Well it has finally happened – although months later than I hoped, I’ve had a busy year. I have finally updated the cover art for the Nameless War.
in world building. First off minds out of the gutter please, I’m not about to start writing alien erotica ( although I understand a living can be made that way… ) I’m instead going to talk about it as a part of a book’s background development.
With the time travel project currently in a holding pattern while I await feedback from my test readers, I’ve been making a tentative return to the Battle Fleet setting. Now as is my way I charged into the writing without a lot of formal planning… before coming to a fairly screeching halt.
As readers of the the Nameless War will be aware, while aliens did appear in the text as speaking characters, they were very much bit parts; it was first and foremost a story about humanity. A number of reviewers did comment about the fact that the Nameless War is not set very far into the future – while I do have an explanation for that, in part it was because I wanted the human race to be still recognizable. It also saved mightily on the world building. Once you start on alien life through, well it’s best to start from the bottom.
Before we go on I suggest you take a quick look at THIS, don’t worry I can wait.
Welcome back. Now those are all terrestrial species, go back far enough and they (and us) all have common ancestors. An alien species won’t have that commonality so that leaves the writer free to come up with all kinds of wacky ideas.
Or does it?
Life in any sense that we might recognise it will seek to perpetuate itself, basically living things will look to produce more living things. If we take the terrestrial experience as a guide there is (very) broadly two basic methods – quantity Vs quality. The quantity approach is where the species produces a lot of young, with limited resources expended on each one. Most will not reach sexual maturity but by sheer weight of numbers enough will to perpetuate the species. The quality method – which we use – is the place a lot of resources into producing a small number of young. The more complex an alien ecosystem is, the more likely you’re going to see a mix of both. The other thing that terrestrial experience indicates is once you get to complex life a two gender system is the norm, (with exceptions) males – sperm, females – eggs, hermaphrodites – both. So does that mean that an alien species to be plausible should follow the Earth model with just a few tweaks ?
Life on Earth – as it currently exists – is a product of the environmental conditions as they have existed and changed over the past few hundred million years. Different conditions, different life forms but there has to be a logic to it. So if for example you want an alien race with six different genders, you need to come up with a set of environmental factors that make this a route with enough advantages to offset the disadvantages. Bare in mind that as the saying goes, no man is an island and neither is any species, if one has a six genders, then odds are so do all of its evolutionary cousins and so did its ancestors.
So how do we go about coming up with a different but plausible alien race?
First off what is the end point we want to reach, both in terms of physiology and culture. Possibly don’t get too wedded to any of it because some points may not mesh together. Now the temptation is the start with the culture, which I have come to the concussion is like trying to build a house by first doing the tiling. You need to foundations to be there to build everything else on top of. It is easy to come up system that works for a technologically advance species but how well does it work for their stone age or pre-sentience forebears?
Let’s go back to the human model for a minute. In the western world the average woman is capable of baring young from her teens to late forties/early fifties*. So a period of fertility of over twenty years. But a woman can complete one pregnancy each year so the average woman has a far greater fertility period than she needs to produce her and her partner’s replacements. At least by twenty first century western civilization standards. Dial things back a few million years and firstly she won’t live as long and childhood mortality from illness, injury, predator deprivation etc, means many children have to be had just to get a few to adulthood. As I said this is the human experience, which for sentient lifeforms is the only model we have to work with. It isn’t to say something really wacky can’t be done, but you have to take a cold hard look and see if its internal logic works.
An example in media of a failure to consider the practicalities is the Ocampa from Star Trek Voyager, a humanoid race with a mayfly like lifespan, who’s females the series blithely told us, only breed once during their lives, having one child. This would have the obvious problem that your species would at least halve at every generation even assuming every child reached maturity*2. A much better example can b found in Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which features an alien race, the majority of who’s members must breed at regular intervals or die. In an environment where there was a high mortality rate this system made sense. What makes this book well worth a look though is that the writers having come up with a system, then worked through the consequences. In the case of this species the result is run away population grown and eventual social collapse due to over population.
