Monday, February 25, 2019

Where do science fiction stories come from?

The Galactic Sentinel

Stardate 2 22 2019

Phil Nolte - Official Historian

A question authors get asked all the time is: "Where do you get your ideas?" The answer in my case is: "From pretty much everywhere." It could be a news item, it could be something I remembered from junior high, something I read by another author, or something that came up in a conversation. It shouldn't come as a shock, but authors borrow from one another all the time. Where do you think we get "blasters," and "pulse weapons," and "warp drives," and a host of other science fiction staples? 

Most of these, in some form or another, have been around since the origins of the genre. One thing that helps me with ideas, I think, is the fact that I've read a ton of science fiction books and short stories. Oh, and quite a lot about real science too.

Just because the above staples are well-worn clich├ęs doesn't mean an author shouldn't use them. There's a sort of "short hand" involved when using these stock objects - shields, propulsion systems, etc., because they're pretty much universally understood by the science fiction audience. No need to waste time explaining this stuff - on with the story! Inventing new stuff is always fun though, and this sort thing often comes to the author unbidden. 

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue... I incorporated almost all of these suggestions while creating a short story entitled "Endurance Racer" in 1988. (You can find it in my short story collection "Cannibals Shrink Elvis's Head" on Amazon). In this story there was this big race, a kind of steeplechase really, that was contested on a course mapped out in our solar system's asteroid belt. Here's what was new: the contestants were piloting pedal powered spacecraft! Far out eh?

Here's what hatched the story. I had been following the development of pedal-powered airplanes since engineer Dr. Paul McCready's Gossamer Condor won something called the first Kremer Prize (google it) by successfully negotiating a prescribed course that involved clearing a barrier at least ten feet high, flying a figure eight course around markers placed a half mile apart, and then clearing the same ten foot barrier at the end. This proved to be a significant challenge. The prize was established in 1959, and McCready's team didn't succeed in claiming it until 1977.

It gets better. Two years later, McCready's team won a second Kremer prize by flying the Gossamer Albatross across the channel from England to France! Impressive, to be sure, but that still wasn't the end of the story. In 1988 MIT's Daedalus was flown from the island of Crete to the island of Santorini, a distance of over 72 miles! This feat duplicated the flight described in the old Greek myth about Daedalus and his son Icarus escaping from Crete using wings created by the old engineer. Unfortunately, Icarus, the impulsive teenager, flew too close to the sun, melting the wax that kept his wings together, and plunged into the sea to his death. 

After reading about this last accomplishment involving human-powered airplanes, I remember thinking, "What's next, human-powered spacecraft?" The story built from there. I used my love of automobile racing to create the racecourse, sketch out some of the characters, and outline some of the behaviors one would expect from racers.

I shamelessly borrowed an idea I remembered from a book I read back in junior high called "Rocket Jockey" published in 1952 by Lester Del Ray, one of the old masters. This was another story about a race in space, but it involved a race from planet to planet in rocketships. Great fun! What I remembered vividly from the story, was that the rocketeers each used a fuel additive to give their exhaust plume a unique color. The Martians (human colonists, not aliens) used red, earthers used blue, and so on. As a result, my pedal-powered spacecraft all had different colored exhausts so the spectators could tell who was who. Thank you, Mr. Del Ray, for a magnificent idea.

I hope you've enjoyed my ramblings, I'll have another blog out soon. Meantime check out my "Junkyard Dogs" trilogy and my "Guardians of the Galactic Sentinel" series on Amazon. "The Callisto Catacombs," book three of the Guardians trilogy, will be out soon.
Don't hesitate to contact me. Feedback and discussion are always welcome.
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