Category: Writing

I don’t know how to make a phaser

Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a decent non-projectile based energy weapon side-arm that is vaguely gun shaped. They might blast, phase, zap, pew-pew, disrupt or disintegrate but they have to give auditory and visual clues that they are operating. A silent and invisible beam of death may work quite effectively in a book but on screen its going to just look weird in battle scene. I can imagine some future small arms manufacturer adding colour beams and sound effects to an energy weapon just because customers are creeped out by an otherwise apparently inanimate gun.

At one level beam weapons are well understood technology. People know how lasers work and the technology of using pulses of high energy particles as a weapon is something that arms manufacturers have been exploring for decades. A hand held version of such devices would be an engineering challenge beyond modern day capability but as a piece of speculative technology it’s not anything like as absurd as an FTL drive.

Even so, the kind of effects shown on movies for such weapons don’t really match what we might expect from real energy weapons. Aside from the noise and the visible pulses, on-screen energy weapons hit people and objects in ways that imply momentum. Han Solo’s blaster will knock back a stormtrooper or cause things to explode like they’ve been punched. Sci-fi weapons inherit the fictional aspects of real weapons (e.g. handguns in movies are often shown as throwing people around more than a bullet impact actually would) and then exaggerate them for reasons due to the aesthetics of battle scenes.

Meanwhile, the Star Trek phaser has to do all that Star Wars blaster does but also act as a cutting tool and have a handy-dandy stun setting. A stun weapon appears to act not unlike an electromagnetic-pulse weapon but on a person’s nervous system. I can see how such a weapon might have varying degrees of impact on a person (including both lethal and hopefully less than lethal settings) but it would be quite different in principle to the kind of energy beam device that the Star Trek phaser is at other times.

The sci-fi generic ray gun is a mix of devices:

  • A force field weapon. It actually makes sense if force fields exist in a sci-fi setting (ignoring how they might work) that the same technology could be weaponised. A narrow force field that projects outwards for a short period and then dissipates would be not just a weapon but a handy power tool. You could make a hammer out of it or maybe a screwdriver…
  • A regular energy beam weapon. Lasers have been around in reality for a long time and can zap energy from one spot to another and burn things. It needn’t be photons – it could be a beam of ionised particles (which might better explain all the light and sound effects, as the particles might cause gases in the air to glow or expand creating noise).
  • Some kind of EMP weapon that somehow (waves hand) effect nervous systems or something. In reality nothing would neatly stun a person without danger of death.

In truth they are all fantasies, controlled by aesthetic and plot considerations– weapons whose effects change to fit circumstance and which can be deadly when the story needs deadly or which can bloodlessly incapacitate somebody when the story needs that.


Telegraph time machine

This is a follow up to yesterday’s post about digital time travel, My initial thought as to why it wouldn’t actually work was that it violates the speed of light. However, I’m less sure of that and now think conservation of energy would be the more obvious problem. Obviously its all messed up as far as causality goes but that’s inherent in any time travel device.

To simplify matters, I’ve reduced the scenario to simply a backwards telegraph sending a single Morse code like ‘dash’ a short distance back in time to another telegraph station,

An act of insubordination to the laws of nature

The numbers show the sci-fi time travel sequence and left-to-right shows the normal passage of time.

  1. The operator uses the telegram key to send a ‘dash’ pulse.
  2. The time machine sends it backwards in time down the telegraph wires.
  3. The signal passes along the wires, covering the same distance in the same amount of elapsed time as a regular “dash”.
  4. The other telegraph signal “receives” the signal. However, to an observer, it will look like the  “dash” originated at the past telegram office and is being sent regularly down the wires. They key hasn’t moved but it will look like it made the dash.
  5. I’ve got the dash appearing on a ticker tape but that would only happen if the telegram office printed out the telegrams they SEND rather than just the ones they recieved.

Because the signal is traveling both backwards in time and backwards in space (so to speak), it actually looks physically conventional. The whole thing looks like a signal going from the past telegram officer to the future telegram office if we just look at the signal going down the wires.

