Monday, April 30, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Zombie Apocalypse

Today marks the end of the April A-Z Challenge, where I've been blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. The final entry is on the Zombie Apocalypse.

I am so taking the easy way out on this one. I wonder how many A to Z entries posted today will be about this very trope? But, what can I say? I do like zombies.

Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend paved the way for what has become an iconic part of the horror genre. He called the creatures in his story "vampires," but his unique take on the undead had a heavy influence on one George A. Romero, whose 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead would become the blueprint for modern zombie tales. The seminal film depicted a frightened group of strangers trying to stay alive as the dead inexplicably rose from the grave.

Of course, neither Matheson nor Romero actually used the word "zombie" in their work. The word itself has an older meaning, rooted in the religious practices of Haiti and certain parts of Africa. In this sense of the word, a zombi is said to be a living corpse, brought back to life by a sorcerer for the purposes of servitude. William Seabrook is often given credit with introducing the term into Western vernacular with his 1929 novel, The Magic Island. After the wide success of Romero's film, fans applied the word and it stuck.

And while Night of the Living Dead and I Am Legend certainly can be pointed to as the progenitors of the modern zombie sub-genre, the concept of undead creatures feeding on the flesh of the living can be found in many ancient mythologies. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar threatens to open the gates of the netherworld, allowing the dead to escape and "eat the living." Arabian folklore has the ghoul, a devilish djinn that dwells in graveyards and sometimes eats human flesh. Norse mythology speaks of the Draugr, reanimated corpses that guard the tombs of vikings. In some tales, a person slain by a Draugr becomes one, a depiction very similar to the modern zombie's contagious bite.

Some more recent depictions of the zombie apocalypse have attempted to distance themselves from the traditional undead nature of zombies in favor a more "realistic" approach, such as rabies-esque viruses that cause otherwise normal human beings to exhibit mindless psychosis.

My favorite example is probably Danny Boyle's 2002 film, 28 Days Later. This version of the zombie apocalypse is a result of the highly contagious "rage" virus. The story follows a small group of survivors as they attempt to stay alive in quarantined Britain following the pandemic outbreak and resulting societal collapse.

There's been times where I've wanted to write my own zombie apocalypse for fun, to the extent that I even sat down and wrote a chapter once. But I think if I ever did, it likely would never see the light of day. This trope's popularity has shambled so far into cliche territory that it might be difficult to produce anything particularly original. Most of the recent works embracing the trope acknowledge this, presenting stories that are largely character driven. The zombies are portrayed in such a way that they almost become "man against nature" stories.

And perhaps that's just what they are. Only it might just be human nature that zombies represent. A lot has been said in various places about the symbolism of a shambling zombie horde, only progressing for the sake of mindless consumption. George Romero famously set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall to reinforce a satirical poke at American consumerism.

And anyone who's ever done Christmas shopping in late November must admit there is a certain . . . resemblance. No?

Recommended Reading:
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
World War Z by Max Brooks

Recommended Viewing:
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
28 Days Later
Shaun of the Dead

Recommended Gaming:
Dead Rising
Stubbs the Zombie
Plants Vs Zombies

And so comes to a close the A to Z Challenge. It was tough at times, but great fun. I met a lot of great people and discovered some awesome blogs along the way. Stay tuned for my A to Z "reflections" post next Monday, where I'll talk a bit more about that in greater detail. Huge thanks to everyone who followed along!

And if you liked the speculative fiction tropes series that I used as my A to Z theme, stay tuned for that as well. It's going to become a monthly feature here. I'll nail down the specifics in the reflections entry.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Yin Versus Yang

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on duality in speculative fiction, Yin Versus Yang.

Though perhaps most overt in traditional works of fantasy, greater themes of duality can be seen across just about every genre of speculative fiction (and fiction in general).

In fact, duality is so ingrained in our culture, especially from a moral standpoint, that we might not even notice its prevalence in the stories we enjoy. We are so used to reading tales of good versus evil, right versus wrong, the forces of light battling the agents of darkness, that it has become the expectation for many genres. Indeed, the deviations from this formula often stand out more than those works that make the effort to conform.

So where does all of this dual thinking come from? Perhaps, the easiest answer to the question (though not necessarily the best) can be gleamed from the black and white morality of religion. A great many of the various religious beliefs over the eons have a dualistic center, going all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, with the contrasting qualities of the gods Set and Osiris, brothers who ultimately come into conflict. Modern religion is also filled to the brim with duality. The most obvious example in Western culture is probably Christianity, in which God is eternally opposed by Satan.

Of course, this entry's title comes from Eastern philosophy, in which yin yang are actually not seen as opposing forces. They compliment each other, like the feminine and the masculine (another concept that likely lies at the heart of human dualism). Westerners sometimes perceive the yin yang as representing good and evil, but Asian philosophies like Taoism eschew this assumption. It's meant to represent balance, not conflict.

In speculative fiction, duality frequently comes down to the simple concept of good guy versus bad guy. But it's not always that cut and dry. One of my favorite examples is Batman and his archnemesis, the Joker. The Joker has been portrayed many different ways over the years, but he rarely represents evil in the traditional sense. He despises the rigidity of order, and believes he's doing the world a favor by introducing chaos and discord.

