Category Archives: Science Fiction

Scifi and Fantasy Rules That Should be Broken

I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy stories for about as long as I’ve known how to read at all. There are so many things I love about these genres, but today I wanted to talk about some of the things that I wish SFF writers would do differently.

1. The Chosen One Must be Young and Uneducated

Why is the chosen one nearly always a teenager or young adult who hasn’t completed – or often even started – their training yet? Why are they the only one who can defeat the wizard, dragon, corrupt government, or werewolf army?

I dream of the day when the chosen one is actually a group of specialized, highly-trained witches who must use their complementary powers at the same exact time to defeat the dragon. Alternatively, maybe the chosen one could be a 70-year-old scientist who has spent the last 40 years studying the virus that has wiped out the last three attempts at permanent human colonies on Europa and who only now is ready to test his vaccine for it on human subjects.

At this point, I’d prefer to watch conflict build up slowly over years than see any more characters jump into the fray before they fully understand what’s going on or have had any training in what they’re about to accomplish.

2. Everyone Gets a Love Triangle

No, I am not against romantic storylines in general. There is definitely a time and place for them, and many stories would be far poorer without them.

With that being said, I’d be happy to never read about another love triangle again. This kind of stuff yanks me out of the plot every time it happens because of how confusing and strange I find it to be.

Please let characters be polyamorous, asexual, or totally uninterested in falling in love until the last zombie has been destroyed and humanity has once again begun to enjoy luxuries like healthy food, deodorant, regular baths, and not running in terror for their lives every day.

I would be thrilled to read about any of these scenarios. What I’d like to avoid, though, is anyone wringing their hands about which love interest to pick when there are far more urgent matter at hand.

For example, how terrible must all of the characters smell after running away from zombies for weeks and eating nothing but stale candy bars and potato chips out of vending machines?( I’m mostly joking here, but I think about practical matters like bad breath and body odour when a character in this sort of story suddenly starts mooning over someone who also probably hasn’t seen a toothbrush or loofah since sometime last month).

There are so many interesting things to say about outsmarting zombies, navigating a spaceship, or figuring out how to placate a fairy after you’ve unintentionally angered her and all of her relatives. These sources of conflict are a thousand times more compelling to me than wondering which love interest the main character will pick when he or she is still trying to figure out how to survive the night or which end of the sword you should be poking the bad guys with.

3. Aliens Are Always Smarter Than Us

There are only a few non-human species on Earth that can be described as intelligent: elephants, dolphins, and certain species of apes come to mind here.

We have no idea what life is really like on other planets or if it exists, but sometimes I wonder what humanity would do if we discovered something that wasn’t a little green man who could learn to speak English.

How would we treat an alien species if it was about as intelligent and willing to communicate with us as is the average cat? What if they were intelligent but it was in a way that wasn’t particularly compatible with human intelligence? Would we still be interested in a species if we couldn’t figure out their language or they couldn’t figure out ours?

These are the kinds of questions I think about every time I watch science fiction movies about humans making contact with new species from other planets.

4. Humans Are the Good Guys

Speaking of aliens, why are humans always the good guys when our species get into conflicts with each other?

Humanity honestly doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to treating new cultures and societies fairly. While I hope that would change if we ever met intelligent and communicative beings from another planet, I think there’s a fairly decent chance that at least some humans would try to take advantage of them for personal or political gain.

No, I’m not saying that eery single human needs to be fighting for the dark side. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a book or watch a movie about someone who noticed this happening and who tried to warn the aliens before one of our governments passed a law saying it was okay to mistreat visitors from other planets, though? The conflict between your duty to your species and your duty to protect innocent visitors who are going to be horribly abused for potentially many generations to come if you don’t speak out and fight for them right now would keep me glued to my seat.

It would also help the scifi genre return to the kinds of social messages that used to be much more common in it. Science fiction isn’t just about coming up with flashy ideas for new technology or imagining what life could be like in a few hundred years. It can also be about getting people to think critically about the decisions they make in their real life that can help or hurt the most vulnerable members of our society.