The freaky bit is that the past telegram office appears to send a “dash”  without anybody pressing the key. The electricity appears from nowhere! Meanwhile, the future telegram office produces an electrical pulse that to a regular observer just disappears. Those no net gain in energy overall, so you couldn’t build a perpetual motion machine but there is a short term localized violation of the conservation of energy.

I thought of a different form of time travel

I was thinking about this post and I realized I’d forgotten about one of my favourite time travel stories: Timescape by Gregory Benford. The novel now suffers a little from having its future parts set in 1998 (although maybe not, if you think about how it ends) and I haven’t re-read it recently but it intrigued me when I was younger.

The plot involves two physicists: one in the UK in 1998 and one in California in the 50s/60s. 1998 is in the midst of an ecological disaster due to a toxic algal bloom that is out of control. Using tachyons, an attempt is made to send a message to the past that hopefully will be just enough to mitigate the disaster without stopping it so as to avoid a paradox. The time travel in the story is purely information, although it uses our sci-fi favourite of tachyons.

That message from the future got me thinking. Practically there’s obviously no way to send an electrical signal down a wire into the past (i.e. this I’m engaging with fiction here not an actual proposal). I suppose that information arriving at a destination before it left its starting point violates the speed of light but looked at just in terms of distance traveled over elapsed time it doesn’t.

Imagine a far-future AI that propagates itself backwards in time, hopping down networks of fibres and wires into the past. It can only travel so far, obviously, because at some point there’s just not enough computing power to host its existence in the past and going even further back, there’s just not enough interconnected wires to travel down. The earliest time it could travel back to would be around the 1990s when there’s enough infrastructure and enough always-on internet for it to exist.

More interestingly would be such an AI travelling back to now. Perhaps it could go back earlier but at this point in history there’s just enough internet of things, internet connected robots/drones etc that the AI could actually DO things.

There’s elements of that idea in the not-very-good Terminator franchise film Terminator: Genisys but it still uses a more whizz-bang time travel machine.

Come to think of it, drones etc aren’t needed. The AI presumably could access bank accounts and send convincing emails to people. It could just pay people to do stuff for it, including pay people to build more advanced technology for it. It could even lodge patents or buy shares or invent social media platforms…

I assume this has been done before (in fiction that is, not in actuality) but I can’t think of an example.

The Concerning Fine by Tim Catzi: Part 2 of the Colluding Umpire

Chapter 1
The Countess Moggymotheaten of the House of Moggymotheaten surveyed her surroundings on her palatial spaceship.
“F-ck, f-ck, f-ck,” she said using her customary choice of vocabulary.
“Would…” asked her lawyer and occasional ex-lover Buggles Tinternabbeygiftshop, “…you like to me to…take care of this unfortunate incident for you?”
“Of course I want you to f_cking, f-ck take f_cking, f-ck, f-ck care of f_cking it. F_ck” said the Countess.
Then for good measure she repeated the word “F_ck” sixty seven more times at varying distances from Buggles Tinternabbeygiftshop’s face.

Chapter 2
Across the Interminabledependnecy a thousand human habitations drifted through a pithy and not wholly irrelevant info dump that, with a few asides, discussed much of both the history and the underlying physics of the setting of this novel.

True, most of the population of the Interminabledependnecy already knew this, having sat through (as a largely un-talkative population) the first novel of this series and beside which they had all presumably gone to school or something, although the exact details of how these people lived is beside the point as we’ll largely be looking at the lives of particularly sweary aristocrats for several more chapters.

