Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Melkons

Writer Timothy Zahn often speaks about fiction writing at conventions.  He's talked about how writers should think through new technologies and magic spells.  Zahn says it's important to consider PERSIA when you are brainstorming your story world.  PERSIA is an acronym for:

  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Religion
  • Society
  • Intellectual
  • Art
When you invent a new technology, you'll want to consider the impact it has on those areas of a society.  In this case, I'm using the acronym to help me think about an alien race that will appear in an ASL story.  They're known as the Melkons.  Here's what I already know about them:
  • They are reptilian, approximately the same height as humans.  Their build is more stocky.  They are both stronger and faster than we are, on average.
  • The Melkons' scaled skin is a form of natural armor.  You'd need a very sharp object or a lot of force to get through the skin.
  • The Melkons view other species as potential slaves or potential food.  If they can't eat you or subjugate your kind, they'll annihilate you.
  • They originated in another galaxy.  Their empire in that galaxy grew to cover most of it, until they crossed swords with the wrong species.  That species nearly wiped the Melkons out.  A handful of ships were created and shot out of the galaxy in an effort to save the species from extinction.
  • In a fight, they are incredibly brutal.  They won't think twice about ripping off one of your limbs or using excessive force to take you down.
  • Despite their physical brutality, they are at least as intelligent as humans.
  • They build weaponry that is far more powerful than the Alliance has at the time the Melkons are discovered.
  • Their ships are covered with an organic material that absorbs some kinds of energies fired at them, charges with solar energy, re-grows to cover damaged areas, provides oxygen to the crew, and provides electrical power for the ship's operations.  This plant-based material gives their ships a greenish color.  The longer a ship's away from solar radiation, the less green and more yellow or brown it will turn.
  • The Melkons wear only the most basic clothing, which is intended to convey rank or status, not to cover anything they might consider embarrassing.
  • They came to our galaxy in order to re-establish their society and empire here.  They'll then go back and re-take their home galaxy.  The ship bringing them to our galaxy is piloted by an artificial intelligence programmed to wake up the hibernating Melkons if needed.
Going through the PERSIA acronym, I came up with some additional information about the Melkons:
  • Politics:
    • They don't have civilians, military, police, and politicians like we do.  They see their community as a single entity and have a rank within it.  Members can challenge one another to have their rank increased, in "to the death" combats.  That means the folks at the top of the society are also the most combat seasoned.
    • They don't have a concept or prisoners in combat.  You're either a casualty, a slave, or food as far as they're concerned.
  • Economics:
    • There is an economy among the Melkons.  It's community and rank driven.  Each Melkon has and accepts some role in society (except for moving up as described earlier).  Those who create things like food and weapons accept that these are community property and make them available to those who need them.  In cases of dispute, the higher ranking Melkon gets the item.  If they're of the same approximate rank, disposition is resolved by discussion or battle -not necessarily to the death but certainly to the point of injury.
    • Higher ranking Melkons don't necessarily have "more" or "larger" or "better" things than the Melkons at the bottom of the society.  Rank is more about your ability to command others and reallocate community resources than about accumulating anything for yourself.  A higher ranking Melkon might have a larger residence or office, but this is not a status symbol so much as a practical requirement to gather more lower-ranking individuals together and direct their actions.
  • Religion:
    • They do not have a religion, and would not understand anyone else's.
  • Society:
    • Although Melkon individuals do have male and female genders, there is no distinction or discrimination in their society on that basic.  If a female can best a male at something, then she outranks him.
    • Melkons don't experience love, hate, fear, happiness, etc.  They tend to be very rational and logical, but they do undergo a kind of "bloodlust" in battle.
    • The Melkons are very community oriented.  One Melkon might do battle with another to increase his or her status, but those two Melkons will instantly drop their differences and fight together to protect the community if it's under attack.  When the threat has passed, they'll resume the battle.
  • Intellectual:
    • Melkons see the world very basically.  You are Melkon, or you are a slave, a food source, or someone to be eliminated as a threat.
    • Melkons are very practical creatures.  
  • Art:
    • Melkons don't really have art or music.  There may be a few Melkons who create something like that, but these are anomalies.  If it's not useful in battle, managing slaves, or increasing food yields, they're not interested.
The Melkons figure prominently in an ASL story I'm currently plotting, with the working title "The Ark"...

