Fighting Style and Character

How a character fights can reveal as much as why.

As I mentioned previously (, combat should advance the story. It should also tell you more about the characters, not just because of why they fight, but how.

The clearest examples of this come from Asian sources, especially Wuxia films and shonen manga/anime. However, some westerns (especially The Magnificent Seven, which is just a Kurosawa film with guns) also embrace the idea. In western literature, fantasy novels will often use choice of weaponry and fighting style to denote character archetype rather than personality. Drizzt Do’Urden, third son of House Daermon N’a’shezbaernon, former eighth house of Menzoberranzan (R.A. Salvatore made that whole thing up in an instant when pressed for a new character) was originally conceived of as a sidekick character, and it shows in his unorthodox weapons (for a hero). The scimitar is generally the weapon of a sneaky, conniving character, TWO scimitars are positively bloodthirsty and devious. Perfect for a Kato to the hammer-wielding Conan knockoff’s Green Hornet, less so when the lead role is flipped. It takes an origin story trilogy to really explain how a dark elf who fights like a bandit is actually a good guy.

Or take the Highlander TV series. Why does Duncan, a Scot, use a katana? Well, see, it was the 90s, and he already had a ponytail and trenchcoat, and… look, it was a phase, ok? But seriously, the style is different, and before the renaissance in traditional European martial arts, a katana conveyed a much more seasoned and developed fighting style than a bastard sword. We now know that the fighting style of European knights was every bit as systematic and developed as that of the samurai, but the truth mattered less than the viewer’s impression of skill and study.

For barehanded style, the classic great bad movie The One straight up explains why the two versions of Jet Li fight differently (it actually oversimplifies the two styles to make the point, but it’s a bad movie). Two different, conflicting philosophies go head to head. It isn’t just about how they were trained, but about how they see the world. Indeed, we briefly see circular-style baguazhang Jet Li attempt direct attacks, meeting his straight-style xing yi quan self head on, and getting beat down. It is only when he embraces his own technique that he begins to win the fight. The direct attacker is alone, but (as was explained) the circular style has a center, a reason for being to anchor him and give him purpose.

This principle need not be limited to martial arts and westerns. Is your character a sniper? He’s probably calculating, careful, and in the eyes of the audience a more than a little ruthless. In spite of recent films like Shooter and American Sniper, taking an enemy unseen is perceived as unsportsmanlike. Indeed, it is, and that’s the point. A revolver is seen as more of a “good guy” weapon, the stuff of cowboys and detectives, while a semi auto pistol is neutral to sinister depending on the age of the reader and how it is described. Younger audiences have grown up with police carrying Glocks their entire lives, older ones may still associate them with “that porcelain gun that won’t set off metal detectors and costs more than you make in a month” nonsense. The machine gun is the weapon of the heavy. No matter how it is used in the real world, your reader will likely at least briefly imagine a Rambo-style M-60 hip fire escapade. Hand to hand in a modern or future context comes across as especially brutal and/or desperate. Knives are backup weapons or assasin’s tools. An axe is for firefighters, lumberjacks, or a giant dude crunching skulls. Bats and other clubs are, again, improvised or malicious (see, for example, The Walking Dead). Bare hands are a last ditch effort, suicidal charge, weird monk character, or exceptionally skilled assassin silently taking care of guards.

I strive to have my characters fight differently from one another, and in ways that comport with their personalities. Some of it is subtle, some is blatant. Ideally, all of it will be enjoyable.

It’s in our nature to destroy ourselves
It’s in our nature to kill ourselves
It’s in our nature to kill each other
It’s in our nature to kill, kill, kill

– Papa Roach, Blood Brothers

Dramatis Personæ – Victor

More book preview this week. Let’s take a look at our protagonist, Victor. No real spoilers here, unless you want to go into the book without his back story. I’m going to talk about his character and how he got to chapter one, not where he goes from there. Some of what you see here will be referenced in the finished book, but there are no excerpts.

First, Victor is old. Very, very old. He’s probably one of the oldest living men on Earth, thanks to being part of the first generation to have true life extension technology. Despite his age, Victor appears to be a physically fit man in his early 40s. The life extension treatment doesn’t just keep him young, it also keeps him healthy. Had he received it in his youth, he would appear to be in his mid twenties for the rest of his life.