5. Nobody Spills the Beans

I shake my head every time a vast conspiracy is revealed that has existed for decades and required thousands or even millions of people to play along with it.

It’s hard enough to get five people to agree on what kind of pizza to order or to keep excited relatives from sharing the news when you tell them that you’re pregnant, have finally finished writing your book, or recently got a promotion!

Secrets only work if they’re kept by a small number of highly motivated people. Even then, it is very easy for one of them to spring a leak with someone they deeply trust.

Unless the character exist in a universe where the Powers That Be purposefully limit the intelligence of most people while they’re still in the womb, these things should either somewhat common knowledge or only known by a handful of characters in the entire universe.

I would love it if more books understood all of these rules. If you have any recommendations for stories that do, let me know on Twitter!

5 More Modern Scifi Books You Should Be Reading

Last month I recommended five modern science fiction books that I really enjoyed to my readers. Today I decided to write a follow-up post so that I can recommend even more great reads to you! Who knows? Maybe this will become a series on this blog. We will see what happens in the future.

The Passage by Justin Cronin.

What is it about?

A virus turns humans into vampires so quickly that our species is now on the brink of extinction.

An FBI agent suddenly finds himself in charge of keeping an abandoned child safe in a world where no child is safe anymore.

Humanity must adjust to this new world, so the rest of the plot is about how that happens over a long period of time and what happens when the precautions people take to protect themselves begin to fail.

Why should you read it?

This is one of the most suspenseful and action-packed books I’ve read in a long time. Dividing it up into sections that told different pieces of the same story was a good idea. In some ways, it was sort of like three novellas set in the same universe one because each section was focused on such a specific part of the storyline.

One of the other things I appreciated about it was that the vampires weren’t misunderstood, secretly romantic, or anyone’s boyfriend. They were violent, dangerous, ugly, and menacing. This black-and-white approach to the genre was refreshing. I really like it when monsters act like monsters.

Oryx and Crake  by Margaret Atwood

What is it about?

It’s a dystopia set in the near future. Jimmy, a man who thinks he’s the last living human on earth, is grieving the loss of his friends Oryx and Crake.

His only companions are the Children of Crake, a small group of genetically-modified, human-like creatures who are about as intelligent as the average 7-year-old child. They think of him as a messenger from their creator and obey his every command.

The plot thickens when Jimmy runs into his old friends and realizes that he isn’t alone after all.

This is the first book in her MaddAddam trilogy. If you like it, the next two books in the series are just as excellent.

Why should you read it?

The first thing that drew me into the plot were all of the flashbacks to life right before society collapsed. Your social class determines everything from what kind of school you’re allowed to attend to how much food you have to whether or not you survive in this society. It is a very rigid system that’s basically impossible to escape.

The Children of Crake weren’t the only genetically modified creatures in this universe. In fact, they weren’t even the most interesting ones!

I also enjoyed the storytelling. This is something I’d especially recommend to anyone who has read a lot of science fiction or who is already a fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing in general. She plays around with this genre in some pretty spectacular ways.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie 

What is it about?

This is a collection of interviews done with people of all ages and backgrounds who survived the zombie apocalypse many years after humanity more or less won the war.

Patient Zero’s experiences are included early on. Most zombie fiction doesn’t bother showing where the virus comes from or how it started to spread, so I was fascinated by this section.

Another interview is with a feral child who somehow escaped being attacked and then survived alone in the woods for years before finally being rescued. Despite being much older now, this witness will always remain a small child as far as their mental understanding of the world goes.

There is also a dog who was trained to fight the zombies as part of a military strike against them. That interview was obviously done with one of the humans who worked with the dog, of course, but it was fascinating to see how such a partnership was created and why it functioned so well.

Why should you read it?

Regardless of whether you hated or loved the movie that shares the same name, this book is nothing like that film. The only thing they share in common is their title.

I loved the interviews because they covered the civilian, military, and medical sides to the story. Some characters saw and fought multiple zombies. Others had more sheltered experiences because of the nature of the work they did or where they happened to be when the outbreak began.

