David Liss is the author of nine novels, most recently The Day of Atonement and Randoms, his first book for younger readers. His previous bestselling books include The Coffee Trader and The Ethical Assassin, both of which are being developed as films, and A Conspiracy of Paper, which is now being developed for television. Liss is the author of numerous comics, including Mystery Men, Sherlock Holmes: Moriarty Lives and Angelica Tomorrow.
by David Liss
All novelists get sucked into new projects in different ways. For me, the germ of a story generally beings with a specific character or characters, and usually an opening scene. My new book, Randoms, was different experience, because while I had come up with, and loved, the concept of writing a self-referential science fiction novel in which fandom functions as a kind of superpower, beyond that, I didn’t have a clue about the story. When I decided I was going to pursue this project, I still had about six weeks of work left on my previous book, The Day of Atonement, so when I wasn’t polishing that manuscript I was busy planning ahead, trying to figure out exactly what genre tropes and references I wanted to include.
I ended up with a pretty long list. Along the way, I also came up with a story I loved and characters I was excited to write about, so the way I used these tropes had to serve the people and concepts at the core of the novel. Even so, I managed to squeeze in just about everything about which I felt strongly.
So here are the generic tropes I decided I absolutely had to include in the story.
(1) Precursor Aliens
Precursor species can be mysterious (2001: A Space Odyssey), the creators of use technology (Mass Effect), benevolent – except for when they decide to be evil (Babylon 5) or just plain incoherent (Prometheus) There are about 47 different precursor races in the Star Trek universe, and who can blame the writers for indulging themselves? Precursor aliens are convenient. They can have already mastered spheres of knowledge that even the most advanced aliens currently living don’t understand. In other words, precursors provide not only a convenient handwavium well from which you can draw, but they can have laid the groundwork for an orderly, explorable galaxy full of species similar enough that they can communicate, work together, and inhabit the same kinds of work environments, and, if necessary, make out. They are the great galactic homogenizers.
(2) A big, culturally diverse space station
The space city in which much of the action of Randoms takes place is really more of an orbital platform than a station, but it works the same way as some of my favorite space stations in science fiction, Babylon 5, Deep Space 9, the Citadel, and, if you are willing to expand your definition, Ringworld. Aliens from different cultures, with different agendas, come together in an enclosed space. Even large space stations force encounters and raise tensions. It’s drama in a can! In space!
(3) A big culturally diverse space station built by precursor aliens
This is a great combination. Mainly here I was seeding some plot developments for the second book of the Randoms sequel, but I love the idea of taking all the character and plot potential of a spaced station and mixing in ancient mysteries of a long-gone species.
(4) FTL Travel
Don’t tell me it’s impossible! It’s convenient. It’s hard to have a galaxy-spanning culture without FTL travel. There are some great stories that try to work around FTL travel (Alastair Reynolds’ novels come to mind, as well as the Alien movies), but the ability to get from place to place in manageable time, without incurring time dilation, helps to grease the wheels of a classic space opera. In Randoms, I play the precursor handwavium card – even the most advanced aliens only have a vague idea of how their FTL system works. That way I didn’t have to worry that I forgot all the physics I read almost as soon as I was done reading.
(5) Anthropomorphic Aliens
Where do my anthropomorphic aliens come from? The precursor aliens, of course. Long ago the Formers teraformed the various worlds of the galaxy, seeing on them closely related genetic material. That’s why many (but by no means all) aliens in my universe resemble animals from Earth. On some worlds, my main character is told, there are animals who look like human beings. Naturalizing anthropomorphic aliens also allows for teenagers of different species to form friendships, rivalries, and make googly eyes at each other. Neat.
(6) Anthropomorphic aliens with cranial ridges
Or non –human skin color. Or funny haircuts/no hair. A cheap way of creating aliens for tv shows on a budget. Why not naturalize it? Who’s laughing now, cranial ridge haters?
(7) Experience Points and leveling up
I was really happy with myself when I decided to go with this one. In the world of Randoms, citizens of the Confederation have nanites which recognize various kinds of achievements, awarding experience points. Sufficient points lead to leveling up, which allow citizens to pick skills Maybe I’ve played too many role playing games, but this felt like pure wish fulfillment for me.
(8) Energy Weapons and space battles
I love emotionally absorbing space battles, but I actually dislike writing pure action scenes In order to pull off space battles in my own story, I had to make sure each one was tied to a major emotional issue for my protagonist. The end result was something I was very happy with – battles in which the stakes, the technology, and the limits of technology are carefully articulated. The best space battles – or any kind of action sequence for that mater matter – are always filled with mistakes, reversals, and clever turn-arounds.
At one point when working on my genre wish list, I realized that I couldn’t just include the material I loved. With a few notable exceptions, I’m not a big fan of anime, but there’s a lot of love for the medium out there. So, why not, I wondered, have some cat people in the story? Once I considered the idea, I couldn’t think of a negative answer for the question.
(10) DC Comics
I love Marvel! I write for Marvel! I don’t do the either/or thing, and never did, so this isn’t about universe preference. The reality is, however, that Marvel has a cultural cool factor these days that DC doesn’t quite match. Many of their most obscure characters are now household names. I have plenty of Marvel references in this book, but the love for one of my favorite DC characters, Martian Manhunter, ends up being a major plot point for the book. Someday we will all dress like Martial Manhunter.