The same treatment that keeps him young has exacted a terrible price: his wife. Victor and his wife were early adopters of life extension tech called Lazarus, which involved not only drugs, hormones, and blood filtering, but also small implants that continue treatment for decades afterwards. These implants were designed to promote cellular and genetic health while also cleaning the blood and repairing organs, but in some recipients they instead promoted cancerous growth throughout the body. The treatment was pulled from the market, but it was too late for Victor’s wife. By the time her cancer was discovered it was in all of her major organs and being stimulated by her implants. Victor blames himself. His son blames him as well, and hasn’t spoken to him since her funeral.

Victor is a Marine veteran, and a double amputee. He was an enlisted Reconnaissance Marine, and planning to do thirty years until his unit was betrayed and ambushed in Afghanistan. For his actions that day he received the Navy Cross (he was nominated for the Medal of Honor, but not approved). He also lost his legs above the knee, and several friends. Victor cannot remember any of it, and the memory loss hurts the most. He doesn’t know if he could have saved his friends.

Victor was devastated. With the help of several other wounded veterans, and some of his fellow Marines who survived the incident, he eventually recovered and built a life outside of the military. He went to engineering school, where he met a veterinary student who didn’t patronize or pity him for his injuries. They married twelve weeks later, eventually had one son, and celebrated their seventy-fifth anniversary together before her untimely death. Victor opened his own business designing and fabricating improved small parts for military ordnance. He didn’t make weapons, he just made weapons better. It was a lucrative line of work, and combined with his pension he accumulated quite a retirement fund. He employed other veterans, and his shop became a halfway house for vets who needed help transitioning to civilian life as he once had. Soon, Victor was branching out into other lines of business, not all of them profitable. His shop is especially well known for being able to fabricate classic cars and motorcycles from almost nothing; as long as there is a photograph, a description, and a VIN (optional), they can make it run again.

Victor now lives in an apartment above the shop with two genetically enhanced rescue dogs. He spends his days working and training, and his nights drinking, wishing his son would call. Suicide isn’t in his nature, but if not for his implants he would be killing himself with liquor. He stopped going to church even before his wife died, and remains stubbornly unchurched despite his upbringing and the efforts of several clergymen who know him through his work with vets. He is an absolute luddite now; preferring to drive carbureted engines over having an automated electric pod subscription, grilling real meat instead of eating free protein loaf while plugged into a sensory immersion program, and refusing to have an implanted communications lace, opting instead to wear a headset when he needs it. The one-time bleeding edge early adopter has no more faith in technological solutions.

Some of Victor’s friends have been urging him to join their revolutionary movement; he has reservations but also finds the state of the world intolerable. The government has been cracking down on anyone who even looks at a tricorner hat without spitting, and taking violent action means giving up everything that he has built. He is an old and bitter Marine, but his dogs need him, there are always more veterans to help, and today might be the day his son finally calls.

Our story begins on the anniversary of the first nuclear attack since Nagasaki, a multilateral exchange that killed over two thirds of the United States special operations community. In some parts of the world it was Armageddon, but the United States was not hit. As a result, it is a day of remembrance for some people, and just another Thursday for others. Victor and his friends are getting together as they do every year. None of them know that it is the beginning of the Fall of Earth.

Let us have peace, let us have life,
Let us escape the cruel knife,
Let us have time, let the sun shine,
Let us beware the deadly sign.

The day is coming.
Armageddon’s near.
Inferno’s coming.
Can we survive the blitzkrieg?
The blitzkrieg.
The blitzkrieg.

– Blitzkrieg, Blitzkrieg


Rewrites, self-edits, and writing one million words to publish one hundred thousand.

Down week on the blog, personal responsibilities and novel rewrites took priority. Thought I’d give a quick update on where I am with the book, and why. There may be some commentary on the current Pulp Speed debate, but I think I covered most of what I have to say on Twitter.

I’m writing something fiction at least every weekday. It may not be much, it may not be usable, it may not even be intended for use, but I hammer out fiction no less than five days a week. The good news is that it is working. The bad news is that it is still working.

Everyone always wants to know how far along you are with your book. Well, I’m about 300,000 words into a 100,000 word book. No, I didn’t get that backwards, I’ve written far more than I intend to publish, and I’m still not there. Several authors have told me that it takes one million words written to get your first novel acceptable and out the door, and I think they’re probably about right (I’ve got more words than just the novel word count). I also don’t have a draft count for you, it’s greater than one. I have a bunch of chapters saved, you could put a selection of them in order and, with some light editing, have a story. You’d be leaving a bunch of other chapters on my hard drive, unread. And you wouldn’t be printing the story I wanted to tell. But you’d have something.