This reminded me of the oral histories I’ve read about real historical events. One person’s perspective can’t tell you the whole story, but you’ll learn a lot about what happened and what was possibly a myth or a misunderstanding if you interview many people and compare their memories.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

What is it about?

The title gives away much of the plot. Harry August is a man who keeps living the same lifetime over and over again.

No matter what he does or where he goes, every death that finds him only brings him back to the day of his birth.

This isn’t to say that every single lifetime of his is exactly the same, though. He makes different choices every time that lead to happier (or sadder!) outcomes later on in life.

Why should you read it?

Reincarnation is fascinating.

I’m also intrigued by the idea of reliving your life in order to correct mistakes that you made in it. Would things be better or worse if you hypothetically took back those cruel words you spat at someone, or never travelled to the place where that awful thing happened, or ordered a salad instead of the shrimp special on your twenty-third birthday that gave you life-threatening food poisoning the last time around?

11/22/63 by Stephen King

What is it about?

A high school English teacher named Jake who travels back through time to attempt to stop the assassination of President Kennedy.

Like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, trying the change the past is much harder than it looks. Every time Jake changes one thing, the universe does its best to thwart him and restore time to the way it originally was.

Why should you check it out?

This isn’t your typical Stephen King tale. There are no monsters, demons, or gory plot twists. As much as I occasionally enjoy his pulpier work, this is a wonderfully mature and complex story that I’d recommend to people regardless of whether or not they’re already a fan of this author’s writing style.

This is one of those rare cases where I’d recommended watching the TV show by the same name just as much as I’d recommended reading it.

Is it cheating to admit that I’m not entirely sure I finished the book when I tried it a few years ago?  It’s been so long ago that I can’t remember for sure, but I love the TV show so much that I’m now planning to give the original story another try. Sometimes it takes me a few tries to read all the way through a full-length novel, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

This is the kind of story that excels on the small screen because of how much it depends on small details. In this case, visualizing those little details was much easier for me to do by watching it unfold one episode at a time. You may want to try both and see which one appeals to you most.

Happy reading!

How to Survive a Post-Apocalyptic Storyline

Congratulations!

You’ve just been selected to be one of the secondary characters in an upcoming post-apocalyptic novel.

If you wish to die nobly in order to spur the main character on at a critical moment in the plot, please disregard the rest of this message. There is always a need for volunteers for this position, and so your sacrifice in this manner will be greatly appreciated by everyone who expects this kind of tearjerking moment in a world without any modern conveniences.

If you want to live, memorize these rules and be sure to follow them religiously once the first scene has begun. They won’t guarantee your survival, but they will greatly increase the odds of it.