And I would be utterly remiss in mentioning Batman without pointing out Two-Face, a character so forged of dualism that he allows a coin flip to dictate his morality.

Because of its ingrained place in our culture, dualism is one of those things that can sneak into your work without you even realizing it, as it's probably done for a lot of my own work. I've also had a couple of stories with intentional themes of duality, including one I've just laid the groundwork for. It's a fantasy story about two neighboring city-states walled apart from each other with divergent cultures. Their religious beliefs are diametrically opposed, and the story involves a man who finds himself caught between the two. The story's just a small nugget right now, but I'm planning on diving into it soon after the A to Z challenge comes to a close. In the meantime, I'll keep feeding my fascination with the concept.

Maybe the root of our predilection towards dual rationale lies at the heart of human experience. After all, so much of life is about reconciling our internal wants and needs with exterior circumstance. The fact that we can weigh the two is one of the things that separates us from the primal. But each of us interfaces with society in the same way: external stimuli, external being the key word. Until the singularity comes and we all upload our consciousnesses onto a server in orbit, we are creatures of duality.

It's you versus the rest of the world.

Recommended Reading:
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
Corum series by Michael Moorcock

Recommended Viewing:
Star Wars

Recommended Gaming:
The Longest Journey
Jade Empire
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Friday, April 27, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: The X-Factor

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on the X-Factor. No, it's not about a reality-tv singing competition. I'm talking about superpowers.

Like many American children, I grew up reading comic books. My parents didn't have a whole lot of money, so I was never able to subscribe or buy them on a regular basis. Mostly, I got my hands on them by borrowing and trading with my friends.

Unfortunately, this meant I wasn't able to keep up with any of the long running story arcs at the time. I would begin in the middle, rarely ever finding out how the big bad gets put down. But it didn't matter. Because I knew that with every issue, I was guaranteed larger-than-life characters kicking ass with awesome superpowers.

While superhero fiction is usually traced back to early pulp heroes like Zorro and John Carter of Mars, one could conceivably look much further back for the genre's origins, to the superhuman figures present in the mythologies of ancient civilizations. Many of these heroes and demigods had powers comparable to any modern day superhero. The Greeks had Heracles (Hercules, if you prefer), the Sumerians had Gilgamesh (Gil, if you prefer), the Chinese had Sun Wukong (Goku, if you prefer).

Throughout our history, we've never stopped telling tales of extraordinary people with extraordinary abilities. They may look just like us on the surface, but they have something extra that makes them far above you or I. They have the X-factor, and thus are called to the path of heroism.

To this day, my favorite work in the superhero genre is undoubtedly Watchmen, in which Alan Moore beautifully deconstructs the superhero concept against the growing tension of an alternate history cold war.

One of the main characters is Dr. Manhattan, who is practically made of X-factor. After surviving an accidental disintegration, he perceives reality at the quantum level, manipulating matter at will. Moore used him to convey a more realistic vision of what might happen when a good man is granted omnipotent power. At first he embraces his new role as superhero, but ultimately he wallows into existential crisis as he loses touch with his humanity.

One of the first "real" stories I ever wrote featured a pair of superpowered warriors grown in a lab, duking it out in a post-apocalyptic world after repelling a lone alien invader who comes to Earth looking to establish his own religion. Hey, don't make that face. I was sixteen! The point is, I've always had a thing for that X-factor.

I don't really have the time to do much comic reading these days, though I do make the effort once in a blue moon. I remain intrigued by the superhero archetype. What is it that has driven us to invent characters like these throughout our history? What's so appealing about fictional men and women with superhuman abilities? Perhaps it stems from an awareness, or even insecurity, of our own frailty. After all, bullets don't bounce off of the real heroes of this world. It would be very nice if their duties didn't tend to come with short expiration dates. Maybe that's why Superman and his ilk are endearing to so many. With him watching out for you, there's no need to recruit anyone else.

Recommended Reading:
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Wildcards series (shared universe)
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

Recommended Viewing:

Recommended Gaming:
Champions Online
Freedom Force

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: The Warrior Caste

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on the Warrior Caste.

Ever since the first man raised the first stone and realized he could beat someone over the head with it to get what he wanted, a certain reverence has been held for those who choose to take up their arms and willingly embrace battle.

It should come as no surprise that this sense of awe has carried over into fiction. Not only do we writers tend to place the spotlight on warriors and soldiers in our work, we often seek to personify that reverence. We imbue many of our characters with qualities historically associated with war and combat. We may even go so far as creating an entire caste of warriors. Sometimes, an entire race.

Of course, the idea of entire groups of people bred for battle is hardly fiction. Like many tropes, this one has firm roots in history. Before we reached the technological heights of today, that allow the warriors among us to dole death with an Xbox controller, human beings themselves were often weaponized, raised from childhood to serve warfare. From the famed Spartiates of ancient Greece to the Hindu Kshatriyas, there have been warrior castes in cultures the world over. War is one of humankind's oldest endeavors. Our methods may have changed over the centuries, but we've never stopped trying to be awesome at it.

In fiction, warrior races have served many roles, from sympathetic protagonists to feared villains.

