Next month, I start work on my first ever science fiction novel. I’ve spent some time sketching out the universe where this takes place, and I have to give a lot of thought to not falling back on an established franchise. In other words, don’t rewrite Star Trek. A few franchises have done that successfully. Andromeda was the Trek that never was, cobbled together from notes by Gene Roddenberry after his death. Farscape sort of upended the whole Trek concept. Galaxy Quest was a love letter/parody in a This Is Spinal Tap sort of way. John Scalzi even dumps a few Trek trappings into his Old Man’s War universe (winking at the readers every time), though Heinlein is his touchstone more than Star Trek. That said, Scalzi managed to call out the Trek writers for every fan-rage-inducing shortcut in his hilarious homage, Red Shirts.
But if you’re going to build a franchise yourself, you have to avoid certain things that scream “He watched too much Star Trek as a kid.”
So I put together a list of things I thought should be avoided and bounced it off some fellow writers and a few former Trek co-conspirators. Here’s what I came up with…
- NO TRANSPORTERS, TELEPORTATION, OR ZAP-IT-TO-SOMEPLACE-ELSE DEVICES!!!
If anything can be said to belong entirely to Star Trek, it’s the transporter, invented mainly because they didn’t have a budget to send Jeffrey Hunter to the surface in the original pilot. That’s right. At least 50 episodes and half the movies used this as a plot point because NBC wouldn’t spring for extra plywood and overtime for the stage hands.
- Minimize using names of US and British warships to name spacecraft. No one in 300 years is going to care. This was actually more a Roddenberry thing. Works great in Star Trek, but aside from a handful of names that just translate well into space, one should really find a naming scheme that’s original.
- Gov’t should not look like the US gov’t or any European gov’t. It’s space. The rules are going to change. It’ll probably be democratic. But put some thought into it. Don’t make the leader a stand-in for the President of the United States or any premier you might be fond of.
- Technology should look like magic, but magic with mechanical flaws. Clark was right. We primitives in the 21st century won’t get the technology of the day. Imagine Mark Twain suddenly having to deal with a cell phone. Yes, he was a geek, but he’d probably need his pal Nikolai Tesla to guess how it works for him. Yet think of the most advanced gadget in your possession. Aren’t there times you just want to throw it across the room, smash the keyboard, or yell at some poor schlep in India working third shift? What makes you think that’s going to change?
- Earth may not be the center of the human universe anymore, never mind anyone else’s. There’s a reason most Americans, Canadians, and Latinos’ ancestors left Europe. There’s a reason those people’s ancestors left everywhere else. It goes all the way back to Adam telling Eve, “We just got kicked out, and I don’t want to live next to those lazy Homo habilus people.” Earth, and quite likely even Mars, will be old school in an interstellar civilization.
- If all the aliens look like humans, there had better be a compelling reason. And it can’t be because you want to save a makeup artist some work or spare a producer from spending half the budget on CGI. If anything, there can be reasons that play into the fabric of your new universe.
- Some distant colonies will look like the East Coast of China or America in its heyday or postwar Europe after the Marshal plan. Most will look like a cross between a primitive astronaut camp and a western mining town
- It is likely English will be lingua franca, given how widely it’s used in diplomacy and business. However, most human worlds will have developed their own languages that don’t even exist yet.
- FTL flight should have, at the very least, side effects. It should also only be minimally explained, but at least follow some rules. Wormholes make you nauseous. Warp drive leaves people dizzy. That jump drive thing like on rebooted Battlestar Galactica should do something like make someone feel like they’ve got a nasty case of static cling or something.
- There is no crime in your ships not having some sort of force field protection or using projectile weapons. At least try to come up with some variations on the theme.
- Avoid time travel storylines completely. Not only has Star Trek done this, they’ve done too many of them, and most of them aren’t very good.
- Security people should wear some kind of protective gear. Seriously. Kevlar, chain mail, ceramic body armor… You don’t think they’d come up with something new?
- Spacecraft: Someone has to fly them. Helm should look something like an airplane or a truck so the pilot/helm knows what they’re doing
- FTL communications: Should be balky, have lag, or even not be possible or have to be rigged.
- A friend of mine suggested that there should be more artificial intelligence or robots. Maybe. The abundance or lack of them could also make another nice piece to your universe.
He also suggested that privacy might not mean what it means to use luddites. Facebook has already had an impact on how we interact, and in space, cramped quarters might mean you pretty much do everything from the nasty to showering to voiding waste in front of your crewmates.
Any other ideas? The comments are open to anything but Viagra ads. (Yes, spammers. I’m watching you.)