The Big Idea: Ian Douglas
Posted on November 30, 2021 Posted by John Scalzi 4 Comments
How to get readers to accept the impossible — or, at least, the wildly implausible? Author Ian Douglas has a technique for that, and in this Big Idea for Solar Warden: Alien Hostiles, he’s come to lay it out for you.
Solar Warden: Alien Hostiles is the second book in an SF trilogy, and the big Big Ideas in that entry are of course those that define the entire series. Big Ideas for the individual entries in the series are, perforce, based on the defining motifs for the trilogy as a whole. The Biggest Idea, then, for the entire Solar Warden series involves a rather strange series of suppositions:
What if one of the major conspiracy theory clusters of the 21st century is absolutely true?
What if Roswell really happened, and the U.S. government captured and reverse-engineered recovered alien spacecraft?
What if the government secretly established diplomatic relationships with those aliens, and received substantive help in creating a space navy with technology that would put Star Trek to shame, a navy out exploring the Galaxy right now, and not centuries hence?
And what if not all of those advanced alien civilizations have our best interests at heart?…
This is precisely the scenario suggested by Scottish hacker Gary McKinnon in 2002, who claimed to have discovered top-secret files and photographs when he broke into NASA and U.S. Department of Defense computer networks in what one government official called “the biggest military computer hack of all time.” I took his tale of giant human-crewed starships and an extraterrestrial Navy and flew with it. After all, one takes one’s inspiration where one can.
I was, of course, taking a marketing risk in pursuing this concept. UFOs still carry something of a giggle factor even in this day of inexplicable U.S. Navy camera footage made public, and many stories about them are just plain silly, to say the least. This often leads critics to dismiss books featuring alien visitations as just tired old retreads of the same-ol’ same-ol’.
One way I got around the familiarity of the typical UFO story was to join the scoffers’ club and debunk some of the ideas and theories within the genre. This allowed me to weed out some of the truly nonsensical ideas floating around out there… and to weave what remained into a more or less coherent whole.
For example, I trashed one wild story about a 1970s exchange program with Zeta Reticuli in fairly short order, though I expect numerous True Believers will take me to task for such blasphemy. Zeta Reticuli is a real star—two stars, actually, orbiting some 400 astronomical units apart. In current UFO lore, Zeta Retic is home to an alien civilization, and a supposed diary kept by one of the human visitors to the planet described in some detail the double star in the sky—complete with a melodramatic vista like the one seen on Star Wars’ Tatooine. I discussed, in passing, how that description could not possibly be true in light of what we know about the actual system. By giving the lie to a self-evidently preposterous hoax in the narrative, I helped readers swallow other wild ideas that, at least marginally, seem a bit more plausible.
I was able to use this technique to expand somewhat pedestrian and often implausible ideas into more believable and less giggle-worthy scenarios, to mold and reshape the mad, discordant welter of existing UFO lore into a coherent whole. By debunking the obviously insane, what remained seems, by contrast, to be true.
And for me, it’s that feeling of truthfulness in the narrative that maintains its grip on SF readers from one improbability to the next, leading them into worlds and situations that are purely imaginal, the stuff of wonder.
While Alien Hostiles shares the overall Big Ideas of the trilogy’s story arc, it does have elements unique to it. Much of the book’s plot revolves around a character, a human from the far future slumming in the present, who became involved in helping the Nazis before and during World War II… though she saw it as a failed attempt to control them. During the course of my research, I learned of a historical person, one Maria Orsic, a mediumistic mystic who became a kind of high priestess to Himmler and other Nazi leaders obsessed with the occult and with information supposedly channeled from alien beings. As the story developed, I had the proverbial ah-ha moment and changed course in my writing, making my fictional time traveler and the historical Maria Orsic one and the same. The historical Orsic had written about the star Aldebaran and, before she mysteriously vanished, claimed to be off to join aliens there. This gave me the ultimate destination for Alien Hostiles’ journey and formed a solid foundation for the entire book.
Personally, I rather doubt Mr. McKinnon’s tale of Star Trekkian navies out among the stars today. And, damn it, the ubiquitous Gray aliens we’re always running into seem to me to be far too human than anything we’ll actually, and inevitably, encounter Out There. In Solar Warden had a lot of fun coming up with an alternative explanation that, just maybe, makes more sense than truly alien creatures obsessed with human reproduction.
Well, I do try to get the science right in my tales, though this can make working with long-established cultural myths problematic. But ultimately, the goal in writing this sort of fiction is less about getting the science right or about “explaining” contradictory mythologies than it is about telling a taut, tightly woven story that feels true and which entertains the reader.And hey. If the story also makes the reader think—Dang! What if this stuff is true?—then so much the better.
Solar Warden: Alien Hostiles: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Indiebound
Asking “What if?” is a good way to generate ideas for daydreaming and stories… and these what ifs about Roswell are really interesting. To receive technological help from extraterrestrials, so much that we’re able to form a starship navy. A possible launching place is the dark side of the Moon, and now I’m wondering if there’s a lot more activity up there than leftover astronaut boot prints.
I’m surprised you didn’t mention that “Ian Douglas” is one of William H. Keith, Jr.’s pen names.
I found that out when I was reading his first “Space Marine” trilogy, and I was on a Con panel with Bill – and he had the book I was reading to show to the audience!
Secretly reverse engineering alien hardware in recent history? Secret human space navy Right Now? Unfriendly aliens out there?
That’s most of what went on in the original “Stargate: SG-1” TV series, which was wildly popular… and I hear is being revived. Done right, you have a winning formula. Good luck!
I am a bit scared to read Ian Douglas these days .
I pretty much lost interest into the Star Carrier series – seems to drag way too much.
I might give it a try.