Daily Archives: October 13, 2009

Speaking of Star Trek

Treksters, your latest nerdgasm has just arrived:

Yes, the Internet’s own Wil Wheaton is collecting up his memories of his Trek days. To quote the blurbage:

From Encounter at Farpoint to Datalore, relive the first half of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s unintentionally hilarious first season through the eyes, ears and memories of cast member and fan Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) as he shares his unique perspective in the episode guide you didn’t even know you were dying to read.

ENJOY snarky episode recaps!

EXPAND your Technobabble vocabulary!

AMUSE your friends with quotable dialog!

BOLDLY go behind the scenes!

Nifty. If’n you love you some Next Generation — and who among us other than Charlie Stross does not? — this is going to be some fun reading. Because that Wheaton fella, well, see. He’s kinda amusing, he is.

The Big Idea: Cherie Priest

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big ol’ fan of Cherie Priest’s work — I blurbed one of her previous novels, you know — but even factoring in my enjoyment of her work, I have to say that Boneshaker, Priest’s latest, very simply rocks: It’s not only the steampunk adventure you’ve been waiting for, it’s the steampunk adventure you can give to friends of yours who wonder what the hell’s up with all those Victorian overcoats and goggles. This one’s got dirigibles, it’s got alternate history, it’s got zombies, and it’s got a mother bear of a protagonist in Briar Wilkes. I could go on, but it would just be more squee.

And besides, Priest is here to talk about the book herself, and specifically how to make steampunk not only attractive and interesting, but logical for the world and setting in which she places it. How much does it take? Well. I’ll let her explain.


I’m a big nonfiction nerd because, well, let’s face it—nothing I make up could possibly be any weirder than some of the stuff that’s already happened in real life. I think that’s one reason I’ve been drawn to the steampunk vibe for so long: It very often draws from historic characters and events, merrily warping actual people and stuff to better fit somebody’s narrative (or costuming) needs.

But I’m also a context geek and a setting dork, and when I came around to trying my own hand at steampunk, I talked and wrote myself in circles trying to find a good reason for advanced Victorian technology to be rumbling around in my alternate-history universe. Merely waving a magic wand and saying, “Because I said so, ta-da!” didn’t quite cut it; I wanted a better grounding and excuse for the tech I was determined to employ.

If I intended to throw a monkey wrench into history, I wanted it to be a good, worthy, marginally credible monkey wrench.

So I was talking with a friend of mine about the two things that drive technology most efficiently—that would be, (1). pornography, and (2). warfare. Tossing aside option #1 as a bit improbable for a pulp adventure’s genesis (though I’m still considering it, mind you), I turned to option #2 and began brainstorming. To help my brainstorming along, this same friend (Andrea Jones, can I get a what-what?) sent me a wonderful quote from a wonderful tome written in 1862:

In this age of invention the science of arms has made great progress. In fact, the most remarkable inventions have been made since the prolonged wars of Europe in the early part of the century, and the short Italian campaign of France in 1859 served to illustrate how great a power the engines of destruction can exert.*

Perfect. Yes. And I was off.

Though most of the steampunk I’d seen was grounded in a gaslamp London setting, I wanted to do an American piece; and gosh darn it, if only America’d had some big, monstrous, catastrophic war going on in the nineteenth century … OH WAIT A MINUTE. We totally had one of those. It only lasted four years (give or take), but a quick poke through a library’s archives or even a good internet search turns up a whole mess of patents for war devices that were never made. If only the inventors hadn’t run out of war …

So that’s where I started. To create the steampunk universe that scaffolds Boneshaker, I dragged out America’s Civil War another fifteen years.

Not as easy as it sounds, of course. As a mostly-life-long southerner, I’d heard all the hypotheticals that could have let led to a Confederate victory; but I didn’t want a Confederate victory. I wanted a hideous, protracted, drawn-out struggle that would leave the west unincorporated, lawless, and still largely populated by Native Americans. Really, was that asking so much?

I started small. More extensive English involvement. Better transportation infrastructure. Cinched off the immigration (and seemingly unending soldier supply) to New York City.

And then I thought … Texas. Oh, what the heck—let’s keep it a republic. And let’s give it Spindletop (where oil was first discovered in that territory in 1901) a good fifty years earlier. Furthermore, let’s make Texas a technological superpower, since it would have had such wonderful incentive to develop machines to make use of the black gold. While we’re at it, yeah. Let’s give ‘em diesel power. After all, the patent for the first diesel engine went into play several years before Texas had oil. In real life. Which is not what we’re talking about here. Just imagine what a powerful ally Texas would’ve been to the south. Unless, of course, they were having their historic issues firming up the lines between the republic and Mexico. Hmm…

So you can see how I got off the rails there a bit. After all, I was setting out to write a story set in Seattle, Washington, where frankly not a whole lot was going on before the late nineteenth century. BUT I COULD FIX THAT. All I did was jack up the Klondike gold rush by forty years, which would’ve swelled the population tenfold by the 1860s.

And after all that map-drawing, history-tweaking, and time-reworking, that’s what I came back to—Seattle, all but destroyed by a mining accident (of sorts) in 1863, walled up, and filled with zombies stewing in a poisonous gas. Meanwhile, the war back east has prevented any federal help from the United States, and war technology has filtered all the way to the west coast. Combat dirigibles either stolen or bought from the military now move guns, drugs, and less contraband supplies back and forth over the Rockies. Weird weapons are de rigueur, and military deserters sneak into the western population, hoping to disappear.

For the folks who survived the destruction of Seattle, help never comes.

Out of this—this messy, elaborate, amateur restructuring of history—came what is essentially a very small story. Boneshaker takes place over seventy-two hours, and centers on only two people: a mother and her son. Because at the end of the day, the most interesting thing about the Clockwork Century (my catch-all term for the world-setting) is the people who occupy it.

