Author Archives: Greg R. Fishbone

Eleven Questions about Stranger Things

My problem this month was having three topical ideas and only time and space for one blog post. So I did the 2017 thing and held a Twitter poll. Just like I’ve always wanted to.

Given a choice between my New Year’s resolution to write a non-fiction book proposal, or my take on authorship responsibilities in the Age of Donald Trump, Twitter users overwhelmingly voted for something about the Netflix series, “Stranger Things.”

There will be spoilers. If you haven’t watched the series yet, it’s well worth your while to get the initial free-month subscription to Netflix and binge these eight episodes, with no financial obligation to keep Netflix for as many future seasons as this series is going to run. Although you will want to, because that’s how they lure you in.

The strangest thing about “Stranger Things” is that everyone comes away from it with some number of questions. Rolling Stone had eight. Business Insider had nine. Time magazine had ten. But weirdly, nobody had eleven questions, because wouldn’t eleven be the most obvious number of anything associated with this show?

I have eleven questions and my first is:

1. What happened to all those missing questions?

My theory is that they were taken by Teen Vogue, which has lately been flexing some serious journalistic muscle under the leadership of Elaine Welteroth. TV‘s list has 35 questions about “Stranger Things,” which is enough to cover their own set of eleven plus the lost questions from about a dozen of those slacker publications. You go, Teen Vogue!

Luckily, Teen Vogue isn’t asking their questions from the all-important middle grade author’s point of view, so there’s still room left over for me to ask things like…

2. What middle grade novel is most like “Stranger Things?”

There is no one right answer, but I’ll give you my suggestion at the end of this post. In the meantime you can start mulling over your own choices to discuss in the comments section.

3. What does a middle grade author think about the use of 80’s nostalgia in “Stranger Things?”

I’m so glad you asked!

In 1983, I was about the same age as Mike and his friends. I played Dungeons & Dragons like Mike and his friends. And I mean just like Mike and his friends–really badly, with dice often ending up on the floor. I even had pewter figurines of monsters and wizards like Mike and his friends, until my mother read somewhere that they had a high lead content and banished them from the house.

The opening scene was highly nostalgic for me personally, but probably just reminded everyone else of the D&D scene from E.T.

What impressed me most about D&D in Stranger Things was that it doesn’t just serve as pop-culture window dressing. D&D actually moves the plot forward and makes the story more plausible.

A campaign of 10-hour D&D sessions has linked these four players with a bond of friendship, mutual understanding, and respect. They know how to work together toward a common goal and they have an enviable knowledge of monsters, psionics, and the possibility of travel between planes of existence. When adventure comes calling, these kids are fully prepared!

Just as my friends and I were also ready to spring from our D&D table at a moment’s notice to combat real-world forces of evil. Or to go on a snack run. Whichever seemed more urgent. Oh, the nostalgia!

4. What can middle grade authors learn from “Stranger Things?”

World-building and foreshadowing! And as an added bonus, we get both of these lessons through Stranger Things by way of Dungeons & Dragons.

Every good Dungeon Master has to be a master of world-building, because monsters can only exist within an ecosystem of monsters, constantly fed by a stream of unlucky adventurers. The failed adventurers of past D&D campaigns also create the game’s economy, by stocking treasure chests with their pocket change and belongings. And finally there’s the dungeon itself, which must follow logical rules of construction allowing it to fit snugly on a single sheet of graph paper.

Having mastered these skills, is it any wonder why so many D&D players go on to write novels, screenplays, or Netflix original series?

I’m hopeful that the story world of the Upside Down will establish and maintain its own inner logic over time. Is it an alternate Earth that was once identical to ours or has it always been such a mess? Has it been conquered by aliens or did the monsters evolve there in a shadow ecosystem? Were there people who built the alternate structures we see or do the demogorgons mimic human architecture in some kind of cargo cult?

I expect the monsters will make sense and come in a variety of species. The glowing egg that Hopper and Joyce run past on their way to the demogorgon’s lair may or may not hatch into another demogorgon, but it definitely will hatch into something.

