The Space Opera That Never Was

September 23, 2009 | By | 11 Replies More

Yesterday I wrote a cool sentence. Well, not actually a sentence – more of a statement. Well, not even a statement – more of a descriptive title to what I thought could be a chapter in a science fiction novel. Look, whatever it was, I was very proud of it. It was so conducive to creative thought that I actually began to write the introduction to a science fiction novel (it was here that the author decided that the makers of Word for Windows were the most annoying bastards in the entire world. Every time he began to write the word “novel”, he’d get to the first ‘e’ and a little box would pop up next to the with “November” in it, implying that he didn’t have the intelligence or presence of mind to put a capital letter at the start of a proper name. Naturally, being an educated person, he would have put a capital “N” if he was going to write “November”. But he wasn’t going to.

He was about to write “novel”, because that’s what he started to talk about and he wasn’t planning on writing “November” until the bloody programme starting annoying him by suggesting it every time he started to write a word with N, O, V, and E as the first four letters. Damn programmer geeks think they’re being so bloody helpful, popping up little squares every time you type something, thinking they’re helping you get things done quicker…it’d be a lot quicker if they didn’t keep implying that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing all the time. And if they’re so smart and so helpful, why couldn’t their programme have figured out that it would’ve been completely out of context to write “November” in that position: “…a chapter in a science fiction November…”?

Now, because of those well-meaning, over-cautious but more likely bloody-minded programmer bastards, not only has most of the introductory paragraph been taken up by a bracketed and completely unplanned rant about an annoying little “help” function, the author has ended up writing “November” six times when he didn’t intend to mention it at all unless it was relevant to the story, which it was never going to be [stardates don’t use Earth months, as any decent science fiction writer should know]).

Ahem.

I had a loose introductory plot idea for my space opera (although massively clichéd): a flotilla of space vessels disappears without a trace, the fleet commander wants answers and the only guy who can possibly help is a (wrongly) convicted ex-special forces space-felon with borderline psychosis! Not the most original
treatment in the world, but I just wanted to start somewhere solid and then see where my brain would lead the story.

Unfortunately, once I completed to the second paragraph of my Pulitzer-winning epic, I
had to go to lunch and I foolishly (or perhaps fortunately, for the reading public at large) forgot to save my work. I found that out when I returned to work and couldn’t find my story anywhere. Someone had closed the programme in my absence and not saved changes to “doc1.doc”. Some people have no respect for literary masterpieces
written during work time on work equipment. God-damned barbarians.

The story opened with a repeated hail to the lost flotilla: “Flotilla nine…flotilla nine, do you copy?” It was meant to drop the reader straight into the story, straight into the action, straight into unsettling uncertainty and suspense. I was going to give background on everything later in the narrative, including plenty of interchapters dedicated to our no-nonsense flawed hero figure: “…he leaned against a bulkhead, one hand in a pocket and the other playing absent-mindedly with a beret which had been jammed beneath the epaulet on his left shoulder…” Very sexy. I was tossing up an eye-patch, but hey – this is the far future and he’d either have a bitchin’ multifunction cybernetic eye or a perfect new one made from his own stem cells. The last thing I remember writing was something about the commander, red-faced, shouting “Forty-nine ships don’t just disappear!” as the hero smirked to himself, clearly in contempt of “the brass” and their ignorance (because he alone knew what they were up against – he’d seen it before and these bastards hadn’t believed him; they just threw him in the hole for a decade … the bastards). Upon reflection, it may have been for the best that I stopped if I was going to continue writing, shall we say, tried and true material like that.