Once we have the mechanics of how a species can function we can move onto how this will shape its culture – or more probably cultures. A hermaphrodites race for example may not have any such thing as gender roles. A race with different subgroups with clear physiological or mental differences may have clear ruling or subject classes. History will also do massive things to shape how a species reacts. A history of internal warfare might produce an aggressive species or a peaceful one because it knows how destructive war can be. It’s all a question of how you spin it. In short this is the fun bit of alien race world building you just have to make sure it makes some kind of sense.
There’s one aspect of alien world building that I wasn’t sure if I would touch on – the matter of sexuality. What has already been covered is really a matter of imagination and following a line of logic but if we can for a moment pay attention to the man behind the curtain, should a writer be willing to tackle the matter of sexuality? My answer is I don’t know. When it comes to writing I’m best known for Military SF, a genre that tends to lean to the political right and conservatism. On the other hand, homosexuals and other groups have long complained that they are effectively written out of the picture. Finally there is the question of whether an attempt to include matters of different sexuality will backfire. As I was writing this piece the point was made to me that some groups of human society wouldn’t like the terms ‘hermaphrodites’. Terms change and when you aren’t personally a part of a particular group, it’s hard to know how something will be accepted because let us be honest here and admit to ourselves that the political left, can be as rabidly unreasonable as the right. Writing for payment by its nature mean producing something people will be willing to pay for. Most people aren’t going to pay to be metaphorically bludgeoned over the head with something they don’t agree with for whatever reason. In my own opinion the answer is found in the old writing adage ‘kill your darlings’ – if it isn’t relevant remove it. That said a couple of brief mentions of different sexuality types can go a long way in terms of expanding the inclusiveness of a work.
Now finally it has to be said that even if you have worked out the complete evolutionary history, culture and politics doesn’t mean it all has to go into your book. I’ve certainly come across books where the writer got lost in the world building and forgot about the characters and plot. The reader is there for the story but just to have this worked out and in your head will build a richer world and if nothing else, help with the internal constancy.
As ever I’ll be interested to hear any additional thoughts.
* Granted at diminishing levels of fertility as time passes with higher risk to both herself and the child.
*2 I’m aware they tried to fix it in later related works but it still leaves a gaping hole in the internal logic and is something of a warning to writing about the problems an ill thought out fact can create.
I’ve recently been reading Tank Men by Robert Kershaw which covers tank warfare during the two world wars; not the mechanical details or grand strategy that saw these machines sweep across the battlefield, but instead it is about the people inside them and I’ll say now that for anyone with an interest in the topic, it is well worth a read. Primarily for it’s visceral portrayal of the results of combat.
World War Two tanks were not easy to get in and out of at the best of times (I doubt they are much better now). If you were a crewman in a tank when the armour was penetrated, if you were lucky you were unhurt and could get out. If you were slightly less lucky you were dead and never felt it. If you were unlucky you were hurt or trapped and couldn’t get out when it began to burn. It was a fear common to all tankers, regardless to which country they belonged to. I did a battlefield tour of Normandy a few years ago, which obviously included visiting a number of military graveyards. In the British, the gravestones are laid out in neatly spaced rows, except some gravestones are place pressed up with no spaces between them. Usually two to five graves, generally the bodies within are airforce or armoured regiments. It is to signify that while they knew who was in a particular tank or plane, when the bodies were recovered from a burnt out wreck, there was no way to know which body was which person. All pretty horrible stuff. In fact – speaking as someone who has never served in the armed forces – I would say probably impossible to imagine or even properly describe by those who have seen such things, but as a writer of Military SF I have to try.
