Retrofuturism, Historical Fantasy, and Dieselpunk Tech

 As you may know, I’m currently writing a historical fantasy series. It’s set in the 1920s, and the title character Mrs. Jones has assorted adventures; magic, a touch of the paranormal, and a lot of “futuristic” retro-technology are key elements in her world.

I wrote a post last year giving some tips on how to write convincing technobabble for science fiction stories. This blog post is in a similar vein – but it’s for writing “historical technobabble.”

“Retro-futurism” is technology or other sci-fi elements that might have existed in the past, but didn’t. And so, to offer some tips on how to write retro-futurism or historical sci-fi, I’m sending you over to a guest post I wrote on The Old Shelter blog.

Read on to find out all about Retrofuturism and Dieselpunk: How they Work in a 1920s Setting!

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5 Things Watching Sci-Fi has Taught Me about Writing

It’s no great secret that my favorite genres to read and watch are fantasy and science fiction. I’ve actually watched a lot more sci-fi than I’ve read (unless you count comic books). But anyway, I’m doing this post as a follow-up to last week’s post about things that Star Trek has taught me about writing.

For this post, I’ll branch out, and draw examples from some of my favorite sci-fi TV shows ever: Babylon 5, Stargate (all the series, but mostly SG1), and Star Trek (all the series, but mostly TNG). And don’t worry if you haven’t seen all or any of these – my point is to illustrate how good writing is good writing, regardless.

Consistency in world-building is vital to believability

This is the most important thing that I’ve learned about writing. Whether you’re writing sci-fi or a YA contemporary romance, a short story or a 10-novel series, you must be consistent within the world of your story. Consistency helps create credibility and believability, even with a fantastical subject matter. In Star Trek, regardless of which series you’re watching, the ships always fly with a warp drive. This is one thing (of many) that the audience can always expect from any story set in the Star Trek world.

Characters are what truly make the story

Citizen G'Kar of Babylon 5 may be an exotic-looking alien, but he's also a deeply complex, and surprisingly human, character.

Citizen G’Kar of Babylon 5 may be an exotic-looking alien, but he’s also a deeply complex, and surprisingly human, character.

Of course people watch sci-fi for all the special effects, the exotic aliens, and the epic space battles. And in books – sci-fi and otherwise – the adventures, snappy action, and rich settings are important. But without fully-developed characters, all you really have is a cool travel brochure of the world you’ve created. For a story, you need plot and characters. Readers and viewers need people they can connect with.

The three sci-fi shows I mentioned – Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Stargate – have no shortage of characters. What makes an engaging story is the relationships between the characters – their friendships, the different ways they handle challenges, their enemies, their likes and dislikes. In Babylon 5, the overarching plot is war encroaching on peace. But what makes the audience keep coming back for the next episode is not just the dramatic space battles and the epic story of the Army of Light versus the Shadows. It’s the characters who make up that Army of Light, the characters who have hopes and dreams and a reason to keep fighting. If the audience didn’t care about the characters, they wouldn’t care who won the war. Continue reading

How to Write Technobabble

I’m not sure who originally came up with the term “technobabble,” but I first encountered it in reference to Star Trek. Technobabble is a staple of a lot of science fiction: the “babbling” on about fictional science and fictional technology to get characters into and out of their fictional scrapes.

So what makes for good technobabble? It needs to be believable and convincing within the fictional world you’ve created, so here are some ideas:

Use real science

A standard sci-fi technique to fixing a problem. Picard knows what's up.

A standard sci-fi technique to fixing a problem. Picard knows what’s up.

One key element that makes science fiction different from fantasy is the science. Not that every sci-fi story has to be as full of real chemistry and mathematics as, say, The Martian. But science, and along with it, logic and a degree of realism, is part of what makes sci-fi different from magic-based fantasy stories.

