Monday, January 20, 2014

Yet Another Vacuum Story

If you are writing stories about near term space operations, there are some well known hazards that drive a lot of stories. It can be almost formulaic:

  • Someone's in space. 
  • Something goes wrong. 
  • Survival situation ensues. 
  • Someone bodges together something.
  • Some, maybe not all, survive.

My friend Martin Shoemaker calls these "vacuum stories." And he laments the fact that the grand masters of science fiction have written all of them. I counter that you can probably recycle the basic plot and have a ripping good yarn by insinuating fresh characters into the story.

But Martin has a second complaint in these stories and it bears on that second step "Something goes wrong." Too often the thing that goes wrong is really lame:

  • Someone does something stupid
  • Someone evil throws a spanner in the works
  • Something easily anticipated is overlooked.

I have recently complained that stories with smart characters risk having them do something stupid that the reader can see is stupid, but the story requires him/her to do it.

The premise here is that if you've got people going into space, they're going to be smart people. Ignoramuses don't go into space. They stay in North Dakota and plot to kidnapping schemes that go wrong.

Now, I have had smart characters do stupid things for the sake of the story, but I justified the stupidity and used the character's awareness that he was compelled to do something wrong to increase tension.

But in a vacuum story, astronauts aren't stupid and you ought not make them do something stupid just to create an inciting incident.

However, they can do something that should be OK, but cascades into something very wrong. Imagine a really complicated piece of equipment that has a little fan that's not used very often. In the times before when it's been used there's been no problem. Nobody's stupid. In fact the smartest engineers in the world have made this system. But the fan is inside an oxygen tank. Though the fan is insulated, this time it sparks and the tank explodes. The explosion takes out the equipment bay.

As we saw in Apollo 13 a trivial malfunction can easily escalate into a survival situation.

Here's a great way to show the reader how smart the characters are in your story. Really smart characters will plan for failure. They'll eliminate opportunities for trivial mistakes and have contingencies ready when things go wrong.

But there are limits for what can be anticipated and planned for. When an airliner crashes the investigators generally learn that no one thing brought the plane down, but a perfect storm of multiple malfunctions.

Devising these perfect storms of interlocking failures may tax the ingenuity of the writer, but it's a lot more original than having some crazed snake handling fundamentalist release a bunch of snakes on a spaceship.

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