At 5 am, the first wounded came back, cheerful, optimistic. We splintered fractures, covered wounds with sterile dressings and relieved each other for breakfast at 6.30 am. As the day wore on, sunny and scorching hot, the tide of casualties rose. Dozens and dozens were carried in. Our treatment centre always had 3 upon the trestles being attended to and soon the approaches were lined with a queue. Hour after hour we worked and evacuated and still the flow continued. Ghastly wounds there were, of every type and state of severity. Heads with skulls so badly smashed that bone and brain and pillow were almost indivisible; faces with horrible lacerations; jaws blown completely away leaving only two sad eyes to plead for relief from pain. Chests pierced through with shrapnel and lungs that spouted blood from gushing holes. Arms were mangled into shapeless masses left hanging by muscle alone and waiting the amputation knife. There were abdomens pierced by shell splinters and displaying coils of intestine, deadly wounds. Buttocks were torn and in some cases spinal injury had followed bringing paralysis. But the leg wounds! Thigh bones splinted; knees without knee caps, legs without feet red, mangled flesh and blood flooding the stretcher. And others trembling uncontrollably, sobbing like children, strapped to the stretcher and struggling to be free; screaming and, when a shell landed near the ADS (Advance Dressing Station), shouting, ‘They’re coming again, O God they’re coming again.’ Not heroes, but sufferers nonetheless. We ate our lunch of biscuits and corned beef with bloody fingers and when relieved by 9th Field Ambulance at 6 pm we had treated 466 British soldiers and 40 Germans.
Private Jim Wisewell, 223 Field Ambulance, RAMC, describing the carnage wrought upon 185 Brigade of 3rd (British) Division during 8th July, 1944 in operation Charnwood.
Film and television, even at its grittiest, is never going to match that kind of brutality, in fact sometimes when it tries, the effect can come off as more comical than anything else. The fact they we know what we see is the product of the makeup artist’s craft renders even the most realistic effects unbelievable. In fact one of the most realistic and disturbing depictions I’ve seen is the 1965 pseudo documentary The War Game, where the effects were by today’s standards primitive but the use chilling*. So it is probably now wonder that most film and television prefers to depict battlefield casualties as people who fall down nice and neatly. While I was writing the Nameless War I did try to cover this, which has lead occasionally to the question ‘is there any characters you didn’t kill?’ To which I joke ‘yes, the ones I maimed instead’. But in all seriousness it was an attempt by me to convey, without over doing it, the awfulness of war and making it back doesn’t mean coming back undamaged.
I now while I was considering this post – and procrastinating – I came across a article We Have Always Fought – Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative
As somebody with more than a passing knowledge of history (All the Thing That Came Before Me), I’m passionately interested in truth: truth is something that happens whether or not we see it, or believe it, or write about. Truth just is. We can call it something else, or pretend it didn’t happen, but its repercussions live with us, whether we choose to remember and acknowledge it or not.
When I sat down with one of my senior professors in Durban, South Africa to talk about my Master’s thesis, he asked me why I wanted to write about women resistance fighters.
“Because women made up twenty percent of the ANC’s militant wing!” I gushed. “Twenty percent! When I found that out I couldn’t believe it. And you know – women have never been part of fighting forces –”
He interrupted me. “Women have always fought,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Women have always fought,” he said. “Shaka Zulu had an all-female force of fighters. Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.”
I had no idea what to say to this. I had been nurtured in the U.S. school system on a steady diet of the Great Men theory of history. History was full of Great Men. I had to take separate Women’s History courses just to learn about what women were doing while all the men were killing each other. It turned out many of them were governing countries and figuring out rather effective methods of birth control that had sweeping ramifications on the makeup of particular states, especially Greece and Rome.
Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.
The rest of this article can be found HERE and again is well worth a read through; I came to is via a forum I occasionally glance at and before it became an argument, the point was made that we don’t see women killed very often in military type film and television and see them maimed even less often. Literature does better but film and television haven’t made much forward motion in decades. As far as I can remember the recent Force Awakens had a token female X-Wing pilot – assuming all alien pilots were male – and she made it back. The various imperial stormtroopers and pilots are assumed to be male (with one exception). While women were visible on the Star Killer base/planetoid if they were killed, it was off screen unlike the waves of Stormtroopers that got gunned down. Now you might be thinking ‘does this guy want to see women dead or maimed? What kind of sicko is he?’
