Author Archives: Greg R. Fishbone

A scientific defense of science fiction

One day when I was growing up, over dinner at a friend’s house, his parents told me they’d read some of the stories I wrote for fun. They thought I had real talent. I might even be a published author someday — if only I would stop wasting my time with all those spaceships and aliens.

I know it was meant as helpful advice but still, I was caught unprepared. I had never before considered time spent reading or writing the stories I loved to be a waste of time. I had certainly never considered my favorite genre to be inherently inferior to “more serious books.” And I absolutely rejected the implication that books on speculative topics couldn’t be as well crafted as any others.

Heinlein, Clark, Asimov, L’Engle, Wells, Norton, Bradbury, and Verne were just a few of the luminaries who happened to not be sitting at the dinner table with us that night, so it was up to me alone to defend the honor and integrity of science fiction. But I was twelve or thirteen at the time, and just mumbled something into my spaghetti.

My favorite defense these days is to imagine that we have a time machine that we can use to visit the somewhat distant past, after the invention of fire but before wheels, airplanes, and smartphones.

When our Neolithic ancestors weren’t searching for food, fighting the elements, or fending off predators, they spent their free time asking questions about the world around them.

Question: How old is the world?

Our Neolithic ancestors could ask around, but not even the oldest of the tribal elders could remember back to the start of the world.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: What is the world made of?

Our Neolithic ancestors could break chunks of stuff into tiny specks of stuff, but there was no telling what those specks were made of.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: How far up does the sky go?

Our Neolithic ancestors could throw a rock upward from a hilltop or tall tree without hitting anything, or estimate the height of a soaring bird, so at least a little higher than that.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Why do things fall?

Our Neolithic ancestors could observe that things always fall downward when you drop them. Except when you catch and release a bug. So what do the bugs know that people don’t?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Where did all the animals and plants come from?

Our Neolithic ancestors were familiar with the wide variety of forms that life takes on Earth. Some forms were similar to others—were they designed that way? If so, by whom? Was the creation of life an ongoing process, with new kinds of plants and animals still sometimes popping into existence? There were no answers.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Imagine how frustrating it must have been for our Neolithic ancestors to have so many fundamental questions about the world and so few definitive answers.

To fill the gaps, ancient peoples made up stories that were speculative but plausible, given the best-available contemporary understanding of science. Or to put it another way, every ancient culture on Earth independently developed the genre of science fiction.

These early sci-fi stories were told them around the communal fires and passed them down across the generations. They inspired the process of imagination, speculation, and experimentation that helped advance civilization forward to modern times.

Those stories presaged and created the modern world. So let’s look at those questions again, this time with all the collected knowledge of the Internet Age.

Question: How old is the world?

We now know that modern humans have been around for 200,000 years on a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old in a universe that’s 13.8 billion years removed from the Big Bang—but what happened before that? One leading scientific theory is that there was an era of cosmic expansion that took place before the Big Bang, but how far back in time does that go? And what, if anything, came before cosmic inflation?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: What is the world made of?

We now know that all objects in our world are made of atoms that appear on the periodic table of elements, that those atoms are made of electrons that orbit a nucleus of neutrons and protons, and that those particles are made from quarks and other elementary particles. But can quarks break down even further? Are there additional elementary particles we haven’t found yet? What is the nature of the dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe? What is the nature of dark energy that makes up more of the universe’s energy balance than all the dark matter and baryonic matter combined?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: How far up does the sky go?

We now know how far Earth’s atmosphere extends and the distances to the moon, sun, planets, and all the stars that we can see. We know that the observable universe extends 46.5 billion light years in every direction. But what lies beyond that? Does it go on forever? Does it wrap back on itself like the screens of an old arcade game? Do all parts of the universe have the same physical constants?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Why do things fall?

Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity explains a lot. Albert Einstein’s theory explains more, including the gravity waves that were only just confirmed in February, 2016. But is there a theory that explains everything we observe about gravity? Is there a particle that carries gravitational energy the way photons carry light? Is there a reason why gravity is so much weaker than the other fundamental forces?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Where did all the animals and plants come from?

We now know about genes encoded in DNA, and that all the species we see evolved over billions of years from the same one-celled ancestor, but where did that first ancestor come from? How does non-life first become life? Were the elements of life seeded from space or did they arise entirely on Earth? How rare or how common is the development of life on other worlds in our galaxy and across the universe? Did life ever exist on Mars, or does it now exist elsewhere in our own solar system?

Answer: Nobody knows.

For all the progress we’ve made, we still can’t definitively answer any of these fundamental questions about the nature of our universe. We still have gaps to fill with stories that we now tell, now in books and new media, but still meant to be passed down across the generations.

Speculative fiction is still needed as much as ever to inspire the process of imagination, speculation, and experimentation that will take us forward to the next level of knowledge.

And that is why I’m still wasting my time with all those spaceships and aliens.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sporty science fiction from Tu Books and Spellbound River Press. This article first appeared on the From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors group blog in June, 2016.

