No plan survives first contact with the enemy

Mar 28, 2013

Space battles, in a space-opera? Whatever next? (Pic by Weird Guy, from forums.spacebattles.com)

Back again for this week’s update. Progress remains strong, though not at the same rate as previous weeks. I was on holiday on Monday and managed a little editing, and the long weekend will interrupt the flow this week and next. Still, I’m at 20,449 words, comfortably ahead of schedule (16k).

Feedback from my editing team on the first two chapters of the story is encouraging too:

You’re doing great, keep it up.

and…

It’s very nicely paced and the story is coming together well. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

That’s giving me a warm feeling that I’m heading in the right direction. The encouragement is a massive boost. We writers are fragile egos covered in skin (yes, that’s a subtle hint! 😉 ). I’ll get an interview lined up with my publisher before too long, they’re a great bunch and I think you’ll be interested in what they’ve got to say about this project.

Also, a quick shout out to those who’ve pledged to E:R since the Kickstarter closed. So far a further £230 has been pledged via Paypal. Welcome aboard to you all – great to have you along. I’m still shooting for that paperback goal and we’re getting closer all the time. Finance update is in the works.

I’ve reached the first proper ‘space battle’ aspect of the story this week. All things considered it’s a minor skirmish between a handful of ships, we’re not talking an assault on fully armed and operational battle-station or anything like that.

Before we get to that though, some of my musings on the other facets I’ve had to deal with recently. What do I mean? First I need to get to the action and that means ‘hyperspace’.
As I’ve mentioned before I’m an original ‘Elite-er’. It wasn’t even called hyperspace back then, it was known as witchspace. Has this gone away in Elite : Dangerous? Well no, not exactly.

In E:D the technology and the mechanism is called ‘hyperspace’. You’ll make a hyperspace jump with a hyperspace drive. As you’ll have seen from the forums and the dev diaries, hyperspace jumps between inhabited systems are going to be composed of a series of jumps through interstellar space, via ‘dark systems’ (themselves composed of rogue planets, asteroids and such like – objects not in orbit around a star basically). These locations will be in the game mostly to allow encounters and adventure possibilities during multiplayer games. ‘Witchspace’ is now the collective noun for these mysterious locations – rather different from the original Elite.

Witchspace, (or Hyperspace?) in the original Elite.

There’s been a bit of light-hearted banter on the Writers’ forum regarding the terminology we should use here. Many of you will remember that Battlestar Galactica used the phrase “Spin up the FTL drive”. Spin up is a good phrase, implying a time delay. The DDF has confirmed that the hyperdrives in E:D will take time to be ready – so how to refer to it? Personally I liked ‘spin’ but I don’t want to use something that’s already part of the BSG universe. Clearly things like ‘warp’ and ‘Punch it Chewie!’ are out for the same reason. John Harper (Of ‘And Here The Wheel’ fame) and I rather like ‘Spool Up’, but others have suggested it sounds like the innards of the spacecraft are full of wool. There’s the default ‘Charge’ of course, but it’s a bit dull. So over to you guys. Any suggestions for some handy pithy phrasing for firing up the flux capacitors? (damn, that’s already been used too…)

Back to the space battles then. Clearly this will be a big feature of the game, and from what I’ve heard, quite a big part of many of the novels too. As I’ve mentioned I’ve just written the first of these in my story. Whilst they’re important to my plot they’re not the be all and end all of what I’m writing. They’re necessary, but only as a mechanism for getting to what happens next.

To be brutally honest, I struggle with these scenes. It sounds exciting, but they’re actually rather boring to write. There aren’t many variations on turning, firing, locking on target and watching the shields deplete. Missiles streak, lasers lash out, shields deflect, hulls shudder… it gets old quite quickly. It’s also very hard to context switch between the different vessels involved and not confuse the reader, particularly if you’ve got more than one of each class of vessel. I tend to draw little arrowed diagrams of what happens so I don’t get confused myself!

Fun to play, dull to write.

Fun to play, dull to write.

How to counter this? Well, the approach I take is not to concentrate on the actual mechanics of the conflict, but to show what is happening to the pilots and passengers of the vessels. Their perceptions of the combat are much more interesting. Another trick is to focus on the preamble to the battle; the tension, the jockeying for position, the whole ‘who’s going to make the first move’ aspect. Thus the battles in E:R will be short and sharp with minimal detail. This is also a defence against rewriting – I’ve no idea of the specific weaponry available in E:D at this point other than general observations of lasers, ballistic weapons and missiles.

What else have I discovered? I’ve found that I need a somewhat larger set of secondary characters in the story in order to move things along. Currently many of these aren’t named or developed properly, thus I have a ‘Doctor’ and a ‘Captain’ amongst others. They aren’t around in the story long enough to justify much development, but they do need to be distinct from each other. Currently I haven’t done a satisfactory amount of work here. Note to self – go back and revise Chapter Three!

That brings me to another important consideration. Cussing in the E:D universe.
Going back to Battlestar Galactica again, you’ll remember them all ‘Fraking this, and Fraking that’. I quite liked that. Different enough to notice, but simple enough to feel believable. Once again, opinion on the Writers’ forum is divided.

Yes, not so subtle, is it?

Some say we should avoid profanity altogether (I have some sympathy for this, as I find excessive swearing off-putting in books and movies), but I think if you’ve just lost your shields and a brace of missiles is closing on your backside some sort profane outburst is probably justified. But what form should it take? Note there is little to no profanity in Star Wars or Star Trek (unless you count “Khaaaaaaaaaan!” and the occasional ‘Damn’.)