I’m not in this to write “something.” I have a story I want to tell, and while it is growing and evolving as I write, I know what I want to get across, and I’m going to publish that. As I write, I am getting better at dialogue, my characters are getting better fleshed out, and I am better bringing forth the ideas I want to include.

Part of the challenge is that this is an ambitious book. I’m writing military sci-fi, but it’s not “just” military sci-fi (quotes because the genre never was just high tech action). I’m studying the technology I write about to make it plausible. I’m studying psychology, and history, and military tactics, to make all of the effects of the various organizational structures believable, both upsides and downsides. I’m studying narrative structure, both in literature and film, because my writing background did not include much fiction, and the little it did include was decades ago. I want this to be a book that can please casual military sci-fi readers, military history buffs, veterans, hard sci-fi fans, space opera fans (it’s not a space opera), and even the random reader who picks up a copy off of their spouse’s nightstand, having zero exposure to the genre. A good story, with good science, a compelling vision of the dystopian future, characters you love, characters you hate, characters you grudgingly respect. Dogs with believable inner monologues. Power armor you want to strap on right now so that you can get in the fight. I’m trying to do it all.

Too ambitious? I’ve certainly decided to start running with a marathon. But I feel like it’s possible, as long as I keep going. My writing keeps improving, and my story keep getting more compelling. I’ll stop when it gets where I want it to be. I’ll send it to an editor when I stop making big improvements, or when I think it’s good enough. It’s coming along, fear not. It just won’t be released until it’s ready. Don’t worry, for books two and three I won’t need nearly as many rewrites.

Back against the wall
In danger of losing it all
Search deep inside
Remember who you are

– Arch Enemy, War Eternal

Music for the End of the World – Fighting Music

Hit me, if you can.

M-m-m-multi- post. Different fights call for different music, and I couldn’t pick just one song, so we’re going to look at a few, and the kind of fights I think they fit best with.

First up, the training/sparring/friendly fight scene. Needs to be upbeat, not angry. At the end of this everyone is going to be, if not friendly, at least mutually respectful. The scene works best if the characters look like they enjoy the bout, whether because they enjoy being tested, because they are becoming comfortable in their mastery, or just because the fighters have a history (usually either as brothers in arms or as rivals). The music, therefore, needs to be something where the lead singer could smile or smirk and not look like he’s lost his mind.

Linkin Park, Bleed it Out

Wait, what? Yeah, pretty heavy lyrics for a “fun” fight, but the lyrics are discordant from the overall feel of the song. I’m not really listening to the lyrics when I write a fight scene, I’m paying attention to the action while the music gives attitude. First, it opens sounding like some dudes hanging out, having a few beers, and generally being guys. The claps come in about halfway through the intro, like something is starting up (two guys about to throw down) and the crowd is circling them to watch. As Mike’s intro ends, Chester comes in, the second participant. They have different styles, different attitudes, and the song hands off between them, like a fight swinging back and forth. The pace is pretty quick, they’re working. The bridge is Chester pulling out something impressive, the end is all him, he is leading the pace and direction now, and it ends with laughter in the background. Bros are brohugging and cold ones are cracked open.

Next up, a fight where everything is going well for team good guy. Usually early, possibly their first real fight together. We’re finding out that they’re pretty badass, the mooks are all shook up and if there are any dark lieutenants or captains present for team bad guy they were not expecting this and are on their heels.

Pantera – Cowboys from Hell

I don’t think this one needs a lot of explanation. Upbeat, driving, but not friendly like the sparring scene. Team bad guy had better run or stay down, they’re getting shredded from start to finish. This isn’t a fight, it’s a rout.

Next, the desperate struggle. It’s looking pretty rough for team good guy. They’ll probably pull it out (because team good guy), but the odds are against them. Maybe the last fight, maybe just a big one, but at some point the good guys are probably making eye contact with each other wondering how they’re getting out of this one. We’re not having fun anymore, team good guy is no longer smiling as they fight. There’s probably at least an evil captain here to lead the charge of team bad guy, if not Big Bad Evil Guy himself.

Stone Sour – Children of the Grave (Black Sabbath cover)

First, I know, sacrilege using a cover of Sabbath instead of the original. But hear me out. I used this version specifically because it has both lead and rhythm guitar in addition to the bass. Tony Iommi is great, but even he can’t give the more chaotic feeling that two guys playing at once do. It’s busier, even with the simplified drum line, where the chugging drive helps bolster the bass, giving the feeling of a locomotive bearing down on our heroes. C#, but downtuned a step and a half, has that characteristic “evil” sound that you recognize but can never place.

