Thursday, March 6, 2014

DISASTER - Proceed with Caution

Sci-Fi Deak Style
by John Deakins

Science fiction writers love disasters. We’re thrilled by earthquakes, asteroid impacts, volcanoes, alien invasions, rampaging monsters, plagues, and nuclear wars. The danger is details. Every fictional disaster balances on a knife edge: either it’s too large, and everybody dies, or it’s not large enough, and the deux ex machina ending is obviously contrived.

Using Ignore It for details can work: Just don’t get caught. There are enough Science purists to discover you with your literary pantalones around your knees. They sneered at the coincidence when our computer systems meshed with the alien ships on Independence Day. They laughed their way through 2012 and The Core.

Don’t go there.

Live With It works, but you have to watch where you set the limits. Earthquakes are safe, because they’re localized. Volcanoes are also as well, but too big a volcano could alter worldwide weather. (A Harry Turtledove series has the Yellowstone caldera erupting.) You, the author, control asteroid impacts by the rocks’ mass and velocity.

It’s up to you to set up the aliens to lose (or not). You give each monster its Achilles’ heel. Nuclear wars have to be limited nuclear wars, or there’s no story. On the Beach has already been written.

Plagues have their own Achilles’ heel. There are a lot of humans, and each human has his or her own immunities. No matter the germ, somebody, somewhere, is immune. One disease could get 99% of humanity, but the immune 1% would survive. Humans are greatly adaptable. We might devolve into tiny, Stone Age enclaves, but we’d almost certainly end up alive. If you don’t want near extinction, you, the writer, have to limit the disease’s fatality rate or make that Achilles’ heel easier to hit.

Unexplained Science comes with the same dangers as Ignore It. The most recent War of the Worlds used fairly decent Science, but had an illogical, sappy ending. Dante’s Peak required a misunderstood scientist, bearing new discoveries, and it still had holes in its Science. I Am Legend, remake of an old Charlton Heston flick, needed Unexplained Science for a happy ending not in the original book: the movie’s weakest part.

Don’t dig a pit so deep that you lose suspension of belief when you characters climb out of it. Your protagonists can’t conveniently not be crushed by falling buildings or roasted in a pyroclastic flow. They can’t watch the meteor come in or California split off from America, and live to build the new world. Godzilla fails to stomp a few, certainly. Fall-out will bypass certain areas. They might be the only ones immune to the plague or the only ones the aliens missed, but you’ve been following them for the whole book. What a coincidence that your characters are the chosen ones!

Thoroughly develop characters whom you plan to kill. Your audience’s love for disasters will be fulfilled; dark-horse protagonists can come from behind and inherit the Earth. Your readers won’t be closing the book saying, “Give me break!”

John Deakins, B.A., M.S.T. is a four-decade veteran of the science classroom and lives in Arkansas. As an author, John has fantasy novels in print from the Barrow series. His first novel was a B. Dalton SF bestseller when it was first released.

To read an excerpt from Barrow book one, please click HERE.

1 comment:

Arley Cole/ Leigh Daley said...

Great advice, John! You have made me want to blow something up . . . again. I did do a tornado in Storm Duty. Other than the fact that it hit pretty close to home, it was lots of fun writing a romance set in the middle of a disaster.