In Kristyn Merbeth’s space opera Fortuna, the Kaiser family uses their ship, Fortuna, to smuggle goods–especially weapons–between the planets, which makes them outcasts in the system. The pirate crew of the Red Baron harries the Fortuna between planets, set on taking by force the goods the Kaisers smuggled off planet.
The boarding of Fortuna
“I sway on my feet as the floor rocks beneath me. That must be our ship making contact with the Red Baron. We’ve been through this enough times that I know what to expect. It’s illegal to outfit ships with weapons, and no planet will let you land with them, but the Red Baron has found a technically legal way to launch an assault with those magnetic grappling hooks. They’ll keep us pinned to their side and hack our security pad to force the ramp open directly into their ship’s loading zone, leaving our cargo bay vulnerable and waiting to be plundered.
“Right on cue, the high-pitched whine of machinery starts on the other side of the ramp. That would be them plugging into the hatch and accessing our security system, which means we have only a couple of minutes before they’re inside. The twins take their spots on either side of the ramp, backs pressed against the wall and guns at the ready. I lift my borrowed blaster and position myself near the supply closet door.
. . . .
“My response is swallowed by the metal-on-metal screech of the cargo ramp ripping fully open, leaving the belly of Fortuna exposed to the Red Baron and its occupants.
“The Red Baron‘s crew is a bunch of strays from all over the system–much like ours, but bound together by greed rather than blood. My family might be smugglers, but the Red Baron crew can’t even keep their smuggling half-honest. Instead, they’re pirates, stealing from other ships like ours.”
In the battle for riches, would you choose to be a smuggler or a pirate?
If you love Sci Fi, you probably love a good alien encounter. But do you love the aliens or love-to-hate the aliens?
Humans have difficulty connecting with aliens that are too, well, alien. The more human they seem, the better are able to connect with them. This should not be too surprising given that we humans are social animals that (generally) thrive with social interaction with other humans.
I even learned in journalism school that people enjoy seeing photographs of people more than anything else. We were taught to include photos of people to liven up dull newspaper pages. And if all you have is a “mug shot”–a photograph of a person’s face and (sometimes) shoulders–then use it! Readers are more likely to read a story that includes a photograph of a person’s face than a story with just a headline and text.
Babies? What’s so great about babies?
I have also read that humans are attracted to animals that superficially look like babies. (After all everyone loves babies, even though they are mostly useless!) That is supposed to explain the popularity of certain breeds of dogs and cats with large eyes and round faces. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that toy makers seem to make stuffed toy cats and dogs with bigger and rounder eyes every year. (That drives Mrs. C crazy. She finds “big-eyed” dolls to be creepy.)
So I’m proposing the theory that readers prefer creatures that approximate human appearance, habits and speech. Also, I think we will accept close cousins, that is, creatures that remind us of the class of mammals. So things that appear warm-blooded and covered in skin or fur; things that look like cute dogs or cats or Teddy bears. We also like these. It’s OK if they have six legs or six eyes. That’s the cool part that makes them alien; alien without being too alien.
Readers prefer creatures that approximate human appearance, habits and speech.
Reptile Men and Women
What about reptile men? Well, if they have two arms and two legs, that’s a good start. If they have a face with two eyes and a mouth, then that’s pretty humanlike, even if they have forked tongues and scales instead of skin. I still think they are more likely to be cast as baddies than good guys, especially in a movie. But in a book, if such a creature rescues a kitten (or a human child), I think we can all get on board with that. (Remember, kittens and babies are cute and people like them!)
What about reptile women? Well, generally, the same goes for reptile women as reptile men. But, well, guys–meaning readers who are human males–seem to like almost all alien women. Why? Well . . . why do sailors like mermaids? That’s a subject for another blog.
What about dragons?
I think we all have a challenge liking creatures that are more reptile, amphibian, or even possibly avian than human, especially the intelligent ones. Dragons may be the one exception. People do love dragons.
And, yes, there are plenty of dragons in Sci Fi. They are not only in fantasy. See Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. Grand Master McCaffrey excels in disproving my point and making large, intelligent reptiles–reptiles that look nothing like humans–very lovable. (Or is she the exception that proves the rule?)
What is the problem with aliens that are not humanlike?
I think there are a couple of things at work here. One is a natural fear of certain types of creatures found on Earth. So, for example, if we are familiar with certain dangerous animals, such as snakes and spiders, then I propose writers will have a hard time making likeable aliens that remind us of those creatures. And they make wonderful “bad guy” aliens.
The second is the challenge of making likable creatures that are so alien that readers have no way to connect to them. For example, consider a creature that looks like a large boulder. A creature that has a mouth but no eyes, ears or nose. A creature that thinks love and passion and excitement are all pointless. Does that sound appealing?
If an alien is not full of the same emotions and desires as humans, then it’s hard for us to connect.
A creature that has learned no form of communication other than to shove aside its brother as a signal that it is rolling too close. A creature that enjoys listening to the vibrations of the stars as music and is tickled by gravitational waves, so it has no further need for entertainment or socializing. If it is not interested in human pursuits, if an alien is not full of the same emotions and desires as humans, then it’s hard for us to connect. It’s hard for us to care.
So those are some of my theories. Do you agree? Do you have examples you like that prove or disprove this?
