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Monthly Archives: July 2009

I’ve accidentally managed to agree to a deadline for one of the chapters, so no update till monday.


One thing that bugs me in sci-fi are alien diseases. It’s such a fundamentally flawed concept that, when used as a plot device, it disenfranchises me with the plot from then on. Given that I can get put off by as little as engine position on the models this isn’t saying much, but I’m going to list why you don’t need to worry about getting alien flu and dropping down dead in twenty minutes.

First, viruses. Now, I’m under the impression that most people don’t really understand what a virus actually does, so skip the next bit if you know. Basically, viruses penetrate a cell and insert their own genetic material into either the cell body or the DNA. This overrides the cell’s own code and hijacks the functions to produce more of the virus, and, as this is generally destructive to the host cell, it can be fatal if not checked by the immune system.

Generally it is assumed that our immune system has no defence against this, but while I do not deny that they will be not recognised as a pathogen (I’ll elaborate on this isn’t a problem in a moment), their method of reproduction will fundamentally not work on our cells and so the viruses effect will be mooted. Even if they use DNA/RNA[1] it is highly unlikely their codons will match, so, while their code says G-A-A-T-A-A- and they expect say… Lysine and Adenine[2]. Our cells would synthesise Glutamine and STOP, which would be utterly useless and wouldn’t form the necessary proteins.

For this reason alone, alien viruses would be utterly benign as they could not reproduce. A mutated strain also wouldn’t do anything as it would have to reorder its entire codon structure to function and I really can’t see a way that could happen in nature. Viruses struggle to pass between species, let alone between biospheres.

Bacteria are another matter, they would require a host species with similar internal chemistry to function as a pathogen, but that isn’t too much of a stretch if you’re in a universe where carbon and liquid water based life is common[3]. However, it seems illogical that humans will be incredibly susceptible to these micro organisms, in fact, given our immune system is pretty much geared towards identifying and eliminating foreign bodies (including the aforementioned viruses) it seems more likely that the bacteria will be susceptible to us. The bacteria are, after all, adapted to flummoxing a very different immune systems to our own and such a big species gap is unlikely to be surmounted by random evolution in our lifetimes.

Besides, even if we were successfully infected by a bacterium, the strain would have no resistance to the antibiotics we use and would actually be easier to treat than the stuff we’ve got now.

As it happens, the big worry would be our immune systems working far too well, and our ambassador having a severe allergic reaction and going into anaphylactic shock because of their ambassador’s detergent.

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[1] Which almost certainly won’t be the case, but anything based on a different chemistry would be killed by your internal conditions anyway.

[2] Amino acids if you do not know.

[3] Just as an interesting note, any alien visitors to earth are more likely to catch a disease of a non-human species as they’d likely be a closer match to some other animal that us specifically.

Defence is boring, but we all have to do it at some point. As has been drummed into you it is always preferable to have the initiative, but every so often you will be defending a convoy, star base, or maybe even an asteroid with a good seam and things will go bad. When this happens you must always remember not to panic, panicked commanders make bad decisions.

First, consider if it’s actually worth defending the target. If it’s a transport carrying widows and orphans you should probably stick around. If they’ve got supplies for your forces you should definitely fight unless you have no option. If it’s a hunk of rock and you even suspect you might not win the engagement, you should Jump out and fight on your own terms.

Second, make sure you can’t run anyway. Star bases you’ll need to stick around and make a fight of it. Transports can probably Jump with you though and unless you’re specifically searching for trouble your commanders will thank you for not denting their ships.

Finally, make a confident call as to whether you’ll win, and if you won’t, be damn sure you’ll actually make an impact on the war. Heroic last stands are all well and good, but if you weaken your own side more than your enemies then you’ll be remembered a fool rather than a hero.

