(Curiosity) Simon Stålenhag and the Science Fiction of ‘Hold My Beer’

Simon Stalenhag Illustration

As my beta readers work through the manuscript of Part 2 of FEAST OF SHADOWS and my editors does what she can ahead of their feedback, my brain continues to wrestle with the project I’ve been calling SCIENCE CRIMES DIVISION, although that will not be the title.

In describing it to a friend this weekend, they thought it was going to be absurdist, like a cyberpunk Douglas Adams book, and were skeptical, and after some frustrated backtracking, I realized it’s nearly impossible to effectively communicate a vision for anything that doesn’t have a clear precursor.

This is the logic of the concept pitch. You take a project that was already successful and introduce a twist. After Die Hard came innumerable knockoffs, each succinctly describable as “Die Hard on a boat” or “Die Hard on a plane” or “Die Hard on a plane with snakes,” and so on.

Any brief description of something not expressly derivative, such as the original Star Wars, sounds completely ludicrous: a psychic monk with a laser-sword and his apprentice join a teenage princess and a smuggler with a sentient dog to stop an evil galactic empire from unleashing their planet-killing doomsday weapon. Hearing that, you might expect something like Buck Rogers.

Clearly, what made Star Wars awesome wasn’t a novel premise or characters. In fact, Lucas pilfered most of the characters and plot from a black-and-white Kurosawa film called The Hidden Fortress. And by 1977, laser blasters, robots, light-speed ships, interstellar gangsters, and the rest were all standard sci-fi tropes. What’s more, those tropes were lifted directly from adventure fiction of the pulp era. One could argue that Star Wars, at its heart, is a Western. Tatooine even looks the part.

What made Star Wars awesome was that it combined all of that in a new way, a way that wasn’t campy. Same for the original Tim Burton Batman (which is campy by today’s standards but which was a big departure at the time).

Stories with a novel, readily outlandish premise, like Sharknado, almost always have little else going for them. Don’t believe me? Go do a quick review of the movies on your TV’s rental app. Not that we can’t enjoy Sharknado ironically. Of course we can. But that movie is trying to be something different than Star Wars, or Dune.

Incidentally, this is why every seasoned writer silently and internally rolls their eyes when someone grabs their arm and says “Hey, I have this great idea for a story.” What makes a story great isn’t the premise. It’s the execution. (That’s why it’s so hard.)

I’m not sure a pithy pitch would really capture the vision I have for my unnamed project, AKA SCIENCE CRIMES DIVISION, but the closest I’ve seen to it so far are the paintings of Simon Stalenhag, below. I want to write a story that takes the accessibility of technology to its logically absurd conclusion.

Most scifi starts with the 1950s-era assumption that technology, as a function of science:

A) fundamentally (and only) benefits mankind, and/or
B) if it’s dangerous or abusable, remains under the control of the social regime.

Unless it’s expressly a prototype, all fictional technology works. In fact, it often works for that which is wasn’t designed. Every episode of Star Trek involves the engineering team re-purposing the engine or the sensor arrays to do something they were never designed to do.

And yet, consider that across more than 40 years of life, I’ve never once owned a printer that worked without fault.

The paradigm for most science fiction is nuclear technology, which still requires some advanced physics to understand and manipulate, and, more importantly, a state apparatus — funding and a defensive infrastructure — to collect, retain, and refine the necessary fissile material.

In the three-quarters of a century since they were invented, only ten countries have developed nuclear weapons: the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Another eight have (or had) access, either through NATO or as a result of being a former Soviet republic: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.

Another dozen or so countries, including Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, probably could develop the technology if they wanted but have been kept from doing so generally by fear of nuclear proliferation and specifically by an international anti-proliferation regime administered by the United Nations.

To date, no individual or private entity has been known to possess nuclear weapons (although I’ve said for years that it would be a fundamental test of the Second Amendment if Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos were to purchase one).

To illustrate why this matters, consider the virile Captain Dirk Thrusterd and his crew, who, while investigating a fatal accident at a mining colony on planet Albion-IX, uncover a plot by the invading alien Xicxz’t to detonate a black hole device inside our solar system. With all long-term communications jammed, Captain Thrusterd and his intrepid crew are alone. Only they can save the Terran Alliance!

In the early chapters, we might be told that the colonists on Albion-IX, which has an acid atmosphere, survive on “genetically modified” crops which they grow in domed hydroponic factories. In fact, that might figure into the plot when the alien saboteur, who has been surgically altered with nanotechnology to resemble a human, traps the captain and his love-interest — a sexy scientist who escaped to the remote colony only to forget the captain and their torrid but interrupted romance — inside one such dome, which is slowly leaking atmosphere!

To escape, the clever captain uses some sheet plastic and an oxygen tank to rig a makeshift hazard suit while the sexy scientist uses fertilizer pods to make a bomb. After blowing a hole in the wall, they use the makeshift suits to reach a nearby airlock. When the scientist’s is damaged in the blast, the captain gives her his own and suffers acid burns and spends the rest of the book emotionally aloof from her, convinced she could never love a man with such rugged and deadly-looking scars. But of course she’s pure of heart, and pressing her ample bosoms to his chest, she confesses her love at the end, after he saves the entire human race, thereby abrogating any need for him to say (or even be aware of) his feelings, which he’s suppressed since the tragic death of his parents.

