle to examine the possibilities our current medical and materials science discoveries suggest may become available to we the as-yet unenhanced. If anabolic steroids and cannabis are so terrible, what to make of all this? Something there, maybe ...

I think I have the basic components down, any actual writers want to venture comment?


Tam said...

Too bad you're in Tejas; immediately pre-historical civilisation is something of a passion of mine and I've managed to put together a fairly wide-ranging library.

BTW, have you read Turtledove's The Land Between The Rivers?

Will Brown said...

tam said: BTW, have you read Turtledove's The Land Between The Rivers?

Not yet. :) I kind of lost track of Harry T's doings when Stephenson published Cryptonomicon which made me blink. When I turned back to harry's work, I could no longer tell which title went with which series any more.

As you can see, what I have here is all a precursor to the Bronze Age events. I'm trying to be careful not to create an unrealistic advantage for the time/dimension travellers. Hard to do while trying to be realistic in my projections regarding technology advances from the present.

Necessary to a satisfying series I think, and possibly a stand-alone story in it's own right. I'm kicking around variations on the central theme trying to make up my mind which way to take events. I keep surprising myself with how far I can take things without making a commitment on that.

Want to play twins to my Hazel Stone sometime?