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Brainstorming an ASL Story: "The Ark" - Part 2

To further help me brainstorm "The Ark," I began building a list of all the expectations I thought a reader of the story might have.  I tried to think about the basic story concept and imagine what it might have been like if this were an episode of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, or any number of other science fiction universes.  Every expectation or assumption I could image appears on the list below:

  • Garrick wants to be captain and gets off on it to a degree like Kirk did.
  • Alliance crew to just step up anytime the captain asks and lay down their lives for the Alliance.
  • The Alliance will win in the end.
  • The Prospect will survive.
  • Captain Garrick will live.
  • The officers in the boarding party will survive, but the red shirts will die.
  • The Melkons will have a tragic flaw.
  • The Melkons aren't invincible.
  • The captain will do the right thing, the ethical thing.
  • The Alliance crew wouldn't loot the Melkon weapons and tech.
  • The Alliance tech is better than the Melkon tech.
  • If the Melkon tech is better, the Alliance folks are smarter or faster.
  • The Alliance crew are the good guys.
  • The Melkons are inherently bad.
  • There will be a happy ending.
  • There will be a win win solution found.
  • Captain Garrick won't commit genocide and kill all the Melkons.
  • The crew will learn to take risks.
  • The captain will decide not to resign.
  • It's not a Kobayashi Maru test.
  • It's not virtual reality.
  • It's not a reality show.
  • The Prospect crew and tech always work perfectly.
  • The Prospect won't be severely damaged our crippled.
  • The Prospect has all the supplies and repair parts it needs.
  • The crew will figure out the Melkon language and devices.
  • The Melkons will mostly stay in hibernation.
  • If taken down, Slave won't reboot or recover.
  • The Melkons will just accept their situation when they lose.
  • The Melkons are trustworthy and will honor their word.
  • The Alliance is honorable and will honor its word.
  • Aliens in general treat the Alliance with respect and trust like the Federation in Star Trek.
  • Humans will bicker, back stab, and undermine each other.
  • The humans will have the moral high ground here.
  • The Melkons won't slaughter the Prospect's crew.
  • The humans and Melkons will be able to communicate and negotiate.
  • At some point the fighting will stop.
  • The ships won't crumble, develop failures, etc.
  • The Alliance ship is faster and better than the Melkons Ark.
  • The name Melkon is enough like Archon that we'll see a parallel to the Star Trek story of that name.
  • The captain will be the one with the final solution that saves the day.
  • Slave's attack on the Prospect computers won't succeed or if it does the Alliance will be able to recover from it.
  • The main characters won't be seriously injured, especially those closer to the captain.
  • The Alliance universe won't be changed by the event, this will all be episodic.
  • The Alliance has unlimited ammo, medicine, food, and energy.
  • The Melkons will run out of resources, before we do.
  • There won't be any human traitors.
  • Given the parallels to the Khan story they may expect Garrick to maroon the Melkons on some planet.
  • There won't be any mystical or spiritual elements to the universe.
  • Nothing supernatural takes place unless it's explained by science.
  • Because they are reptilian, the Melkons will behave like reptiles and have qualities of earth reptiles.
  • Melkons behave essentially like humans, have a human like society, care about their children, fall in love, etc.
  • Humans in this universe act like we do.  They have emotions, loves, hates, fears, etc.
  • The human good guys will win.
  • Technologies that look like sci-fi tech we've seen before will behave and be used the same way.
  • Humans would not employ underhanded tactics against the aliens.
  • The crew will follow the captain's orders.
  • The Melkons follow their leaders' orders and respect their decisions, behaving like a human society.

As the author of the story, it's my job to decide which of these expectations and assumptions will be true in the Alliance universe, and which will not.  You'll have to wait for The Ark to find out.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Brainstorming an ASL Story: "The Ark" - Part 1

The story I'm currently writing for the ASL Series is about risk-taking, and how organizations can become so risk-averse that it destroys them.

Long before our story starts, the main character test piloted experimental spacecraft.  He's used to taking risks, but he's also used to being the only person at risk for the risks he takes.  If he flies a dangerous spacecraft and crashes it, it's rare anyone else would get hurt.  So he's not used to ordering people into risky situations or to dealing with the aftermath when the risky situation kills the person you ordered into it.  On one level, the story's about him learning to accept that his role as captain of an exploration ship includes (to his dismay) sometimes ordering people to their deaths.

Another piece of the story is that he realizes, based on some traditions starting to take root within the space fleet he's part of, that the fleet is becoming risk-averse.  If it it continues down this path, he can see where it will end up... and it's not a good place.  He knows risk is important, and not always pleasant, but as long as it's managed and used appropriately, it's valuable.

The story focuses on Captain Paul Garrick of the Alliance starship Prospect.  Garrick had captaincy somewhat forced on him. His ship encounters an alien spacecraft of a type never seen.  Alliance directives require Garrick to attempt to make first contact.  They also require him to give aid if the crew seems to be injured, ill, or in need of assistance.  There is a lesser-known directive that requires him to acquire any potentially useful alien technology he encounters.  The alien ship has very faint life signs all over, with a slightly stronger (but still weak) cluster in one area.  They could be dead.  They could be injured.  They may just not register on the scanners due to unusual biology.  There's no way to know, as the ship isn't answering their hails.  Garrick must approach this ship to render aid, salvage anything useful, and/or make contact with the occupants.