Well let me put it like this. As We Have Always Fought points out women have always been a feature of warfare. In SF a man’s main advantage, his on average greater physical strength, is far less important. Flying a fighter doesn’t make the same physical demands as say fighting with a sword. To refuse to put women onto the fictional battlefield, the fictional casualty dressing station and fictional battlefield grave as uniformed personnel, is to write them out of the narrative completely. I have heard that in the first of the original three Star Wars films an actress was filmed as a rebel pilot, complete with fireworks behind her and the usual comment on the X-Wings combat performance – I’M HITTTT!!!!……. but it was cut from finished film.
Sure you can point to the occasional named hero or villain but where is the female faceless goon or red shirts? As a society we are still reluctant to see women getting killed or hurt in defence of their society** or subjugating the galaxy which does inevitably diminish women by default. For literature in particular it is a relatively easy one to start to address, a handful of hers instead of hims will give a sense of a more inclusive world and something on which we can build.
As ever thoughts and comments welcome.
* The film being a depiction of Great Britain is the aftermath of a nuclear strike.
** although crime drama is quiet happy to kill them by the bucket load.
A few months ago I put up a post on the subject of 3D printing couple of photos, that post can be found HERE. Well I’ve now finished painting it and thought I’d put up another couple of pictures a long with a picture of the original computer model that that was used to create the file.
And here is the finished work, painted and inked. You might notice that there are details on the side pods that aren’t present in the model, this is detailing added using Milliput to make more obvious that these are engines. Bravely the friend that produced this has agreed to have a go at another design – Dauntless from the first book of the Nameless War, so we’ll see what comes of that. Finally to round things off we have a picture from the model I prepared for the Ships of the Fleet Book Two.
I couldn’t use this model because it is far too complex – under the hull there’s an internal layout – and unless prepared with printing in mind you end up with gaps that basically cause the printing program to have a hissy fit.
So there we have it, interesting and kinda amazing what can be done. Oh and finally if anyone is wondering about scale it works out at about 1/666; no I did not do that on purpose.
Somewhat belated but I haven’t done a film review in an age.
So, Ghostbusters. Not bad, reasonably good even. Made nods to the original but was still its own story with its own characters and challenges. Leslie Jones’s character seemed to me the weakest of the four, with a bit too much of the stereotypical ‘black and sassy’ and not enough blue collar local historian. Kate McKinnon didn’t get the best lines but certainly the most memorable as a full on mad scientist in the I-was-going-to-make-ghost-catching-device-but-then-got-hungry-and-ended-up-with-a-nuclear-powered-nutcracker sense. The weakest part though by far was the villain of the piece. I’d say the scriptwriters were taking a pop at the various man-babies who’ve been screaming into their keyboards ever since it was announced that the Ghostbusters re-boot was going to be ovaries heavy. Problem being he didn’t really convince as someone who could be a threat to anyone outside of twitter.
Still I went in with low, really low expectations and surprisingly came out happy.
Oh and whoever made the trailer, quit, you’re supposed to make the film look good!
So my current WIP has been brought to the second draft and has now been unleash (inflicted?) on a small number of volunteers. I frankly wait with baited breath because for one I know there are a lot of error still in there. In my defence time travel makes tenses rather awkward (will have going to have been?) and logic can go a bit circular. So while I wait for feedback I’m moving on to a new project.
In the past I’ve always found that for me at least there are two kinds of writing. The first is starting something new, not quite a case of throwing it all on the page and seeing what sticks, but certainly starting to nail things down, taking the individual ideas, putting them all together and start to get an idea of what kind of material is needed to link them together. I’m not saying it is the bit of writing I enjoy the most but it is certainly the kind where it is the easiest the feel you’re making forward progress. The second kind is the editing process. I don’t know about other writers but my first drafts tend to be extremely rough, with ideas thrown in or abandoned. I’ve learned that when when it come to first drafts not to go back, start at the beginning and keep going forward until the end, resist the urge to tinker because then you go round in circles. So the editing tends to at least start as an exercise in pruning abandoned ideas, building foundations for developed ones and eventually becomes the final removal of errors.
