By Mark Alpert
What a fantastic fall evening! I just came back from a Friday-night college football game at Baker Field in Upper Manhattan, where the Princeton Tigers thrashed the Columbia Lions 45-10. And now, for your critiquing pleasure, here is the latest first-page submission from one of our courageous TKZ contributors:
Leon hated Vahrian airships, but since unloading them put beers on his table, he faked a smile as he picked up the last crate.
“Have a good evening, Captain,” he said.
Hope you fall in the sea and drown, Leon thought.
The Captain kept reading his book and reclined further in his chair. Scowling, Leon carried the crate out of the cabin. He stumbled along the jetty. Wooden planks groaned underfoot, and a wave crashed against the rocks, spraying him with water. He fumbled with the slippery crate, but kept hold, staggered off the jetty, and dumped the box beside the others he’d unloaded.
His back twanged and he winced. Back in his Academy days, he could’ve hauled cargo through a swamp for hours, but now he was past forty and those days were behind him.
The Captain strode along the jetty and walked past Leon, whistling. Buttons gleamed on the Vahrian’s jacket, and he swayed like a dancer as he strolled to the harbor office.
Prick, thought Leon.
He watched until the Captain disappeared amongst the harbour’s bustling sailors. It wasn’t enough that Vahria had bombed the hell out of Paya’s Discs in the War, or that the airship’s crates weighed more than an asteroid. No. The worst part was people like him. Young men in starched jackets, who refused to look Payans in the eyes.
Someone tapped Leon’s shoulder. “Leon de Velasco?”
He turned. A young woman stood behind him, wrapped in a bulky, dirt-stained cloak. A cowl cast her face into shadow. She couldn’t be over twenty, and looked odd amongst the rancid-smelling fishers and the greasy-haired merchants who sniffed unattended crates.
Best of all, the girl was a Payan like him — not a Vahrian — which meant Leon didn’t need to hide how pissed off he was.
“What?” he asked.
“My name’s Elena. I need your help.”
Leon raised an eyebrow. With disheveled, shoulder-length hair, a tangled beard, and ratty clothes that reeked of beer, he didn’t get many requests for help, especially by young women.
“Got a ship you need unloaded?” he asked.
Two Vahrian soldiers swaggered past and bumped Elena.
“–we’ll catch them by tomorrow, chaps,” one soldier said.
Elena glared at the Vahrians as they strutted away. Leon frowned. Most Payans looked down when soldiers passed, but Elena’s eyes only grew harder.
“You were saying?” he said.
What’s the key to writing science fiction? I think it’s striking the right balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary. We read sci-fi to give our minds a chance to roam free, to cruise across the Milky Way at warp speed, to delve into the microscopic innards of a DNA molecule, to shatter the invisible barrier between our universe and its neighbors. At the same time, though, we want to see recognizable characters having realistic and believable reactions to all the amazing things they’re experiencing. As sci-fi writer Margaret Atwood put it, “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.”
Think of the first book in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The opening chapters are set on Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, a planet that’s entirely covered by a single global building. When I read the book for the first time at the age of thirteen, I was totally fascinated by this idea. It sounded so insane, and yet it also made sense: if people kept constructing new houses and malls and office buildings, then eventually they’d pave over every last parcel of the planet’s surface. It was the ultimate vision of overdevelopment, the real-estate agent’s dream and the environmentalist’s nightmare. But who were the residents of Asimov’s imagined megastructure? They were mostly bureaucrat types, the plodding functionaries who kept the Galactic Empire humming. They were very pleased with themselves and very proud to be living at the center of their civilization, and they had no inkling that their empire was about to collapse. Sounds familiar, right?
Or think of the Dune books by Frank Herbert. Most of the action takes place on Arrakis, a desert planet where gigantic worms burrow underneath the sand and where water is so precious that the fluids in every human corpse are recycled. It’s also the battleground for two powerful dynastic families, House Atreides and House Harkonnen, whose members spy and betray and assassinate each other just like the Borgias and Medicis of Renaissance Italy. The weapons on Arrakis are futuristic, but the motives of the murderers are very familiar.
In today’s submission, titled Stars, I’m not getting a strong enough sense of the extraordinary. I want to be intrigued right away by the planet where the Vahrians have apparently subjugated the Payans, but in this draft I don’t see anything that’s particularly fascinating. One possible source of intrigue is the Vahrian airship, which is mentioned in the very first sentence of the piece but not described in any detail. Is it huge? Is it a space-going ship? Is it hovering beside the jetty or floating in the water? The opening sentences would be so much better if they included some flabbergasting detail such as, “It was one of the smallest Vahrian airships, only a thousand meters long.” Or maybe “Like a sea creature, the Vahrian airship took sustenance from the ocean, its gills extracting oxygen from the water and storing the fuel in the ship’s propulsion fins.” The opening scene needs to grab the readers right away and make them want to learn more about this crazy civilization.
I also wondered if there were any physical differences between the Vahrians and the Payans. It sounds like they’re both humanoid species or races, but are Vahrians generally taller or darker or hairier than Payans? Or maybe every Vahrian has an extra finger on his or her left hand? And what kind of weapons were the Vahrian soldiers carrying? The author should take every opportunity to start creating a whole new world, complete with marvels and mysteries.
Last, I wanted the encounter between Leon and Elena to be more dramatic. After the Vahrian soldiers bumped Elena, she should do more than simply glare at them. Maybe she should make a surreptitious obscene gesture that only Leon notices, an ancient Payan hand motion that means “Screw you” or something similar. It would be the kind of gesture that would get Elena arrested and maybe even executed if the Vahrians had seen it, and so this act of defiance impresses Leon greatly. It makes him think, “Okay, this woman is serious.”
What do you think, TKZ-ers?
Speaking of science fiction, check out my website to see the latest news about my next novel, THE COMING STORM.
“Mark Alpert’s latest nail-biter THE COMING STORM starts with a terrifyingly plausible look at what lies just beyond our political horizon and ends on a note even more disturbing and frightening. This novel isn’t just ripped from the headlines, it’s an alarm bell ringing from the near-future, a prescient warning of where we’re headed next. Read this now—before it’s literally too late.”
— James Rollins, author of New York Times bestseller THE DEMON CROWN