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History. In Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

A message from the Major Colonel:
In keeping with our custom of allotting credit where credit is due, we simply wish to inform you that this post is brought to you by none other than Imperator McAlpine. Enjoy!

If there’s one thing you can trust us to do with this blog, it’s pontificate about science fiction and the exciting new angles and ideas the genre might incorporate. But there are throwback ideas, too, such as in the TV series “Dark Matter,” whereing you see something very reminiscent of samurai armor, or how the “Honor Harrington” series bears a striking resemblance to the stories of Horatio Hornblower of C.S. Forester fame. Star Trek, to make use of allegory relevant to today’s times, made use of a number of historical parallels. So maybe some more obscure ones might be revived for use in today’s media and tales? We think there’s potential there, anyway. So, without further ado, we, the Cowboy Errant team, present 5 historical incidents that might be primed for a reset. In spaaaaace!

Image courtesy of ghostfire.

1) The tale of Pygmalion
Pygmalion is important for two reasons:
First there’s the better known mythology of a man falling in love with a carved statue. The second relates to him taking the throne over his sister Elissa in an effort to deprive her of riches, and murdering their uncle. This led her to find other disaffected dissenters who fled over the Mediterranean, allegedly to found Carthage, and served as one of the cities creation myths. So, to update it for sci-fi, you could have a Pygmalion-like character involved in robotics, while an Elissa like character flees into space after secretly gathering followers.

2) The succession of Himiko
Himiko was a shaman queen in ancient Japan. She’s famous for being one of the first to appear in the historical records gathered by the Chinese concerning the ‘lands of wa’, where she’s said to be the head of Yamatai. Where things get murky is her succession after she died. Allegedly, there were a number of men competing – possibly outright warring – against each other until, somehow, her successor Iyo, a young girl, was chosen. Was it a compromise candidate? Something darker and more sinister? Seems ripe for re-invention or re-introduction as an example of how there can be powers behind a throne, or presidency, or galactic federation for that matter.

3) The War of Jenkin’s Ear
This began with the spanish cutting off the ear of a british captain found to be engaged in smuggling operations several years before. The ear was stored in a jar and presented to the English parliament, and several years later with tensions running high and the south seas company (check “Extra History” for more about them) the English went to war against Spain. All over one severed ear. Casualties numbered in the thousands, and hundreds of ships were lost, all, ultimately, for nothing on either side. It seems tailor-made for reintroduction into sci-fi in a sort of “For Want of a Nail” type story as a small incident balloons into an international crisis.

4) The third Mongol invasion of Vietnam
In a nutshell Kublai Khan, after two failed invasions of Vietnam, decided to make a third attempt, the biggest one yet. The Vietnamese wisely refused to engage directly, instead harassing the Khan’s general until their navy routed the Mongol supply ships. The Mongolian forces went to retreat until cut off at the Bach Dang river in 1288, where they tried to escape to the sea but were crushed. Of course this could be a future arc of netflix’s “Marco Polo series,” but we think there’s potential here for one hell of space opera. While lending itself to a more mil-sci-fi type angle it could be an exciting story and bring up the difficulties of logistics in space.

5) The Saga of Erik the Red
We often portray the explorers of space as very noble and progressive, heroes out to brave the final frontier. However, maybe a model closer to the Viking explorers could provide some contrast – one of the greatest explorers in history, Erik the Red, essentially had to become one after fighting and killing someone in Norway and getting himself banished, only to killing someone else in Iceland, forcing him to flee. It’s a different flavor of interstellar explorer if the tale is exported to sci fi, and would make for fascinating stories if this person was charged with making first contact or other, similarly grave responsibilities.

So what do you guys think? Any other incidents that you think may make for a worthy reset in space? Let us know in the comments!

Imperator McAlpine
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A Day in the Life

Think about your day-to-day life for a second, all the technology you take more or less for granted that makes it possible. Computers, the Internet, smartphones, all of it. When was the last time you felt compelled to find the nearest fourth wall and come just shy of breaking it as you explained how things work? Unless you’re Deadpool – in which case, hi, thanks for reading; we’re big fans – you’re probably not going to look for every opportunity to supply paragraphs of exposition about your life; you’re far too busy just living it, using the tools available to you, no matter how outlandish they may seem to someone who isn’t familiar with them, to live it as best you can. And that is precisely what would make your life seem so real, your world so alive, were you the protagonist of a science fiction novel.

Now, this isn’t to say exposition has no place in a story. Some stories practically demand it if you’re dealing with, say, a time traveler who’s inadvertently gotten him or herself stuck a million years in the future. They’re probably going to have some questions about how things work, and those question are going to demand some pretty thorough answers. It would make sense in context, in that case. But for characters native to the place, it wouldn’t, really. At least, not usually. There’s always the possibility you’re dealing with a dialogue between two technical experts, as in the movie Primer, in which case the exposition and technobabble doesn’t distract from the narrative so much as become it. What we’re trying to say (again) is that context matters. Those little day-to-day details are the touches that bring so many of our favorite worlds to life, make us want to stay there with the characters. What they are and how they’re presented is crucial to narrative immersion.