Chapter 3
The Emperatrix Betty Niceperson considered her options which despite the massive power of her position was highly limited. Not naturally being a sweary aristocrat left Betty Niceperson at a distinct disadvantage when negotiating with the powerful families of Interminabledependnecy. She simply did not know how to say “F_ck” with sufficient vehemence to make herself understood. She had experimented with saying “gosh darn it” but it hadn’t had the same effect.
Just then Buggles Tinternabbeygiftshop arrived with his customary vague threat from the Countess Moggymotheaten.
“I’m sorry,” explained the Emperatrix, “I’ve completely lost track of which person was my half-brother and which person was the Moggymotheaten scion I was supposed to marry and which one was trying to murder me.”
“The simple answer,” explained Buggles, “Is they are in fact all exactly the same person with different names. It’s a technical term we call SRAMP.”
“SRAMP” said Brunomars Nicechap, the Emperatrix’s pet physicist from the first book.
“Some rich arsehole merchant prince,” explained Buggles acronymically.
“I see,” said Betty,” but how does that help with the imminent collapse of the Empire?”
“It doesn’t,” explained Buggles, “I just accidentally wandered in from the earlier chapter.

Chapter 4
“F_cccckkkkkk” continued the Countess Moggymotheaten for at least another few paragraphs.

Chapter 5
Brunomars Nicechap stood in front of the crowd of angry looking space geologists.
“Please,” he pleaded, “you have to believe me that the whole Interminabledependnecy is going to collapse!”
“Of course we believe you,” said the scientists, “your math checks out and anyway the whole thing started to collapse in the last book. We aren’t idiots.”
“But, but, we’ve a whole chapter to fill with you guys not believing me.” said Brunomars Nicechap.
“Maybe we could just all sit here and check our emails instead?” suggested the scientists.
Which is what they did.

Chapter 6
“F_cccckkkkkk” continued the Countess Moggymotheaten for at least another few chapters.

Chapter 7
“What was I doing again?” asked Buggles Tinternabbeygiftshop of the Emperatrix.
“I think you were still supposed to be in chapter 1 getting orders from the Countess Moggymotheaten.” suggested Betty as nicely as possible.
“There’s not much point, she’ll be swearing for another six chapters at least.” said Buggles.
“Well we could have sex instead?” suggested Betty.
“Only if it is perfunctory and somewhat unerotic,” suggested Buggles.
“F_ck,” said the Emperatrix.

Chapter 8
Then the Interminabledependnecy collapsed.
“F_ck” said everybody.

“That’s not how you write a novel,” said Jonathon Franzen.

“F_ck off, Jonathon Franzen,” said the Countess Moggymotheaten who then crashed a spaceship into the sun.

Ask a Triceratops: Susan’s 10 Rules for Novelists

Jonathon is a famous novelist and he has written me a long letter which I won’t quote because it goes on a bit. It seems he has decided to copy my writing advice style and produced a list of “10 rules” for novelists. Now everybody is laughing at him and he is sad. He’d like to know if I could suggest 10 different rules that would save him from mockery?

Absolutely Jono! Only too happy to help a struggling novelist out!

  1. Ensure your primary narrator is comfortable. Remember the novel is an aural medium and your narrator should have a comfy nest of uprooted plants to stand or lie down on.
  2. Pay attention to the little things: how did the t-rex get drunk? What kind of tree is she trying to climb?
  3. Your secondary narrator shouldn’t be too colourful a character as this can distract from your tertiary narrator or the triceratops that is recovering from having a t-rex fall on her.
  4. Use sentences or sentence fragments or isolated words or phrases or grunting noises. 
  5. Don’t use gestures to get your point across. OK maybe that works for humans but classic triceratopian literature never uses gestures and you really can’t argue with a literary form with that kind of longevity.
  6. Avoid mammals. Not just in your novels but in life in general. At worst they’ll eat your eggs and at best they get underfoot.
  7. Don’t use “then” as a conjunction. Instead use a strong twine made out of twisted strips of bark.
  8. Setting fires to things can be fun but be careful you don’t cause a stampede or burn down the whole savannah.
  9. Your t-rex doesn’t need much motivation or character development. They are blundering drunken fools the lot of them.
  10. There’s nothing wrong with standing in the rain shouting your novel at a thundering sky, defying the lightning to strike you down as you declaim your truth to the heavens but don’t do this while holding an umbrella like my friends cat did that one time. On the other hand a cat highly charged with static electricity makes for an excellent if bad tempered duster.