When a fight is inevitable you’ll want to put yourself between the target and the enemy. This is generally less effective than most people would imagine as unless you have some very big ships indeed you’re not going to block all the angles of fire onto the target and so if your enemy wants it destroyed it pretty much will be destroyed. What you can do is make them pay for that. While they are firing at an overly distant target your ships will be right up their noses and inflicting maximum damage while they try to kill some civy target. With a bit of luck this can win the battle for you right there, just don’t tell whoever you’re guarding that this is your plan.

A competent commander is going to see that you are the primary target however, while in the area your fleet can and will inflict atrocious damage to his ships and disrupt any operations they can perform. Or at least, this is what you should be doing. When fighting this kind of battle treat it as any other combat exercise, keep your ships tight, guns hot and don’t stop yelling at your captains. With luck you’ll make it through and win the day.

However, the enemies attack vector is rarely known, and worse you can’t tell if they’re planning to attack on an odd vector until they make their Jump[1]. If you don’t know where the attack is coming from, set up a defensive perimeter around the target, but make it so that only enough ships are there to force them to engage. The rest should be kept in reserve to deploy as soon as the enemy plays their hand.

Also, as the defender you can prepare the battle field a little. A load of missiles left in deep space to cool off a little can take the enemy by surprise and win you the initiative, if you place them right. Commending cargo ships is pretty much standard form for defenders[2] and who’s to say that, even if your target starts off unarmed they have to remain that way.

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[1] Generally, if they’ve been preparing the Jump for more than a week they’re going to do something fancy. Before then a wall between you and the target is more effective than a sphere as, while the sphere prevents you being weak from a vector, it does not create a vector where you are strong like the wall.

[2] Which is why you rarely see a merchant vessel near an active war zone.

Another rant post because this has been bugging me.

Characters. Or rather, character overload. This is a big failing for a lot of authors, especially those with little experience, and I know I’ve been more than guilty of it in my stories.

In short it is when the audience forgets who the characters are. Either they’ve forgotten the name, mixed up their description with another’s, or even failed to remember that the character even exists. It’s fairly typical of stories that have a lot of characters and do not utilize them effectively, or leave some characters on the sidelines, and it annoys the audience no end. Especially when the author assumes that the audience has a perfect memory for every facet of their story.

Anyway, character overload will most often occur when there are way too many people in a sequence. For example, a short story set on a colony ship could have as many as forty characters each with their own name and back-story. The only problem there occurs when you consider it will take some ten thousand words to introduce all those people and by then your audience will be gasping for something to happen. There’s a simple solution here, use fewer characters. While it is true that worlds with too few characters can feel empty and artificial, you don’t always have to introduce the guy driving the train.

Longer stories are more resilient naturally to a character overload[1] but you can still overload your readers with too many characters in a rush. This is particularly annoying because it puts the burden of forgetfulness on the audience, and is so easily avoided by making sure you never introduce too many characters at once[2]. In addition you also can have an issue with time scales for reading a book and characters that aren’t mentioned for twenty thousand words can be lost entirely if they weren’t particularly important.

However there are a lot of ways to make your characters more memorable. Names are a good first step. Chuck, Harry, Richard, are all names we are familiar with and so they are quite easy to put to a character. Yanne, Taandural, and Gaen, are more exotic and I personally find them much harder to pin to faces[3]. This gets even worse when names sound similar. Chuck, Kris and Craig is just about understandable, though introducing them all at once may be unwise. But, Tanne, Trealle, and Tant, will have people scratching their heads for an entire novel before they catch on to which one is which.

Finally, some advice. Make introductions memorable. Walking up to someone in a room and shaking hands is boring. Find them buried waste deep in a half dismantled console. Start with a joke, a funny situation, have them walk in on an awkward moment and be yelled at. Anything that isn’t just “Hi I’m [blank]” because then they will be blank for the rest of the story.

[1] Simply because these intros can be spread out so as not to make the reader gnaw off their legs to escape

[2] Hmm, I think I have a scene I have to check for this.

[3] I’m not wholly sure why this is. It might be because they do not mentally register as names, but nonsense words.