Grunts in Space

18 Mar

At the moment I’m busy designing a space ship.

This is a slightly eccentric thing for me to be doing, particularly given my total lack of competence in engineering, physics or anything else remotely practical, but the good thing is that the spaceship will never really be constructed, let alone fly anywhere.

Basically the whole exercise is about building a credible background for a story.

I more or less gave up writing science fiction some years ago, having reread a science fiction story I’d written and having come to the conclusion that, while it wasn’t necessarily badly written, it was very, very old-fashioned. (What I mean by that is that it might have been reasonably acceptable about 50 years ago).

I think a large part of my problem is that I grew up watching Star Trek on TV (I’m talking about the original series, not Star Trek The Next Generation) and that’s probably shaped my thinking about science fiction to an extent that I find it difficult to escape.

That’s not to say that I think Star Trek is the last word in science fiction. I enjoyed watching it, but in some ways I found it frustrating. As a matter of fact I really wanted to take the whole thing apart and redo it in order to edit out some of the silliness. (Many of the issues that bothered me were addressed when the series was rebooted for Star Trek The Next Generation and its spin-offs, but the price they seemed to pay for making the series more sensible was that they seemed to lose a lot of the warmth. I should also mention that if I hear Commander Riker mention Honour and Duty one more time, I’m just liable to puke).

Some of the more obvious problems with the original series were Captain Kirk’s tendency to solve interplanetary disputes with a right hook, and his habit of snogging aliens at the drop of a hat. (Only female aliens however. They just about managed an inter-racial kiss in those days, but we were still some decades too early for a same-sex snog).

There was also Captain Kirk’s practice of gallivanting off on every planetary expedition that cropped up, however hazardous, generally taking his Chief Science Officer, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Engineer with him, (pretty much the entire Command Staff of his ship in fact). I don’t suppose I need to point out that if things went badly on one of these expeditions, Enterprise would be left with virtually no senior officers left to take command.

Obviously this problem arose because Gene Roddenberry wanted to make Kirk his central character, and that meant sending him off to deal with things personally, rather than delegating to a subordinate, even if it did undermine the plausibility of the series. (This issue was addressed in Star Trek The Next Generation).

Other problems with the series resulted, I suspect, from Gene Roddenberry’s worldview and the particular issues that attracted or repelled him.

Star Trek has often been hailed by the humanist movement because, in general, it had little place for religion. Perhaps Roddenberry felt (much like Karl Marx) that religion is going to wither and die as people grow more civilised, and the need for faith as a palliative declines.

He may also have felt that there would be less scope for religion as science progressed and answered many of the questions currently addressed by religion. Although he may also have felt that religion, like racism and sexism was part of the package of nasty habits we were going to have to grow out of if we were going to survive long enough to build star ships and explore space.

In any event, while I do recall one episode where Kirk had a rather cringe-making episode of faith, (it was the one where they came across an updated version of the Roman Empire complete with televised gladiatorial contests) there seemed to be a general assumption that Star Fleet doesn’t do faith.

Other themes that were notably absent from Star Trek were politics and economics. My guess is that these subjects didn’t interest Roddenberry very much so he simply left them out with some blithe assumptions about material needs no longer being a problem. (Maybe this was just another symptom of his apparently all-pervasive optimism).

As an atheist myself I might well be expected to believe that religion will fade away some day, but as a matter of fact I don’t think this is going to happen in any big hurry (if at all) and as a matter of fact I think that as long as people are recognizably human, some will have religious faith of one sort or another. (I don’t even think this would necessarily be a bad thing).

I also doubt that we will ever be free of the need to work for a living or to cope with limited resources, which means that politics and economics will probably also be with us for as long as we are recognizably human.

It’s fairly well known that Gene Roddenberry was a marine, who became a police officer, and as far as I know, a fairly liberal and decent police officer. I think this shaped his ideas of what government and other institutions should be like in his universe, hence Star Fleet is a remarkably benign organisation. (Did he really find the USMC and LAPD that benign, or was this a reaction against things he didn’t like? Maybe Star Trek was an escape for Roddenberry as well).

Call me a cynic, but I tend to the opinion that there is a certain irreducible quantum of brutality inherent in any institution and, although it can be kept to a minimum when everyone involved tries really hard, it will always be there somewhere. I really don’t think any organisation can be totally benign, least of all a government.

As a storyteller Gene Roddenberry obviously had every right to create his universe in any way he wanted and he was equally entitled to exploit or ignore whichever themes he wanted to, but I do think he cut himself off from a lot of material that could have enriched his creation.

In particular, I think that religion, politics, economics and the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the institution can provide huge scope for story lines and Roddenberry pretty much ignored all of these areas. That was his prerogative, but it’s not the way I would want to do things.

What I’ve said so far is obviously just my personal opinion, but what follows is even more a matter of my personal tastes and perspective.

One of the things I find a little irritating about Star Trek and its spin-offs is the determination on the part of the programme makers to concentrate on the best of the best of the best. As a result, it seems that everyone involved in Star Fleet was the top of his, or her, class at the Academy, and the premise seems to be that if you aren’t in Star Fleet you’re rubbish.

This tendency is accentuated by the series being set on a flagship (which would admittedly have an élite crew) which tends to leave me wondering how everyone can be the best ie who’s left for them to be better than?)

In my experience most organisations seem to be composed of a pretty mixed bag of talents and personalities, and I also think it’s more interesting when at least some of the people involved in a story are less than brilliant. (I think this is another area where Roddenberry cut himself off from potential story lines).

All of the above tends to shape the decisions that I would be inclined to make if I ever get around to writing another science fiction story. (It would almost certainly be more of a Space Western than an epoch-making TV series that ends up having a major impact on popular culture, but then again, what’s wrong with that? We can’t all be brilliant, oe even especially original. All I’m trying to do is have some fun).

