Nightwind Follow-Up, Chapters 3-6

Chapter 3 of Nightwind is just one of those chapters that has to exist in any book, but which especially must exist in a space opera. We need to get the overview of the setting at some point and the spaceship is the central setting of any space opera, but it goes far beyond that. The ship is always one of – if not the – main characters. So the best way to introduce it is by treating it as a new character being introduced. There’s really nothing more disappointing than a sci-fi property that has a dumb looking ship or a cool ship with a dumb name, so this is a truly important part of the setting of the story.

There are a few different ways to meet this central character. In Star Trek: The Next Generation we were introduced to the newest incarnation of the U.S.S. Enterprise through the eyes of her new first officer and Will Riker then wandered around for a bit and gawks at the facilities. In Star Wars we see the Millenium Falcon for the first time through the eyes of Luke and Obi-Wan and all they can say is that it looks like a big tub of shit. Both of these are valid. It’s easy to have the coolest ship on the block and the Enterprise always lives up to its position as the Federation’s flagship. The Millenium Falcon proves that it’s far more than the sum of its parts time and time again and that Luke was both right and extremely wrong in his initial opinion.

Nightwind is, of course, supposed to be the U.S.S. Enterprise of its universe so I wanted to go with the ohmygodsocool introduction. Did it work? I mean, on some level I have to leave that up to the reader to decide, but I was never happy with the introduction. Looking back on it now I think the main problem is that I just used clunky exposition. This is one of those places where the better eye probably belongs to the editor than the author, though. The biggest problem is that I know exactly what I see in my head and I know exactly how fucking cool it is to me but that doesn’t necessarily translate.

Also, as Firedrake pointed out in the comments section of the chapter 3 and 4 post I made a classic blunder by introducing the black guy (and, really, “ebon skinned?” god was that pretentious-sounding bullshit). I wanted to have a diverse cast but had no fucking clue how to go about doing that and just tossed some random shit in all willy-nilly.

The problem with diversity in a case like this is that it’s either important or it’s unnecessary. Templeton is, for all intents and purposes, canonically black because Word of God says so, to speak in TVTropes. But does that actually matter? That opens up a whole can of worms, though, because I don’t think it matters to Anderson or anyone else on the Nightwind in the mid-24th century, but I think it does matter to me in 2015 and obviously mattered to me back in 2000.

Consider the famous story of Kirk and Uhura’s kiss on the original Star Trek. It was the 1960s and the show had already featured Jim Kirk wandering around shirtless and sexing up green-skinned Orion slave girls or whatever, but the idea of a white man kissing a black woman was terrifying. So the producers asked for two takes, the kiss take and the CYA take. Shatner mugged the shit out of the camera during the CYA take and forced the powers that be to go with the kiss take. That was groundbreaking. Fifty years later interracial nookie is not a big deal to pretty much everyone who doesn’t spend their weekends flying the Confederate flag outside of the South Carolina state capitol. So, unless humanity took a giant step back on the way to the stars, for a theoretical real Kirk and Uhura it wouldn’t have even been a think to think about.

The thing now, though, is that non-whites, women, and the various flavors of non-straight folk are still underrepresented in our media. I’m not a fan of that and think there should be more out there. But it can’t be fixed with the introduction and singling out of the token black guy, either.[1] I’m honestly not sure how to reconcile those thoughts.

So let’s move on to chapter 4.

The biggest problem with Nightwind as I wrote it back in the day is structural and those structural problems are already showing up in chapter 4. The problems here aren’t really with story or skill –  although I’d like to believe I’m a better storyteller and a more skillful writer now than I was then – but with patience and, for lack of a better word, experience. This is, after all, a raw, unedited first novel.

So we meet the big bad from the Earth-side perspective and what we get is a massive infodump. Because apparently everyone in the Commonwealth was a big happy family last week and now they’re not and it’s all because this one guy knows all the things and had the foresight to set up an organization to exploit a completely unforeseeable tragedy. This is a fundamental failure of worldbuilding that can be attributed only to impatience on my part.

