Story germs 1

Often, I find, the germ of a story is an image or a vision. A man lost in a dark catacomb, a spaceship looming over a planet, a Molotov cocktail crashing through a window. Writers have to transform this image into words, and then draw out the story, character, and atmosphere it creates into a novel.If you’re making a comic, however, that first image can stay unadulterated. You still have to make a story, though, and that’s what I’m doing with the kickass comic artist and writer Simon Roy.

On his own webiste, Simon posted two excellent story germs.


What are those things? What are they doing with the humans? Why have humans reverted to barbarism? There’s a sense here of dread, hope, and regret that’s begging to be expanded into a full story. All it needs is a catalyst to boil down the conflict to the needs of a single main character and a catalyst to get the action going.

Jan 11th, Simon:
…And what happens when the aliens dig up a 22nd century (American) military cyborg who has some differing ideas on human history and self-government.
Your post on “what do the aliens want” is helping guide me in how to put it together, too!
Jan 11th Dan

A possible problem I see with this scenario is that it has too many things that are different from real life (“conceits”). Usually, a sci-fi story has one conciet: it’s the future or aliens have made contact with humans or civilization as we know it has crumbled. Putting them all together means you have to work harder to explain what’s going on to the reader. Part of that problem you already solved, because you can just show a picture of what the world looks like (i.e. that picture of an alien archaeological dig). Cursed visual narratives and their more efficient means of implanting information in the audience!

However the other problem is that it might be hard to get the reader to sympathize with either a cold alien intelligence, an illiterate nomad, or a high-tech cyborg, and it will be very hard to get them to sympathize with all three. One solution would be to make it a 21st-century cryo-frozen person rather than a cyborg, another would be to say that civilization cycled back to something like the 19th or 20th century before the aliens arrived, another is to make the aliens familiar in their behavior to the reader. There are probably better solutions to the problem than what I’ve suggested (another idea occurs: an uploaded mind from the Rapture of the Nerds that the aliens dig up)….

Jan 14th Simon

My idea for an opening scene would involve Harry Shaw, with the collected tribes of the plains, tensely waiting for the Zon-Tars to show up to the ceremonial raising of the Human-Zon-tar Friendship pole. When they arrive, however, they give only passing notice to the ceremony and instead whisk Harry away to their ship to talk (infuritating Harry and shaming him before his vassals/rivals).
The Zon-tars are concerned with studying and understanding Earth, and part of this involves archeological digs. When they dig up a military shuttle with a still-surviving military cyborg (or bio-cyborg or something), the cyborg promptly kills the on-site supervision and decides to free mankind from the Zon-Tar yoke (and become a god himself). The only part the zon-tars know, though, is that there’s a worker/slave rebellion at one of their important dig sites, and it’s the Hegemony’s responsibility to take care of it.
So Harry’s brother and right-hand-man, Peter Shaw, takes a bunch of his meanest warriors down to crush the rebellion, only to find the region rallying around this supernatural “Iron Man”. Peter Shaw’s choices are tough – either side with his brother, and the aliens controlling earth, or side with this new bloody war-god on behalf of humankind. ”
And that was as far as I had got. (That could be the whole thing, too, if I want to do it as a short story.)

Memo had a lot of good ideas to build on that – for one, the Zon-tars are post-singularity machines (originally from earth – or the descendants of intelligent human-sent von neumann probes, my variation).) trying to understand their roots AND develop ‘wetware backups’ as insurance against possible destruction.  My original idea is that they would simply be a handful of impossibly advanced interstellar academics, studying the world as thoroughly as they could, but Memo had the counterpoint: why would these apparently advanced beings bother stooping to such low levels as collaboration and slavery with the primitive humans?
The other option is that they Zon-tars are interstellar conservationists who have seen many species come and go, and so are attempting to develop some sort of rapport with the humans on human terms (which happen to include forced labour and war) to try and keep them safe in some sort of planetary reserve, managing the population and technology to prevent new sophont-induced mass extinctions/environmental collapses. The problem with this, of course, is that it’s not a particularly exciting or evil thing for aliens to be doing. It works with the whole ‘distant, managerial overlords’ concept, though, and makes them less cartoonish conqueror aliens and more ambiguous characters.
Memo also put forward the idea of Peter joining the cyborg and going on an adventure through the abandoned cities of earth to grab some sort of mystical alien-defeating weapon (or nuke or whatever) and making into a very classic Jack Vance/Joseph Campbell epic adventure, which does have a certain appeal. …
Aha – one last thought on this, derived from some of the world building in the amazing ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz‘ – perhaps chance alone made the aliens contact the nomadic warriors of a world that accommodates both industry and tribal chaos (think of if aliens accidentally formed an alliance with the plains tribes instead of the settling Americans during the mid 1800s). But that might be too much of a conceit in and of itself! …

Jan 16th Dan
The Shaw Hegemony sounds something like a theocracy, except with God occasionally actually doing something, and it’s not always what you expect. Another danger would be that other people could theoretically get the aliens’ attention and cut Harry out of the loop. Other parallels might be Chinese Mandarins (interacting between the alien Mongols and the general Chinese population), and I’m sure there are actually people like this today among stateless societies, who negotiate between the tribe and outsiders. The corruption networks that grow around charitable aid foundations in Africa might also be useful templates for this guy….So this is a discussion of self-government. Is it better to be ruled by outsiders or insiders? What if the insider is a ruthless dictator?

