Workblog: “No Atheists in Foxholes”

Posted: May 29, 2009 in Threat Quality
Tags: ,

When I work up a long-form story, I tend to start with a bare-bones plot, and zygotes of characters that flesh out however they pop into my head. Unfortunately, I come up against a lot of my own limitations when all these components come to rest in a science fiction field. For starters, world-building.

So it’s good to have a writing partner who can fill in your weak points – for instance, Chris Braak. As his book The Translated Man (hey, you should go buy a copy!) illustrates, Braak has an exceptional talent for fully realizing imaginary worlds.

Which is all a prelude to today’s workblog, where I outline the basic plot structure of a story-to-be, and seek Chris’s advice when the details get to be a bit of a pain in the ass.

The bare-bones plot: In the future, a televised wargame is set up on a moon of Mars. Its stated purpose – to commemorate the end of real war on Earth. But behind the facade is a darker plan set in motion by an ambitious corporation to reawaken the war-gods of Mars. A plan threatened by the unwitting actions of two damaged soldiers – a cocky all-American with a tragic secret, and a mute, fractured by induced aphasia, who knows more than he’s capable of telling.

(Basic outline:

– We open with the introduction to “Battle”, the televised Olympics-style battle royale between selectively-chosen contestants from each country.

– The TV show follows “our” guys – in particular, two popular contestants from the elimination rounds – cocky All-American, and quiet mysterious dude, both veterans of the last great war – as they prep their squad for the battle to come.

– All the while, they check out strange landmarks they think are just set-dressing provided by the networks – big, weird totems they’ve been told represent “gods of war,” all there for dramatic purposes.

– Chatty guy has a big-brother fondness for the mute (gotta get some names for these two), while the rest of the team – made up mostly of “Amazing-Race” type normal folks – get amped up for the game.

– All the contestants have laser-tag style jackets that measure their heart-rates and keep score, which is how the networks keep track of them all (in particular, the former soldiers in the group).

– The plan: The actions of these atheistic warriors are supposed to awaken the sleeping things resting on the Martian moon – but on this moon are also Singers, men and women with an autistic-savant-style communion, via vocal inflections, with whatever used to be there. They’re wired into hardware and meant to awaken the things with their songs (once again, part of the networks’ long-range plans).

– Things get weird when the war-gods (or whatever) awaken early; they start attacking the “contestants” without prejudice, killing all of them.

– When chatty and the mute…shit, I think I’m just calling them Chatty and Mute…stumble upon the secret chamber where the Singers are kept, they make the obvious move to protect the two Singers left alive, they…

– Take the two damaged women, and find an emergency teleportation system (or possibly just a jettison-pod deal, like in the first Star Wars?) that sends them back to Earth. Chatty brings them all back to his parents’ place to protect them, because that’s honestly all he can think to do – his folks are good people, they kept him safe after his war-time experiences. So in Chatty’s mind, this is the safest base for them.

– Mute’s decision-making faculties are, as far as he’s concerned, a little damaged (this is not true, but he believes it to be so), so he follows the charismatic Chatty.

– The parents are not enthused to suddenly be tasked with the welfare of these two weird girls.

– While they hide out in Chatty’s parents’ basement, the girl from the Network comes to visit them (see previous work-notes on the girl).

To Be Continued….)

Okay, not a bad start, sure. But devil’s in the details. So I sent my notes to Chris, who responded with this:

“Here’s some things worth consider, maybe they will spark some ideas:

1) Music is deeply culturally rooted; music from another species may not even sound like music to our ears (it may not even be done in our audible range–and it might include all kinds of other weird things; light, smells, noises made by rubbing your hind legs together).

2)  Aphasia doesn’t inhibit things like rhythm or melody, so the mute guy, while he can’t talk, could still sing wordlessly, if that’s a moment you might want to play with.

3)  Why do they go back to Earth, and not to the big colony on Mars?  The trip to Earth, in a spaceship, will take weeks.  The trip to Mars will take a few days.  It will also give you a lot of room to play around with future Martian cities, and inhospitable Martian landscapes.  Are they terraforming Mars?  Are they colonizing it?  What’s going on there.

4)  There’s basically zero gravity on the Martian moons–they are both very small.

5)  There’s really low gravity on Mars, which is why it can’t hold an atmosphere.  But get this:  if someone crashed the moons back into it, it probably WOULD.  I don’t know how you’d do that, I’m just saying.

6)  Hey, yeah, good question–why would they want to bring back the gods of war?  What would be the point of that?  Do they have some plan to capture them?  Is there a technological cache sitting around somewhere that they think will turn back on if those guys show up?

7)  It’d probably be worth it to figure out just how closely governments and corporations are related in this world–it is really unlikely for any corporation to be able to fund significant space travel and colonization.  All of the major leaps off-planet have been done nationally, because there’s no immediate pay-off.  Why would any company want to find space colonization?