  1. Ignore the news and the government. There has never been one single instance of a government body or a news organization having any clue what is really going on in an apocalypse. Do not listen to any advice they give, and avoid traveling to any safe area they recommend in the first few scenes. It will be a trap.
  2. If the protagonist travels east, head west. While this isn’t always something that’s possible to accomplish, staying out of the way as much as possible is the safest thing you can do until or unless you are promoted to a main character role. Every big battle will take place wherever the main character roams, so you will reduce your chances of getting caught up in one if you travel anywhere other than those locations. This rule can be broken during the climax if other secondary characters have already been killed off and if you are willing to take the risk that the author still has some tricks up his or her sleeve.
  3. Do not endear yourself to the audience. You will feel tempted at times to play up the best parts of your personality in order to lure some of the audience’s attention from the main characters, but encouraging them to love you will only increase the odds of you succumbing to whoever or whatever it is in the storyline that has killed off so many other people before you. This is especially true if you are young, vulnerable, or happen to remind the protagonist of a loved one that he or she left behind in the beginning of the story.
  4. Avoid playing the hero. If you know your safe house is surrounded by monsters, avoid any foolhardy attempts to sneak past them regardless of who in your party might be in dire need of medicine, food, or water in that scene. There is only one hero in this story, and any attempts to steal that spotlight will be interpreted by the writer as foreshadowing for your eventual death. Stay in the shadows and away from the dangers of sudden plot twists as much as possible while the keyboard is still clicking away.
  5. Remain slightly hopeful. Characters who lose all of their hope for the future are in just as much danger as characters who are still obnoxiously cheerful and upbeat after days of hiking through the mud and shivering the night away without a single blanket to keep them warm. Stay neutral when the dialogue is not focused on you and slightly hopeful but still realistic about the odds if you happen to get accidentally caught in the same scene with the main character after the opening act.
  6. Memorize the most common kinds of creatures found in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Elves and faeries are almost always trustworthy. Unicorns are harmless to non-virgin humans. Ghosts may be frightening, but they are rarely a genuine threat to anyone. Orcs, zombies, vampires, and goblins are always dangerous unless you happen to wind up in a rare post-apocalyptic romance novel where a member of their species happens to be the main character’s love interest. Once you know who or what you’re dealing with, you’ll know whether to stick with, tolerate, or avoid any non-human characters that may be lurking in the book.
  7. Listen to your elders. While not every post-apocalyptic story will include an older, wiser character who knows exactly what is going on, be sure to listen to them if they appear at any point in the storyline. The chances of that individual guiding you safely to the final scene are much higher than you might think.  People like this usually appear in the plot for a good reason and should be trusted unless you have an even stronger reason to ignore their sensible advice. In some cases, this can even shorten a full-length novel into a tidy short story with only a small reduction in the overall suspense and excitement of the tale.

With any luck, following all of these rules will help you survive until the final battle. Every character is more or less on their own at that point, so be sure to continue practicing your swordsmanship, long distance running, emergency medical drills, and spell casting until you know exactly what kind of book you will be assigned to and therefore what skills you will need to survive whatever disease, monster, battle, natural disaster, or other source of conflict may be coming your way.

5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching Glitch

This is a repost from my old blog. I will be back next week with new material. 

Glitch is an Australian sci-fi show about a small-town cop named James Hayes who is trying to figure out why six people have risen from the dead in the local cemetery. None of the dead remembers their previous identities, and all of them have come back in perfect health.

I absolutely love this show and can’t wait for season two to begin. If you haven’t checked it out yet, here are five spoiler-free reasons why you should be watching Glitch as well:

monday-blogs-1It’s Brutally Honest About the Past

The people who came back from the dead didn’t all pass away in the same year or even in the same era. Some of them were gone for a long time before they suddenly came back, and the writers on the show never ignore that when they show these characters adjusting to life in 2016.

I can’t go into any further detail about this aspect of the plot without giving away spoilers about the episodes I’ve seen so far, but I can say that I absolutely loved how the huge cultural differences between the past and the present were handled when they came up.

The Dead Aren’t Scary

No, they’re not zombies, ghosts, or vampires. They’re human beings. Just like us, they eat, sleep, feel emotions, and breathe.  The fact that they can’t remember who they are or why they died is a huge mystery, but it’s only part of who they are as individuals.

As I get to know their personalities better, I become even more eager to figure out why they were brought back and what will happen to them next.

The Living Are Empathetic and Kind

I have to admit that seeing nude people who were covered in dirt crawl out of their graves would freak me out.

This is one of the reasons why I was so impressed by how James and the other residents of the town responded to finding the dead wandering around in a graveyard in the middle of the night. They were quite understandably shocked and confused at first, but they also quickly began rescuing the dead and finding a safe place to take them.

After giving up on a few other science fiction shows partially due to how poorly their characters behaved in a crisis, I was pleased to find one that shows people helping each other in an uncertain situation.

People Make Sensible Choices in This Universe

Do they always make the right decision? No!

They do have common sense, though, and so far they have been pretty good at learning from their past mistakes when something goes wrong.

This is the sort of thing I love finding in a TV show. It’s completely possible to have a great deal of tension in an episode without relying on a character to ignore something that happened five minutes ago in order to get them to wander into the wrong area or trust someone that they know they should be wary around.

