Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Intriguing Background Details For Your Sci-Fi Story

Well, since I was both reading a sci-fi novel (“Transition” by Iain Banks) and as writing a sci-fi/horror short story practice project at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about one of the coolest parts of the sci-fi genre. The background details.

These are the kind of random, futuristic and/or dystopian details that aren’t always directly relevant to the story that is being told, but which serve to give the story’s “world” more personality, backstory and depth. Once you get an instinct for writing these kinds of details, you can really surprise yourself with them.

But, how do you come up with them? Here are three basic tips.

1) Think logically/practically: Simply put, one of the best ways to come up with these kinds of details is just to think logically and/or practically about the “world” of your story. In other words, you need to think in terms of cause and effect. Most of the weird, quirky and random – but mundane – details of the real world have emerged or evolved for a practical reason of one kind or another.

For example, the layout of a modern QWERTY computer keyboard was designed to mirror the most common layout of typewriter keyboard (in Britain and America) -which made it easier and more intuitive for typists to switch from typewriters to computers during the 1970s-90s. The QWERTY keyboard layout itself was originally designed so that the type bars on typewriters wouldn’t jam – by making sure that letter combinations that caused jams were placed far apart from each other. So, yes, there are practical reasons why computer keyboards have such a “strange” layout.

So, yes, if you start thinking in logical and practical terms, then you’ll be able to come up with all sorts of intriguing background details. Looking at real life examples of this sort of thing, or looking at fictional examples (and working out how and why they were created) can really help you to think in this way.

2) Think about the “world” of your story: In short, the “world” of your sci-fi story will also have an effect on the background details that you can add. So, if you understand the setting of your story, then these types of details will just emerge naturally.

For example, in a dystopian future run by corporations, most things in that world will be geared towards making money. If you remember this, then you might be able to come up with chilling background details involving things like planned obsolescence, invasive advertising, product placement etc…

So, if you understand the “world” of your story (eg: why it exists, what motivates it etc..), then thinking up intriguing and quirky background details becomes a lot easier.

3) Look at current technology (cynically): One of the best ways to come up with intriguing background details is just to look at modern technology and then either change it in some way or take it to an extreme.

This sort of thing works best with elements of modern technology that annoy or worry you, since it’ll motivate you to include things like satire, parody, world-weary cynicism etc.. in your story.

And, yes, the modern world certainly isn’t short of annoying and/or worrying technological trends that can be used as the basis for satirical sci-fi background details. Whether it is the ominously ubiquitous smartphones, the increasing reliance on “cloud computing”, the Big Brother-like smart speakers that people willingly install in their houses, the inherent insecurity and unreliability of the “internet of things”, issues about online privacy, how some modern online games include greedy “micro-transations” etc… I could go on for a long time.

But, the more worried, annoyed and/or cynical you are about current technology, the more motivation you’ll have to come up with intriguing, satirical and/or dystopian background details for your sci-fi stories.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Joy Of… Mixing Ancient And Futuristic Things

Although this is an article about art, comics, literature, film etc… I’m going to have to start by talking enthusiastically about computer games for a while first. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A coupe of days before I originally prepared the first draft of this article, I suddenly noticed that the fourth instalment of the “Temple Of The Lizard Men” series of fan-made “Doom II” levels had finally been released 🙂 And, unlike some modern “Doom II” levels, it would actually run on my computer too 🙂

If you’ve never heard of “Temple Of The Lizard Men” before, it’s a series of full-length fan-made sci-fi/horror level sets for “Doom II”/”Final Doom” which revolve around fighting lizard monsters in ancient Aztec/Maya-style temples. It’s kind of a little bit like the original “Unreal” mixed with some elements from “Serious Sam: The Second Encounter“, but with more horror elements.

This is a screenshot from “Temple Of The Lizard Men IV” (2017). Yes! A modern “Doom II” WAD that both looks cool AND works with slightly older versions of “GZ Doom” too 🙂

Anyway, like with another really cool set of “Doom II” levels called “Ancient Aliens” (and the previous “Lizard Men” level sets, like this one), I really love it when people blend ancient-style architecture and futuristic sci-fi.