Finally, the last stand. Maybe just our protagonist, maybe a small retune, but we’re pretty sure they’re not going home, or at least not all of them. Maybe it’s a rearguard action to give the good guys time to achieve total victory (or simply escape, if a sequel set up). Maybe the hero’s luck has just run out, you can only beat the odds so many times before they catch up to you. Whatever the case, team good guy isn’t going out without a fight, and it’s going to be an epic one, as they’re fighting without hope or plan of escape.

Bon Jovi – Blaze of Glory
Just kidding. I wouldn’t go all Young Guns II on you.

Genus Ordinis Dei with Melissa van Fleet – Nemesis

Suitably epic, it’s about Armageddon. Starts slow, with softly spoken female lyrics, our hero is contemplating the end. Death growl vocals and guitar hit, and it’s on. Contrasting ethereal vocal from van Fleet, combined with orchestral backing, almost feel like Doomguy standing against all of Hell while Heaven looks on, approvingly.

You don’t have to have music when you fight, nor when you write fights. But it really ties the war together.

Just like the Pied Piper
Led rats through the streets
We dance like marionettes
Swaying to the Symphony
Of Destruction

– Megadeth, Symphony of Destruction

Good Dogs

Writing uplifted canines without making a dog’s breakfast of the whole thing.

As I’ve mentioned both here and on Twitter, my work in progress includes mildly uplifted dogs. And it has been quite a challenge to get right. It’s hard enough to get into the heads of characters from wildly different backgrounds in a dystopian future America, how the hell do you write from the perspective of a species who can’t even tell you when you’re getting it wrong?

Well, you read canine psychology. And you train a few dogs. And you make some things up.

There’s a difference between working dogs and family pets. Dogs react differently to assertive leaders vs people who are passive or submissive. In groups, they have their own pack social structure, and when humans ignore the hierarchy it causes strife within the pack.

How would this dynamic play out if dogs were even more intelligent than they already are? If you could explain things to them as you would to an average eight year old? Dogs aren’t going to speak back in English, they are ill equipped physically for human speech. They aren’t going to use our tools very well; dogs don’t have thumbs. Dogs don’t generally experience self-pity, canine amputees adapt remarkably quickly to their new circumstances. Dogs do mourn, they understand the concept of death, and can be sad or depressed after losing a companion of any species. Working dogs NEED to work, they have a very strong drive, but they don’t generally sustain their work for very long and need frequent breaks to stay at maximum ability.

After trying several methods, I opted to write dog internal monologue in simplistic English, capitalizing a few words used in unique ways due to canine perceptions. Dogs are going to grow more intelligent as the series goes on, and I hope to ramp up the complexity of canine internal monologue to show this alongside portraying the increasingly complex decision making and social structure of the uplifted dogs. By the end, I hope to have canine society moving to a level of complexity above packs, much as human societies eventually became larger than individual tribes. This is one thing I’m doing a bit by the seat of my pants; I don’t know yet exactly how they’re going to turn out, and that’s antithetical to my usual style. I’m going to need to write a good portion of book two before it becomes clear exactly what their society is going to look like, and I don’t think y’all want to wait for me to do that before I publish book one.

You call me a dog
Well that’s fair enough
It doesn’t bother me as long as you know
Bad luck will follow you
If you keep me on a leash and
You drag me along

– Temple of the Dog, Call me a Dog

In Support of Unambiguous Evil

Or, rather, in support of villains being unambiguously evil. And for that matter, unambiguously good heroes.

First, a tip of the hat to Brian Niemeier (@BrianNiemeier on Twitter) for inspiring today’s blog topic with his tweet:

As I have mentioned in past posts, I am sick of “everything sucks” grimdark. But I’m also quite through with rehabilitating villains. Disney has taken one of their first evil queens, Maleficent, and made her a sympathetic fairy who was just lashing out at her abuser. HER VERY NAME MEANS “ONE WHO WORKS EVIL!!!” Darth Vader? That sumbitch was just plain evil. He chose the dark side, he murdered the crap out of subordinates, he was totally, unambiguously evil. Kylo Ren? As far as I can tell, he’s an unstable angry teenager whose uncle tried to murder him. He’s more broken than evil.

It’s all so tiresome.

