Star Wars

Plot Devices: Jump

The better faster than light travel works, the less you can do with it in fiction. Want to rescue a spaceship falling into a star or a planet’s atmosphere? If you’ve got amazing FTL that can pop you over, then pop you and the other ship right back over, there’s no tension. If your FTL has perfect accuracy over incredible distances, just strap it to some missiles, win every battle before it begins. If it can take you anywhere in the universe without fail, what are the chances of getting stranded in deep space?

Methods of travel shape the story around them. This isn’t particularly revelatory. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Snakes on A Plane, and countless other works of fiction all trap characters in a small enclosed traveling vehicle to help establish suspension of disbelief for fantastic plots (a variant of the locked room mystery). Many other stories force characters to race against the clock, making the method of transportation absolutely central to the story. Countless other examples present themselves. Faster than light travel, though, is particularly interesting. It’s quite simple to make it resemble any other type of transportation already existing in stories. Timothy Zahn’s Night Train to Rigel series even manages to replicate trains in space. FTL is also just much cooler than other forms of transit.


Single Biome Worlds in fiction

Desert planets in scifi wouldn’t actually be inhabitable*- there’s not enough plants to produce the necessary oxygen without other climates and ecosystems on the planet. Then there are a host of other problems as well- giant sandstorms being just one of them. Tatooine, Vulcan, so on and so forth- they absolutely fill science fiction, and show up semi-regularly in fantasy.

The problem isn’t just restricted to desert planets, either- forest planets would suffer gargantuan firestorms caused by higher oxygen levels, ocean planets would have giant storms and unstoppable rogue waves of enormous size, city planets… well, city planets have a LOT of problems. There is, of course, one series that is the most serious offender- Star Wars. Tatooine (desert), Kashykk (forest of giant trees), Hoth (ice), Endor (jungle), Coruscant (city), Alderaan (floating rubble), and so on.

While it presents some advantages- namely making each world more easily memorable, the primary apparent rationale is one of laziness. Not everyone can go to the effort of worldbuilding that Frank Herbert or J. R. R. Tolkien went through, or even to the lesser, but still damn impressive efforts of Brandon Sanderson or Dan Simmons, but even a basic, two or three page document on the ecosystem of the world you’re using can be incredibly useful in fleshing out a world.

*The big exception, of course, is Arrakis, from Frank Herbert’s Dune, but that is because Herbert went to the actual effort to create a functional ecology and climate for the world, including carbon dioxide reclamation and a hydrologic cycle (or lack thereof). It’s actually quite impressive- he spent years on it, putting in levels of work comparable to Tolkien’s on Middle Earth- it’s one of the many reasons they’re compared so often.

Plot Devices: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

A computer program has passed the Turing Test for the first time. What does this actually mean? Well, honestly, not much. This is a chatbot, not an AI. It’s not programmed to be intelligent, it is programmed to mimic written conversation. This one also used the whole gimmick of having the chatbot pretend to be a adolescent Ukrainian boy. The short and medium term results I predict? Over the next couple of years, we’ll get more annoying, harder to immediately detect spambots, (Like the ones on dating and porn sites, or the ones that are used to chat with you through your friends’ hacked Facebook accounts). 5-15 years? We’ll be getting adaptive conversational chatbots in videogames, which will be pretty sweet.

Anyhow, this brings me to the whole theme for my first official installment of Plot Devices: Artificial Intelligences. I’m going to attempt (key word) to explain ways that authors fit Artificial Intelligences into fiction, how it affects their settings, and ways to restrict them narrative-wise. This is a huge category, so we’re going to have to break it down a bit. I’m going to rip a few arbitrary categories out of fiction, here. In ascending order, Synthetic Intelligences, Human-Level AI, Uploads, Supergenius AI, and Weakly Godlike Intelligences. There are plenty that don’t fit precisely into any of these categories, but these five cover most examples of fictional AI.


The More You Know

So have you ever encountered a faster than light drive in fiction that CAN’T be used in or near a gravity well, at least without serious consequences? A good example of this is Halo 2. A Covenant ship jumps inside Earth’s gravity well/ atmosphere, causes a huge explosion. Other examples of this include the StarDrive universe, the Tom Swift III universe (I think, haven’t read those books since I was a little kid), and a number of others. There is a good reason for this: awesome space battles.