Some other example of this blending of ancient civilisations and futuristic sci-fi include Iron Maiden’s “The Book Of Souls” album, which does this in the opening song. Then there are the various zones in “The Crystal Maze“, and the scenes from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” that were filmed in the Mayan-inspired Ennis House. Or perhaps the futuristic version of Ancient Egypt in “Stargate SG-1“, or.. Well, I could go on for a while.

So, why are mixtures of the ancient and the futuristic so incredibly cool?

The first reason is that because “old” things are juxtaposed with things that are meant to be from the distant future, it creates something of an association between the two things within the minds of the audience.

This means that whenever the audience see old buildings, old castles etc… in other contexts, they seem cooler and more “relevant” due to their association with modern creative works (for example, although it doesn’t really contain any sci-fi elements, “Game Of Thrones” changed my entire attitude towards the middle ages). So, these types of stories, films, games etc.. help to make history even more interesting than it already is.

The second reason is because of the contrast between the distant past and the distant future. Usually, creative works in this genre will include the idea that people in the ancient world were more intelligent and/or advanced than we usually think. And not only is this really intriguing but, in some cases, it’s actually true too. For example, just look at ancient Persia – they had a type of air conditioning and a type of refrigerator too.

Thirdly, there’s the fact that things in this genre include two time periods that we’ll never get to see directly (yes, we can deduce things about the past from historical artefacts/documents and we can attempt to predict the distant future, but we never get to directly experience either).

So, seeing a representation of both time periods within the same creative work reminds us of the vast scale of time. It also makes us realise that the present day is somewhere between the ancient past and the distant future. So, by extension, our lives already include elements from both.

Finally, this genre is cool because it reminds us that some things are truly timeless. Whether it is lighting design, architecture, visual arts etc… things in this genre help to remind us that there’s nothing entirely “new” in the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (13th November 2016)

Woo hoo! My occasional webcomic series has been revived for a seventh mini series. You can find links to the previous six mini series (as well as other comics featuring these characters) by clicking here.

Of course, if you’re a young fogey and/or an old-school detective like Harvey, everything else looks like science fiction.

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Damania Revived - Classic Science Fiction" By C.A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Revived – Classic Science Fiction” By C.A. Brown

“The Other Way” By C. A. Brown (Short Story #10 – Halloween 2016)

This is the last short story in my Halloween collection. Stay tuned for a full retrospective tonight and a new horror comic at 19:45 GMT/UTC tomorrow :)

This is the last short story in my Halloween collection. Stay tuned for a full retrospective tonight and a new horror comic at 19:45 GMT/UTC tomorrow 🙂

As any street magician will tell you, the secret to tricking someone is misdirection. Whilst they’re looking at the deck of cards in your left hand, they aren’t going to be looking at the extra card in your right. It’s one of the most basic principles of stage magic.

But, that’s not the only place it can turn up. It’s everywhere. That is, if you know where to look for it. Most people don’t.

It’s the smiling fantasy world of the adverts, dazzling you with pictures of unnaturally happy people and their perfect lives. It’s the stories you don’t get to read about in the paper when scandalous scandals grab the front pages. It’s the flashy animations and handy tips on the long loading screens of your favourite videogames. It’s that phone game that can get hordes of people to gather in one place, with the promise of a collectible creature.

Misdirection is everywhere. But, once you see it, you can never stop seeing it. It isn’t a new thing. It isn’t something that suddenly came into being when the first binary digits appeared on the first CRT monitor.

It was the flashy parades that kings put on to placate their starving subjects, it was the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome, it was the scary sermons from a thousand religions preached to thousands of ordinary people. It is as old as time, the universe and humanity itself. Or, at least, that’s what they’d like you to think.

But time, the universe and humanity started with a bang. A very big one to be precise. And, as the mayor of any capital city will tell you, there’s nothing like a spectacular fireworks display to distract the masses from the fact that they’ve just trudged through one miserable year and have got another one lying in wait.

