Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a guest post by Jonathan Maas.
Jonathan Maas is the author of City of gods - Hellenica. He is also a web designer.
City of gods - Hellenica was published in August 2013.
Five Ways Authors of Speculative Fiction Bring World-changing Ideas into their Stories by Jonathan Maas
There are two main elements that are crucial to every story: plot and character. An author must first generate what happens, and then figure out how to illustrate the characters (humans, creatures or monsters) that make those things happen.
After that, the author must worry about writing well, keeping to an act structure, and perhaps adding a twist or two to keep the readers engaged.
But what about raw ideas? Ideas don’t always push the plot, and they don’t always develop the characters. If injected into the story incorrectly, they can even be ungainly, case in point:
Our hero was surrounded by three Destro-class Bloodknights, each itching to drag him down to their own private circle of Hell, to torment him for a century before burning his soul to cinders. Our hero had no weapons, and his shackled legs couldn’t even run away. The biggest Bloodknight, a particularly cruel demon named Skarr, threw his bony fingers towards our hero’s neck and—
“Wait,” said our hero, “What if an alternate universe had matter instead of empty space, so it was just as big but completely filled up? Or what if insects have some sort of collective consciousness and are just biding their time until they take over? What if there’s a system better than both socialism and capitalism, but we just haven’t thought of it yet?”
-(Not a real story, but serves to make a point)
Eesh – the plot comes to a halt, reader closes the book.
It would seem that ideas are ‘nice-to-haves’ in the world of literature, but as any Risingshadow.net reader knows, this is precisely opposite of the truth.
Ideas may not always push the plot, but they’re the lifeblood of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it’s up to the author to incorporate them into the story without losing momentum. How do they do this? Well each author has their own bag of tricks, and here are five of them:
1) Robert A. Heinlein – Starship Troopers – A Classroom Setting
When you think of Robert Heinlein the first thing that comes to mind is space marines battling an army of giant insects. You’d be right to think that too – the battle scenes in the book (and movie) are incredible.
However, Starship Troopers, like most of Heinlein’s work, is filled with fabulous ideas. It’s not always easy to inject ideas into battle scenes, so Heinlein often uses the trope of a classroom to get his points across. For example, our hero Johnnie Rico listens to one of his teachers, Colonel Jean Dubois, lecture about society:
“Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero.”
– Colonel Jean Dubois
Heinlein found a way to keep the reader engaged while presenting ideas. Our hero Johnnie Rico signs up to fight insects, and then trains (action). Johnnie Rico takes a class (ideas). Johnnie Rico then fights insects (a ton of action).
Repeat. Use flashbacks if necessary.
Great book, great (albeit semi-related) movie, a lot of ideas, most of them read while your heart is still beating from scene before.
2) William Gibson – Neuromancer – Creating an Immersive Alternate World
A lot of authors make their own universe, but few do it as robustly as William Gibson. The book overwhelms and exhausts the reader, refusing to let up, not even for a sentence. Characters in Neuromancer don’t simply live in a dystopian world, they live in Night City, which Gibson describes like this:
Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you’d break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz, though heart or lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger with New Yen for the clinic tanks.
In a simple description of his world, Gibson brings in the concepts of social Darwinism, the delicate balance of survival in a predatory world, living beyond one’s death in the memory of another, and systematic organ harvesting.
That’s just one paragraph of hundreds. Gibson pummels the reader with his world, not even letting up for a moment.
Reading William Gibson is like being pushed into an icy pool of water stocked with strange fish: it’s a bracing shock at first, but you’ll eventually warm up to be surrounded by things you’d never thought possible, and you’ll remember every part of your swim.
3) Ridley Scott – Prometheus – Raw visuals
Prometheus is a movie and not a book, but that only serves to illustrate how well Scott has brought ideas to his medium. It’s easier to fill a book with hypothetical notions and concepts, because the author has pages and pages to bring these thoughts in between plot points.
But movies are different. In a movie, dialogue must be kept at a minimum and action must be the fundamental engine that drives the story. In addition to the fact that movies are often under two hours in length, this means that each movie can maybe transmit one, perhaps two ideas on the screen, total.
Prometheus is different than the average movie. It brought as many ideas to its audience as a book could, and all without sacrificing screen time or slowing down the plot. It did this with visuals.