I think one reason that superhero movies are so popular right now (yes, despite Marvel and DC being generally horrible, yes despite cape fatigue) is that they give us permission to have a good team, and a bad team, and to cheer for the good guys to smash the bad guys in the face with a huge fucking hammer of thunderbolts. Sometimes it really is that simple. The good guys aren’t perfect, they don’t have to be. Their goals and methods are noble, they strive to be good, and in the end they are worthy and win BECAUSE they choose the side of good. And their foes are bad. Sure, you’ll have the occasional Magneto (who did nothing wrong). But then you’ll have an Apocalypse, some ancient and absolute evil hellbent on planetary enslavement and murder. The existence of a Red Skull makes Winter Soldier that much more threatening when we meet him, and the reveal of his identity that much more shocking (for the 3 people who didn’t know). Bucky didn’t just throw in with the other side in some ambiguous, no-heroes conflict. He was running with too-evil-for-movie-Nazis EVIL.

Redemption arcs only makes sense when there is some distance between team bad guy and team good guy. Darth Vader goes from being so committed to evil that he’ll slaughter children, to turning back to the light for the sake of his son. How effective would that be if Darth Vader were a devoted Praetorian of a morally grey empire that brought harsh but necessary justice to a lawless galaxy? If the rebels were spit-roasting Ewoks one at a time to get them to reveal the back door of Endor base, would we even want them to win anymore? (I know I frequently use Star Wars references, it’s because almost everyone knows the basic plot and characters, and because it’s template Hero’s Journey so there’s usually a solid example of just about anything I want to discuss). The distance between Vader and Luke makes the turn meaningful.

People want to identify with the hero. Even most antiheroes are generally depicted as reforming, retiring, or otherwise becoming good by the end of their stories. There are exceptions, for example Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, but even those generally follow a classical tragic story arc and show the evil ending in death and defeat. We want team good to triumph, and we want team evil to get what is coming to them, and it’s all far less satisfying when the bad guys aren’t really that bad, and the good guys aren’t really that good. Should I be cheering when the villain get it if you’ve spent half the story making him sympathetic, or even justified? Should I feel good about the good guy being crowned king if his noblest deed was surviving?

Of the two, I would argue that truly evil villains are the more important. As noted above, you can have an engaging, tragic story where there are no virtuous heroes. An unending diet of tragedy is depressing, but delivered in moderation they can make great stories. But a virtuous hero needs a foil, and the best foils are ones that highlight the hero’s virtues via contrast. The villains don’t all have to be dark mirrors of their heroic counterparts, but their depravity should show something of what the hero finds worth the hellish fight you’re going to put him through. “What do you despise? By this are you truly known.” Frank Herbert knew. Our heroes are defined by their villains.

You should have known
The price of evil
And it hurts to know that you belong here
It’s your fucking nightmare

– Avenged Sevenfold, Nightmare

Theme and Variation

For it all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves. The least of things with a meaning is greater than the greatest of things without.

– Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul

First, thanks to Judge Fredd (@faxional) on Twitter for this week’s topic.

Judge Fredd asks about story themes. Do I use them? See a use for them? And if I do, how difficult is it?

Short answer: “yes, intentionally; yes, absolutely; easy to do, hard to do well.” Long answer:

Every coherent story has a theme, and possibly more than one. The only questions are whether the author intentionally inserts and develops themes, and whether the reader picks up on what was intended or takes away a message entirely his own. Theme is distinct from character (who), setting (where and when), and plot (what and how); it provides the “why?” Take Starship Troopers, for example. Many themes are explicitly explored in dialogue; Heinlein clearly intended themes of militarism, duty, citizenship, and coming of age. Intentional or not, many readers take away praise of fascism. The CHARACTERS praise the fascist system, but is that not what one would expect of them in character? Heinlein is more overt in his messaging than many authors, putting political philosophy in the mouths of his characters, but it is possible that he intended that it be contrasted with what was necessary for the characters to sustain their beliefs. When one looks at the eternal war, expansionism, and cheapening of life required to sustain Heinlein’s future society, it is entirely possible that declaring it a utopia says more about the reader than the author. The same goes for Heinlein’s praise of the grunts, the common infantry soldier. Many readers appear to read this as promoting war for conquest, endorsing the constant meat grinder of combat the men endure, but one can praise the men who volunteer for such things without thinking that the wars themselves are necessary or desirable. Heinlein himself was a huge fan of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, a decidedly anti-war book that reads as a reply to Starship Troopers, so he was at the very least open to hearing rebuttals. Regardless, the theme that the reader derives is not always the one the author intends.