One solution is that you can imply it, by judicious use of the ellipsis, thusly: “Oh, s…” (notably used by Data in one of the Star Trek movies) leaving the reader to fill in what they prefer. It’s reasonably elegant, but something of a fudge in my mind.

You could take the Firefly approach and swear in a different language, but that requires some sort of backstory to justify why it happened. In Firefly’s case, the US and China merged to form the Alliance with the result that the languages crossed over – clever, but probably not viable in the E:D universe.

Others have said that if we feel the need we should just use contemporary language. The view here is that introducing artificial profanities may jolt the reader out of the story while they consider the unfamiliar word. Again, a good point. The downside being that we’re either suggesting that language hasn’t evolved in a thousand years (which seems unlikely), or that what we’re reading is a 21st century translation of a 32nd century story. I find this a little unsatisfactory. This is the sort of approach taken in the Alien movies.

The fourth alternative is to make up some new stuff as BSG did. This is certainly more creative, but it’s fraught with difficulty. Swear words stick because they’re easy and satisfying to say in stressful situations. Ulysses 31 aside, no one would really say “By Jupiter’s Moons!” or “Flaming Meteorites!” when under duress. I’ve come up with a few ideas here, but I’ll be using them cautiously. I’d be interested in your thoughts as to whether you think this is a good idea or not. Let me know in the comments.

So, enough waffling from me. This week’s pledger interview is with John Hoggard. John and I go back a long way, first meeting via the Oolite bulletin boards around six years ago. John generously volunteered an avatar for use in two of my Oolite books – you can meet a most curious Avian by the name of ‘Daddyhoggy’ in Incursio and Finis. We’re both fans of the original game we agree on most things except the serious matter of which 8-bit computer was the best. Despite my best efforts John refuses to concede that the ZX Spectrum ruled the roost and insists that some travesty called the Commodore 64 had some merit, absolutely unbelievable…

Q. Tell us your name and a little about yourself, what you do, where you come from and so on.

John Hoggard, aka DaddyHoggy (as Ooliters and Tweeters will know me). Born in Scotland (proudly Scots), but grew up in NE of England. Moved south (to Newbury) post-Uni to work for MOD 18 years ago. Now (last 5 years) I’m a University lecturer, working for Cranfield, teaching Modelling and Simulation at the Defence Academy of the UK. I live with my wife and two daughters (and two cats).

Q. What sort of sci-fi are you into? What’s your favourite book/film/show?

I grew up with EE Doc Smith, Asimov and Clarke from my Dad’s collection, so it would be hard to pick a single book from those – I could give you one of each. Galactic Patrol, I, Robot and Rendezvous with Rama. Nowadays I’m a big fan of Greg Bear and Alistair Reynolds. (Believable Science “Faction”). Favourite film (consistently as it oft depends on my mood) isn’t Sci-Fi – it’s “The Crow” – ill-fated last film of Brandon Lee, closely followed by the 1977 edition of Star Wars.

As for show – when it’s good Dr. Who is very good. I really enjoyed Farscape when it was on. Other SF seem to fade away – new Battlestar Galactica was OK to start with, but got all meta-physical search-for-God and I got bored. First few series of Star Gate were amazing, latter series were “OK”. I will watch ST:DS9 again TNG makes me cringe quite often now. My favourite TV programme isn’t sci-fi, it’s the Big Bang Theory – once a physicist, always a physicist!

Q. How did you come across Elite:Reclamation? Was it from the main E:D kickstarter, my previous books, or somewhere else?

I saw your announcement on the Oolite forum!

Q. What did you think of the whole ‘Kickstarter funding a Kickstarter’ thing? Did it bother you at all?

I think KS is an excellent idea – E: R wasn’t my first (nor was E: D) – I first backed Amanda Palmer last year. Have backed two other projects since E:R/E:D.

Q. What was it that persuaded you to pledge for Elite:Reclamation? What did you think of my kickstarter approach?

I think you’re a great writer and I thought you deserved your chance on a bigger stage – this seemed like an ideal opportunity to help give you that chance/platform. Besides, by getting you your KS meant that somebody passionate about Elite/Oolite would get a say on the new game.

Q. How important do you feel fiction is to a computer game?

I think it’s extremely important. “The Dark Wheel” and indeed the Flight Manual (to which he also contributed) by Robert Holdstock hooked me in a way the game itself did not in those first few games (I actually read the novella while the game was loading up!). I remember the novella for Starglider was also excellent. I read the AD&D books at the same time I was playing the computer game RPG conversions of the rule set. The Battletech books I read while I was playing the Battletech/Mechwarrior games and of course there’s a bucket load of (Fan) Fiction to back up Oolite which has been inspired and inspiring.

Q. What are you looking forward to most about Elite:Reclamation?

More writing by you! True. But I want to see something along the lines of the way TDW inspired me to explore Elite, I want E:R to help me see another facet of E:D that can’t possibly be in the game despite its complexity.

Q. Finally what feedback would you like to give me as I embark on the writing?

Be true to yourself – you’re a great character writer – hold firm against Frontier if they try and sway your from the path and show that there is no difference between E:R and the “official” Elite Novel (in terms of quality)

Thanks John, I’ll do my best! See you all next week.

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