Even if your story is set in the far future or in a different universe entirely, learn some basic scientific concepts that will feature in your story. If you’re writing a space adventure with lots of ships traveling around the galaxy, then familiarize yourself with the difference between a red giant star and a quasar. Even if the plot doesn’t hinge on that detail, you’ll likely have readers who do know the difference and might be upset that you have a colony of people living on a planet orbiting a quasar (hint – quasars aren’t stars, to begin with). Continue reading

Five Questions to Help You Create a Fictional Culture

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, then you’ve probably tried your hand at creating fantastic creatures and aliens of all sorts. But inventing convincing aliens or fairy-tale creatures involves more than just coming up with cool looks or inhuman superpowers. If all you need for your story is just a scary monster or creepy creature, that’s fine – but if you want an actual alien race or people-group for a fantasy world, then you need more than just the basics of creature traits.

Here are five questions that you can ask yourself as you’re inventing people, cultures, races, and creatures for your fantasy/sci-fi stories. Continue reading

Storytelling Tips from Babylon 5: Fantasy Creatures and Alien Species

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

I’ve written a couple of posts about creating alien races and magical creatures for sci-fi and fantasy. This post is more of an analysis rather than instructional, but I think that if you’re struggling with your invented species in your story, this post can help clarify some thoughts in your mind.

I believe there are two main considerations to factor in when inventing a sentient race: qualities that make them non-human, and qualities that make them human. The non-human part is obvious – you’re using Elves or Wookies or talking trees because you want something Other in the story. Otherness can drive conflict, create wonder and exploration, and is an important part of world building.

Otherness – the non-human element

One of the most important alien races in Babylon 5 is the Minbari. The story begins 10 years after a brutal war between humans and Minbari, and relations are still strained. The Minbari are very much the Other.

Physically they appear quite human, except for the large elaborate bone on the back of the head. Also, several references are made to them being physically stronger on average than humans. Since they are very human-like in appearance, their Otherness mostly comes from their emotional behavior and mindset, and the culture in general.

Minbari pride themselves on the fact that they do not lie. Lying is – for better or for worse – a very consistent human behavior. So when the human characters are faced with blunt Minbari honesty or their elaborate logic strings to avoid telling a lie, it can cause confusion and tension. And confusion and tension of course are vital for character development and plot advancement.

The Minbari culture is based on rituals and tradition, and they have little interest in change. According to the world of Babylon 5, the Minbari were a space-faring race when humans were still writing on parchment by candle light. But 1,000 years later, their ships look the same and their level of technology has increased very little.

Despite how much humans can be resistant to change, as a rule we embrace it. New clothes, new technologies, new experiences. The idea of actively avoiding change in every area of life is not something we relate to well. An alien race that doesn’t even understand the concept of change makes for an interesting dynamic in a story. As the character of Delenn (a Minbari) remarks to John Sheridan: “Curious thing about humans – Minbari cities remain untouched and unchanged for centuries. I leave for three days, and you redecorate.”

Similarity – the human element

The human aspect of your non-human fantasy race is, in my opinion, just as important. Giving your aliens some kind of humanizing element gives your human characters something to relate to. And of course never forget that your readers are human.

In Babylon 5 the Vorlons are perhaps the most alien of all the fantastical creatures – in appearance, behavior, and culture. I picked them, though, to illustrate the human elements because even the mysterious Vorlons have something in common with humanity.

Physically the Vorlons appear as beings of light and can manifest many different ways. In this regard they are most certainly Other. However, as mysterious and powerful as they are, they are still mortal. Just like humans, they can die; and just like us, they fear death and loss, and grieve for those who are gone. Death is a powerful equalizer, and this brings an important human element to this extremely Other race.

While traditions and cultural rituals are not revealed to the characters or audience, the Vorlon racial mindset and belief system is explored. The Vorlons hold fast to the belief that they are always right, and that because they know more than others do, that must mean that they know everything.

A superiority complex is something that we humans almost universally detest – and, on a large and small scale, we continue to practice. Most people can probably identify with both sides of the “I am always right” dilemma. As alien and Other as the Vorlons are, their fear of death and their desire to be right gives a way for humans – characters and audience alike – to understand and appreciate them.