One of my favorite examples is the Dothraki from George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. Inspired by the Mongolian horde that carved a path of bloodshed and conquest across Asia and Eastern Europe in the 13th century, these nomadic "horse lords" live for the hunt. As Daenerys Targaryen grows to love the Dothraki Khal she's been forced to marry, the reader begins to gain insight into their culture and history. They go from savage brutes to proud warriors in the space of one book.

This is one trope that I have definitely used in my own work. I don't want to go into it too deeply, as it would be getting into the real meat of the novel I spent most of last year working on (and plan on returning to sometime in the future), but the protagonist and several other characters in the story are members of what could easily be called a warrior caste, by no choice of their own. It's one of the central themes of the book.

As cliche as "proud warrior race" characters can often be, they still convey a sense of adventure that I love. They appeal to the child in me who used to swing sticks around like pretend swords in the backyard. That child is still alive and well, and can't get enough of these kinds of stories. Unfortunately, the swords I play with these days are made of steel, and therefore must remain on my office wall for the safety of the fragile objects around me.

Recommended Reading:
Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Recommended Viewing:
Game of Thrones
Babylon 5
Star Trek

Recommended Gaming:
Dragon Age
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Mass Effect

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Vicious Cycle

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on the Vicious Cycle.

Some of the most compelling works of speculative fiction find their protagonists struggling to defeat a seemingly unstoppable force with the fate of the world (or galaxy) on the line. Whether it be a single villain, an evil empire, or an antagonistic force of nature, the odds are steep.

One of the ways some writers may illustrate the daunting task at hand is to incorporate a time limit of some kind. The villain must be stopped in ten days, or the world will come to an end! To reinforce this, the reader is clued in to what happened the last time the world faced this danger. For you see, this has all happened before.

The concept of an endlessly repeating cycle with a major event of some kind at the point of revolution is not new. Religious and philosophical traditions from many corners of the world have embraced similar concepts throughout history, from the "wheel of time" seen in Hinduism and Buddhism (which inspired one of the items on today's recommended reading list) to the "eternal return" expounded by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. There's also a (discouragingly large) group of people convinced that our world will be ending this December when our current cycle on the Mayan long count calendar ends.

Even in science, cyclical existence has been supposed from time to time. There have been a few cosmological models over the years that posit an oscillating universe, endlessly ping-ponging between a big bang and a big crunch.

In fiction, the cycle is usually tinged with a sense of threat and foreboding. The cycle must be broken! How often have you read or heard that line? More than a few, I'd wager.

A wonderfully cheesy example is the The Fifth Element, a 1997 sci-fi action flick starring Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman. Willis plays Korban Dallas, a former special forces operative who now makes a living driving a flying taxicab. With the aid of Chris Tucker's ear-abrading screech and Milla Jovovich's propensity for nudity, he must stop a Great Evil that arises every 5000 years to reap chaos and destruction across the galaxy.

Like a lot of the tropes I've mentioned in this series, this one can drift into cliche territory when not handled well. But in the right hands, a vicious cycle can be used to build effective drama and tension as the reader moves toward the climax. It lends itself particularly well to stories involving ancient prophecies, chosen ones, and the like. For this reason, it's probably more common in the fantasy genre.

I've yet to incorporate a vicious cycle into any of my own work, though I'm not opposed to the idea. In the meantime, I'll be counting down the days to December. Hopefully, I don't have a cycle of my own to break. My guidance counselor told me I would make a terrible chosen one.

Recommended Reading:
Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan
Manifold: Space by Stephen Baxter
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

Recommended Viewing:
The Matrix
The Dark Crystal
Battlestar Galactica

Recommended Gaming:
Mass Effect
Phantasy Star
The Legend of Zelda

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Used Future

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on the Used Future motif.

One of the most appealing aspects of science fiction is that a great deal of it attempts to give us a glimpse into the future. Writers become prognosticators, describing the shape of things to come in such detail that we can practically see it ourselves. Often the visions they convey (especially earlier works) depict shiny, sterile vistas in which everything looks brand new and well-maintained.

But is this realistic? When's the last time every car you passed on the road sparkled with a fresh wash? What about that construction site you drove past? Did the equipment look sleek and new, or did it show years of use? How about the appliances in your office? Your home?

Realistically, the future will probably look a lot like the present. For every silken spacecraft you come across, every glistening hover-car, there's likely going to be an old, beaten junker or two. Certain features of any place occupied by a sufficient amount of "real" people are going to look used and worn after a while. Luckily, some writers and directors have made this realization, willingly embracing it for the aesthetic character it can bring a story's setting. One look at a grimy, dust-covered future tells you a great deal about that setting's people and culture, and this can be a valuable worldbuilding tool.

While the trope is much older in literature, its popularity in film is comparatively recent, beginning in the '70s with movies like Dark Star and Silent Running. Perhaps the most famous use of the trope in film is Star Wars, where George Lucas used it to convey the difference between the vast and powerful Empire and the plucky, shoestring rebels that opposed them.

Inspired by Lucas was Ridley Scott, who would go on to utilize the motif masterfully in both Alien and Blade Runner, two acclaimed science fiction works that would become iconic in their own rights.

In the novel I was working on last year before switching my focus to shorter works, I used a motif similar to the Star Wars used future device. I gave looks into two separate tiers of a future society. One of them had access to seemingly unlimited resources and went to great lengths to maintain a perfect facade that extended to every facet of their culture, including the sleek look of their ships and equipment. The other was stark and utilitarian, making do with whatever they could get their hands on, the cheaper the better. One of the central characters is raised as a part of the former culture, only to be forced into the latter through events outside of his control.