I’ve always found going from editing mode back to writing mode to be a bit of a difficult one so this time round while I’m in the lull with one project I’ve decided to start another just to see if I can keep the writing and editing mental muscles going simultaneously. So far so good but one page and five hundred words probably isn’t enough to prove anything.
So wish me luck.
Logisticians are a sad and embittered race of men who are very much in demand in war, and who sink resentfully into obscurity in peace. They deal only in facts, but must work for men who merchant in theories. They emerge during war because war is very much a fact. They disappear in peace because peace is mostly theory. The people who merchant in theories, and who employ logisticians in war and ignore them in peace, are generals.
Generals are a happy blessed race who radiate confidence and power. They feed only on ambrosia and drink only nectar. In peace, they stride confidently and can invade a world simply by sweeping their hands grandly over a map, point their fingers decisively up train corridors, and blocking defiles and obstacles with the sides of their hands. In war, they must stride more slowly because each general has a logistician riding on his back and he knows that, at any moment, the logistician may lean forward and whisper: “No, you can’t do that.” Generals fear logisticians in war and, in peace, generals try to forget logisticians.
Romping along beside generals are strategists and tacticians. Logisticians despise strategists and tacticians. Strategists and tacticians do not know about logisticians until they grow up to be generals–which they usually do.
Sometimes a logistician becomes a general. If he does, he must associate with generals whom he hates; he has a retinue of strategists and tacticians whom he despises; and, on his back, is a logistician whom he fears. This is why logisticians who become generals always have ulcers and cannot eat their ambrosia.
A few months ago I did couple of posts on the subject of warship types what I thought might be useful and interesting is a short and very basic primer on the subject of military logistics and how a science fiction/fantasy writer can and probably should account for it in their work. I’m going to be mentioning some good and bad examples as well as some history books which I’ve found useful.
What Is Logistics?
At a very basic level logistics is the science of getting the what a military force needs from the centers of production (farms, factories, whatever) to the military forces directly in contact with the enemy, while at the same time moving backwards casualties, prisoners etc, etc. This is often referred to as the lines of communication and exactly what is a military force needs depends on the setting. This will involve not only transportation but also stockpiling, storage and distribution.
The most basic supplies any force will require are food and drink, in a pre-industrial setting like Lord of the Rings, that can to a certain extent be obtained via foraging or outright looting. It is worth noting that for most of recorded history, an army moving through your area was a disaster, regardless as to which side it or you were on. If half a dozen soldiers with swords decided they were going to take your last milk cow, polite refusal probably wasn’t going to achieve much. The advantage of this kind of system is that there really weren’t any lines of communication for an enemy to threaten, the big problem however was it placed a serious time limit on how long an army could stay concentrated in one area. After a while all of the resources would be consumed and an army would have to move on, disperse or starve. This is where we get the whole concept of Scorched Earth; if an attacking army is faced with a region where the resources have already be consumed or destroyed, then the time it can spend in that region is severely limited. This could be a major factor in siege warfare, where the attacker could be in just as much danger of starving as the defender. So while Tolkien might be one of the founding father of Fantasy, given how how it it described, Sauron would have a hard time his armies from starving in Mordor. A fiction work that at least touches on the complications of pre-industrial logistics is Juliet McKenna’s Chronicle of the Lescari Revolution. On a final note prior to the development of the railways, movement during the Winter months and armies either dispersed or retired to winter encampments. Even in more modern times there have been battles and campaigns that have petered out because weather conditions meant supplies could not be moved up to the front.
Logistics in the Industrial Age
My men can eat their belts, but my tanks have gotta have gas.
Up to the Napoleonic Wars it was possible for an army to at least to a certain extent live off the land, gun powder from enemy sources was usable and individual soldiers could cast their own bullets provided they could obtain lead. However somethings like cannonballs, had already passed beyond what troops in the field could make or obtain for themselves. During the close of the nineteenth century technology changed logistics became increasingly complicated. Improvements in transportation and storage, were matched by expansion in the volumes and types of supplies needed by an army in the field. As the above quote indicates by the middle of the twentieth century oil had become the one of the dominate resources, especially for an advancing army but in general terms an army needed an unbroken line of supply leading from the factory gate to the front line and here in lies both a complication and opportunity.