And just as the demogorgon from Episode One’s gaming session foreshadowed the first season’s monster, I’m betting that the campaign boss from the last episode’s gaming session was also meant as foreshadowing.

My Monster Manual is packed away somewhere, but I suspect the thessalhydra is like the creature from Greek mythology that grew back lost heads and limbs, becoming more powerful even as Hercules hacked it into bits. You wouldn’t want to, say, chop off its foot in a bear trap, because it would then likely just grow extra limbs that make it run faster than before. And you certainly wouldn’t want to, say, blow it apart into a million tiny pieces, because each piece would have the ability to regenerate into an entirely new creature.

[Edit: I just found my Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual II! It seems the thessalhydra has one big nasty mouth surrounded by a bunch of snake heads. If you cut off a snake head, it takes a whole twelve days to grow back, so pff. But once per day, the big mouth can shoot out a wad of acidic saliva, so that’s pretty cool. Hey, is anyone else up for a D&D campaign?]

Of course it’s possible the next season of “Stranger Things” will move beyond D&D into another form of 80’s nostalgia. I’ll note that Will and Dustin both seem to be receiving Atari 2600 game consoles for Christmas, so I fully expect Pac-Man, Missile Command, Space Invaders, and Asteroids to have an outsized impact on future plotlines.

5. What’s your favorite 80’s movie reference in “Stranger Things?”

“Stranger Things” evokes several movies of the 80’s including the bike chase from E.T. (1982), the child-swallowing wall-portals from Poltergeist (1982), and the floating ash from The Day After (1983). But for me, the most important is Firestarter (1984) as the source of Eleven’s nosebleeds and so much more.

Firestarter is the film adaptation of a 1980 Stephen King novel by the same name, in which a shady government agency uses an experimental drug on study participants, resulting in two of them having a daughter with psychic powers. Which might sound familiar…

“Stranger Things” telegraphs this story through Eleven’s flashbacks and Hopper’s leg-work to find Eleven’s mother. But when Hopper and Joyce visit the mother, they’re in for a letdown as it turns out she’s permanently checked out of reality and is entirely irrelevant to the plot.

Or so we’re very intentionally led to believe.

With so much groundwork laid, my bet is that the rest of the Firestarter plot is being held back for a future season. In both stories, a parent has a super-powered child taken away by the Cold War-obsessed government agency that created her, and that parent goes catatonic for a while afterward. But in Firestarter at least, the father’s apparent catatonia is a ruse to trick the government agents into letting down their guard for a rescue attempt. Similarly, Eleven’s mom may also be a whole lot more with-it than she’s letting on.

If so, is she going to drop her carefully-honed facade for two random strangers who come knocking on her door? I don’t think so!

Most interestingly, in Firestarter, the mother and father also developed lower-level powers from the pharmaceuticals they were given. So could Eleven’s mother also have as-yet-undisclosed abilities? If so, what might they be?

6. Is Eleven still alive?

I have no doubt that we’ll see Eleven again.

In the last episode, Hopper leaves a bundle of holiday food in a metal box in Mirkwood. With the inclusion of Eleven’s favorite kind of waffles, that food can have only one intended recipient.

This can’t be the first time Hopper is filling this cache with food because the box has been there at least long enough to develop that layer of snow on top. And it can’t just be blind hope that Eleven will find this box, because the cache is clearly empty when Hopper arrives. Someone or something has taken whatever food he’s left before, and Hopper doesn’t seem surprised. He leaves food, he comes back, the original food is gone, and he leaves more–that’s his routine because he an Eleven have a standing arrangement.

So the real questions are, why is Eleven hiding in the woods, why is Hopper helping her, and who else knows that she’s there?

7. What other theories do you have about Eleven?

On a symbolic level, with a shaved head and numbered arm-tattoo, Eleven has the general appearance of a Holocaust survivor. Which makes me wonder whether gray-haired 1980’s-era Dr. Bannon might have once been a 1940’s-era Nazi scientist. One who specialized in ESP research that would be helpful in Cold War espionage, but with experimental methods too unethical to be carried out in the open. He’s not old enough to be a Dr. Mengele, but about the right age to have been apprentice to a Dr. Mengele.