And, you’ve got to wonder who needed to put on a big show like that? And, more importantly, what are they hiding?

When scientists don’t know something, they extrapolate from what they do know. There’s that famous quote about deducing the existence of oceans from a single drop of water. A desert from a grain of sand.

Something out there needed to hide something big. Something that would tear the human mind asunder were we ever to learn of it. Something that needed the carnivalesque attraction of trillions of sparkling stars and shiny planets to turn everyone’s heads the other way.

The best misdirections don’t look like misdirections. They look honest. They contain just enough truth to grab people’s attentions and keep the rest out of sight.

Who knows, they might even be silly stories that you read on the internet when you’re bored? Silly horror stories about cosmic monsters and hidden conspiracies, and all that rubbish. After all, whilst the best misdirections contain a grain of truth, a tall tale will do in a pinch.

Three Tips For Writing Sci-Fi Political Drama

2015 Artwork Sci-fi political drama article sketch

One of the interesting things about the sci-fi genre is how it can often include things from lots of other genres too (eg: horror, comedy, adventure, thrillers etc…) so, for today, I thought that I’d look at how to add political drama to sci-fi stories.

Although political drama is usually a background detail in many sci-fi stories, comics, TV shows etc… it’s something which can really add a lot of complexity and drama to your story. So, here are a few basic tips for how to do it:

1) Systems of government: one of the cool things about sci-fi political drama is that it allows you to use any system of government that you want.

Whether it’s the noble houses in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, the totalitarian dictatorship in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” or the Borg collective in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, science fiction allows writers to experiment with all sorts of unusual forms of government.

In other words, the politics in your sci-fi story or comic don’t have to be a carbon copy of modern politics. However, your choice of political system will influence how your audience see the world of your story.

For example, if you use an “old” form of government – eg: autocracy, feudalism, absolute monarchy, colonialism etc.. then your story will have more of a historical fantasy-style atmosphere to it.

However, if you include something that is arguably more futuristic, like direct governance by corporations, a type of hyper-democracy where everyone votes on every political issue via the internet or possibly governance by a supercomputer of some kind, then your story is going to have more of a “traditional” sci-fi kind of atmosphere to it.

Of course, even if you just reflect modern democracy in your sci-fi story, then you can still play with it quite a bit. You can use it as an example of how a democracy should work (eg: politicians that are actually ordinary people, referenda on major issues, proportional representation, very strict rules on political donations etc.. ), but you could also use it as a way to satirise or criticise modern democracies (eg: corporate influence in politics, political party dogma, participation in politics only being available to the wealthy etc...)

But, whatever you do, it’s important to think about how your choice of which system of government you’re going to use will influence how your readers see your story.

2) Simplification: If you’re creating an entirely new political system, then you’re probably going to have to simplify it slightly. Whilst most people have a reasonable knowledge of the political system of their own country (and possibly another country or two too ), your readers won’t have this background knowledge if they’re reading a sci-fi story.

What this means is that you’re going to have to explain your system of government to your readers in an interesting way. Since long descriptions of political systems can be, well, boring – you’ll probably need to simplify the political system in your story slightly so that you can explain it to your readers fairly quickly.

You can show more details of it through the events of your story, but the basic idea/ premise of your story must be simple enough that it can be summed up in a few sentences at most.

Likewise, don’t be afraid to leave some of the less-important parts of the political system in your comic unexplained. After all, in stories and TV shows that are based on real political systems (like an American TV show called “The West Wing”) obscure political traditions and rules are sometimes mentioned without any real explanation. As long as you don’t do this too often, then it will add extra depth to your story.

3) Realistic politicians: This is probably fairly obvious but, even though your story is set in the future, you still need to make the politicians in your story realistic characters – this goes for both the good and the bad ones.

