Writing- Posted on 23rd November 2022
Don’t Be Afraid of Reading or Watching Trash
Partly because, if you’re anything like me, you’re something of a nerd. In truth, I think everyone’s somewhere on the nerd spectrum, which can apply to all sorts of things besides the traditional interest in science, technology, sci-fi or fantasy genres. Nerd is just shorthand for ‘passionately interested in something’, and in my opinion should really apply to everyone who has an interest, whether that’s music, horses or knitting.
But whatever — nerds of any interest often consume trashy content in their preferred subject, and feel guilty about it later. Don’t. I’ve received some of my greatest inspiration from consuming bad stuff, or just stuff I had issues with.
Take Star Trek’s influence on The Spiral Wars. Yes, this is unfair on Star Trek, because Star Trek, at its best, was certainly not trash. I consumed a lot of it in the ’90s, because there was no other SF on television, and because the endless seasons of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager etc created space where some talented TV writers could use the episodic nature of those shows to generate some genuinely good stand-alone stories.
But then, Star Trek is made for TV, and TV has budgetary and technical limits. It’s always bugged me how that made-for-TV look continues to dominate so much SF that should not suffer from the same problem, either because it’s an enormous budget movie, or a novel constrained only by the author’s imagination. It’s like some actor fashioned an outfit out of plastic garbage bags because he was short of money, only to discover everyone else liked his outfit so much they’ve taken to wearing garbage bags too, even though they’re not financially limited.
Star Trek’s spaceships are TV sound stages designed to be convenient to shoot episodes in. Shooting in the more realistically confined spaces of a warship, like any in the world’s navies today, would make it seriously hard to fit camera mounts and microphones around the actors.
I wondered this a lot when I was watching it. Like, ‘how much more cool would it be if the entire show weren’t like traveling through the galaxy in your living room?’ In the old seafaring stories of the 1800s, ships were difficult, dangerous places. The sailors who crewed them became a distinctly different species of human, shaped by their environment, their sea-legs, their poor diets and coarse humour.
You could tell a sailor when he came ashore without having to ask — the way he walked, the wounds on his hands, the roughness of his manners and skin. Military people today have a hard time reconverting to civilian life for the same reason — the profession changes the person. But when a Space Fleet officer comes downworld, were it not for the uniform, I’m not sure anyone could tell.
Then there’s the sheer impracticality of being both a non-combatant vessel, and also a lethal combatant that almost never loses a fight. Any ship-building engineer will tell you — pick one, or suck at both. Too much useless space creates issues of mass, and thus of performance, which can only be ignored if you then ignore the physics of spacetravel, and thus of space combat. Or any kind of combat — there’s a reason today’s warships don’t have enormous living quarters for each of their crew with bathrooms and wall-screen TVs. It can’t be a cruise liner if you ever expect it to win a fight, yet so many SF ships, and not just Star Trek ones, don’t appear to have to choose.
Watching this stuff on TV gave me all kinds of ideas. I liked the shows, much of the time, but I had problems with them too. How to solve those problems gave me the first kernel of a set of ideas that later became the UFS Phoenix.
Other things too. The Star Trek ships have inertial dampners (a variant of artificial gravity, I suppose) but people still get thrown out of their chairs when the ship is impacted? So why not wear a seatbelt? Or better yet, go the whole hog the other way, and have starship bridges that look like ten-person fighter plane cockpits, all limbs strapped down for massive G-loads, all senses encased in graphical displays and audio cues?
And then there’s the redshirts. Yes, those eminantly memeable Star Fleet crew whose role is ostensibly ‘security’, but appear no better trained or equipped for it than any regular crew, leading to woefully unsuccessful operations and appallingly high casualties.
In today’s navies, soldiers who fight from ships are called marines. If you want something shot, don’t call some guy in a red skivvy with a plastic gidget, call a guy dressed in a zero-G tank, and he’ll do it properly.
I guess the issue I’m getting at is that a lot of cheap and simple SF does its best to avoid problems. Don’t ask too many questions, just consume product. And I’m not really picking on Star Trek here, because like I’ve said, Star Trek has become emblematic of so much other SF that has copied its various simplicities without appearing to realise there was ever an alternative, because they presumably never asked the question.
My suggestion to make any fantasy world come alive is to embrace the complexities of the world. Gravity only became a problem for Star Trek because zero-G was too hard to film. But if you’ve either a) got the budget, or b) are writing a novel and don’t need no stinking budget, embrace the complexity of what happens when gravity is variable. Also, embrace seatbelts, embrace inertia, and embrace specialised professions made up of experts who are seriously good at what they do, and aren’t just there for dramatic effect.
Technicalities and world building brings worlds to life. Trashy fantasy novels or TV shows avoid medieval technicalities because ‘the audience will find it boring’. And in the hands of bad writers, maybe they would. But Game of Thrones set up the entire great mystery of the first book, and which set the entire series rolling, by explaining the rules of succession that determine which of the King’s children gets to inherit the throne, and which are illegitimate, and it was thrilling.
Which is of course what George Martin has always said about the benefit of writing books over TV shows — some TV producer would have shot that down because ‘the audience won’t follow it’, but in a novel, he can do what he wants. (though I suspect assorted agents and editors try to shoot down the better ideas of less successful writers than Martin all the time).
So read or watch the cheap trash, and pick it apart, as nerds will. Figure how it should be done better, then do so. Which of course is nerd culture at its best. The truth is that I’ve probably had more good ideas from reading/watching, ahem, imperfect stuff, than from really good stuff.