The Opening Credits Are Visually Stunning and Important to the Storyline

Let me be honest here. I usually don’t pay a lot of attention to the opening credits of the TV shows I watch. Most of them are simply replaying scenes from the show that I already know. They’re fun to watch a few times, but the repetition eventually makes me lose interest in them.

This isn’t the case for Glitch.

While the opening credits are deceptively simple at first, they do give away some important information to anyone who pays attention to what’s going on in them. Without giving away spoilers, they’re also incredibly beautiful.

So do pay attention to them if or when you watch this show!

The Best Way to Respond to People Who Don’t Share Your Taste in Books

Years ago someone asked me what kind of science fiction books I like to read.

I’d hit a lull in that genre shortly before that conversation began, so it took a moment to come up with my answer. The last book I remembered reading and really loving at that point was by a popular, mainstream science fiction writer, so I mentioned their name.

The other person’s disgusted reaction to my answer made my heart sink. This clearly wasn’t an author they liked at all. The conversation quickly shifted to other topics.

Here’s what I wish they’d said to me instead:

Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve never really been able to get into that person’s work. What have you read recently from them? What did you like about it?

For the record, I definitely don’t expect everyone to like the same stuff I do. Life would be incredibly dull if everyone always read and watched the same material.

There are also authors out there whose books don’t appeal to me in any way. What is fresh and exciting to me might be boring or scary to someone else. Those authors have all found audiences who appreciate the kinds of stories they tell, though, and you can learn a lot about someone by figuring out what it is they like about a particular storyteller.

For example:

How Do They See the World?

Someone who reads a lot of historical mysteries set in New England, for example, might be a history buff or have a real knack for solving mysteries by noticing all of the important clues early on.

I don’t make assumptions about why someone likes the things they do, but it is fun to ask them more about it and see what they have to say. You can learn so much about someone’s perspective by exploring the reasons why they think a specific genre is the best thing ever.

What Do They Value?

I have a few friends who absolutely love romance novels. Their appreciation for happy endings and everlasting love makes me smile. It’s also shown me sides of their personalities that I probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Most people don’t go walking around telling others that they believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, after all, but you might catch a glimpse of this part of their mind if you probe for deeper answers. There is always a reason why someone likes the things that they do. Those reasons won’t always be the key to an important part of their personality, but sometimes they can be.

What Are They Afraid Of?

This won’t apply to everyone, of course, but one of the reasons why I like talking to people who read horror, thrillers, and similar types of tales is that you can learn a lot about what people find scary based on what parts of these genres they find appealing.

I love being scared, but I hate blood and gore. The kinds of horror novels I relish are almost entirely about what’s going on in the main character’s mind instead of anything the villain is physically doing to frighten them. Is he or she genuinely seeing those horrifying things, or is there a rational explanation for their nighttime visitors? Is there anything the main character is holding back from us, or can we completely trust their perspective?

Do They Think You’d Like It?

Another reason why it’s is a good idea to ask questions instead of make assumptions about people’s tastes in books is that you might find a new author or series you really like.

As a writer, I’ve been noticing a lot of stories that cross over with many other genres. While I usually prefer darker and more serious science fiction, I have been impressed by how creative some of those crossovers are. It takes a lot of hard work to blend, say, a zombiepocalypse with an engaging love story, but a lot of people have been making it work in wonderful ways.

The more you talk to people who love genres or writers that aren’t your cup of tea, the higher your chances become of stumbling across something incredible. I hope you’ll keep these points in mind the next time you have a conversation with someone like this.

5 Modern Scifi Books You Should Be Reading

This post was inspired by a few different conversations I’ve had recently about my favourite science fiction books. I hope you find at least one new recommendation in this list! The Book of Dave by Will Self. What is it about? A grim, futuristic society set in the land formerly known as England. This society’s religious beliefs and… Read More

A Day in the Life of a Non-Enterprise Star Trek Captain

The other day my husband wondered out loud what it would be like to run any ship in the Federation other than the Enterprise. Let’s think this through. Your ship would quietly begin to catalogue two galaxies that had started to run into each other while Captain Kirk discovered yet another earth-like planet that shared the… Read More