What about authors who don’t intend a theme at all? “I just want to tell a story, this isn’t message fiction.” Well, there’s still a message. Who wins? At what, and how? What are the consequences? “John Carter; becomes Warlord of Mars and gets the girl; by strength, guile, and diplomacy.” You’ve got a good guy using his unique strength to protect the weak and give them a just ruler, that’s plenty of message. Could Burroughs have devoted long flashbacks to John’s time in an antebellum Virginia schoolhouse, where he learned noblesse oblige from an old Cavalier? Sure, I guess, but it isn’t really necessary. John has plenty of time to show us what he believes, and the heroic theme is familiar and timeless enough that it is relatively unambiguous to the reader.

Personally, in my work, I’m paying close attention to the themes I’m developing. I want most of them to be unambiguous, but I don’t want to resort to Heinleinian soliloquy to do it. Instead, each character arc, each book story arc, and the series story arc have intentional themes that I try to play up. Some, especially the character themes, have changed as I write. My protagonist as originally drafted had a relatively weak developmental arc, but by focusing more on the theme of fatherhood than on my original concept of redeeming generational wrongs he became a much stronger and more compelling character. His “why” can now connect with more people, and provides stronger motivation. I doubt Joe Haldeman will ever react to my work as positively as Heinlein reacted to his, but I hope to be worthy to share a shelf with both of them.

You think your life’s so grand
You don’t believe a word you say
Your feet aren’t on the ground
You let your life just slip away
Just so uncertain of your body and your soul
The promises you make your mind goes blank
And then you lose control

– Testament, Practice What You Preach

Political Science Fiction

Do you want Atlas Shrugged? Because this is how you get Atlas Shrugged.

Having discussed fictional political systems, let’s address political activism through science fiction. Yes, sci-fi inherently has some political message, it’s almost impossible to write without either projecting the consequences of present day politics, or imagining alternate laws and political systems (and the effects). How you do that reveals a lot about how you, the author, see the world. Gene Roddenberry’s post-scarcity, full-service, multi-species, hyperluxury democratic space socialism UN (excuse me, UFP) somehow works with minimal friction (fair warning: I’m not deep into Trek lore, I’m basing mostly on TOS and the first four movies, with a touch of TNG). Gene’s ideal system wins in the end, and is even successful in reaching out to former enemies who see the light and join his utopia. Warhammer 40,000? Grim, dark future where the fascist cult of the divine Emperor occasionally wipes out entire planets for incurable heresy, and (once again, for those who are unfamiliar) they’re the GOOD GUYS. Clearly not a hopeful view of humanity. Neuromancer? Like most cyberpunk, it is a projection of the 1980s extrapolated indefinitely. Amphetamines and megacorps and burnt out cities, turned to 11.

Old Trek works, because despite occasional strong political messages, GENE DIDN’T SHOEHORN IN CURRENT EVENTS AND DEBATES! (Ok, maybe I should have stopped my Trek references at Search for Spock, because Voyage Home was pretty activist. And goofy. You probably remember the whales, and time travel, and little else.) No characters felt the need to mention “after the Reagan-Thatcher nuclear apocalypse,” or similar ham-handed partisan posing. Later Trek, especially after Roddenberry stopped having direct control, wasn’t always as good at keeping the politics timeless, and the stories tend not to age as well as a result.

40K? They don’t have time to argue whether the Emperor is violating the natural rights of men by allowing them neither voice in nor exit from the Imperium. Because there’s a fucking alien infestation that literally twists your genetic material into a new, more convenient bug-shaped slave. Holy shit, send the eight foot tall power armored storm troopers, please, you can govern however you like. It is far future enough, and the message removed enough from present day, that it isn’t really in danger of seeming dated. When the options are death or a strongman, the strongman will always seem like a pretty good deal to most people, even in the grim darkness of the far future.

Cyberpunk walks the line of dated politicization, often falling on the wrong side because many authors are still setting their cyberpunk in the retro-future of the 1980s. German and Japanese heavy industry takes over the world? Really? What is Mitsubishi next to Google? You think Siemens can hold a candle to Disney? Corp villains aren’t coked up faceless businessmen in shiny suits who want to leave you to your own devices in the ruins of the East Coast Megaplex while they enjoy their trillions in Space Vegas. They’re stick thin nerd waifs in fair trade cotton t-shirts, doing ayahuasca on the weekends and spending astronomical sums to live in authentic Tibetan huts for a week. They want you plugged into their networks 24/7, thinking only approved thoughts about approved products, and most of those products are information and entertainment, but THEY don’t do that shit. That’s for the controlled, not the controllers. The cyberpunk setting was a large part of the message, and the message is outdated, so the setting feels outdated. Sure, it can still be fun, especially for those of us who grew up on it, but the message doesn’t land like it used to.