To use a totally hypothetical example, if one of your characters is an evil politician who wants to make the poor poorer, to ban and censor everything, to erode civil liberties etc… then you need to show how he or she came to hold these opinions. You need to hint at things like his or her aristocratic background and the company that he or she keeps (eg: ultra-rich people and influential right-wing press barons).

Just turning this character into a cartoon villain without any explanation might be melodramatic, but it won’t be dramatic. The thing to remember here is that every politician, no matter how evil, thinks that they’re a good person who is doing the right thing.

The same thing goes for the “good” politicians in your story. You need to hint at the formative experiences that led to them holding the opinions that they do and you need to show the thought processes that led them to campaign for more benevolent policies. Just having a character that is good because they are good is just as melodramatic as having a character who is evil for the sake of evil.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Creating Religions For Sci-Fi Comics and Stories

Yay! Fan art :)

Yay! Fan art 🙂

Although I don’t personally follow any particular religion these days, it’s interesting how religions can often be such a large part of the sci-fi genre.

Sometimes, religions are most notable by their complete absence (eg: with the main characters in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) – but, a lot of time, a sci-fi TV series, comic or novel will often include at least one futuristic religion of some kind of another. I’ll mostly be talking about sci-fi TV shows here, for the simple reason that they offer some of the most well-recognised examples of sci-fi religions.

Anyway, there are a lot of reasons why sci-fi writers add religion to the genre, since invented religions can be a brilliant way to explore the whole idea of religious belief (eg: in a show like “Bablyon 5”, which contains both futuristic religions and present-day religions).

Sci-fi religions can also be an interesting way of showing some of your story’s distant backstory, for the simple reason that most religions tend to come with a lot of history attached to them.

Sci-fi religions can also be an absolutely great way to satirise and criticise present-day religions without doing so directly (eg: the Ori in the later seasons of “Stargate SG-1” are an absolutely brilliant parody of both religious evangelism and religious fundamentalism. Likewise, the Go’auld from the earlier seasons of the show are a brilliant metaphor for how religion can easily be used by those in authority as an extra tool of control).

But, how do you create a futuristic religion for your sci-fi story or comic? There are many ways to do this, but here are three of the more basic ones:

1) An Idea: One of the most interesting ways to come up with a sci-fi religion is to just take a secular idea or philosophy and then think about what it would be like if people took this idea or philosophy to an extreme and followed it in a more religious way.

To give you an example from my short lived sci-fi/comedy fiction series from 2013, one of the characters is a woman called Tellare who follows a nihilistic religion that worships “the void”. Here’s how she’s introduced:

On the opposite side of the hallway, Tellare Spark was thinking about death again. In fact, she was doing nothing but sitting cross-legged on her bunk and thinking about death. According to her Voidmistress, the best way to focus on the emptiness of mortality was to close your eyes until you could see nothing but darkness and hear the silence of your mind.

Apparently a Voidmaster on Earth Prime had actually managed to do this constantly for three days until he actually died. According to the old news feed that Tellare had seen about it, he had looked just as bored five minutes before he died as he did afterwards.

This basically evolved from my own thoughts about whether it was possible to create a religion which strongly believed that there was no afterlife whatsoever. And, if such a religion existed, then what would it look like?

2) A Copy:
One easy way to come up with futuristic religions is to look at a couple of present-day religions and to copy some of the basic philosophies from them, whilst adding a lot of new stuff.

Just make sure that you don’t include any significant holy figures from any present-day religions in your copy though (since some religions get touchy about this kind of thing). The basic idea is to create something new that also subtly evokes current religions too.

A good televised example of this would probably be the Wayist religion from Gene Roddenberry’s “Andromeda”. This is a religion that one of the main characters follows and it’s fairly heavily based on both Buddhism and Taoism, as well as on various monotheistic religions.

This means that this character is a pacifist who lives a rather simple and monastic life. He comes across as a religious person the instant that you see him, but it’s hard to tell exactly which religion he follows unless you watch more of the show.