All of that is bog-standard. In fact, they did something very much like it in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. But consider for a moment the technology of this world. Just from the first act, we know there are FTL drives, FTL communication, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and black hole bombs — probably with a bunch of other things as well, like handheld blasters and plucky robotic-AI sidekicks.

The black hole bomb is a clear stand-in for nuclear weapons and may require the analogous state apparatus to produce. In fact, there may only be the prototype, which the good captain secures for the people of earth at the end, thereby ensuring at least a temporary deterrent — if they use it on us, we can use it on them. (That stalemate will falter at the beginning of the sequel, forcing the captain to once again choose his loyal crew — and the human race — over his ample-bosomed lover, who will nevertheless remain faithful as she waits for him even through the entirely unnecessary cliffhanger ending that sets up the third book.)

But even if people in this universe can’t generally make black holes, all the supporting tech that goes into the prototype will be available, along with everything else mentioned — portable power cells for blaster weapons, tools to genetically engineer living organisms, AI, and nanotech, all of which is evidently portable enough (and economical enough) to ship off to some distant world without much thought. And if miners on some distant colony have it, then you better believe there is at least a thriving black market.

The way stories like this get around having to deal with technology “leaking” into non-military society (while maintaining suspension of disbelief) is to ignore it or to assert control by the social regime, which uses it only for good, or for defense.

Returning to the world of Star Trek, for example, the Federation, however benevolent, is a centrally-planned state that retains a legal monopoly on literally everything. No one is allowed to have anything they can’t use responsibly. If a technologically-inferior race gets ahold of a transporter device, or a complement of photon torpedoes, the Federation will send an armed starship to take it back. And everyone is meant to adhere to the Prime Directive, even where that means watching millions of sentient creatures die from some horrible plague that could easily be cured.

So, too, in the world of virile Captain Thrusterd, where the Xicxz’t threat demands humanity be governed by a virtuous and nominally apolitical military dictatorship plucked right out of ancient Greece (ignoring that such regimes had very mixed records even where they only had to administer a bronze age archipelago populated in the thousands, versus an interstellar community of billions).

The fact is, if genetic engineering exists, people will use it for all kinds of nefarious and silly things. And I don’t simply mean rich people making sure their kids are the smartest and prettiest, although that too. A dude in a garage somewhere will ask someone to hold his beer while he gives his dog — or himself — an eight-foot penis, just for shits and giggles.

It’s funny really that this is where the genre has ended up given that the first fully-formed work of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, was written to warn us about exactly that kind of dude experimenting in his garage.

I imagine a fictional world where there is such a controlling authority but where it is actually struggling to hold on. It is also, like any potentially potent bureaucracy, often abusive of its power, leading some people to question whether we wouldn’t be better off without it — that is, until something crazy happens, like a zombie plague, or the temporary cessation of gravity.

I imagine a fictional world full of absurd expressions of technology, of fads and scams and ridiculous consumer products that never work right (or for long), a world where people go on doing the best they can, including solving a murder that may or may not have been committed with new technology.

The end result, hopefully, is something that is first and foremost FUN, with a background full of outrageous events that you nevertheless could just believe might happen…

I’m not trying to predict the future with this story. I’m not a futurist and don’t want to be. I’m trying to tell a fun story that reveals through its exaggerations something about the contradictions and absurdity of the modern condition — where we all blissfully hand over our privacy in return for our daily dose of memes.

At this stage, I’m just floating ideas. One I really liked — as a background event rather than a key plot point — is that cities can lease anti-grav generators and will occasionally “turn off” (which is to say, dramatically lower) gravity in certain areas for some window of time, usually to complete expensive earth-moving projects, such as a new freeway or cross-town tunnel, that, when complete, theoretically benefits everyone.

That means some folks get a letter in the mail similar to today, where instead of having no water or power from noon to six on Wednesday, there will be almost no gravity, and there’s a nice color pamphlet explaining what that means and how to prepare. Symbolically, it’s a statement about how technology is turning our life upside down.

Use of that technology is controversial since its first use resulted in catastrophe, and now the earth’s gravity fluctuates locally, like its weather, and people get up every day to watch the gravity forecast in addition to the weather.

I imagine a pod of large herbivorous dinosaurs grazing on the weeds of an abandoned Wal-mart. Someone resurrected and released them (one of the events that led to the passing of the STCA), and they’ve just become part of the world.

But this isn’t Jurassic Park. The animals will proliferate, for example, given that they can push through conventional crop barriers. A cull will be introduced, with environmentalists objecting that it’s unethical and pointing out that the animals didn’t ask to be created, but now that they existed, they were fundamentally no different than, say, whales. Property owners will ask what rights extinct animals even had, and that they’re fundamentally an invasive species, out of time rather than out of place, and so on.

I see traffic being backed up at the government shuts down the freeway to move a giant military robot on an 8-lane-wide flatbed.

I see zombies as an endemic rather than epidemic threat. Most people are inoculated, so those that do show up — always assumed to be some anti-vaxxer getting his just desserts — are little more than a nuisance, and there are city workers who have to go retrieve them, like a deer carcass on the side of the road.

I see the world placing strong restrictions on sentient robots, so there are relatively few of them, and they tend to keep to themselves and be very naturopathic and spiritual, like hippies. It’s rumored they can do magic.

And so on.

In North America, threats are investigated by the Science Crimes Division of the Science Control Agency, the enforcement and paramilitary wing of the US Department of Education.