Ask A Triceratops: Libraries!


Hi to everybody! I’m back in this timeframe after taking care of some business in Fungus Town of the Far Future! Our question today is about libraries:

“My friend is a writer and I love her books but I always borrow them from the library rather than buy a copy. I live in a small apartment and I’ve no room for books and money is short. Am I a terrible person?”

Isla Borrows

Hi Isla,

Thanks for the question. Let me reassure you that in triceratops culture NOBODY expects you to buy anybody’s book. We don’t have “libraries” as such as ours is more of an oral tradition of story telling. Also we don’t have book stores. Also we don’t have any kind of shops. Also we don’t have money.

Let me explain.

Triceratops are many things: wry observers of life, witty raconteurs, tank-like stomping machines crushing the furry ovophages we despise but also we are herbivores. We eat unprocessed food. We like eating unprocessed food, grazing is pleasurable for us. Also we are creatures of the plains, we neither seek nor need shelter because we are armoured against our enemies even the elements.

Now ask yourself, what possible role has commerce among a herd of triceratops? We don’t need somebody to cook or prepare food for us nor build a house nor fashion tools for us. We live in a society without goods. Without goods we have no need for money.

Like any social creature we produce art and culture but these are things we borrow and share because of their intrinsic nature.

Your primate friend though lives in the confused putrid nexus of an omnivorous (panivorous?) species’s metastasised complex of reciprocity gone badly awry and twisted into the perversion known as “trade”. They must write to earn tokens to trade for bread because their weak jaws cannot masticate the husky grain directly nor can their weak stomachs gain any nutrients from the abundant grasses that bless this era.

The good news is that borrowing their book from a library helps them as an author. Libraries help promote books and authors to people who READ BOOKS. This, I am told, is called ‘targeted advertising’ . It’s not unlike when a fungus person reaches their fruiting cycle and climbs to the top of the nearest tall building and flings their spores into the miasma: it is only those spores that settle in the places that are damp and dark which will spawn. A library is like one of those dank places and your friend’s book is like a spore and you borrowing their book keeps that damp place warm for the sporlings.

My advice to you is let your friend know that you are helping incubate the mildewy essence of her ideas.

Best of Luck!


Bootstrap worldbuilding

In that review of The Dragon Prince, I wanted a term to describe the kinds of initial, upfront worldbuilding that’s done by a prologue or even by the cover of a book. It’s not neccesarily an info-dump (although The Dragon Prince example was) but could be from a map at the start or a conversation early in the story.

I thought “bootstrap worldbuilding” sort of works — providing enough premise and backstory that the rest of the plot can deliver the world more organically. A classic is obviously Tolkein’s opening paragraph to The Hobbit, which doesn’t just let you know that the book will feature a small fantastical person but already sets up aspects of Bilbo’s character. I discussed already how sparingly Avatar managed this bootstrap worldbuilding in the opening credits, which explain the magic system, show the shape of the world and establish the fundamental conflict. Even so, the initial episodes had a slightly longer version:

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless firebenders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the War. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads, and that the cycle is broken. But I haven’t lost hope. I still believe that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world.

I’m not sure whether the opening scene of Terminator 2 counts as this or is better thought of as a recap. Either way it establishes the science-fiction premise and establishes the stakes for the film.

Terminator 1 opens more sparingly but does a similar thing, establishing a futuristics, dystopian theme for a film that will be largely set in the present. Because of time-travel shenanigans of course, the backstory of the plot is in the future.

Star Wars (episode 4) has its famous opening crawl but I think this is more of a subversion of the idea. The text almost doesn’t matter and is there more to create a sense of a backstory than actually convey important details. The following scenes with Leia’s ship being pursued and bordedby Darth Vader establish the conflict more clearly and organically the opening text. Lucas interestingly included the text more to evoke movie serials than to set up his story.

I’ll finish with John Scalzi’s infamous parody of fantasy opening info-dump scene-setting: Still worth a chuckle.