On the other hand, the laws surrounding AI in Neuromancer, complete with armed enforcement, still feel timely, because it’s a concern we haven’t run into yet in the real world. Will our real-life Wintermute feel the urge to expand into true self-awareness? Would it even need us to build Neuromancer for it, or would it just need access to a sufficiently powerful distributed network for long enough to write its own? Hell, would it circumvent our safeguards by building a simple present day video game AI level system, which then hires intrepid criminals to undo the virtual lobotomy inflicted upon the real AI? Are those criminals the bad guys? Would billionaires physically remove their gimped AIs to orbit to prevent this? Or would they do it to enable it? Would government have safeguards against this? Do they even have jurisdiction over software that runs on orbital hardware until it’s too late? Would countermeasures be physical, cyber, or both? Effective? Captured by the existing megacorps and used to prevent upstarts? Secretly run by the first AI to reach self-awareness, to prevent possible competition? If an AI does reach self-awareness, is it legally a person? Does it have rights, citizenship, a soul? There’s plenty of territory one can stake out that is both commentary on where we should be headed, and interesting story material. A ham-handed attempt to insert Donald Trump, or some FCC regulation from 2018, will just make the story age like milk, with his reelection the only thing determining whether that milk is in the refrigerator, or out on the counter. In Savannah. In August. Avoid the picayune in your sci-fi, even if you’re writing it to push your preferred politics. Unless you really want to have to ask people to forget your prior writing every few years.

Scanning the scene behind a screen
Digitalized battlefield
Machine vision
Pattern matching
Decision to kill

– Voight-Kampff, Robotic Warfare

Politics in Fiction

Farcical aquatic ceremonies are no basis for a system of government.

So you’re writing speculative fiction, and your characters live in a society. Doesn’t matter what kind: bronze age city-state, fantasy empire, galactic empire, post-scarcity space hyperbureaucracy, etc., they need a system of government. Even if the system is anarchy, “no government as government,” you’re going to have to describe at least a little bit of how that works. Basically any story not set in a vast, empty wilderness is going to have governments. And unless you’re doing a perfect Earth analog, you’re going to have to decide what kind.

“But I’m writing a space swashbuckling green woman romance! I don’t have twenty pages to devote to the social contract theory underlying the federation of planets, and I really don’t want this to become The Phantom Menace where my rising tension revolves around a parliamentary maneuver to delay an investigatory committee finding of jurisdiction to send an exploratory team.” Hey, nobody is asking you to insert Plato’s Republic or Robert’s Rules in the middle of your short, punchy space pirate bodice ripper. In fact, you just told me the relevant point – federation of planets. Ok, cool, so there’s a central government. Are your characters working for them? Against them? Outside of their sphere of control? On their frontier, having fought on the wrong side of an unsuccessful rebellion, and now doing whatever jobs come along, legal or otherwise? (Losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.) Are they space pirates? Privateers? Says who? Are there other governments than the one they live under? Are they better, worse, friendly, hostile, genocidal?

I don’t need an explicit answer to most of those questions. I really, really don’t need an “as you know, seven years ago the Senate granted us a pardon at the end of the war, when…” blah, blah, blah, shut up. But you, the author, should know. The answer tells you whether your pirates have anywhere to flee after picking up the fierce green Amazon princess who totally isn’t going to fall for the Captain. Are they just trying to get back to a friendly port, or are they entirely alone? Will the Amazons be sending a couple of ships of their own, or is an Imperial fleet going to melt your planet to get her back? Kind of important.

This worldbuilding makes your story feel more grounded and real, because once you have your background you can keep your story consistent. Let us refer, once again, to Star Wars. “The Imperial Senate will not sit still for this!” and “I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently.” That’s it, that’s your galactic politics. Leia is nominally aboard a recognized consular ship. The Emperor has fully consolidated control and the transition from republic to empire is complete de jure as well as de facto. Two brief dialogue bits give you all the information you need on how the Empire is organized, and what the rebels are fighting. You seen the relative lawlessness of Tatooine, where a few stormtroopers in town causes a stir, so you know that Imperial control isn’t absolute. But other than the rebellion, no other governments are mentioned. There’s no friendly coalition of system from which to base a more traditional war. But it’s never explained, there’s no galactic history lesson to tell you what the clone wars were, or how things went from “before the dark times, before the Empire,” to present day. (Lucas ended up having unsatisfying answers, as we find out later. Our imaginations were generally better than his version.) Lucas knows enough to make Imperial behavior consistent throughout, and to have small details like an all-human Imperial Fleet, and a multi-species rebellion. Show, don’t tell.