In Duel in the Dark by Jay Allan, Captain Tyler Barron fought a desperate space battle at the edge of the Rim to protect the Confederation’s rear flank and now the great battleship, Dauntless, sits in Archellia’s base repair facility. In the sequel, Call to Arms, Capt. Barron needs the Dauntless ready for the front line in an all-out war with the totalitarian Union.
“Tyler Barron stood next to the clear hyper polycarbonate wall of the space station, looking out at his battleship. Dauntless firmly attached to the station by a series of massive docking cradles. He’d been her captain for over a year now, and he had led his ship in one of the most desperate and deadly battles imaginable, yet he realized now that he’d rarely seen her from the outside.
She was beautiful in her own way, almost symmetrical, but with just enough irregularity to give her charm.
Call to Arms by Jay Allan
“The battleship was almost four kilometers long, whitish-gray metal with huge structures projecting out on each side, her landing bays. She was beautiful in her own way, almost symmetrical, but with just enough irregularity to give her charm. At least in her devoted captain’s eyes. Especially now that her wounds had been healed–the outer ones, at least. There had been long gashes in Dauntless‘s hull when she’d arrived back at Archellia, and half her laser turrets had been blown to bits or melted down to slag.
“Barron could see small specks on her hull, barely visible from this distance. Suited technicians, he realized, working all along Dauntless‘s exterior. There were repair boats moving around her too, some of them hoppers carrying supplies, others work ships extending giant robotic arms to repair various damaged areas. Near the bow, two larger craft were easing a large turret into place, a replacement for one of Dauntless‘s destroyed second batteries.”
Choose your upgrades!
Capt. Barron gives the commander of the repair facility only two weeks to finish repairs. The Dauntless‘s own chief engineer, Commander Fritz, returns early from shore leave to speed up repairs. She only has time to choose three upgrades. What should they be?
Restore another main gun? The massive particle accelerators are highly advanced and have a long range, but they are also “temperamental and prone to break-down from even the slightest damage.”
Add another squadron of bombers to its onboard fleet of ships or opt for the lighter but faster fighters?
In the Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Linh Cinder is a licensed mechanic living in New Beijing in the Eastern Commonwealth on Earth. “Cinder was the only full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s weekly market. Without a sign, her booth hinted at her trade only by the shelves of stock android parts that crowded the walls. It was squeezed into a shady cove between a used netscreen dealer and a silk merchant, both of whom frequently complained about the tangy smell of metal and grease that came from Cinder’s booth, even though it was usually disguised by the aroma of honey buns from the bakery across the square. Cinder knew they really just didn’t like being next to her.”
Linh harbors several secrets, some that even she does not know. But one is that she is a cyborg, part human and part machine. In fact, she is 32.68 percent machine.
When we meet her in the marketplace, she is removing the cyborg foot she has outgrown. “Her left hand was steel, tarnished and dark between the joints as if it needed a good cleaning.” She hid both her steel hand and her steel foot from everyone, embarrassed that she is a cyborg.
But by the end of the first volume of the Lunar Chronicles, Linh receives the gift of a new metal hand:
“‘State of the art,’ said Dr. Erland. “‘Fully accessorized. Plated with 100 percent titanium. And look!’ Like a child with a new toy, he fidgeted with the hand’s fingers, revealing a hidden flashlight, stiletto knife, a projectile gun, and screwdriver, and a universal connector cable. ‘It’s a pillar of usefulness. The tranquilizer darts are stored in here.’ He opened a compartment on the palm, revealing a dozen skinny darts. ‘Once your wiring synchronizes, you should be able to load it with a simple thought.”
Design your own cyborg hand!
You are a cyborg–a cybernetic organism–about to board a spaceship on a dangerous mission. What will you design for your own cyborg hand?
Will it include weapons, such as a knife or gun?
Will you include tools, like a screwdriver, wrench or wirecutters?
Will you include any exploring tools like a compass, a GPS, or a magnifying glass?
In Kristyn Merbeth’s space opera Fortuna, she introduces the spider tank, a sturdy, four-legged machine that can carry a squad long distances over the treacherous, icy terrain of the planet Titan.
The novel alternates between chapters told by Portia, the pilot of the family’s spaceship, Fortuna, and chapters told by her brother, Corvus, who is finishing his three-year enlistment in the military on Titan.
Here, Corvus describes the spider tank:
“The spider tank is designed to travel through dangerous terrain, able to navigate across ice and up almost-vertical cliffs, but the four legs plod along in jerky motions that always sicken my stomach. Even after three years on Titan, I’m still not used to land vehicles, too accustomed to the smoother travel of hovercrafts that are common on every other planet. Here the extreme winds and unpredictable weather make them too dangerous to operate.”
Traditional tanks on earth travel on wheels or on caterpillar treads, like those on a bulldozer.
A tank can really be any heavily armored vehicle with weapons. If it doesn’t have serious weapons, it should probably just be called an armored personnel carrier. Merbeth does not tell us about the weaponry in the spider tank. But in a battle scene, she writes of hand-held blasters and pulse rifles that shoot laser-fire. So I’m imagining the spider tank has some heavy-duty lasers and maybe a few other tricks besides.
Design your own tank!
If you were an engineer of the future, what kind of tank would you build?
Would it have wheels, treads, legs or hoverjets?
Would it fire cannonballs, shells, missiles or lasers?
Would soldiers ride in it, drive it remotely, or would it have artificial intelligence (AI) and drive itself?