An army on the advance is inherently moving away from its logistical support, while the Defender is retreating a long its own lines of communication. This means the attacker needs to be careful not to advance too far in case it out runs its supplies and leaves itself vulnerable. Even if it is advancing with no meaningful opposition in its path, an army can be brought to a grinding halt by lack of supply. The term for this that I have come across and used in my work is Logistical Brake. If you are looking for a real world example, any book covering the war in the Western Desert between the German/Italian forces and those of the British Empire is ideal, since this conflict was being fought in the open desert, which mean other complicating factors weren’t present. What you will notice as you read the history of the Desert War is how often the lines of communication were the objective. Each sides commanders sought to get through or round the opposing side to cut supply lines, since no matter how strong an armies position was, it would be worthless unless supplies could be brought to it.
Logistics, Ships and Ship Design
There is a myth that in the days of sail ships were powered by the wind, the reality is that it all depended on human muscle. Raise anchor? Human muscle. Do really anything with the sails, human muscle. Like any other engine humans required the right fuel. During the age of exploration diseases like scurvy would cut a swath through crews because it wasn’t understood just how necessary fresh fruit and vegetables were, plus storage was somewhere between difficult and impossible. In theory however, if a vessel could be kept supplied with fresh food and water, it could remain at sea for extended periods. This was best demonstrated by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars where ships of the line blockaded continental ports for years at a time. With the coming of the steam engine a ship could be freed from the whims of wind and tide, but only as long as the fuel held out. Take a look at the two pictures below.
They are respectively HMS Calypso and HMS Camperdown, looking at them you could be excused for thinking they belong to totally different time periods with Calypso perhaps being a part of Admiral Nelson’s fleet. In fact they were built at the same time – the early eighteen eighties. The difference was Camperdown was a battleship, designed to operate within European waters, Calypso was a corvette (later re-designated a cruiser) intended for places like the Pacific, where refueling points would be few and far between. In the modern navies, it is the proud ranks of fighting ships that get the attention but if you care to glance across this Wikipedia page, listing the current strength of the US Navy, you will notice that the list of non-combat support ships is longer than those that in time of war would do the fighting. An expensive necessity if the US Navy is to operate more than a few days out from its home ports.
Once fuel became a factor, the time a ship could spend at sea became far more limited and many’s a captain undoubtedly developed ulcers watching their ships’ fuel levels drop lower and lower. A fully armed, undamaged vessel might be required to turn away from a fight or not be present at the critical moment, all because it had to leave for re-supply. One fascinating demonstration of this is the hunt for and destruction of the German battleship Bismarck, where on either side ships were either forced out of the chase completely or unable to crack on the extra bit of speed that might have made all the difference. I won’t attempt detail the saga – I couldn’t do it justice – but I do recommend Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck by Ludovic Kennedy, it is now a somewhat old book and some research has become available since its publication but is an easier read for the newcomer.
Logistics and Writing
So now that we’ve covered the very basics of Logistics there remains one big question – why the heck should a writer give a two hoots about logistics, the reader wants action! Well for a start there is realism. If the work in set in a historical period, if it is to be a living, breathing world, then it needs to follow reality of that time. Whatever it costs the writer in time a research, will rewarded with a deeper work in which the reader can more thoroughly immerse themselves. If your characters are operating in any kind of military capacity, where the next meal for themselves or those under their command is coming from, will always be a consideration.
The other reason, and this is possibly more important, is the sheer possibilities for drama it offers the writer. The General aware that if the snows doesn’t clear soon there will be famine in the camp, The starship captain hunting the alien raiders with with only fuel to search one solar system, the trooper in the front line trying to conserve ammunition as the enemy closes, this is all the stuff of drama. It may seem like a tiresome detail in fact for anyone writing any sort of military fiction logistics will be one of your most useful plotting tools.
until next time