Giant white humanoid aliens putting genetic material into the water supply, Michael Fassbender the cyborg riding a bicycle and making incredible basketball shots without missing, a pair of fist-sized drones that map out cave systems...
Let’s stop here before we need a spoiler alert. But still, the point is that Scott transmits ideas through camera work, creating a scene then letting the visuals play out without over-explaining them. The audience sees what’s happening on the screen, and comes to the conclusions themselves.
4) George R.R. Martin – A Song of Ice and Fire – Having Characters Think and Learn
Everyone on earth knows Game of Thrones by now, and they know that a Lannister always pays his debts and that Winter is Coming. But though these characters spend quite a bit of time having sex with each other and enacting revenge, many characters think and learn, and more often than not they generate interesting ideas when they do.
Here’s Eddard (Ned) Stark talking to his king:
“Why should I mistrust him? He has done everything I have ever asked of him. His sword helped win the throne I sit on.” [said King Robert] His sword helped taint the throne you sit on, Ned thought, but he did not permit the words to pass his lips.
Subtle, but Martin gets his idea across through Eddard’s thoughts: In a world filled with treachery, the concept of ‘honor’ is subjective at best.
Martin often has his characters learn, and in the case of Tyrion Lannister, they often learn by reading:
Tyrion curled up in his fur with his back against the trunk, took a sip of the wine, and began to read about the properties of dragon bone. Dragonbone is black because of its high iron content, the book told him. It is strong as steel, yet lighter and far more flexible, and of course utterly impervious to fire. Dragonbone bows are greatly prized by the Dothraki, and small wonder. An archer so armed can outrange any wooden bow.
Wow! Tyrion just learned about dragon bones, and this generates the idea that ‘dragons aren’t just what you think.’ Dragons die, and when they do they leave bones that are strong as steel and more flexible. Martin takes the concept of the dragon and turns it inside out, taking a fierce creature and turning it into a prized relic.
Without interrupting the flow of the story, Martin brings ideas into his world of harsh lines and quick deaths. Though the sword may rule Westeros, thoughts and ideas inhabit it, and Martin’s not afraid to put them in his character’s minds.
5) Before the Dawn, Recovering the Lost History of our Ancestors – Nicholas Wade – Throwing As Many Ideas as Possible at the Reader, at Every Opportunity
This book, along with Cro-Magnon (Brian Fagan) and The Humans Who Went Extinct (Clive Finlayson), belong to a sub-genre I call ‘Speculative Non-fiction’
The books are all factual and meticulously researched but … large swaths of their subject matter are unknown. These books speak of the origins of mankind 50,000 years ago, when a small group of humans traveled North through Neanderthal-dominated Europe.
We know this happened, we know the general idea of when this happened, but cavemen don’t leave extensive records, and the rest is up to writers like Wade, Fagan and Finlayson to speculate the rest of the story.
They do this by throwing a lot of ideas at their readers, and it makes for gripping books. For example:
Fifty Thousand Years Ago, in the northeastern corner of Africa, a small and beleaguered group of people prepared to leave their homeland. The world then was still in the grip of the Pleistocene ice age. Much of Africa had been depopulated and the ancestral human population had recently dwindled to a mere 5,000. Those departing, a group of perhaps just 150 people, planned to leave Africa altogether.
People probably once spoke a single language from which all contemporary languages are derived.
We also believe that humanity almost became extinct in the aftermath of a colossal explosion when Mount Toba, on Sumatra, erupted into space about 73,500 years ago.
The entirety of humanity came from a group of 150 people! We all had one original language! We almost went extinct before traveling up to meet the Neanderthals of Europe!
These authors use every opportunity to throw their ideas at us, and each of their paragraphs can change the way we think about ourselves and our past.
In short, the books you see in the Risingshadow.net database aren’t merely fun jaunts through space, time and alien worlds, meant merely to serve as a whimsical distraction to the reader. Within these pages are concepts, notions and ideas that have the potential to change the way we think, and the world along with it.
It’s up to the author to present these ideas within the framework of their narrative, and do it in such a way that it serves to enhance the story, and not distract. The authors above do that quite well, and they have probably changed our world because of it.
Jon Maas has written the novel “City of gods: Hellenica,” which is available on Amazon. His upcoming novels “Spanners – The Fountain of Youth” and “Flare” will be available soon.
He’s been inspired by the ideas of countless authors over the years, and hopes to share his own ideas with others, so he can in turn, inspire them.