And all this set-up aside, that is the big idea.

* From (and I am not making this up, this is the book’s full title): History of the Great Rebellion. From its commencement to its close, giving an account of its origin, The Secession of the Southern States, and the Formation of the Confederate Government, the concentration of the Military and Financial resources of the federal government, the development of its vast power, the raising, organizing, and equipping of the contending armies and navies; lucid, vivid, and accurate descriptions of battles and bombardments, sieges and surrender of forts, captured batteries, etc., etc.; the immense financial resources and comprehensive measures of the government, the enthusiasm and patriotic contributions of the people, together with sketches of the lives of all the eminent statesmen and military and naval commanders, with a full and complete index. From Official Sources. By Thomas P. Kettell. Naturally, we used this as the introductory quote to Boneshaker. The copy editor nearly had a fit.


Boneshaker: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read the prologue to Boneshaker. Visit The Clockwork Century, Priest’s site for all things steampunkish. Follow Priest on Twitter.

A Boy’s Own Genre, or Not

Another thing for people to please stop sending to me: a recent and fairly random blog post in a purported online magazine, the premise of which essentially boils down to: “Science Fiction is by boys and for boys and now girls are ruining it for anyone with testicles, except the gays, who are just like girls anyway (and whose testicles frighten me).” I’m not going to link to it, as abject misogynist stupidity should not be rewarded with links. You can track it down on your own if you like.

Nevertheless, two general points to make here.

1. Verily I say unto thee that science fiction is founded on girl cooties, so anyone dumb enough to whine about those awful women ruining SF for boys really does need to STFU and take his ignorant ass back to his snug little wank hole;

2. What? An insecure male nerd threatened by the idea that women exist for reasons other than the dispensing of sandwiches and topical applications of boobilies, mewling on the Internet about how girls are icky? That’s unpossible!

At this late date, when one of these quailing wonders appears, stuttering petulantly that women are unfit to touch the genre he’s already claimed with his smudgy, sticky fingerprints, the thing to do is not to solemnly intone about how far science fiction has yet to go. Science fiction does have a distance to go, but these fellows aren’t interested in taking the journey, and I don’t want to have to rideshare with them anyway. So the thing to do is to point and laugh.

Well, actually, the thing to do is trap such creatures in a dork snare (cunningly baited with Cool Ranch Doritos, Diet Ultra Violet Mountain Dew and a dual monitor rig open to Drunken Stepfather on one screen and Duke Nukem 3D on the other), and then cart them to a special preserve somewhere in Idaho for such as their kind. We’ll tell them it’s a “freehold” — they’ll like that — and that they will be with others of a like mind, and there they will live as men, free from the horrible feminizing effects of women and their gonad shriveling girl rays. And then we’ll tag them with GPS and if they ever try to leave the freehold, we’ll have them hunted down by roller derby teams with spears. That’s really the optimal solution.

But since we can’t do that, then pointing and laughing will suffice. So, yes: let’s all point and laugh at these funny little terrified stupid men, and then ignore them. Because that’s what they rate.

Teching the Tech

Charlie Stross does a little venting over a comment of former Star Trek: The Next Generation writer (and later Battlestar Galactica producer) Ron Moore, in which Moore reveals that the writers on ST:TNG didn’t bother to actually insert any science into their fiction:

He described how the writers would just insert “tech” into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they’d have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

“It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories,” Moore said. “It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we’d just write ‘tech’ in the script. You know, Picard would say ‘Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.’ I’m serious. If you look at those scripts, you’ll see that…

“It’s a rhythm and it’s a structure, and the words are meaningless. It’s not about anything except just sort of going through this dance of how they tech their way out of it.”

Charlie’s vent is worth the price of admission, so I won’t summarize it here and will instead encourage you to click through and read it on your own. My own thoughts on this are:

1. I think it was already pretty obvious that ST:TNG was “teching the tech” quite a bit, since the solution to almost any major problem was to discover a new type of particle that, if it were reversed through the deflector, just might get the Enterprise out of that time loop/gravitational funnel/the event horizon of the writer’s lack of technical imagination. In other words, it was clear the science was pretty inorganic relative to the rest of what went on in the show.

2. At this point in my life (and, really, for the last quarter century at least), I simply make the assumption that film and television science fiction is going to hump the bunk on the “plausible extrapolation” aspect of their science, and factor that in before I start watching. This allows me to both not want to murder the writers when the bad science shows up, and to be pleasantly surprised when it’s not bad. But, yes, when you admit that Star Trek has as much to do with plausibly extrapolated science as The A-Team has to do with a realistic look at the lives of military veterans, life gets easier. This is particularly the case with the new Star Trek film, which is a “teching the tech” exercise if there ever was one.

Meta to this is the discussion of why we have to accept that film/tv SF is riding the shortbus — there’s no actual reason it has to be that way — but let’s not get into that right at the moment.

3. All of that said, and to move into my own personal experience in televised science fiction, one of the things I can say about Stargate: Universe is that its writers aren’t “teching the tech” — when the scripts get to me as the consultant, the parts with the science are already written in and part of the plot. I tweak those parts to make them more plausible when necessary; what I don’t do is just spew some jargon into the script because the writer couldn’t be arsed to do it him or herself.

I’m not going to say every bit of science or tech in SG:U is brilliant I’ve mentioned before that the goal is to get the audience through the episode, not to rigorously test scientific hypotheses — or that we’re going to get it right in every case. What I am going to say is that when we do get it wrong, we fail honestly, and not because we just teched the tech. It’s not that difficult to make an effort in that direction.