However, when it comes to old religions with little to no followers these days, it can also be interesting to reinvent these as modern religions. A good example of this can be seen in the 2004 remake of “Battlestar Galactica”, where many of the characters worship various Gods and Goddesses from Greek mythology. This is a rather low-key part of the show, but it emphasises the fact that the characters in this show are from a distant part of space.

3) Mystery: One of the quickest ways to come up with a believable sci-fi religion is to not show too much of it and to let your audience’s imaginations fill in the gaps. In other words, have your characters occasionally quote from a religious book or mention something from their religion without going into too much depth about it.

If you do this, then all you’ll have to come up with is a few spiritual-sounding quotes and maybe the names of a few holy days. You won’t have to think up a religion’s central principles or history, but your story will still have the added atmosphere and depth that sci-fi religions can provide.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

(Now, yield before the hypnotoad!)

How To Avoid Making Your Sci-Fi Stories Sound Dated In The Future

2013 Artwork Dated Sci-Fi Sketch

Science fiction is supposedly a genre dedicated to predicting and exploring the future. However, as any fan of the genre knows, most science fiction is more about the present day than about the future. Sometimes, this is an intentional thing on the part of the author in order to comment about current society. However, there are plenty of unintentional examples of this where a sci-fi author has failed to predict some large or small social change which happens between the time they wrote the story and the time when the story is set.

I’m sure you can think of your own examples of this, and it’s certainly more common in films and TV than in fiction. For example, a few major examples can be seen in Ridley Scott’s excellent “Blade Runner”. Leaving aside the fact that this film is only set in 2019 (and we can only replicate some simple organs using stem cells these days, let alone replicate entire humans within the next six years) – one of the most surprising things for modern viewers is the complete absence of mobile phones in the film.

Yes, when Deckard drunkenly decides to call Rachel, he doesn’t use a mobile phone – he uses a “futuristic” payphone which can make video calls. In 1982, this was probably very futuristic, but now that we have devices more than twenty times smaller than a payphone which can make video calls, it seems hilariously dated.

Not to mention that, despite the fact that it actually predicted at least a few technological advancements, even “Star Trek” suffers from this from time to time. For example, although the futuristic PADDs which the characters in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” use may well have inspired modern tablet computers, they generally appear to be a lot less advanced than modern tablet computers are.

So, yes, this can even happen to great sci-fi stories. It’s the inevitable result of trying to predict an inherently uncertain future. Although there’s no certain way to write a sci-fi story which will still seem fresh and futuristic in a couple of decades, there are a few common mistakes that can be easily avoided.

1) Distant and near future technology: If you’re setting your sci-fi story in the distant future, then you can take a lot more creative liberties. After all, hundreds or thousands of years in the future, it’s very unlikely that anyone will still be reading your story, let alone checking it for accuracy. Even so, be careful about basing the technology in your story on current technology (since this will probably be the equivalent of medieval or prehistoric technology that far into the future).

In some ways, it can be best to use almost fantastical technology in stories set in the distant future (eg: faster than light travel, teleportation etc….) since people can invent a lot of things in a single century, let alone in a millennium or three. A good test when coming up with very futuristic technology is to think of things which would be considered impossible by modern standards. After all, to someone in 1913 or in 1013, most of our current technology would probably be considered impossible or fantastical.

If you’re setting your story in the near future (eg: within the next couple of decades at least), then don’t change too much. As fast as technology moves, it doesn’t move as fast as some sci-fi novelists have predicted. If you’re going to add technology to your story, then it can be an idea to come up with smaller, vastly more powerful and more complex versions of current technology.

Even then, it might be an idea to downplay the technology in your story or leave it slightly vague, since current technology can quickly become obsolete over the space of a single decade, let alone two or three.

For example, if you wanted to back up your data in the first half of the 1990s, you’d probably use a floppy disk. These days, you’d either use a USB stick (which would have been totally unimaginable even fifteen years ago) or you’d use cloud computing. Who knows what people will be using for backups in ten years’ time? My money is on cloud computing, but there’s no real way to tell.