The thing is, it looked great in my mind. I could see how the film version of my novel was going to open: a shot from behind of a dozen or so monolithic, battle-scarred warships covered with multi-barrelled turrets; massive photon engine exhausts emitting an eerie blue-green glow; lusciously rendered starfield in the background; over in one corner of the screen hangs a reddish-brown planetoid or moonlet with a few gigantic scorch marks on the surface, giving the viewer the impression that they’ve missed something awesome but can expect to see even better later on; perhaps even a few lithe little scout ships flitting in and amongst and around their larger counterparts, fixing stuff. Over this, you’d hear the repeated hail, then you’d zoom to a close up of the concerned-looking comms officer, eyes flitting, hands on buttons, face illuminated by the various screens in front of him. The camera would then pan across & up to the rather perturbed face of the commander of the fleet.

It was all a great idea. All from one little grouping of words that just popped into my head. I originally wrote it in the subject box of a humourously abusive e-mail I was sending to a friend because I wasn’t sure if the people at his work would see “You’re a gaping porn anus” as utterly hilarious as my friend and I would. I also didn’t want anyone at my work to see it because my friend undoubtedly would reply, using my original. “RE: You’re a gaping porn anus” would also not be perceived as hilarious by anyone who didn’t know the context in which it was written (because, of course, anything can be flat-out hilarious in right context, even [or especially] gaping anuses). So, to avoid reprimand or perhaps just to avoid being given a wide berth in the tea-room, I decided to use something innocuous, neutral, or even a tad perplexing to the naked brain.

What popped out was: “Juncture Group Omega nearing Respite Zone W1-K/3D”.

Cryptic, jargon-y, even nonsensical on a surface level (like most good science fiction terminology) and a great catalyst for a story. But the lack of auto-save betrayed me. Perhaps it’s best in hindsight that I lost that first couple of paragraphs – realistically I should have known that my short attention span would never have allowed me to stick with one great idea for as long as it takes to write a November.

Shit.

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About the Author ()

Hank was born of bird-watching bushwalking music-loving parents from whom he gained his love of nature, the universe & bicycles. Today he's a musician, non-profit aid worker, beagle keeper and fair & balanced internet commentator - but that just means he has a chip on each shoulder.

Comments (11)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Dude! This rant reminds me of a plot line I had for a sci-fi story where a futuristic space war was decided by a cat.

    As any feline friend knows, a cat will always, in any space, find the most inconvenient spot to park its furred butt.

    So, given N dimensional folded space, placing a cat on the map of such space will result in you learning the most inconvenient place to put your space navy so as to surprise the enemy who would just happen to be merrily tripping by.

    Oooopsie-daisies!

    Hey, does your furshliggener word processing system spell "program" as "programme" or is that a Strine thing?

    Oh, well. Time to read to litttlr ones! TTFN!

  2. Hank says:

    "Programme" an example of Antipodean dialect? My dear sir, that's the Queen's English.

    I dig your cunning cat plot. Have your people talk to my people!

  3. Jing-reed says:

    The makers of MS Word ARE without a doubt the most annoying bastards in the world of writing. And it was with this in mind that I downloaded Open Office. Much the same as MS Word but without all the annoyances. And it has a handy feature for easily making pdf files. No, I don't work for them, but am one of their biggest fans.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Google disagrees, but my Déjà vu tells me that I read this post a couple of months ago.

  5. I use Word Perfect. Still.

    As to great SF plot ideas…you're in good company.

    Smith, Laumer, Simmons, Hamilton….

    One suggestion. Take a great opening that is visually inspiring, put it in a drawer for a month (so to speak) then start asking about the people who would be standing there in the situation seeing it would react. Then rewrite it from their perspective and see what kinds of legs (or, in this, ion engines) it has.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Hank, Bank in the stone-age of computing, (I'm talking MSDOS and CPM here) people who needed to type text documents would use a text editor program.

    These programs were simple. you typed, the program recorded whatyou typed, and you could change what you typed before printing it out. you could also save what you typed to a disk.

    Of course you had to know control key commands for saving and printing. Most people simply mad a cheat sheet they cello-taped to the bottom of their monitors so the commands would be easy to find.

    Word processing was a step above the editor that most people did not need. Word processors added several capabilities that were useful to businesses but not so useful to home users. The most basic word processor added formatting abilities to an editor. In the pre-Windows word processors, spell checking, and most other features were add on programs.