I enjoy sci-fi that depicts a used future, especially in film, where its aesthetic value can really be felt. They often hark back to classic works of film noir, becoming ingrained in what has become the cyberpunk sub-genre. These kinds of movies really grab a hold of me, sometimes more so than their literary counterparts. There's just something alluring about those dark, smokey cityscapes and rundown pieces of technology, no matter how bleak a future they seem to predict. Sometimes it's just easier to reconcile a rusty tomorrow with the frequently chaotic state of the world today.

Recommended Reading:
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

Recommended Viewing:
Blade Runner

Recommended Gaming:
Deus Ex
Gears of War

Monday, April 23, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Teleporters

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Teleporters.

The seemingly magical ability to be whisked away from one place to another in the blink of an eye is not a new one. It can be seen in folk tales as old as Aladdin, in which the supernatural djinn can transport themselves from China to Morocco in an instant.

This entry will primarily deal with the technology-assisted science fiction version of the trope. Made famous by Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (originally as a cost-cutting device to avoid filming landing scenes), the concept involves an advanced construct of some kind that can break matter down and convert it into a data pattern, reassembling the object or person at the destination.

Teleportation is one of the more fantastic elements of science fiction. It would be very nice to press a few buttons and find yourself on the other side of the world in an instant, but the truth is that a technology like this will most likely not exist in our lifetimes. Even if a working method for matter teleportation was devised, a real-life teleporter would need a massive data capacity and tremendous computational power, not to mention the astronomical energy requirements of converting matter to energy and back again. I'm afraid we're stuck driving each other around for a little while longer.

The concept does come up in the news every couple of years or so however, pretty much every time there's a breakthrough in quantum teleportation. Unfortunately, this is usually just a case of the media confusing things due to misleading terms.

Science fiction, of course, will not be deterred by technological infeasibility. Sci-fi writers have not only explored the applications that such an advancement would bring, but also its potential for disaster. Star Trek has had several episodes featuring transporter accidents, but my favorite cautionary tale is The Fly.

Written by George Langelaan, The Fly has been adapted to the screen several times, most recently in the 1986 David Cronenberg film. It relates the sad tale of a scientist experimenting in teleportation. Upon perfecting the device, he tests it on himself, unaware that a housefly has flown into the pod. The results are not pretty.

The only time I've played with the concept of teleportation in my own work is while brainstorming ideas for faster-than-light travel for a space opera story. One of the concepts I kicked around involved using matter teleportation with time travel (which I later learned was similar to a Michael Crichton novel) to make travel over interstellar distances more feasible. I ended up not using the idea, but I still have it tucked away for safekeeping.

I think teleportation is one of those tropes that requires a greater degree of suspension of disbelief, depending on how the story handles it. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be used, it just means that the writer will pay for it faster and harder if using it as a "techno-crutch" or deus ex machina device. The story must be compelling enough that the reader or viewer isn't distracted by its presence.

I must admit, there are times when I really wish this technology existed. I hate driving, even just down the road to work. I'm patiently waiting for the day when I can just tap my com-badge and say "energize!"

Recommended Reading:
Known Space series by Larry Niven
Hyperion series by Dan Simmons
The Jaunt by Stephen King

Recommended Viewing:
The Fly
The Prestige

Recommended Gaming:
Half-Life series
Portal series
Space Quest V

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Revenge of the Lucky 7

I've been tagged for the Lucky 7 Meme again! This time it was the very rad Veronica Sicoe, whose awesome blog you should be following. (Edited to add: I've also recently been tagged again by Sam Webb. Check hers out as well!)

Here's the gist of the Lucky 7:

Go to page 7 or 77 of your current MS/WIP, or go to line 7 (for short fiction). Copy down the next 7 lines, sentences or paragraphs and post them as they are written. Tag 7 authors and let them know.

Since I just tagged seven cool people last month, I'm going to do it a little differently this time around. Instead of tagging seven more, I'm going to invite any of you fine people to participate. Post your Lucky 7 according to the rules above, either here in the comments section or on your blog (leave a link to the entry in a comment). I'll list the first seven people to do so here, and give them each a plug in my next seven blog posts.

Since I took the easy way out last time and just posted seven sentences from my old novel, this time I'll post seven full paragraphs from a story I've been working on. The excerpt comes from a story that takes place in the Forged World, a fantasy realm that a few of my stories have shared. This one's tentatively titled Shattered Circle, but I'm not sure how crazy I am about that title. It might change before I thrust it unto the world. Have at it:

Jurian took her advice and made his way over with a mug. The lass behind the bar wouldn't take his coin, though the look on her face said it was no choice of her own. When he found a seat, Rob passed him a poker from the hearth to warm his mead. "Not fretting over that butcher, are you? Couldn't be helped, that one. Fool may as well have strung himself up."

"That's the bloody truth of it," Jurian said. "Still, it doesn't seem right to call a man a fool who stands up for his fellows."