Peter Shaw is an excellent main character. The cyborg, Harry Shaw, and the aliens all must be cynical manipulators to some extent, and those sort of people are hard for readers to sympathize with. Peter Shaw might actually be a good, moral person, though, and so you can have him ask questions like “what is right?” without sounding silly. Also, he makes a great stand-in for any would-be revolutionary in history. Should I side with the would-be dictator, or the faceless, exploitative foreign business interests?
… I’m worried, though, that the Zon-tars aren’t bad enough. Are they doing anything unpleasant to humans? What are the humans rebelling against? Because in order to make Peter Shaw’s choice a hard one, the Zon-tars have to be bastards (perhaps unwittingly, but still).
One possibility is forced uploading. Zon-tars do a “destructive scan” of a human brain in order to build an accurate simulation, and bystanders see the guy’s head explode in a puff of nano-machines. That could raise tensions.

…I think it’s important that the aliens have a real stake in something on the earth, so we can sympathize with their motives. A historical parallel might be Egypt versus England. Archaeology is useful and interesting to the Zon-tars, so there’s a lot of archaeological work and tourism on Earth, but that’s only part of a general exploitation process. What do the Zon-tars want that Earth can provide? Organic feedstock? I can imagine huge factories, chewing forests into baby Zon-tars.
…Or they could just be conversationists. Conservation is a good idea when we apply these rules to ourselves, but when an overlord starts telling you how big your population can be, that’s oppression. Aliens managing humans like we manage bison would be a very, very bad thing for individual humans.
Which makes a great story!

Making Peter the main character might go a long way to closing the gap. Consider making him educated by the aliens in the ways of the ancients (like a turn-of-the-century Arab Egyptian might learn something at digs). Let’s say he has a culture crush on the United States, and so he’s constantly making comparisons to things he knows about the United States and things he’s seeing in the distant future (is this guy a Martin Luther King or a Malcom X? Is he a Lenin or a Stalin?) That could be enough to give the readers something to hold while you drag them forward into the story.

So to summarize what I’m getting from your story:
General Peter has a problem. His older brother, Lord Harry, has sent him to quell a rebellion around an archaeological dig run by the Holy Zon-tar, but this time it isn’t just a slave revolt.

(opening scene: a battle during the slave revolt with set-pieces and flash-backs to world-build behind the action) An enormous number of peasants and prairie tribesmen have allied themselves with a mysterious Iron Warrior, and have actually succeed in destroying several Holy Zon-tar. Then, when Peter is captured by the Iron Warrior, he finds out that this hero of the people is actually a survivor from the Time Long Ago, before the Zon-tar came.

(chapter two, talking and establishing characters and world building) Iron speaks of the right to human self-rule, even as he callously throws his allies to their deaths at the hands of the wrathful Zon-tar.

(Chapter three: More action)When Zon-tar justice catches up to them, Iron and Peter (metal and stone, get it?) are the only ones to escape alive.

(Chapter four: atmosphere and little adventures) They flee across the face of post-apocalyptic North America, trying to gather aid, hide from the Zon-tar, and find the factory/hospital that Iron can use to make an army as strong as himself. However, Peter is increasingly worried that Peter would make a worse ruler of humanity than the Zon-tar. When a woman from Lord Harry’s court joins their party, Peter does not expose her for the spy she is.( (actually maybe put this important character earlier? It depends on whether this story is more like a novel or more like a series of TV shows or comic books).)

(chapter 5, the lowest point) Finally, when they find the lost factory/hospital,it turns out Iron has no intention of augmenting anyone to his level. He only wants to replace the Zon-tar as ruler of earth. (the solution) Peter lets his girlfriend call down the Zon-tar to provide a distraction while the two of them undergo the surgery needed to become cyborgs as powerful as Iron, and churn as many other people as they can through the process.

(chapter 6: a kick-ass battle! Aliens and knights and good and evil cyborgs! Blarg!) The end result is a defeated Iron and a treaty with the Zon-tar, backed up an army of cyborg-citizens. True freedom only arises when everyone has the same destructive potential as everyone else.

Tune in tomorrow for more Zon-tarly goodness!

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