In the list below, "Slave" is the name of the artificial intelligence which controls the alien ship, which is referred to as "The Ark" (this tells you something about how the Melkons view the AI).  "Melkons" are the aliens who created the Ark.  The Melkons on the ship are fugitives from another galaxy where their once-vast empire was (probably) destroyed.  They came here to establish a new empire from which they can someday reclaim their home.

To build this list, I tried to turn off as many of my mental filters and censors as possible.  I wanted a huge list of possibilities I might be able to use in my story.  I intentionally allowed silly and story-ending ideas onto the list.  I thought those of you who wonder where writers get their ideas might find this interesting.  Below is every idea I could come up with, from the totally nuts (the Melkons destroy the ship as soon as it's in range and Garrick dies with his crew), to the very silly (it's all a reality show), to the possibly useful.
  • The Prospect is destroyed instantly.
  • Slave lures them in by being friendly then blasts them.
  • Slave hacks their computers.
  • All the Melkons are defrosted and there is a huge fight.
  • The entire boarding party is killed.
  • Garrick has to go along because no one will volunteer among the crew.
  • Melkons get aboard the Prospect.
  • Melkons capture the Prospect.
  • Humans carry a disease that kills the Melkons.
  • Garrick gets marooned on the Ark.
  • Slave joins Garrick in his efforts.
  • Garrick chickens out and goes back to the Prospect.
  • The Melkons conquer the Alliance.
  • Garrick sends the Ark back home.
  • The Prospect destroys the Ark.
  • The Ark is marooned on a remote uninhabited planet.
  • Melkons carry a disease that kills humans.
  • Slave self destructs the Prospect.
  • Garrick uses the Ark weaponry to take control of the Alliance.
  • The Ark starts attacking another Alliance ship.
  • Garrick and crew kill all the Melkons and take the Ark as a prize.
  • As Garrick takes the Ark, Slave starts self destruct.
  • Garrick falls in love with a Melkon.
  • The Melkons surrender to Garrick.
  • The Melkons recognize Garrick as a famous historical figure in their universe.
  • Another alien race comes along to claim the Ark.
  • The Ark begins landing on an inhabited world.
  • Garrick calls in help from the fleet.
  • The Ark calls for help from the other Arks.
  • The air on the Ark is unbreathable.
  • Automated defenses on the Ark prove too much for the crew.
  • The first boarding party is killed and no one will join the second.
  • The Admiral let's Garrick resign but he rejoins when things go bad for the crew.
  • The Melkons turn out not to be so violent and only came here to dance.
  • The Alliance orders Garrick to destroy the Ark.
  • Garrick brings the Ark to Earth and the Melkons escape and take over.
  • The Melkons have a power that lets them brainwash humans.
  • Melkons turn out to be afraid of mice and Garrick uses this to advantage.
  • Garrick's pet iguana is sick and the disease is lethal to Melkons.
  • The Melkon chambers are defective and most of the crew can't be revived.
  • Turns out this was all a test on Garrick by the admiral.
  • After having into the computers on the Prospect, Slave joins the Alliance.
  • Melkons find humans sexually arousing.
  • Human weapons can't hurt Melkons.
  • Humans can't use Melkon weapons.
  • Slave is senile after too many years in deep space alone.
  • The Ark is surrounded by several cloaked fighters.
  • This is the second trip of the Ark. Melkons are already here.
  • The aliens who conquered the Melkons show up and demand the Ark.
  • Turns out all the time in suspended animation has wiped the Melkon brains.
  • Melkons see humans as food.
  • Melkons see humans as potential slaves.
  • Boarding party is captured and tortured for secrets to the Prospect.
  • Slave cuts off communication between boarding party and Ark.
  • Prospect crew thinks boarding party is dead and leaves them.
  • When Garrick defeats the Melkons they make him their leader.
  • It's all a reality show and not a real alien Ark.
  • An Alliance ship from the future arrives and wipes out the Melkons.
  • Other Melkon ships show up from a nearby colony.
  • The Ark flies into the sun to avoid capture.
  • Garrick convinces Slave to take the Ark back home.
  • The Melkons decide to join the Alliance.
  • The Melkons become Garrick's personal slaves when he beats them.
  • One of the boarding party sides with the Melkons and leads them back to Prospect.
Will any of this make it into the finished story?  I have no idea.

The next step is to sift through this list to find the ideas that I think might have merit in the story I'm trying to tell.  Then I'll do a similar exercise with these.  I'll ask myself questions like "OK, if this happens, what else might happen as a result?" and "Would it be better if, instead of this thing, something very similar (or very different) happened?"