Old Omont shook his head, sending drops of mead running down the gray streak in his beard. "These are strange times, lad. As king's men, we're fortunate to have our oaths to live by. Makes things easier when you're sworn to serve the throne no matter whose arse sits it. Change is harder on these common folk. Few years back, they were putting their babes to bed with stories of how great and wise Caelen was, and how all the gods of the Circle was watching us over. Now he's in the ground and Silas brings this southron faith up to us like it were here all along."

"Eastern faith, you mean," Rob said. "Southrons may pray to a dragon same as Silas and his fire priests, maybe even the same one, but we never found no cause to come hunting Circle folk before. I never was no holy man, but me gram used to read to me from the Writ when I was a lad. The only talk I remember was of love and mercy and how the Dragon didn't want men to go killing each other off whenever they felt like it."

"Say as you will, but a dragon's a dragon to a Northman. It could be she was just saving you from the untidy bits, so as not to soil your flowery little head," said Omont. "After all, they still had hopes of making you a eunuch back then."

Rob's cheeks flushed as the men around the fire laughed. He took hold of the poker from the hearth again, this time brandishing it at the old knight. "The next time I warm my cup, I'm going to jab the end of this in your mouth first."

"Do it the other way 'round. Mine's almost empty."

There you have it. Your turn. Don't be shy, kids. Let's see what you've got!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Space Marines

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Space Marines.

One of the most important expeditionary forces used in modern military operations is a marine corps. The ability to rapidly deploy a fighting force anywhere at any time is key to winning wars, making naval infantry an absolute necessity for the military powers of the world.

If armed conflict ever reaches an interstellar or interplanetary stage, it's only natural to assume that many of the strategies and tactics used for terrestrial warfare would be adapted to suit this new field of engagement. As such, the space marine archetype has seen a wide range of use in fiction, particularly military sci-fi and video games.

Historically, the concept of naval infantry was born out of a need to establish a fighting unit whose primary responsibility was protecting vessels at sea from hostile boarding parties during military operations, as well as protecting the officers of the ship from mutinous action by members of the crew. Ancient Greece may have been the first naval power to make the distinction between sailor and soldier, deploying hoplites aboard their ships for the sole purpose of boarding enemy vessels.

The largest modern naval infantry unit in the world is the United States Marine Corps, which evolved from the traditional role of shipboard security as part of the Navy to become its own branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. Today, it's responsible for a wide range of military operations, from the seizure or defense of naval bases to extensive ground operations ashore in conjunction with the Army and Air Force. Its amphibious expeditionary role makes it a key part of the United States military's rapid response ability.

Though he was not quite the father of the concept, Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers is generally considered the defining example of the space marine trope in science fiction. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Heinlein envisioned a "Mobile Infantry" unit that combined the shipborne deployment of the marines with the mission profile of army paratroopers.

Though it was not without controversy, Starship Troopers was widely influential, and not just for authors of military science fiction. James Cameron required the principle cast of Aliens to read the book before filming, and it's also on the reading list of the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy.

The science fiction novel I was working on last year, while not quite military sci-fi, definitely showed some influence from Heinlein and his ilk. My protagonist starts out as an elite member of his government's military, and there are a few scenes featuring soldiers and combat that most certainly call the space marine trope to mind.

I don't know what it is about space marines, but I just can't seem to get enough of this trope. I'm not usually a fan of military literature, but put that same type of story in a sci-fi setting and you've got me. And I can't tell you how many times I've booted up a video game on the promise that it was about to let me strap on a set of power armor of my own and take the reigns of a bad ass space marine. Maybe it's cliche at this point (especially in games), but I'm not complaining. Shooting aliens makes me feel like a kid again.

Recommended Reading:
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
The Lensman Series by E. E. Smith
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Recommended Viewing:
Starship Troopers

Recommended Gaming:
Halo series
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Friday, April 20, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Ray Guns

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Ray Guns. Disruptors. Phasers. Frickin' laser beams!

The colorful beams and flashy sounds of directed-energy weapons are one of the most well known staples of science fiction. In the early days of the genre, depicting energy weapons was one of the easiest ways to get the message across to the audience that they were depicting technology so advanced that it seemed like magic.

Over the years, enormously popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have so ingrained the concept into science fiction fans' minds that simply using the term immediately calls to mind the trademark "pew-pew" sound of a laser gun for some people.

This trope (and many others) may have begun with the H.G. Wells alien invasion classic, The War of the Worlds. Wells wanted to convey the vast technological superiority of the invading martian fleet, and one of the ways he did so was to arm their tripod fighting machines with a mysterious weapon that produced "heat-rays." These rays would incinerate anything in their path, melting metal, vaporizing water, and searing the flesh of its victims.

In 1960, physicist Theodore Maiman made history when he became the first person to operate a working laser. Soon after, lasers became fashionable in science fiction stories as weapons. It was during this period that lasers would become associated with sci-fi, though scientifically minded writers soon began to depict ray guns in more creative ways when it became clear that real-life laser beams wouldn't make very efficient weapons. For instance, the laser pistols of the pilot episode of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek would become "phasers" when the show went to air.

In the real world, experiments with directed-energy weapons supposedly date back to Archimedes, who purportedly used mirrors as parabolic reflectors to set ships ablaze during the Siege of Syracuse. Attempts to recreate or verify these claims have been inconclusive, however.