Flashbacks make it seem like Eleven was born and bred to be a psychic spy, but if so, why are her language skills so underdeveloped? If she’s meant to listen in on intercontinental conversations, she should have been drilled on Russian and Mandarin at least. Her room should be littered with flashcards from a dozen languages, but instead she’s barely mastered English, and her lack of language doesn’t seem to be due to a learning disability. Her speech is consistent with someone who’s grown up in isolation without an adequate vocabulary, not even for such important concepts as friendship. We can see how smart she is and the struggle she has putting complex thoughts into her limited selection of words.

Is she meant to be a weapon? We don’t see any evidence that the Electric Company is providing the training and disciple to hone her skills and keep them under control.

It seems more like Dr. Bannon and Company want to understand Eleven’s powers, possibly to replicate them, but that she as a person is expendable. They don’t just fail to give her a name, they deliberately take away the name her mother intended for her.

In exploring Eleven’s powers, they probably didn’t expect her to be both telekinetic and clairvoyant, and they certainly wouldn’t have expected her to be able to access parallel worlds. When that happened, they just went with it, with disastrous results.

So it’s possible that Dr. Bannon and his cohort are more incompetent than they are sinister but they also believe their original core mission, whatever it is, enough to justify kidnapping infants, burying mock corpses, installing mass warrantless wiretaps on US citizens, and conducting unauthorized human drug trials.

8. But why is she called Eleven?

Perhaps Eleven was given a number in order to dehumanize her. She’s a tool being used by a U.S. government agency during the Cold War era, so it makes sense that the staff of the Electric Company would be encouraged to not see her as a person or get too attached to her. Except that Dr. Bannon does get attached, either because Eleven refers to him as Papa and draws him pictures, or because he really is her biological father.

He’s just not winning any Parent of the Year awards.

But why Eleven unless at some point there were at least ten more just like her? And why the tattoo? When you have eleven students in a class, regardless of whether they have names or numbers, you don’t need tattoos to tell them apart. Not unless they are literally identical. Which makes me wonder about the state of the art in cloning technology, circa 1971.

Another possibility is that the initial study had ten participants including Eleven’s mom, and that they were all given numbers to preserve their anonymity. Under serious dosage of experimental drugs, they might have been unable to interact with the staff or to properly identify themselves, so tattooed numbers were used instead. When an eleventh test subject was somehow…conceived, she was given the next number up and a matching tattoo so the experiment could continue for another generation.

9. Is Barb still alive?

She’s gone. Eleven said so. Move on.

10. Are Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler the most oblivious parents ever, or what?

Their son has a psychic friend living in the basement. Their daughter has multiple boys going in and out of her bedroom window. The children have dinner-table conversations that whoosh over both parents’ heads. Nobody questions why so many Eggo waffles have gone missing. The parents have no idea their son is wandering the woods at night, or that their daughter is popping through dimensional portals, or that she has a gun.

Even as federal agents are surrounding the house, Mrs. Wheeler is just gabbing away on the phone, so yeah, I’d say they’re kind of oblivious.

11. What Are You Looking Forward to in Season Two?

Secrets.

Hopper has at least two: his knowledge that Eleven is alive; and the details of his deal with the Electric Company. Will also has two: one is that he’s coughing out Upside Down slugs; and the other is that he’s uncontrollably flipping between worlds.

My theory on that, in the metaphor of the acrobat and the flea, is that Will has become a flea. And that he’s possibly been infected with Upside Down parasites or baby demogorgons. Remember, the official cover story is that Will dove into the quarry, nearly drowned, suffered a coma that was misdiagnosed as death, and was buried and then exhumed in time to save his life when the “mistake” was detected. He would have been checked out by medical professionals, but maybe Upside Down organisms don’t show up in the standard tests.

The Electric Company still has secrets, and if my Firestarter theory pans out, Eleven’s mother will also have at least one big secret as well so I expect a season of major reveals, one after another.

2 (revisited). What middle grade novel is most like Stranger Things?

For me, it’s The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978). There are no monsters or telekinetic powers but there is a mystery approached by independent teams using different methods and following different clues. That’s the structural framework on which Stranger Things is also built.