Every galaxy needs more than three people of color

A Wired headline caught my attention the other day. The article it linked to featured commentary from an episode of a science fiction podcast on the topic of diversity in the genre. Every galaxy needs more than three people of color. That struck me on two levels: as a child of the 70s and 80s, who grew up on science fiction with a notable lack of diversity; and as an author of today, with a literary galaxy of my own.

First that number, three people out of a galaxy. That’s not an exaggeration. For the sci-fi franchises I grew up with, it’s a generous overestimate.

Foremost among the fictional galaxies of my childhood was the one depicted in the original Star Wars film trilogy, where people who looked like humans mixed with people who looked like aliens and people who looked like robots.

The people who looked like robots were kept by the others as slaves, but that’s a separate issue.

The people who looked like aliens often endured second-class treatment, like how Han gets a medal at the end of Episode IV but Chewbacca doesn’t? What’s up with that? Wookiees don’t get equal treatment from either the Empire or the Rebellion, but that’s also a separate issue.

The main issue covered by the Wired article was how the people who looked like humans were overwhelmingly portrayed by white actors, although there’s no logical reason even within the story why this would have to be the case.

Star Wars actors of color included Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and…and…and…yeah. If you’re feeling generous, you could give James Earl Jones half-credit for providing the voice of Darth Vader’s ventilator, but that’s about it.

After becoming a Star Wars fan, I discovered the original run of Star Trek, which had been produced a decade earlier but remained popular in syndication. The cast included Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, George Takei as Lieutenant Sulu, and…and…and…shoot. The Internet says there was a Doctor M’Benga who popped up in sickbay from time to time, but I’m not a committed enough Trekkie to remember him. I’d score this as two-and-a-half persons of color.

There was that one alien race that was white on the left side and black on the right, and their bitter enemies who were black on the left side and white on the right, but Kirk’s Enterprise otherwise sailed its overwhelmingly white crew through a galaxy of Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans, and other aliens portrayed by overwhelmingly white actors.

Star Wars took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, with human-looking creatures who didn’t share the cultural and evolutionary history of Earth-based humans, but Star Trek represented the optimistic future of humanity in our very own galaxy. At the time it was produced, Star Trek was revolutionary for breaking barriers and pushing boundaries. This was, after all, the show that gave us television’s first interracial kiss. And yet, there were still only two-and-a-half persons of color among the cast.

Then there was Battlestar Galactica–not the remake, which had its own issues, but the original. The ship led an armada of human refugees from the twelve tribes who were related to our own human ancestors, who supposedly came to Earth from space. The show name-checked multiple ancient Earth cultures and showed a special fondness for pyramids, but its cast was overwhelmingly white. Black actors portrayed Lieutenant Boomer, Colonel Tigh, and…and…and…no, just those two.

How is it possible that the one tribe of humans who colonized Earth had so much more diversity than the twelve tribes that stayed behind?

I also got hooked on Doctor Who, which was broadcast on our local PBS station because it was a British import, and therefore culturally superior to the shows on for-profit broadcast channels. Diversity among the companions on old school Doctor Who meant that Jamie could be a Scottish highlander, Turlough could be a ginger, Tegan could be Australian, and Peri could be American, as long as all of them still sported similarly pale skin.

Doctor Who debuted in 1963 and has run since then with a single continuity, give or take the decade-plus of hiatus separating the Classic and Modern Eras. And yet, this show didn’t get its first non-white companions until Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith and Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones, in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

There has not been a non-white, non-male Doctor, even though we’ve seen other Time Lords regenerate across racial and gender lines. The Doctor’s nemesis, the Master, is now calling herself the Mistress, for example. But the Doctor has consciously or subconsciously chosen to remain white and British at least through his first thirteen incarnations.

The show has ranged through all of time and space, including the entirety of human history, but non-white secondary characters in the Classic Era were rare enough to stand out. Like the black ringmaster in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, who, if I recall correctly, spoke in rap lyrics. Or the Chinese villain in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, who was portrayed by a white actor in yellow-face.

Then there’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which became a TV series in the late 1970s. Buck Rogers had…who? Tigerman? That’s one, I guess, and even that represented a huge step forward from its source material as a 1920s pulp novella with some jaw-dropping anti-Asian racism.

So here’s the final score:

Star Wars Original Trilogy: 1.5 Persons of Color 
Star Trek Original Series: 2.5 Persons of Color
Battlestar Galactica Original Series: 2 Persons of Color
Doctor Who Classic: 0 Persons of Color
Buck Rogers on TV: 1 Person of Color

Passing a “three people of color” test would have required each of these story worlds to introduce up to three additional main characters. Likewise, all would have also failed the “having a gay or transgender character” test, and would have done poorly in the “portrayal of women” test as well.

The franchises that are still active have become more diverse over time, but all of them failed the children of my generation. There were a total of seven characters of color in five of the most popular science fiction story worlds of the time, combined. These were: a high-tech phone operator, a helmsman, a part-time doctor, a smuggler-turned-businessman, the audible half of a villain, two military middle-managers, and a living punching-bag. Sidekicks, helpers, and villains.