Laird’s arc will, unfortunately, exhibit this particular failing of the original novel time and time again. The good news is, though, that I’m not looking at him as an, “Oh, god, why did I even have him?” character. I see it as an, “Oh, god, why did I do such a terrible job of putting him into the story?” character. He’s the biggest victim of the worldbuilding problem I made in creating a universe that’s far, far too small, but that means he’s the character who would most benefit by existing in a properly expansive universe.

On we skip merrily to chapter 5.

There are two minor problems that crop up right at the start.

First, the base on Tethys was originally on Pluto but at some point I decided that was logistically unfeasible and switched locations. I’m pretty sure I just did a search and replace, which means that, somehow, Nightwind ended up looking at the solar system’s farthest planet while somewhere in the neighborhood of one of Saturn’s moons. So, yeah. Don’t just do a global search and replace, kids.

Second, the communications with Tethys and Tau Ceti III are weirdly inconsistent. The captain of a ship on a big, important, secret mission just kinda pops in at Tethys, announces who they are and where they’re going and dismisses any questions of secrecy with a chuckle. Then he gets to Tau Ceti and just doesn’t want to talk about anything. Kinda. A little bit. This is a massive failure of characterization on my part. Anderson is supposed to be an overly serious to the point of robotic professional. But I also wanted him to tell jokes and shit. There are, of course, ways to do that. I didn’t do it right in this case.

Then we get to the two big problems in the chapter: Luchenko and MacDonough. Ugh. These guys.

I was worried that all of my characters sounded alike. So how did I, in my infinite wisdom, fix the problem? Add a Russian guy and a Scottish guy, of course. Because that’s not cliché as fuck or anything. Also, I am the resurrected corpse of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. I mean, that’s literally the only way that going with the accents thing would be even remotely justifiable so it’s a good thing it’s the truth.

Meanwhile, Luchenko gets the double honor of being a stock character. He’s the unruly subordinate who ends up shaping up, flying right, and being a valuable addition to the team. I suppose I should have put a spoiler alert in front of that, though, because I’d be willing to bet there’s absolutely no way anyone could have guessed he’d get that story arc.

And, yes, I am mad at me for, like, everything about this.

There’s also a bit of a plot point that doesn’t really make any sense here. Basically, why the hell is the governor of Tau Ceti so pissed at the Commonwealth? I would imagine that everyone has been looking over their shoulders ever since they got news of the Winged Messenger and would be overjoyed that there’s now an Earth Command military presence sitting right up in orbit. The voice I gave to Jeffries does need an outlet, but it should be coming from someone on, say, Mars.

This is yet another place where it’s really good to look back at things like this and ask, “What did I do well and what did I do wrong?” A good book is a meal. It’s obvious to me that I was aware of all the ingredients I needed but didn’t know how to put them together properly and that’s left some really odd incongruities.

This, of course, leaves me with plenty of fodder for a rewrite. But before I talk about that we need to talk about chapter 6.

So…the thing about chapter 6 is that it’s filler. I added it sometime after I wrote what is now chapter 7. I’m not entirely sure what my reason for adding it was, but I hope it wasn’t just useless padding. I think that I thought it gave me a chance to introduce 2 of the main characters earlier and also allowed for a convenient explanation as to why everything went to hell in a handbasket so quickly in the story arc that gets introduced in what was to become chapter 7.[2]

The basic structure I wanted to create was a trilogy with each book focusing on one particular ship and its adventures. Captains Turner and Hunt would have an impact on the book, but not until the tail end and I didn’t want them to just show up as a deus ex machine to save the day. So I ended up writing a bunch of chapters that are just the pair cooling their heels on the shipyard and discussing the events of the day.

There’s nothing really wrong with that, but I really didn’t make effective use of their arc in the first story and just had them as additional exposition. They could easily still be sitting on the sidelines but, like, doing any number of useful things, like training and whatnot. But this particular storyline is also victim to the larger problem of this universe being too damn small.

I suppose I don’t want to get too far into what the re-write should do just yet, since most of the important plot points come into play between chapters 7 and 10. I will say, though, that there needs to be a non-Earth counterpart for Robert Laird and Earth Now. As it is now for the plot to make any sense I basically ended up forcing poor Horatio Semmes to stumble around and just step in shit every few feet. It’s sad. But that’s what happens when you only put, like, 10 important people in the whole universe.

