Making Superpowers Make Sense

Many of the issues with superpowers boil down to one question: are they science or magic?

Since the Rough Passages Tales take place in a modern world built on scientific guiding principles, people attempt to explain superpowers. But I show them failing, over and over. It’s an acknowledged truth in my world that the models are all flawed, and the answers are always changing. (Which, come to think of it, is a fairly accurate portrayal of scientific development. Will my scientists ever resolve the mysteries? I’m not saying.)

The tricky part is how to much to show and tell. The more unreal a power is, the more I will research it and the less I will explain. As a reader I don’t like drowning in hows. They distract me. Plus honestly, when it comes to speculative fiction, less is more. Process is much easier to screw up than basic principles and premises.

I like Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Twelve-foot-tall humanoids with super-strength and nigh-invulnerable bodies (for example)  can’t be explained by current models of physics, biology or anything else, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be.

I put countless hours into conceptual development and reading relevant research. (Ask Spouseman about one hours-long walk and discussion about population-level statistics…) Then I develop plausible mechanisms for unnatural abilities. Plausible means they’re logical, internally consistent and don’t violate known scientific principles, not that they make any sense according to currently-known processes.

And then I find a million little ways to dish out that huge pool of data in tiny spoonfuls.  I might insert a villain using a wind blast to disrupt a winged air elemental who flies by creating her own localized lift. Or a character might tease a giant friend for eating daily briefing papers after reading them.

I want to avoid drowning readers in long treatises on the theory of elemental powers and universal vibration-tuning or other such malarkey. This is how I interpret the hoary old writer’s advice show, not tell. If it isn’t embedded, it doesn’t get shown. The more unreal something is, the more I will think and the less I will show. How does the air elemental control air? Not gonna touch that. They do. Premise accepted or not, reader’s choice.

Think that’s unrealistic?  When was the last time you pondered the miracle of your refrigerator’s inner workings upon grabbing a cold drink?  Or your car. You turn a key or press a button, and engine magic happens. You don’t spend two minutes thinking about internal combustion and fuel injection. Well. I don’t, anyway.

So I don’t bog down my stories writing about processes I would have to break science to explain in detail

True confession rant: I am so TIRED of fiction breaking science. Triple helix DNA. Mutating neutrinos. Reverse-pulse-magnetism. (whut?!)  Diseases “deciding” to evolve. Cauterizing big, bleeding surface wounds. <sound of broken weeping> I’m begging here. Run a quick fact-check before passing on science myths, and if you can’t explain your faux-science premise without putting vocabulary in a blender and making meaningless word porridge,  DON’T TRY!

Keeping it simple is the best way to keep it real.

 

Breaking the future: chip rot

In the future history of my Restoration stories, the United States (and the rest of the world) is in the midst of new Renaissance. To have a Renaissance–a rebirth into enlightenment–there must first be darkness. Here’s an overview and a closer look at one of the destructive elements I used to break the world.

(PS: I don’t know why my worldbuild stuff comes out in a boring, pseudo-academic writing style, but it does. Every time. #Sorrynotsorry)


The true costs of the Revision Years won’t be tallied for generations. Countless biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons were created and released worldwide during those years. On top of those self-inflicted damages, natural diseases arose in the seething poisoned wreckage left after riots, uprisings, and insurrections.

Somewhere in that polluted patchwork landscape chip rot was born, and it is not hyperbole to say its birth was nearly the death of modern civilization.

First off, what chip rot isn’t: it isn’t a single-source problem. It isn’t one plague. It is many. The demon’s name is Legion, and that is why to date, more than forty years after its first catastrophic appearance, researchers are only beginning to successfully combat its root causes.

The name is a  designation assigned early on,  while it was erroneously thought to be a terrorist nanoweapon. Like many inaccurate designations (see “patient Zero” for the AIDS epidemic) it was catchy enough to stick in cultural memory long after its inaccuracy was exposed. Multiple groups claimed responsibility, but none of those claims held up under scrutiny–and the scrutiny was intense.

It’s easy to understand why early conclusions pointed to a manufactured or engineered contagion.  While the damage spread in ways that mimicked a virulent disease, the results made no biologic sense. And if someone did design a weapon to destroy modern civilization, it would probably look like chip rot.

Timing saved the world. If the initial disaster had hit a few years earlier, technological advances might have been erased along with much of the infra-structure required to rebuild it.  But chip rot appeared after the Global Restoration Conference. For all the havoc it wreaked and all the research shelved  in the wake of its appearance,  the crisis it caused was the making of many a fledgling government. It was exactly the kind of crisis citizens  could rally to fight together.

In that first incarnation, the organic frameworks used for common components throughout the electronics industry literally rotted away.  Another early chip rot plague targeted metal alloy materials, oxidizing and eroding disk storage and tape collections as well as processors themselves. Priceless decades of information dissolved overnight. A third wave went after materials commonly used in optical data transmission.

