Wizards, Jedi Knights, and Superheroes

… and Space Marines?

When it comes to the world of books, video games, films, and merchandise we certainly live in what you could call the Golden Age of the Expanded Universe.

The entire premise of the new film Star Wars: Rogue One is predicated on a single line of dialogue from Return of the Jedi – “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

And I think that is amazing.

Everywhere you look it’s Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, or something equally vast. You would not believe how many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars branded  items are in my house right now. Being an old hand when it comes to fandom myself, there are plenty of Warhammer 40k and World of Darkness novels and games sitting on my various shelves and awaiting me in a few stashed bins. This isn’t a new sort of phenomenon, though I’d say we have firmly moved into territory where ‘expanded universe’ is the standard now for most entertainment.

There is a strong economic incentive to be sure, as a single product like the video game HALO can become a franchise that presents consumers with not only video game sequels but apparel, toys, board games, novels, and movies. In fact there are many video games that are working with this idea, and again it isn’t an old one, it’s just that it has now become the standard operating procedure. Didn’t get enough from the video game? No problem, we have a few novels you can read while you wait for the blockbuster film to hit theaters in the fall. On and on it goes, so shut up and take my money!

The creative incentive cannot be overlooked, and honestly I think this is where the desires of fandom have really blended well with the world of entertainment commerce. As fans we want an immersive experience, and other than we happy few who have been playing Dungeons & Dragons since we could read this wasn’t much of an option for people who had interests outside of Star Wars, comic books, and bad 80’s cartoons. Once we devour what you’d call the ‘core material’ we fans want to start experiencing the world and the characters from a multitude of perspectives, in whatever form those take (novels, films, games, comics, toys, etc). With the long-term franchises, like Star Wars, there’s always the discussion of what is canon and what isn’t, and that’s unavoidable with things like Star Wars, which as undergone so much change. The same could be said for Warhammer and Warhammer 40k, as those creative lines (originally miniatures games that became a full entertainment empire), even if on a smaller scale (ha!).

The franchise and expanded universe that has my engine purring is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, predominantly because there has been a single creative mind at the helm of the franchise since the beginning. Certainly she has worked with many collaborators through the years, but unlike a film, which is by its nature exceptionally collaborative, the novels (which are the core material) are hers. Much the same could be said of the works of Tolkien and his Middle Earth.

The idea of creating an expanded universe for NECROSPACE is a relatively new one to me, as I had originally intended for Trade War (released this week by Severed Press) to be the third and final novel in a trilogy. As I started work on another story I thought perhaps it would be the start of a new trilogy, also set in Necrospace, though that story went in a different directly entirely. After that I’ve started two different novels, and have many notes for a third, that are unrelated even if somewhat interconnected. There are just so many stories I want to tell in the Necrospace universe that exist outside the tale of Samuel Hyst, for his I believe is done. In some ways deciding to make a Necrospace expanded universe (using the first trilogy as my core material) was something of a survival tactic. I was around 10,000 words into the parallel story of a stranded Augur Corp special operative on a wasteland planet and a Red List mech-warrior trying to stay one step ahead of the law when I realized that it did not belong in the same book as the 15,000 words that followed the Dire Swords mercenaries as they brawled with other contractors over alien WMDs. I’ve got notes at a chapter or so that I originally cut out of Trade War that are likely going to be shaped into a story about the life and times of a Helion battle trooper, as I have used them as antagonists often in Necrospace and its high time we saw the world from their side of the rifle.

It could be awhile before there are any Necrospace video games or comic books, and I do have other genres to explore (as evidenced by how I took a break from space marines and crafted a novelization of Ember Days), but I do want to finish those stories, and I like to believe that there are folks out there who enjoyed the adventures of Samuel Hyst enough that they’ll give a few new protagonists a chance.

In the meantime?

I’m going to finish watching A New Hope with my son… his first time seeing it!

 

 

 

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Realism in Military Science Fiction

The title of this post sounds like a contradiction in terms, and on the surface perhaps the idea of a genetically altered human warrior wielding a heavy plasma cannon against unimaginable horrors from deep space sounds a bit… sci-fi, but come on, plasma cannons!

Well… plasma cannons, awesome though they may be, only get us so far.

Just in case I get too preachy later on, the point I’m attempting to make is that a story has to ring true, even if its about space elves fighting jelly monsters.

The truth of the matter, in my opinion, is that the story is going to be more impactful to the audience if there is a degree of realism, with a specific contemporary sensibility. I’m not talking about making the ‘hard science’ of the afore mentioned plasma cannon sound convincing. I’m not talking about creating an alien/cyborg/mutant/etc enemy that makes sense in light of our current understanding of physiology and biology. All such things are just plot devices and set dressing directly informed by our current scientific knowledge and awareness. Realism when it comes to the technology and biology of a story, explicitly a military science fiction story, is of less consequence than realism relative to the characters themselves.

