The Sci Fi Conundrum

So my alter ego has been working on a series of four science fiction stories, which may or may not get submitted for publication. A lot of the problem is I’m stuffing quite a bit of background into these stories and falling into an annoying cliche – expository small talk. It occurs to me that maybe I should skip the short stories and dive straight into a novel, except…

It would look suspiciously like yet another rehash of Starship Troopers.  I’ve read Troopers, and it’s not hard to like the story of a boy who goes from wild-eyed innocent to battle-hardened commander in about the same time it takes most of us to go from our junior prom to those first tentative job interviews after college. (I said most of us. Clearly, I skipped the $10,000/year cover charge to that party and opted for night school in my middle age. I digress.)

Then I read Ender’s Game.  Orson Scott Card is not Robert Heinlein, so his take is different. But Ender is a starship trooper. And so is William Madella in The Forever War. And John Perry in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (which Scalzi cheerfully admits.)

Even Star Trek isn’t immune. Both Peter David and JJ Abrams have used this template. First David in his original series based around Captain Mackenzie Calhoun (although Calhoun’s origins bear more resemblance to The Kite Runner than the privileged childhoods depicted by Heinlein, Card, and Joe Haldeman). And just in case you didn’t pick up on that, JJ Abrams deprived James T. Kirk of a father, made him a farm boy punk, and had him become an arrogant starship trooper in 2009’s Star Trek.

That’s the part that worries me. I have a character in mind, really a reboot of a character I’d written in my more fannish days. Renamed and liberated from his earlier incarnation, I have him fleeing his cushy home and accidentally ending up on a farm planet that looks suspiciously like Illinois around the time of Lincoln, only with Jeeps and plastic pre-fab buildings instead of horses and log cabins. (Hey, do you really think we’re going to settle on one of those new Earths NASA’s hunting for without packing some familiar equipment for the ride? You have to feed horses. Jeeps you can slap on solar panels and run them off laptop batteries.) It’s when the neighboring aliens drop by in a move straight out of War of the Worlds that our boy suddenly has to grow up. And that is where I’m concerned.

When I sat down to map out this brave new future world, I was more concerned with repeating Star Trek. I didn’t want my characters all standing around looking up at the stars going “Ooooh!  Aahhhh!” I also didn’t want the commanders getting preachy about how man is perfectable and this is the future where everything is magically wonderful, kumbaya.  I say this having watched Star Trek faithfully from the age of five until 36, when I burned out on it.  (Plus Voyager, which should have made Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica look like Family Guy, came off as a slightly better written version of Buck Rogers, which killed Trek for me.) So it’s not, “I hate Star Trek.” I don’t. It’s more like not mining a worn-out vein or stomping on the franchise’s reboot.

On that front, I did a good job. The humans’ “country” is a hodge-podge of different political and economic systems that have to somehow all gell together. There’s room for Marxists and the Tea Party aplenty, along with new concepts and some places where the locals pine for the “good ol’ days,” like the Roman Empire.  (Fret not. I don’t have toga-clad residents scurrying about in chariots. It’s a reboot, not a theme park.) The drive systems are not all that reliable, and in the beginning, it looks like the Colonial Era of North America, where it can take days, weeks, even months for travel and communications to reach a destination.

So it’s not happy horseshit.

And then I read The Forever War. And in Will Mandella, I saw Johnny Rico. And Ender. And John Perry. And the Chris Pine version of James T. Kirk.

Great. Now I have to make sure I’m not copying that plotline as well.

Fortunately, among all the similarity lie the differences. Starship Troopers is a post-World War II take on “The Way Things Ought to Be!” (And mind you, unlike Limbaugh’s book of the same title, Heinlein doesn’t leave you needing a shower when you finish reading.) Ender’s Game has a similar militaristic bent – Earth even fights insectoid aliens – but is a tad Puritcanical in its execution and predicts the dominance and sophistication of video games, then limited to pong at the time it was written. The Forever War stretches Vietnam from the near future to a thousand years later, with human culture getting more and more alien every time Mandella returns to civilization. Old Man’s War is a tale for the end of the dotcom era, where humanity has multiple enemies, not just a single one like the Taurans or the Buggers.

Of course, the new Star Trek has the benefit of being a continuation of the old Star Trek.  (After Nemesis, Spock goes back in time to battle a Romulan who makes Khan look like a mean drunk.)

So what do I need to avoid?

  • Insect-like aliens – Heinlein and Card already did them. Haldeman avoids it, and Scalzi just creates a menagerie of aliens who really don’t like humans much, except as an entree in some cases. Plus that horrible Starship Troopers movie killed the concept for me.
  • Polyamory – Mandatory for James T. Kirk, and I have to give Scalzi props. Perry gleefully indulges in an orgy when his fellow soldiers get their new bodies, but eventually evolves into a family man, which is apparently the norm. But it seems like anyone in Starship Troopers and The Forever War will sleep with anything that moves. (Though Haldeman’s take on homosexuality probably has gay marriage advocates cackling with glee.)
  • The fascist society – Yes, I get the overbearing central government in the face of a distant enemy. I grew up during the Cold War, remember? And if the past decade has taught us anything, there’s plenty of room for paranoid bastardry in a free and open society. In fact, we’ve elevated it to an art form.

It’s going to be a lot of work, but then I could always take time out and go back to crime. After all, it’s not that hard to write about present-day murder and mayhem. In fact, it’s still a lot of fun.