Babylon 5 explores the similarities and differences between humans, Minbari, and Vorlons in great depth. The two main characters of the series are John Sheridan and Delenn – a human and a Minbari. They fall in love and get married, which of course adds another element to any cultural confusion they encounter. The Vorlon character Kosh serves as a mentor and guide for Sheridan and Delenn.

Your story does not have to have a romantic relationship, or a mentor/protégé relationship. But the closer the characters from different races are, the more opportunities you have for developing the Otherness and the Humanity of your fantasy people.

“We are all born as molecules, in the hearts of a billion stars… Over a billion years, we, foolish molecules, forget who we are and where we came from. In desperate acts of ego, we give ourselves names, fight over lines on maps, and pretend that our light is better than everyone else’s.”
 – Delenn, “And All my Dreams, Torn Asunder”

World Building, part 1

Setting is important, to one degree or another, in just about any work of fiction. But the genres of fantasy and sci-fi need something a bit heftier than a mere setting of the scene. In this post and the next one, I’m going to cover a few basics of the specific sort of scene-setting known as world-building.

In the genres of fantasy and science fiction, basically anything goes. But even in these and related genres (dystopian, paranormal, etc), there are guidelines that should be followed for the story to hold together and be convincing.

A fantasy world does not have to be “realistic” in the sense that it resembles our own world, but it should have its own set of rules, and things that happen in that world need to happen in accordance with these rules.

Inaccuracy or inconsistency of details are things that savvy readers will notice. Sci-fi and fantasy readers especially can be a nit-picking, detail-oriented bunch (or, at least, I am. And I’m sure I’m not the only one).

1. Natural Laws

Gravity, weather, the day-night cycle, the behavior of animals in their native environments—nature follows a set of laws in our world, and in a fantasy world it should do the same.

Let’s say your sci-fi story is about human colonists on a planet that orbits very close to its sun, so the surface temperature is hot enough to liquefy steel in minutes. If their space ships can barely survive long enough to land and take off again, then a lone human parading around in a space suit isn’t going to fare any better.

Are the humans’ colonies deep underground? Do they live in mobile cities that travel at the same rate as the planet’s rotation, so they always stay on the cooler night side of the planet? Even though the story is not “realistic” in the sense that it’s our world here and now, it needs to be realistic in that setting.

2. Cultural Laws

This one gives the writer more leeway than natural laws, in my opinion. You can set up your culture of fairies or aliens or gothic kingdoms any way you want. Religion, clothing, dinner table customs—go nuts and be creative! The most important thing about cultural laws is making these traditions laws within the story, and sticking to it.

In The Silver Chair (of The Chronicles of Narnia), when the main characters are eating dinner at the giants’ mansion, it’s revealed that the venison served had been a Talking Stag. Killing (and especially eating) a Talking animal amounts to murder of the highest degree in Narnian culture. The giants’ complete disregard for this cultural law makes them an abomination to the Narnians.

In several of the Narnia books, the subject of killing a Talking animal—even in self defense—is mentioned. The consistency of this cultural law throughout the series adds depth and believability to the world.

3. Avoid Deus ex machina

This is the “move of God,” or a surprise ending where an unexpected superpower sweeps in and miraculously fixes everything. Deus ex machina can occur in any genre, but fantasy and sci-fi can be particularly susceptible.

If your urban fantasy story is about clan warfare between different vampire clans in the city, and you’ve written yourself into a corner where the only way to stop the war is to sacrifice the main character, you have one of three options.

You can kill off the main character, and pull at your readers’ heartstrings (or possibly incur their wrath). You can go back and do some major rewriting, so that the tension and drama and resolving of the conflict challenges the main character but doesn’t kill him. Or, you can have some aliens abduct the rival clan and take them to another planet, thus halting the war.

That third option would be a Deus ex machina, and should be avoided at all costs. If aliens are already part of the story, or have been hinted at and foreshadowed effectively, then maybe you could get away with that sort of ending. But if the story is about vampires, humans, and more vampires, then suddenly bringing in aliens to solve the problem cheapens the story and confuses the readers.

I’ll continue this list next week. Any thoughts about these world building tips? Any dos or don’ts you’d like to add?