Perhaps I’m beating a drum that has been well-worn by writers before me, but this it my time, and I’ll take my moment thank you very much.

If a story’s core appeal (or message as it were) is “look at how cool their tech is!” or “gosh this hero is an unstoppable badass!” then once our world develops a similar technology or gets bored with flawless heroes, as an audience, we will not be engaged and that story will likely recede to join the miasma of other genre titles. Not that this is a bad thing, because the world needs pulp, and I’ve certainly contributed my fair share of such (and will be contributing a great deal more), but I’d argue that tech-based-pulp is ultimately destined to be surpassed by our own real-life advances.

The books that really stick with us, in specific regards to military science fiction, are stories like “Forever War” and “Starship Troopers” precisely because they focus on the men and women who live through those stories. Sure the cool ships and equipment those characters interact with are exciting, but what hits you is the characters themselves. This may be an old argument, but it is the human experience, or better yet Personal experience of the story, by the characters, that has the real staying power that transcends the ever-advancing technology of our rapidly evolving modern civilization.

To write military fiction, whether it is historical, contemporary, or science fiction, that ‘rings true’ takes something of an effort on the part of the author, in my opinion. If the author is like myself, and not a legitimate combat veteran, then I think it is important to talk to such people. Even in the most far-fetched science fiction setting, I think that a convincing and accurate portrayal of military personnel is important. Not actually the specific nationality, creed, or equipment, but more the intimate experience of war and the physical and psychological consequences of those experiences.

Truth be told that is an easy gauntlet for me to throw down to my peers, given that I am a military contractor by trade, and so while I am not a combat veteran I spend countless days and weeks in their esteemed company. In fact you could say that much of my work in NECROSPACE is a direct result from transitioning from being an independent filmmaker to being a military contractor. The notions of patriotism and the realities of economics are two powerful forces at work in all such men and women, in my experience, and working alongside them has affected both my writing and my tastes in military science fiction.

I find there to be little value, beyond momentary pulp entertainment (which is still awesome), in bigger-than-life protagonists. There isn’t much to glean from the shallow character arc of “Master Sergeant John Mack” who is the Marty Stu or Mary Stu of the usual genre fare, beyond the mindless fun of reading about a peerless badass of a character overcoming all obstacles against ridiculous odds. I am less interested in the story of a superman in power armor than I am an average soldier with an M4 (or the scifi pulse rifle equivalent). The reason is that I’ve never met super-soldier John Mack in real life, but I’ve meet hundreds of regular people who draw a modest paycheck and carry a rifle.

Realism in our portrayal of the future soldiers in military scifi is about creating protagonist characters who are not perfect warriors. Soldiers who make mistakes, who question their own loyalties and motivations, who can’t help but to bring the horror home with them, are the kinds of characters that I want to read about, and the kinds of character I do my level best to create. Whether they are a ragtag militia of scrappy folk heroes fending off an alien invasion or an elite team of space marines about to drop into hostile cyborg territory, and no matter how far-fetched or fantastical their technology happens to be it is the realism of their humanity that will ultimately engage me as a reader.

Tentacle monsters and plasma cannons are the flashy packaging that will bring me to the table, but the authenticity of the characters is what will make me a fan for life.

Back on the Payroll

I begin all of my books in the Necrospace series with this introduction:

It is the Age of The Corporation.

The common man toils under the watchful eye of the elite and their enforcers. The rules of law have long been replaced by the politics of profit. The dark ages of feudalism have returned with capitalistic ferocity. There is no peace among the stars of mapped space and business is booming.

The first three books in the series are what I’ve taken to calling “The Reaper Cycle”, and they follow the life story of a man named Samuel Hyst as he goes from new recruit fresh from boot camp to hardened veteran on the fringes of space. Samuel, or Prybar as his comrades call him, hails from Grotto Corporation, an authoritarian society that tends to grind its citizens between the gears of the military/industrial complex.

Now that we have completed our first foray into the vast setting, it is time to begin another journey, and even now I am hard at work on the first installment of the next cycle.

The new trilogy, which I am dubbing “The Swarm Cycle”, will pick up where we left off in the former storyline, near the end of the first Ellisian War. I said first, because there is too much wealth yet to be plundered from the new worlds and the Anointed Actuaries will not let any amount of carnage stand between them and the Bottom Line. This time we will be traveling with the space marines and mech warriors of Helion Corporation, a fierce socialist empire that rivals Grotto in size and ambition, as they struggle against a voracious new enemy that emerges from the darkness of space.

An enemy for whom profit means nothing.

 

Catch up on The Reaper Cycle and then get ready for the swarm!