This is important; I once had an argument with a friend of mine about whether or not we should colonize Mars.  He said we should, because of overpopulation.  But the thing is this:  overpopulation is not a problem because we don’t have enough SPACE, it’s a problem because we don’t have enough STUFF.  Enough food and water.  And there’s no water or arable soil on Mars–to keep Martian colonists fed and hydrated, you’d have to keep shipping them stuff from Earth, which would only exacerbate the overpopulation problem.

8)  Maybe overpopulation isn’t a problem on this earth.  Maybe there was a big war that a lot of people died in, and the ensuing chaos enable the Industrial Military Complex.”

Chris gave me a lot to think about here. Too much, in fact. So I decided to focus again on the characters. Step one: What the hell are their names?

We’ll cover character-building on the next workblog.

  1. noc noc says:

    Marcus is chatty.

    Sandry is mute.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Sandry. That’s a possibility.

  3. Moff says:

    How about [DRUMROLL]…





  4. Moff says:

    Sorry. I once saw an improv thing where this guy talked about how his cats’ names were Kevin and Pancakes. Then Horatio Sanz turned it into a riff on two classic-rock radio DJs called “Kevin and Pancakes in the Morning!” It was much less objectively funny than it is to me.

    Chris is a lot more helpful than I would be.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    Now I’m thinking I should reconsider the whole thing and just write about radio DJs in the future.

    Hey, like that one episode of “Newsradio”!

  6. braak says:

    It’s good for me to send ideas to Holland, too, because he sometimes has to remind me that there needs to be people in my stories, not just lasers and space monsters.

  7. Hsiang says:

    Space monsters are still people, only more interesting.

  8. K. Holland says:

    I wonder if Horatio Sanz spent time in LA. There is a morning radio show in LA called “Kevin and Bean.” (Bean being directly derived from the vegetable green bean.)

    I kept thinking of Penn & Teller when Chatty and Mute are described. Then again Chatty didn’t sound like pompous showman, so a difference there.

    I’d read it.

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    This is the trick to writing long-form. With a short story, often it’s fairly stream-of-consciousness, just typing until you stop, and seeing what’s come out at the end.

    But longer pieces require two threads to start developing with equal quality – character and plot. The plot’s needed to give the characters a place to move through, the characters are needed to make the plot mean something.

    I still haven’t gotten to the most difficult part of the story – the part that very often shuts me down – and that’s coming up with an ending that makes sense and is dramatically satisfying, but isn’t necessarily something you can’t see coming from the first page.

    That post will have a lot more muttering and swearing.

  10. K. Holland says:

    Dad to my reply?

    Haha. No. Just an avid reader of posts/updates here. I found TQP via Robot Viking, via io9.

    As I put my name in, I thought it would be funny if you had a relative with “K” as for their first initial. (My full first name is Kyle…)

  11. Jeff Holland says:

    Okay, thank you. That was weird for a moment, wondering if my dad had a secret interest in California-based radio shows.

  12. V.I.P. Referee says:

    How about sending only people who couldn’t co-exist with others on planet Earth—extreme criminals, the severely mentally ill—to a planet with a “War Gods” history? That might sound very Galton-esque, Brit-Aussie territory circa 1830…but what if their behavior was more suited to the customs or conditions of a different planet? What if some mental illnesses on Earth allowed for natural interpretation of “singing”, elsewhere–like, the people who are treated as social rejects on Earth, are intrinsincally well-endowed for life on other planets; in turn, posing questions about our ethical boundaries and definitions? Or, what if being an isolated group on Earth prepared them to maneuver through the cultures of otherworld societies, manipulating other beings in a parasitic way?

    As concerns questions of financial investment, Earthlings would be willing to spend money on ignoring social problems at home and sending them off to a different planet. Perhaps this sending-criminals-away program would become something like an internationally recognized charity and companies that donated to it would be admired for doing so. Does any of this resemble “Total Recall” or some other Sci-Fi plot in any way? Sitting through the trailers before “Star Trek”, I quickly saw my “Robots-fertilize-Earth-and-control-people’s-minds!” comments on Chris’ work realized before my eyes in a three trailer pop. Why do so many people have to have ideas?

  13. Jeff Holland says:

    There’s definitely some zygotes here – in particular, it gets me thinking more about the REST of the contestants, rather than the cannon fodder/ normal game show contestants I had in my head as placeholders.

    But that said, I’d have be be careful with the idea of ‘prisoners battling for future-entertainment,’ since it’s pretty well-trod 80’s-90’s action-flick ground, from “The Running Man,” to…some movie with Christopher Lambert, to, uh, some other movie with Ray Liotta, to some other other movie with Stone Cold Steve Austin.

    They all seem to take place on the same low-cost-to-film island where they fight Vinnie Jones and Men Who Resemble Vinnie Jones.

  14. threatqualitypress says:

    I think the Ray Liotta one was called “No Escape.”

  15. threatqualitypress says:

    Also: the best part of The Running Man was how the future resistance against evil corporate entertainment conglomerates was run by Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa.

  16. Jeff Holland says:

    Aaaand just like that, I think I need to put a Frank Zappa type in there somewhere.

    heh heh heh…possibly as the chatty all-American’s dad.

    Isn’t the creative process fun?

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