    But the data processing market-droids invented the idea of "user-friendly", an attempt to make complex software such as word processors easier to use by peolpe who really only needed an editor. The first attempts used special keyboards with specialized function keys for things like Font selection, print layout, and margins. this gave way to little stickers that were placed on the keytops that acted like the old cheat sheet.

    Later attempts reverted back to the cheat sheet concept, to allow the user to easily switch between other user friendly programs by swapping out a key overlay.

    The point is that they were not making the program easier to use, but werr making it easier for the user to find out how to use the program functions.

    After the introduction of the Graphic User Interface or GUI ( an alternate acronym si WIMP for Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointer) The marketing hype and the creeping featurism went into overdrive, and the already complex word processor became incomprehensibly complex.

    Some where in the process, the concept of user friendly became user-condescending. With ever new feature added, the program becomes less usable as it restricts the user to pre-formatted documents, default spelling dictionaries, automatic grammar checking and other features.

    It has come to the point that the software developers seem to believe their customers can't type, spell, use proper grammar, on know what they want to write.

    Often after wasting some hours in finding how to work around some feature, I truly feel that I would like to meet with the asshole who thought it was a good idea in a dark alley somewhere so I could inflict serious physical harm to his favorite body parts with a LART (Luser Attitude Readjustment Tool)

  7. Tim Hogan says:

    "Programme" is Queen's English?

    Once again proving that the British Commonweal and the United States are nations separated by a common language!

  8. Hank says:

    Dan, this is indeed a pea-roast. I posted it as a nerdbook note a little while back.

    Open Office is my friend at home, but I've never worked anywhere that actually used (or allowed employees to use) any open-source software. Mozilla, Iron, Open Office, GIMP etc (don't even mention rival OSs) are all deemed "risky" or "unsafe". My bosses owe me a new irony meter.

    Mark, my problem isn't so much a lack of ideas (good or bad), it's having the attention span of a fish. There's a reason I'm more comfortable writing blog posts or five-minute rock songs – if I can't get something finished in a day it simply doesn't get finished 🙂

    Niklaus, I agree. Somewhere the user-friendly angle took a right-angle turn and became utterly condescending right out of the box. Now it's extended past mere software to an entire paranoid OS which assumes you barely know how to type, let alone go online without a nanny. Yes, Vista, I'm fking SURE OK? Please let me do my work!

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Hank: I tried to write lyrics to a song last week. It's something I rarely try and something I don't think I've ever done well. I sweated over it for hours, and nothing good has come of it yet.

    Bottom line, I'm wondering how long it takes you to write your typical 5-minute rock song. I assume that it takes a long time. Ergo, I suspect that your attention span is somewhat longer than that of a fish.

  10. Hank says:

    OK, a big fish.

    Writing a five-minute song can take me anything from a quick half hour to an entire jam session (3 to 4 hours). Or several weeks. Usually I try and sing wordless melodies and write at the same time, letting the mood of the song shape the words (difficult if the song isn't done yet!). But if I don't get onto a good lyrical path straight away I put the book down and just warble to avoid getting annoyed at myself. Frequently I'll nail a chorus or verse straight away and then not be able to think of jack squat for weeks (also annoying). Going into the studio with a couple of songs only half-finished was very nerve-wracking; it felt like those frequent times at school when I arrived at class without having done my homework. Kept expecting our producer to make me stay late after the others had gone home.

    Take heart Erich, I know you'll pull some good stuff out of the bag. I wish I had some bullseye advice but all I can say is: don't stop! I started writing poetry at 12 – all very bad and only got worse once I hit my teens – but in doing so I got used to using words in a different way to prose or essays. It's like any new thing: the more you do it, the easier it gets.

  11. I gave up on lyrics ages ago—a poet I ain't. But that was never where the impact was for me anyway. The music, that's the thing. More often than not, to me, words just get in the way.

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