Modern militaries have pursued energy weapons since before the Second World War. Nikola Tesla was working on plans for a "death ray" up until his death in 1943, and Nazi Germany conducted several experiments with energy-based antiaircraft measures.

Today, directed-energy weapons have become a reality, with several types already out of the laboratory and in the field. These futuristic combat measures serve a variety of purposes, such as strategic electronics disruption and non-lethal crowd control. Everything from real life heat-rays to "dazzlers" that blind or disorient hostile targets are used by today's armed forces.

In most of my science fiction stories with military elements, I've eschewed energy-based weapons, mainly because of the hokey connotation they've come to have over the years. My soldiers still fire ballistic rifles in combat, though chemical propulsion has been replaced with electromagnetic means. This is not only more realistic, but has the side effect of being seriously awesome.

I still have a soft spot in my heart for the "pew-pew" ray guns of classic sci-fi though, and I hope they never go away. With J.J. Abrams revival of the Star Trek franchise, and large numbers of video game developers who are still willing to embrace cliche in the name of nostalgia and cool graphics effects, I don't think ray guns are done for just yet.

Recommended Reading:
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner

Recommended Viewing:
Star Trek
Star Wars
The Day the Earth Stood Still

Recommended Gaming:
Mega Man
Fallout 3

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: The Quest

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on the Quest.

A brave hero is called to action by circumstances outside of his control. He must embark on a long journey to find an important item, the key to overcoming a great threat. Along the way, he will encounter a wide assortment of creatures and characters, some who impede his progress, others who seek to join his cause or lend him aid in some way. By adventure's end he is weary and worn, every ounce of mettle within him having been tested.

Sound familiar? It should. It's one of the oldest and most common premises in the history of literature and mythology. Practically every culture in the world has works of folklore involving a hero on a quest of some kind, from The Epic of Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality to Argonautica, the tale of Jason's quest for the golden fleece.

Arguably the most famous of the medieval romances to have seen influence in the fantasy genre is the Arthurian legend of the holy grail.

King Arthur's knights of the round set off on quests to find the grail, which is said to have been the cup Christ drank from during the last supper (alternatively, a vessel used to catch his blood during the crucifixion). Arthur's most trusted knight fails to reach the grail, but ultimately Sir Galahad completes the quest.

A great deal of modern speculative fiction follows the example laid out by these mythological tales. The quest is probably most associated with fantasy, perhaps because this kind of setting allows a more overt telling, with a plucky hero in the mold of the traditional knight-errant pursuing a magical item. The truth though, is this trope transcends genre. It may be more subtle in other settings, concealed more cleverly beneath the narrative, but a surprising number of stories will yield the framework of the quest if you know where to look. It's even described as one of the "basic plots" in Christopher Booker's Jungian analysis of storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.

I've not gone out of my way to emulate any mythic quests in my own writing, but the trope is so basic and effective that much of my work has featured the trope unintentionally in one way or another. The protagonist of every good story needs proper motivation, something to strive for, and it can't be something easily obtainable. It is tremendously easy for this basic necessity of storytelling to morph your work into a quest tale, regardless of setting or genre. Despite this, the formula rarely gets old in the hands of a good writer.

Perhaps the quest is so prevalent because it speaks to us on a primal level. From the moment we are born, we are struck with near-constant desire. We need, we want, we yearn. As we traipse through life, these aims grow a little grander, a little bolder. But, there's always another grail to reach for. We're all questing for something.

Recommended Reading:
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
Olympos by Dan Simmons

Recommended Viewing:
The Goonies

Recommended Gaming:
Dragon Quest series
King's Quest series
Uncharted series

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Precursors

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Precursor civilizations.

One of the most fascinating ideas explored in fiction is the mythic concept of "those who came before." Seen in many genres of fiction, but especially sci-fi, the trope depicts enigmatic civilizations that seemingly vanished long before the rise of man.

Their mysterious disappearance is sometimes a central part of the story, usually having occurred at the apex of their society as the result of some cataclysmic event. Often they will leave behind tantalizing ruins or the remains of advanced technology, which might be sought after and competed for by modern factions and races.

I think this trope taps into that innate curiosity that we all have, that desire to understand who we are and where we came from. Obviously some of us are more interested in those questions than others, but as a species, we've long sought to answer them. The various beliefs, mythologies, and theories on our origin and who or what preceded us are practically countless over the ages. Some of the very building blocks of our culture and society--science, philosophy, religion--were born of a yearning to answer these important questions.

One of the most popular ways to explore this idea in science fiction (and in real-world pseudoscience) is to depict a forgotten alien race that seems to have interfered in human affairs at some point in our history, perhaps even by seeding life and intelligence here on Earth.

The 2000 movie Mission To Mars, while not exactly the pinnacle of sci-fi cinema, serves as a good example of the trope from this angle. After a turbulent voyage to the red planet, a team of astronauts visits the infamous "face" on Mars. There they make a remarkable discovery about the history of our planet and its scarlet twin.

None of my science fiction stories have featured alien life of any kind thus far, extinct or otherwise. Nor has any of my fantasy stuff contained ancient elf progenitors or elder gods. I do have a few ideas that might make use of the trope one day, however. In fact, writing this entry gave me a new idea that I'm actually pretty excited about. I think I have a good one on my hands. I almost want to blurt it out, but I think I'll hold it close to chest for now.