In Stranger Things, Joyce investigates the blinking lights and strange phone calls related to her son’s disappearance in a scientific manner, hanging more lights and trying to communicate, remaining completely rational while outwardly seeming to suffer an emotional breakdown.

Hopper does his own style of hardboiled investigative work, including library research, following leads, getting inside the Electric Company, and keeping an open ear and remarkably open mind.

Jonathan and Nancy equip themselves with weapons and explosives like they’re going to war.

And Mike, Dustin, and Lucas use their knowledge of D&D lore, walkie-talkies, biking skills, and one special psychic friend to have a ridiculously grand adventure.

For most of the season, these teams don’t even realize how they’re overlapping their efforts and chasing down each other’s leads. It’s a whole lot of fun to watch.

What middle grade novel most reminds you of Stranger Things? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and thanks for watching!

Aliens Have Feelings Too

What’s that you say? You came here expecting writing tips and instead found me watching a classic Star Trek marathon on BBC America? Yeah. That’s by design. Honest.

Now have a seat. Tonight we’ll be watching May 1967’s “This Side of Paradise,” Episode 24 of Season 1, showcasing the many emotions of Mr. Spock.

Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Spock is that guy there. The one with the ears. And no, he’s not the one who used to be on Heroes. This is Spock as portrayed by the late, great Leonard Nimoy. You know, Nimoy, the guy who sang the Bilbo Baggins theme song at the very end of the last Hobbit movie.

Or so I’ve heard. I only made it through the first two movies.

Anyway, in this episode we see Spock laugh and smile under the influence of mind-warping flower spores.

Happy Spock

Happy Spock

We see him rekindle and then painfully extinguish a romantic flame that’s incompatible with his Federation duties.

Affectionate Spock

Affectionate Spock

We see him react with anger and rage at the calculated taunts of his captain.

Rarrr! Spock will smash!!!

Rarrr! Spock will smash!!!

And finally, we see Spock back in his usual demeanor as the stoic half-Vulcan whose feelings are just barely leaking through in tiny displays of posture, intonation, and famously raised eyebrows.

It’s an hour-long rollercoaster of emotion…from Mr. Spock! That’s amazing. But the really amazing part is that none of it is out of character, and all of it occurs under the influence of an organism that’s evolved to dampen and suppress the emotions of its hosts.

Just not as well as Spock normally does all on his own.

Nimoy’s Spock seethes with emotion and inner conflict in every scene of every episode of Trek, but we usually only see the internal turmoil through tiny cracks in Spock’s hardened exterior of logic and intellectualism.

Likewise, in our own writing, we don’t always need our characters to be shouting, stomping around, or contorting their faces into unnatural expressions in order to show emotion. Sometimes a single eyebrow can convey all of that and more.

Spock has a secret heart, hidden feelings of self-doubt, and a capped well of deep pain. The hints of emotion that we come to understand over the course of the series are those that emerge despite Spock’s heroic efforts at suppression.

You might compare Spock with Brent Spiner’s Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and say that hints of emotion from Data are indications of his potential for personal growth and evolution. These are stable, controlled, apparently emotionless characters whose hidden depths are revealed in layers over time.

These characters aren’t just expressing emotion, but struggling with them and their implications, and that makes them instantly more compelling, complex, interesting, and relatable.

For writers, there is much to learn from Nimoy’s portrayal of Mr. Spock, and especially for me I attempt to write about my own set of alien characters in the Galaxy Games series.

Spock’s emotional journey is an example of what science fiction does best: hold a mirror up to ourselves. In this case, we get to explore the extremes of human emotion from a perspective that would be impossible in more realistic fiction.

Some scientists believe that real-life space aliens would be so emotionally different from us that we could never hope to communicate with them. Even if we shared the same verbal language, our different emotional languages would make understanding impossible. But in fiction, the struggles of Mr. Spock and other non-human characters allow readers to better understand what it means to be human.

Now pass me the chips. There’s another episode starting up!


Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sporty science fiction for young readers. His latest book, The Amorphous Assassin, drops this month in paperback and ebook formats and is available from all your favorite booksellers. His website is located at gfishbone.com

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.