In short, I have thought for some years that it would be interesting to set a science fiction story aboard a smaller, less prestigious vessel than the USS Enterprise. Preferably one that was engaged in routine, unglamorous, but necessary work patrolling out in the back of beyond where no one really cares what happens as long as the paperwork stays clean.

It might also be interesting if the ship’s captain, far from being an outstanding officer who enjoys the respect and admiration of all and sundry, is perhaps someone who is not altogether in good odour with his superiors. (This being the reason why he, or she, has been posted to the back of beyond). I think the central character still has to be good at what they do, unless you’re doing comedy, but that doesn’t necessarily make them anyone’s poster boy, or girl. Sometimes gifted people are a pain in the ass to their superiors, and sometimes good people are not recognised simply because someone in authority simply doesn’t like them.

I wouldn’t want to veer off into the well-worn cliché of the brilliant maverick. (And in any case fictional brilliant mavericks never seem to suffer too much damage to their career prospects, regardless of how insubordinate or undisciplined they might be). I was thinking more of someone who is competent and dedicated, who has perhaps talked out of turn or committed some other indiscretion and now has to be content with a career of useful service rather than spectacular success.

(You could argue that Joss Whedon might have been thinking along similar lines when he created Firefly, his ship clearly wasn’t a naval ship, it was a distinctly unglamorous vessel crewed by misfits, crooks and malcontents).

It’s fairly well documented that Gene Roddenberry was a great admirer of CS Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower novels and that character of James T. Kirk was strongly influenced by Hornblower. I can see why Roddenberry was attracted to Hornblower’s world it provided a great deal of autonomy and hence a huge scope for stories.

Personally, I tend to read more history than literature and I would tend to go a little further back for inspiration, maybe 1690 – 1725. This was a rather more lawless period where the legal status of armed vessels ranged from the regular navy, through privateers (licensed pirates) and buccaneers who might or might not carry letters of marque, to out-and-out pirates.

I was also very taken by the universe created by J. Michael Straczynsky for Babylon 5 where humans came somewhere a bit further down the pecking order than they do in Star Trek and where the central characters can’t always trust the institutions they work for.

So I suppose this is why I’m taking the trouble to work out the organisational structure of a fictional navy along with the dimensions and specifications of a space faring frigate.

I’ve pilfered Wikipedia for the vital statistics of various naval vessels and I’ve worked out that I want a ship that would correspond in status to a frigate, and have a similar sized crew. I’ve derived the physical dimensions from a nuclear submarine. (Scaled up slightly to reflect the slightly larger ship’s complement). The reason for choosing a submarine is that it provides the crew with an enclosed artificial working environment to protect them from a hostile external environment. (I may have to rethink this because there are constraints on the size of a submarine that wouldn’t necessarily apply to a space ship, but in any case at least I have a prototype that would allow enough room for the crew to survive in reasonable comfort for an extended period).

I think I would also want a contingent of marines (or some equivalent group) on board in order to carry out missions where someone has to leave the ship. (Star Trek Next Generation dealt with this issue with ad hoc ‘Away Teams’, which seldom included Captain Picard, but still often seemed to include a number of senior officers).

My feeling is that it would make more sense to send a paramedic than the chief medical officer, or a technician rather than the chief engineer. Hence you would shift the focus of  some story lines away from the senior officers over to those members of the crew who specialise in ‘away missions’. (This might complicate matters by increasing the number of major characters involved, but I think this could be kept within manageable limits and it would have the advantage of including a greater range of characters ie grunts as well as senior officers).

I don’t know if I’m actually going to write this story, (I’m in the middle of writing a first draft of yet another vampire story at the moment), but even if I do, most of this information will probably never be mentioned explicitly. Having said that, I find that I need to know a lot of background detail about what things are called, where they fit into the grand scheme of things and what they can do, (if not necessarily how they do it), if I’m going to put a story together.

‘Write what you know’, is such a cliché. It also be very depressing if you take it to mean ‘write about the boring everyday stuff that makes up most of real life’, which is what I think a lot of teachers have in mind when they trot this piece of advice out to aspiring young writers. But what you know doesn’t have to be the real life stuff you have to wade through and that most of us read in order to escape from. It can be the stuff you make up. Personally I think that made up stuff works better is it has some basis in reality, but all it really has to do is hang together in a coherent way and provide a consistent, detailed environment for your characters to operate in.

Which is probably why I’m obsessing over the details of how my frigate is going to be organised.

And anyway, it’s kind of fun to think about these things.

Once I’ve got this stuff sorted out, I’ll have to start thinking about politics, economics, diplomatic relations, sociology, not to mention the physical characteristics of various aliens.

Once I’ve got all that sorted out I can start to populate the environment with characters and after that I suppose I’d better start thinking about what they’re actually going to do.

If you think this story might be interesting to read, then I suppose I should point out that it might be a while before it’s finished.

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2 Responses to “Grunts in Space”

  1. Will 18/03/2012 at 1:57 pm #

    From one who got caught up in this also to you Fekesh on Grunts in Space..Space ships That along brings up many unanswered problems alone, Would it be so wrong to fine them right here in our own back yard, Maybe so, Here you started a story and just like me wanted to do Space ships Yet finding another problem with humans reactions had my Space ship running off with explorers of Teenager’s Lost in time.
    This of fact brought the whole thing to a new adventurer in Space Ship making. how can they run it and what makes it go? Star Trek only has a big ship with a large crew on board, step it back to smaller one’s and you have a start. Good Luck writing. Will

  2. Colin 19/03/2012 at 3:21 pm #

    If you fancy the idea of Hornblower in space, try the Seafort Saga.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seafort_Saga

    I’ve read the first three, and they’re really good books.

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