In the meantime, I'll keep devouring stories about ancient forerunners and the amazing things they left behind. After all, it's a nice arena for my inner history geek and science fiction nerd to play ball together.

Recommended Reading:
Uplift series by David Brin
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
Strata by Terry Pratchett

Recommended Viewing:
2001: A Space Odyssey
Prometheus *fingers crossed*

Recommended Gaming:
Mass Effect
Assassin's Creed 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Orcs

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on yet another Tolkien propagated fantasy trope, Orcs.

Derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for demon, J.R.R. Tolkien used the word orc in his works to describe an antagonistic race of humanoid creatures that served the dark lord Sauron in his attempts to conquer Middle-earth. Originally purposed by his predecessor and mentor Morgoth, the orcish horde served as the foot soldiers of Sauron's armies.

They were depicted as a hateful, animalistic lot with natural tendencies toward violence, chaos, and bloodshed. Even before the dark lord's rise, they were feared and despised by the free folk of Middle-earth, driven into the recesses of mountains and caves.

Since Tolkien's influence, orcs have been seen in countless works of fantasy (and even some science fiction). They almost always feature the warlike demeanor of their literary progenitors, though their origins and level of civilization vary from writer to writer. They usually remain an antagonistic force, opposed to the human protagonists of the worlds they inhabit, but some works of fiction have featured orcs that have integrated with larger society and found peace (often begrudgingly).

A great deal of my experience with the various flavors of orc in fantasy comes from video games. One of the most well known game worlds to feature orcs is Azeroth, the realm explored in the Warcraft franchise. Early games in the series focused on a war between orcs and humans. Eventually, it was revealed that orcs were not inherently evil, but were being influenced by demonic forces.

My favorite though, has to be the Orsimer of the Elder Scrolls series. This race of orcs descended from elves, but their appearance and demeanor became corrupt when the god they worshiped was cursed and remade.

In my own fantasy worlds, I've made an attempt to stray from the typical mold of character races. It's not that I have anything against orcs, elves, or halflings. In the right hands, these character tropes can still be put to good use in a riveting story. As a reader, I still get a kick out of the Tolkien mold. But, I don't think you need ghoulish monsters for conflict in a fantasy world--man can be monstrous enough to fill that role. It's not pointy ears or green skin that make fantasy stories what they are; it's the compelling spirit of a story too enchanting to take place in the real world. It's that pulse of magic you feel beneath the world when you're engaging it.

Still, I never rule anything out. And if there's one thing about orcs . . . they always seem to invade when you least expect them.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Thraxas by Martin Scott
Orcs: First Blood by Stan Nichols

Recommended Viewing:
The Lord of the Rings

Recommended Gaming:
The Elder Scrolls series
Warcraft series
Orcs Must Die!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Nanotech

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Nanotech.

Nanotechnology is a broad and emerging real-world field of study that is likely to have wide implications for us in the foreseeable future--hopefully good ones.

Put roughly, nanotech deals with the construction of machines and devices on the nano scale, the manipulation of matter at the molecular level. The applications range from relatively "simple" things like the ultra-thin polymer coating on your anti-glare sunglasses to fantastic future applications like nanobots--machines that can manipulate the very atoms that make up the matter around us.

Sounding like science fiction already, isn't it?

Like most emergent tech fields, nanotechnology has been embraced by writers in the speculative domain. A multitude of imaginations have envisioned worlds where nanomachines serve a litany of purposes, from the mundane to the malevolent. They've been used as the foundational premise of some works and ham-handed phlebotinum in others.

In his 1956 short story The Next Tenants, Arthur C. Clarke describes tiny termite-esque machines that operate on a micrometer scale. While the measurements given for these microbots are technically too large to qualify as nanomachines, they possessed all of the qualities and characteristics that we now identify with nanotechnology. As such, Clarke's story is widely viewed as one of the first to depict nanotechnology in fiction.

The Star Trek franchise has featured nanotech concepts many times over the years.

In one episode, a swarm of nanites (another word for nanobots) gain sentience via collective intelligence, infecting the starship Enterprise and eventually evolving to the point of sapient thought.

Other examples in Roddenberry's famous universe include nanite viruses engineered as weapons, and pernicious "nanoprobes" the Borg inject into the bloodstream of their victims to facilitate assimilation.

I've never explicitly referenced any kind of nanotechnology in my works, though I have written some science fiction stories where it might be argued that nanotech was implied by the level of technology depicted. I do have an idea buzzing around that toys with the idea of a nano-apocalypse scenario, but I haven't decided if it's something worth pursuing just yet.

All signs seem to point to a real-life future built on the back of nanotech. As a writer in the speculative realm, that excites me. I feel very fortunate to live in a time when science fiction concepts are becoming reality. I don't know if I'll be the first in line to hold my arm out for the nanoprobe injections, but I will certainly be watching on the edge of my seat when that line begins to form.

Recommended Reading:
Blood Music by Greg Bear
Prey by Michael Crichton
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Recommended Viewing:
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
I, Robot

Recommended Gaming:
Deus Ex
Metal Gear Solid 4

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Magic

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Magic.