Plus, in stories set in both the near and distant future, make sure to think about the social impact any new forms of technology will have. Most of the social changes caused by new technology can be fairly subtle and mundane (eg: people consulting Wikipedia rather than opening an old-fashioned encyclopaedia when they need to find out about something) but some changes can be fairly radical. For example, think about how different the world was before and after the invention of the World Wide Web, the internal combustion engine or the printing press etc…

2) Historical events: These are next to impossible to predict properly. For example, some older sci-fi stories were automatically rendered laughably dated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A more sombre example is that any sci-fi story or movie which was set in New York and was created before 9/11 (eg: “Escape From New York”) can look obviously dated to modern audiences.

Plus, the social, military and/or political changes which followed 9/11 (many of which would have been widely seen as unthinkably dystopic even twenty years earlier etc…) couldn’t have been predicted by that many authors who were writing before 2001.

There is no real way to account for major historical changes which occur after you’ve finished your sci-fi story. About the best way to guard against this kind of thing is to set your story either on another planet or in the very distant future.

3) Ye olde timelessness: Some sci-fi authors and directors try to do this as a way to make their stories appear “timeless” and it’s ridiculously contrived. I am, of course, talking about sci-fi stories where most of the major cultural works in the distant future are things which are already seen as ancient these days. Yes, using public domain stuff doesn’t cause copyright issues – but the idea that most people hundreds of years into the future will be enjoying stories which are already seen as dusty and old is absolutely laughable.

The fact is, at any point in time, there will be lowest-common-denominator “mainstream” entertainment ( eg: gladiatorial combat, public executions, cheesy action movies, music halls/vaudeville, celebrity talent shows etc….) , there will be a lot of old stuff (which relatively few people read or watch) and there will probably be lots of interesting non-mainstream media (eg: indie films or indie holo-recordings or whatever video format people use in the future) too. Almost all of this stuff will have been created at some point in the future and will probably have nothing to do with current culture and media.

So, if you’re going to have your characters read a story or watch a movie or play a game, then make it up yourself. Invent a fake title, fake actors, fake consoles etc… it’s the only way to stop your story from sounding ridiculously anachronistic.

After all, with the exception of religious texts, how many things written thousands of years ago do large numbers of people these days read on a regular basis?

4) Culture: Culture changes. That’s a fact. If you’re setting your story at any point in the distant future, then you can’t base it on the current culture in wherever you live. You might just about get away with it if your story is set ten years in the future, but any more than that and things start getting a bit more complicated.

Social norms and taboos can change drastically within decades, let alone centuries. Fashions can change even more quickly. New words come into existence and old words gradually fade into disuse (eg: the English that I’m using in this article would be very different to, say, the English that people used in the 17th century). Slang changes even more quickly (and writing good futuristic slang is notoriously difficult to do). Common attitudes can change significantly within decades.

So, what’s a writer to do? Well, looking at history, society (in many parts of the world) gradually seems to be becoming more liberal, knowledgeable, informal and open-minded. Yes, there might be the occasional temporary setback and different countries change at different paces but, in general, society gradually tends to improve over time. So, if you’re setting your story between a couple of decades and a couple of centuries in the future, then this is worth bearing in mind.

Before anyone thinks that I’m being unrealistically utopic, I should also point out that war, poverty, greed, exploitation, injustices, cruelty etc… have obviously been pretty constant things throughout most of human history and they seem unlikely to go away any time in the near future (or even the distant future either).

However, if you’re setting your story on another planet and/or in the ridiculously distant future, then you have a lot more creative freedom when it comes to what kind of culture your characters will live in.

5) Understand history: As you’ve probably guessed from all of the previous points on this list, the best way to avoid making your sci-fi stories sound dated is to have at least a general understanding of history. We can’t predict the future with any degree of certainty, but we can look for patterns and trends in the past. Whilst history doesn’t always repeat itself, it tends to do this fairly often.

But, I’m not just talking about world history here, I’m talking about the history of the science fiction genre too. After all, how are you going to know what kind of mistakes to avoid if you don’t see any examples of them in older sci-fi stories?

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Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