Computers were affected of course, but communications systems fell silent too, and power grids went down and stayed down for months when multiple units critical to the intricately-balanced  distribution systems lost their electronic minds. At its first appearance, hysteria and speculation added to the difficulty of addressing the issue. The silicon scares and the aluminum riots, for example, all did irreparable damage in their own right.

But ingenuity won the day–ingenuity, inspired guesswork, and  profligate use of component stockpiles to keep research going ahead of the destructive curve.

Detection marked the first breakthrough, a victory won even as the sophisticated laboratory microscopes used to locate and identify the contagion were lost. From there, the development of chemical identification tools and strict epidemiological protocols allowed for prevention and then containment. Humanity’s overall technological baseline slipped back decades– a century or more in many areas–but the foundation systems under the electronics had been built to last. Brute force engineering solutions were seldom pretty or maximally efficient, but they could keep the lights on and the water flowing.

All three initial variants of chip rot were caused by prion-like molecules that bonded with their target material and disrupted other molecular bonds. To date those variants remain the hardest to protect against and to eradicate when outbreaks occur. Its origin has yet to be traced.The time elapsed between first reports and total collapse of affected systems was so short it seemed to spring up everywhere at once, but recent epidemiological  research has narrowed the field to “somewhere on the Pacific Rim in the northern hemisphere.”

The particles at fault could be transmitted by unwitting users, contaminated tools and cabling, even through close proximity over a long enough time. Draconian measures are required to contain the spread when chip rot crops up, and it still does, and will, until someone finds a way to attack and neutralize.

And those forms aren’t the only types of chip rot, only the first and worst. Regional outbreaks of component failure are an inescapable fact of modern life. Thirty eight different transmittable biologic contagions have been identified since Restoration.

Battling chip rot is just a cost of doing business, one more hazard of living in the electronic recovery. Software issues are still common too, so malicious programming  is a constant danger as well. Often forensic investigation must be done in conjunction with with technical analysis  to determine the cause of a given system failure.

Biologic solutions which would have been obvious a century ago were rejected for ages for reasons that had nothing to do with rationality. All the other plagues released during the Revision Years put biological manipulation and genetic modification  firmly into the unthinkable taboo category. Those fields of research are so tightly regulated and circumscribed with legal restrictions that the potential losses far outweighed the possible gains–until quite recently.



 

The plots of Controlled Descent, Flight Plan and Novices all touch on the effects chip rot would have on the tech base–from the cost-effectiveness of retail gadgetry  to the availability of air conditioning.  Since Flight Plan’s plot is the one most closely tied to chip rot, that’s the title I’ll plug today.

Flight Plan. Available in ebook, paperback and audio.

 

How Did It All Start?

World-build day! I’m alternating worlds. One week I’ll focus on the glittery superpowers of my contemporary alternate-universe, the next week I’ll scatter sparkly factoids of future history from the Restoration Stories.

The following excerpt may look familiar to beta readers of Flight Plan’s first edition. I cut it from the book because  interrupting the story flow  made me itch even when I wrapped the information up in a narrative blanket. It’s still hard to find the right balance between immersion and confusion.

ANYhooozle. Here’s this week’s cheerful data dump, presented as an introduction to a historical text covering the period 50-100 years before the Restoration novels begin.


Excerpt from the introduction to “Doomed to Repeat: Revision, Restoration and the Coming Crisis”

The global sociopolitical meltdown now classified as The Great Revision was in many ways a self-inflicted disaster. One stagnant government after another collapsed, choked by debts, strangled by diplomatic obligations or torn apart by internecine conflict. Civil unrest and military conflicts crippled vital industries, and critical infrastructure fell prey to violence as well. Bioweapons and poisons were released to devastating effect. Technological standards backslid by decades in some areas and centuries in others.

The disintegration could have been the start of a new Dark Age, but while the future went up in flames and crumbled to rubble, it never quite died. Day-to-day life continued amidst the ruins,  and principalities all around the world found their own solutions to stave off total destruction. As the tumultuous decades of Revision drew to the close around the world, new national governments were slowly constructed by those who still remembered life under the rule of the old orders. Civilization emerged from the crucible of anarchy in new forms that were in many ways indistinguishable from the old. Familiarity bred comfort rather than contempt.

Widespread violence  and rule of might became the norm in the semi-organized territories and city-states that remained of the United States, but even during the worst of the disorder, people fought and died to keep the broken pieces of civilization from eroding into utter chaos. An alliance grew up between international corporations who feared extinction, surviving elements of the military branches who clung to traditions of honor and service, and the leaders of individual communities who wanted more than bare-bones survival for themselves and their descendants. Compromises were struck, deals were made, and the basis for a new political construct was pieced together on the ruined foundation of the old.

This book will examine the forces that broke apart the old world and demonstrate that, as a political entity, the Restored United States has failed to learn the most important lesson of its own history.


I’ve mentioned previously I thought I was building a shiny idealistic world in Restoration America. It turned out to be a much grittier, unjust, and complicated place than I intended. Reality is sneaky that way, even imaginary reality.

That’s all for now. Thanks for coming to the show. Enjoy the free words, remember to tip your server, and keep on keeping on.