Magic is a concept that humanity has been flirting with since we lived in caves and huts. The idea that we may be able to alter or manipulate the forces of this world that normally remain out of our control is very attractive. After all, who wouldn't want the ability to increase your fortune with the simple utterance of a few magic words?

Like many elements of mythology and folklore throughout history, magic has become one of the most prevalent tropes at work in the fantasy genre. In fact, the presence of magical elements in a story is often the indicator that links fantasy's wide variety of sub-genres.

The origins of the word itself can be traced at least as far back as 4th century BC, when it was used in reference to the Magi, followers of the sect of Zoroaster. The Magi believed they could divine (and manipulate) the fate of the world by observing the stars, and thus became known not only for their religious practices, but as great astronomers.

Christians may recognize the term from some versions of the Bible, as the word Magi was used in the original text of the Gospel of Matthew to describe the famous three "wise men" who were said to have come bearing gifts when Jesus was born. In fact, the Bible even describes them as having learned of Christ's coming by reading the stars. Interestingly, the word is also used in Acts to describe Simon Magus (magus being the singular form of magi), also known as Simon the Sorcerer, who is confronted as a heretic by Peter.

Magic takes many forms in fiction. It can serve as a simple plot device or be a large part of the worldbuilding process, with complex systems designed around its use. It usually involves the endowment of supernatural power, either in a mystical object or a person.

Characters in fantasy works may be born with innate magical abilities, or they might need to train and master the arcane arts. J.K. Rowling's famous Harry Potter series portrays both. Accidental magical outbursts get Harry into all kinds of trouble as a child, before he finally attends Hogwarts to learn how to become a wizard proper.

Most of the fantasy stories I've written have focused on religious themes and political machinations, with conflicts being solved by good old-fashioned swordplay. I have written a couple with heavy magic elements though, including some that embrace the "whatevermancy" school of tropes. My wizards are called mancers, trained from birth in specialized castes to manipulate the layers of reality that lie beneath worldly perception. They can't create from nothing, but they can wield the forces of nature around them like a weapon. For instance, pyromancers can't summon fire, but if there's a flame nearby it becomes a pliable instrument in their hands. Mancers are feared and revered, and lay at the heart of one of the religious wars at the center of one of my stories.

As a reader, I enjoy just about all of the various forms of magic at work in fantasy. I especially appreciate it, though, when you can find magical themes in an unexpected place, perhaps alluded to. One of my favorite fantasy tales is that of a young farm boy who meets an old wizard. The hermit teaches him how to use magic, and to wield a sword. When the boy's family is killed by an evil empire, he sets out on a quest to defeat the wicked sorcerer behind it, and to avenge his father's death by slaying a dark knight. If it wasn't for magic, he might never have prevailed.

Recommended Reading:
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Recommended Viewing:
The Neverending Story
Star Wars

Recommended Gaming:
The Longest Journey
Dragon Age series
The Elder Scrolls series

Friday, April 13, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Lords and Ladies

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Lords and Ladies. In other words, we'll be talking about medievalism in speculative fiction.

Perhaps most prevalent in high fantasy, a large number of works across fantasy sub-genres have shared a common pseudo-medieval setting. In these stories, kings and queens rule the realm, valiant knights defend the honor of their kingdoms, and brave adventurers crusade against the forces of darkness.

This trope calls to mind the clanging of steel and the pounding of hooves, battle standards flying and war horns sounding. In fact, if it wasn't for the presence of fantastical elements like magic and monsters, you might think you were reading a story set in medieval Europe.

Medievalism in fantasy can be traced back to some of the earliest examples of the fantasy genre, such as The Well at the World's End by William Morris. This 1896 novel introduced the reader to Ralph of Upmeads, who sets out on an adventure to find a magical well that grants strength and destiny to anyone who can drink from it. Morris' story was directly influenced by medieval tales and legends, and along with other early works like Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter, it would help to lay the foundations of fantasy as a literary genre, particularly high fantasy and sword & sorcery.

I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but much of this trope's prevalence in modern fantasy (like many others) also has a great deal to do with the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Tolkien himself was inspired partially by the tales mentioned above, but it was his work (along with others, like C.S. Lewis) that proved fantasy could be a commercially viable genre, breaking into the mainstream and paving the way for legions of writers that would follow.

Lord of the Rings set the type for high fantasy, portraying a world clearly born of medieval culture and folklore. You'd be hard pressed to find a fantasy author that has been emulated more than Tolkien.

Since I was a child, I've been absolutely in love with the medieval setting in epic fantasy. As a writer, I've produced more science fiction than fantasy, but most of the fantasy works I've written are dripping with unabashed influence from the likes of Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and George R.R. Martin. Several short stories of mine have taken place in a world dominated by feudal kingdoms wrapped up in religious conflict, including a couple that may be seeing publication soon.

I don't know what it is that compels me so, but as a reader I just can't get enough of it. Give me wicked tyrants and scrappy rebel armies. Give me epic sword duels and brave dragon slayers. Give me wizards and paladins. You can even give me Orcs, Elves, and Dwarves. As long as it's imaginative and written well, I'll consume just about any story in this mold with a smile on my face.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Recommended Viewing:
Game of Thrones
The Princess Bride

Recommended Gaming:
Dragon Age: Origins
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
The Witcher