The only black starship captain I ever saw on TV as a kid was Daffy Duck as “Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-half Century.”

So here I am as a writer of today, with a responsibility to capture all the wonder and imagination of my favorite genre and transmit it to a new generation of readers. This can’t be done without reaching back to the beloved stories I grew up with and recognizing their flaws. And then, fixing them.

In my Galaxy Games series, Earth enters a team of kids in the greatest sports tournament in the universe. If I’d have picked this book up as a child in the 1970s or 80s, it would have starred a white boy leading a team that begrudgingly included three obligatory characters of color and exactly one girl. Otherwise, it would never have gotten published.

Thankfully, that is no longer the case.

Logic dictates that a team representing Earth has to represent all of Earth. Anything less weakens the story, waters down the characters, and impoverishes the story world.

When there three persons of color or fewer in a story galaxy, each character has to bear the weight of every person who shares a culture or skin type. Even Lando Calrissian couldn’t bear that kind of pressure without tending toward caricature or stereotype.

With more characters who are similar in one way but different in others, there can be more balance. More nuance. More characters who only have to represent themselves. More chances for a reader to see him or herself in the story.

Writing for the Generations

Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we’re living here in Allentown
–Billy Joel, “Allentown”

When World War II ended, American soldiers returned home en masse to start new families. Their children were the Baby Boomer generation–the first kids to grow up with television, the first kids to encounter rock and roll music at a high school, the ones who might have watched a live Moon landing and been inspired to careers in science.

I came along a couple decades later. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I had Baby Boomer teachers who were the audience for my first writing assignments. The Baby Boomer authors of then-contemporary books were the models I tried to emulate. When I was first trying to break into publishing, Baby Boomers were the mentors who spoke to me about their own struggles with writing for a younger generation. Paula Danziger told me her theory that a high school generation was only four years long–which meant that eight years out of high school, I was already two generations removed from the experience!

“Wheel of Fortune”, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!
–Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

I’d always had a vague sense that many of the books in our school library weren’t really written for me. The classics of prior decades sometimes included confusing instances of 1960s counter-culture, or references to songs, shows, and movies that my friends and I had never heard of. Even the newly-published books had moments where the styles, themes, tastes, and experiences didn’t match the needs of Generation X. We needed more books about kids with working moms or divorced parents that weren’t issue books about working moms or divorced parents. And we definitely needed more computers in our books than we were getting.

Desktop computers became a big thing in the 1980s. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 1983 was a desktop computer–except that they weren’t yet called desktop computers because there was no other kind. Our junior high school had a computer lab of TSR-80s, and friends of mine had Apple IIs or Timex Sinclair 1000s. My first Internet experience was logging into a bulletin board with a 1200-baud modem in 1987.

But the characters in our books only had computers if the machines were big, crazy, complex things that tended to become sentient and wanted to take over the world. The Baby Boomer authors of the time clearly weren’t as comfortable with the technology as their Generation X readers.

That’s why, when I started writing, I wrote for me. For little kid me, who saw gaps in his bookshelf where there should have been Gen X adventures. My characters had computers they used for doing homework, sending email, and writing their own stories. Computers weren’t the focus of the story but they existed for my characters as they had for me.

Today, I don’t write for myself anymore. My current audience is the new generation that my children are a part of, the ones who come after the Millennials. My goal is to fill some of the gaps that exist in their bookshelves. We Need Diverse Books is a long-overdue effort to identify and fill some of those gaps to reflect the diversity of our culture, something all authors need to immerse themselves in, but there are other gaps that require us to figure out who these kids are, what they have in common, what makes them tick, and how they are different from the generations that came before them.

I was reminded of this recently when MTV took a stab at the first step in describing a new generation–tagging them with a cute nickname. Some people have been calling them Generation Z, recognizing that “Millennial” is an awful name that should be retconned into Generation Y. I once put forward Generation XII for the same reason. Others are calling them the iGeneration because of the influence of iPhones, iPads, and the Internet on their lives. MTV, after first asking the kids what they’d want to be called, is throwing out “The Founders.” Because prior generations have messed the world up so much that it needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

The Founders have never known a world without the Internet. I know kids who are so steeped in Internet culture that they identify the second in a series by the “hashtag-two” on the cover. The Founders have never known a U.S. President who wasn’t black, except in their history texts. The Founders don’t accept books that acknowledge the existence of cell phones but don’t provide characters with “enough bars” for their use. Founder activities are more heavily scheduled than mine ever were, with more sports leagues and fewer unsupervised games of stickball in the middle of the street. While we grew up with concerns about dirty water and dirty air, the Founders are growing up with the prospect of catastrophic global climate change. While we grew up with Soviet ICBMs aimed at our cities, they are growing up with terrorism.

Writing for the Founders is an honor, a privilege, and a challenge. They’re going to need some amazing books to inspire all that founding that needs to be done.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sports and sci-fi books for the Founders.