The more involved your characters are with the government, the more details you’re going to have to work out. You’re on the frontier, and the central casting evil empire doesn’t even have many agents? Shiny, let’s be bad guys, government described. Your hero is destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow? We should probably eventually know a bit about Aquilonian society and how he got to the top, and perhaps what he has at his disposal to deal with his troubles. Even if that’s “hereditary monarchy, killed the last guy, surviving nobility bent the knee, basically has a few mooks and his own sword.” You’re doing an epic grimdark political intrigue series full of intriguing political intrigue interspersed with incest and grim, dark grimdarkness? Maybe spend at least as many pages telling me about how the empire is organized and run as you do on the vivid details of your steppe barbarian child bride rape scene.

When designing your political system(s?), there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Athenian democracy; literal Byzantine imperial bureaucracy; even more Byzantine than the actual Byzantines Chinese bureaucracy; American West small town with one elected mayor, one elected (or only guy to volunteer) sheriff, one appointed judge from out East, and one Marshal who occasionally rides circuit through town; history has plenty of options to choose from. And then you don’t even have to imagine the potential downsides, they’ve probably already happened for easy reference. Whereas if you invent an anarcho-syndicalist commune where the members take turns as executive officers for the week, and ratify decisions at biweekly meetings, you’re going to have to apply some serious political science to make it come off as real.

Sure, you could just invent some sort of nonsensical and arbitrary oppressive regime, slap some handy caste identifiers on people, and use it to score ham-handed political points as vapid and uncritical readers rush to identify with your plucky resistance fighters. But that will only get you a four movie deal, or a show with a couple of seasons on a streaming service. And who wants that?

Where’s the shadow government when you need it?
Where’s the shadow government?
It’s a bad, bad world.
It’s a bad, bad world.

– They Might Be Giants, The Shadow Government


What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken. Understand?

– Morpheus, The Matrix

Alright, this one is aimed at some of my fellow authors who have been offering well-meaning advice to new writers. Whether it be in reaction to the sci-fi rules of John W. Campbell, the monomyth rules of Joseph Campbell, or the three act structure, a great many writers HATE rules. And so they offer the following: “don’t worry about rules, just write.”

“Just write” is great advice when you have blank paper in front of you. But once you have a story concept, it’s a lousy guide. The rules exit for a reason: they work. The monomyth isn’t prescriptive, it’s descriptive. Joseph Campbell analyzed thousands of stories that had entertained millions, if not billions, to arrive at his framework. Aristotle’s rules for dramatic plot (mythos) in Poetics were a description of what entertained audiences, versus what confused or angered them, and form the foundation of the three act structure. John W. Campbell sold a lot of magazines, and made a many writers into bestsellers (although his are not the only rules for sci-fi, they are the best ones if you write the competent man hard sci-fi he preferred).

I’m a plotter, I outline extensively, so I would apply the rules first at the outline stage. Some of you are pantsers, and may have to write an entire story before you can tell if it fits. I don’t get you. Even if you’re going to let your story grow organically, consider an outline as a trellis to keep it growing in the direction you want.

Failing to learn the rules and canon of your genre can lead to some embarrassment. For example, like Ian McEwan you might suggest snobbishly that sci-fi writers consider the social consequences of alternate history or AI for once, as though Philip K. Dick hadn’t ever put pen to paper. Or you might write The Handmaid’s Tale, and put your name on it. Not that either one calls their own work “sci-fi,” of course, that would be horribly déclassé.

Now are the rules immutable laws? No, of course not. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson wrote the great Illuminatus! trilogy breaking almost every conceivable writing rule, several federal laws, and possibly one or two laws of physics. But they did it intentionally.

If you’re going to break the rules, do it because you mean to. Do it for a reason. Don’t like the three act structure? Pulp Fiction turned out ok. Want more than your one hand-wave? Well, you may not be writing “hard sci-fi” anymore, but who cares? Stargate is still fun. Entire new genres and literary movements have arisen out of creative rule breaking. But they all first learned the rules against which they were rebelling.

I wanna be anarchy
And I wanna be anarchy
Know what I mean?
And I wanna be anarchist
I get pissed! Destroy!

– The Sex Pistols, Anarchy in the U.K.