But we’ll have to hold off on that until next week. Or, like, a month from now. Maybe Ludwig will blow up again. Who knows?

———————-

[1]Which, now that I think about it, is probably why there was this random spate of non-white, non-straight bad guys on TV shows back in the ‘90s. While I’m sure there may have been some outright racism involved in the script writing it could easily have been one of those cases of good intentions gone wrong. Let’s say you want to add more diversity to a show that already has a bunch of straight white guys in the main cast but you don’t want to make it look like you’re just tossing a token out there. Where’s the easiest place to add that little touch of diversity? Make the baddie of the week a gay Latino drug smuggler. Boom. Problem solved…in the worst possible way.

[2]That was a really confusing paragraph to write. I hope you, dear reader, share my confusion.

3 thoughts on “Nightwind Follow-Up, Chapters 3-6

  1. I suspect I might be inclined not to mention skin colour at all. Give people some names that might indicate nonwhiteness (without being L&J-style heavy-handed about it) and then, because it’s not important to the characters, don’t make it important to the reader. But that’s my thought and there may be reasons to avoid that. (On the other hand the same sort of thing applies to Luchenko and MacDonough so it’s not the whole answer.)

    Obviously I don’t know the rest of your plot, but on the basis of what’s happened so far I’d be inclined to take out the villain completely and replace him with a competent honest person who (for real, if ultimately invalid, reasons) happens to disagree with Our Heroes. There is this problem in a lot of mil-sf, indeed mil-fic in general: everyone who agrees with the hero is a Good Person (tall, heroic, handsome); everyone who disagrees is a Bad Person (short, cowardly, ugly, smells bad, probably having an affair). It’s stacking the deck in the hero’s favour.

    • I totally agree on your take for what to do with Laird. I was enthralled with the notion of the bad guy as a magnificent bastard at the time and basically wanted a guy who would be played by Tim Curry in the inevitable movie adaptation. He also ends up with a pretty hefty Heath Ledger’s Joker level of just wanting to watch the world burn.

      This is definitely one of the places where getting older and wiser and seeing how other people have handled it has made me wiser. The best example for this is the worldbuilding in The Expanse series, wherein Earth, Mars, and the Belters all have their own concerns and goals and reasons to distrust each other. I’d also like to toss The Americans in there as a fantastic example of how to create something where good and evil is a matter of perspective, the people are all trying to do what they think is right, and no one is a mustache-twirling villain. That’s pretty amazing, considering that the main characters are embedded Soviet spies in the early Reagan years, who are the sort of people who usually get the mustache treatment.

      This is also another place where having most of my touchpoints at the time as TV and movies. TV and movies tend to shortcut and create designated villains whose job is to make sure the heroes get to advance the plot and look cool. Books require way more work or just kinda look stupid. In fact I’m thinking of doing a post about a sci-fi book series that really fucks that up and kinda ruins the bit where the author puts together some amazingly descriptive mil-sf.

      Also, I’m sad to report that we’re going to hit this same problem when we meet the aliens. The good news is that it’s yet another place where the fix is relatively easy in conception. But we’ll get to that later.

  2. In a film or TV show you can lean a lot harder on the actors, and of course there’s the pacing – in a book you can’t say “read this bit quickly and don’t think too hard about it”.

    I read a lot of mysteries, and one of the standard problems there is “a lunatic did it” – which is always unsatisfying. The mystery reader starts with the homicidal triad (means, motive, opportunity) and tries to fit each of them to each of the suspects as presented; if motive is something mad like “I believe people with Rs in their names deserve to die”, then there’s no working it out, and a third of the challenge is gone.

    But then, anyone who isn’t mad is probably a hero in his own head: he thinks that he’s doing good things for the right reasons, or at the very least putting up with bad things because the alternatives are worse.

    So my alt-Laird would be someone who is genuinely opposed to the Commonwealth, not because it killed his wife and beat up his dog, but because there is something wrong with it which he can’t see being fixed by internal processes. (The administrative sclerosis you hint at elsewhere might be part of it: it was set up for situation A, now we’re in situation B, and it can’t get turned round.) His flaw is in feeling that it has to go, rather than be mended.

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