Consider a game like Deus Ex (we’re talking waaaaaaaaaay back in the early 2000s, here, but it’s somewhat applicable to the newer entries as well). Day-to-day life isn’t overtly explained; JC Denton lives it, he doesn’t need to be constantly reminded what augmentations are; he has them. You, the player, get to experience what they can do as you guide him through his life. You get to see what the world has come to through subtle clues like the animosity between those using nano-augmentation like JC, and the outmoded mechs,” those who had entire body parts replaced with machinery before nano-augmentation was an option. Things like their increasing presence in menial jobs as their once state-of-the-art upgrades, and with them their owners, become obsolete show the costs of this world’s merciless advance of technology. You can see the remnants of the United States crumbling ever further into ruin as you look out over the pixelated New York skyline only to spot the broken fragments of the Statue of Liberty, still stubbornly standing.

Or look at Star Trek, where we’re simply shown how the crew’s day-to-day lives work as they use their replicators to prepare meals, for example, or make their opinions known when faced with a culture that disagrees, choosing debate over violence whenever possible. The technology and the prevailing philosophies of the age bring the world to life through their use, through the characters simply living their realities, interacting with the strange and wonderful things around them as though they see it every day because they do. We are the visitors, we’re the ones who have to catch up with them, and to do so is to become immersed in the world of Star Trek, drinking in the details and losing ourselves in another reality.

Even something as simple as what the typical human’s diet is can help add just that much more life to the artists’ universes. Jim Holden’s surprise at how closely his meal resembles real chicken in the Expanse series of novels is a wonderful insight into how humanity has adapted to living among the planets of the solar system, what means were most practical to feed a population living on worlds determined to kill them. The amalgamated language of the Belters, those born and raised in the Asteroid belt, isn’t translated for our benefit. Belters don’t bother making themselves understandable to Earthers from their own time; they’re certainly not going to do it for us. It’s up to us to determine what the curious linguistic hybrid is derived from and, in doing so, gain just that much more insight into, say, who colonized the belt, what cultural influences came to be dominant there, what the average citizen might look like as a result, and so on.

In the case of science fiction, fantasy, or anything anywhere on the continuum between the two, the details matter. They don’t necessarily have to be covered in great detail, but just enough description, just enough of a peek into how the average citizen of a new universe might live breathes untold amounts of life into any work of the genres. Characters are going to live their lives how they live them regardless of how weird it may seem to us. The thrill comes from living it with them.

Weird Old Science

To our readers: to assure credit is given where credit is due, we would like to inform that this post was indeed produced by the illustrious Imperator McAlpine. Enjoy!

As sci-fi fans, we can proudly say we love ourselves some time travel. Past, future, you name it. Or maybe even some clever spins on the trope, stories set on an anachronistic planets, like the Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action.” However, one thing that’s often missing from anachronistic pieces is anachronistic science. It’s hard to display alongside amazing costume work, though a few historical movies have made an effort to do so. Just look at the use of phrenology in Django Unchained. It’s mostly for flavoring, but pseudoscience done right could really bring out the anachronisms of something like a time travel plot. So let’s look at a couple pervasive examples of pseudoscience and their eventual solutions. We think it might make for some great storytelling!

You may have heard of this first one: the so-called “Aether theory.” It pops up a lot in steampunk stuff. There are multiple takes on the idea, but one of the most important aspects of it is the idea of light bearing aether, or luminiferous aether. The luminiferous aether theory was introduced in stages, including by Issac Newton in his third book on optics. The essential idea was that there existed a special medium, like water or air, but specifically for the propagation of light. This medium was the purported explanation for phenomena such as light-bending, which were seen as unexplainable eccentricities of nature at the time. The idea reached its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but over time evidence against it began to mount.

Ultimately, it was physicist James Clerk Maxwell who spelled the end of the luminiferous aether through repeated experimentation. His findings were unable to verify Earth’s passage through any such medium. There was , however, one last effort to save the theory: the Lorentz aether theory, which attempted to introduce the idea of a motionless aether, but by this time the theory of special relativity was established. The existence of an aether was definitively disproved, revealed to be nothing more than an unnecessary complication of equations that contributed nothing to our understanding of the universe. Thus, the aether vanished into, well, the aether.

A second you may have spotted a few references to was phlogiston theory, designed to explain the combustibility of objects. The essential idea was that there existed a hidden element, and this was accepted as fact by both alchemists and practitioners of very early forms of chemistry. It was released upon the burning of an object, and could be transferred to confer combustibility to something else. Its introduction appears to be gradual in the 16th and 17th centuries, as part of the slow transition from alchemy to chemistry.

In the 18th century, under one of history’s greatest minds, Antoine Lavoisier, otherwise known as the father of chemistry, phlogiston theory died. It began by showing the newly named hydrogen (named by Antoine) reacting with oxygen to create water, showing no phlogiston and also proving water was not an element. However, this alone wasn’t quite enough, so using a red hot gun barrel water was pressed through, the liberated oxygen rusted the barrel and the hydrogen was released all without any phlogiston. After several replications with more sophisticated apparatuses, phlogiston was no more.

Science comes and goes, passing over old ideas, usually in favor of newer, more correct ideas as we refine and enhance the tools with which we build our understanding of the world. Perhaps it could be interesting to see sci-fi deal with the concept, and not in a “thanks to theory correction X we can now immediately do Y” sort of way. Alternatively if there’s time travel involved it might be fun to see some of those whacky old theories about to help with immersion. What do you think? Know of any other nutty old science? Let us know in the comments!

Imperator McAlpine

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