Tag Archive: Star Trek


I’ve written a few posts that touched on message fiction over the years, especially back during the Hugo Award fight. The latter may have ended, but the general push continues.

Once, in the comments on this blog, someone challenged me to give examples of message fiction, and I surprised him by giving examples of message fiction that I agreed with, including one book that I personally edited. You see, message fiction isn’t good or bad. It’s often referred to derogatively, but its goodness or badness is the same as that of all art: in the eye of the beholder.

That doesn’t mean it’s the goal. In fact, the whole reason why it tends to be looked down on across the spectrum is because it limits your audience.

As I tell my students, you can’t really examine something without first defining it.

message fiction (n): a story or other fictional entertainment that cannot be enjoyed without first agreeing with its message.

In other words, you can have fiction with a message you disagree with and still enjoy it, if the enjoyment doesn’t depend on accepting its premise. For example, I greatly enjoy M*A*S*H, even though it’s (often blatantly) counter to many of my beliefs. I can laugh at Hawkeye chasing skirts without promoting promiscuity, just as I can enjoy the screwball Army humor without being required to protest any war or assume the military is that stupid. Some episodes are heavy-handed, but it’s still pure entertainment.

For me, the truest example of entertainment with strong secondary messaging is still, and probably always will be, the original series of Star Trek.

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Today, we’re told we should expect things to be heavy-handed. We need it, they say, because society needs it. We have to meet quotas and check off boxes; sex sells, and don’t worry about exposing your kids to racy television because, hey, it’s all racy these days. But we shouldn’t expose them to violence, unless the show fits certain values.

The same thing is true of books, and probably moreso. It’s a truism, especially with science fiction and fantasy, that TV shows and movies will lag about a generation behind novels. This isn’t an accident; the people who grow up reading these novels eventually become the people who make, produce, and consume the same kind of entertainment they grew up with; TV and film requires a much wider audience to break even, and so there’s a delay built in. If you want to see where your children, and much of society, will be in twenty years, take a look at what’s on the shelf.

And increasingly, I find one very disturbing thing there, especially in the YA section. That’s right. Bad quality writing.

What, did you expect I was going to go off on a moralistic crusade?

No, the issue at hand is that today, our books are increasingly forceful in their message fiction, letting entertainment take a backseat to a crusade of whatever values the author finds most important at the time. Really, go ahead and have a message. But fiction with a message is not necessarily message fic. If you really want to spread a message, then go be entertaining first. Let them enjoy themselves, and reach a larger audience with your story.

That’s why Star Trek was so successful at this. It had some very heavy-handed episodes, of course; who can forget the blatant anti-racism message of “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”? Or the Cold War message of “The Omega Glory”? Vietnam and proxy wars in “A Private Little War”? And yet even the most heavy-handed episodes were fun. You got involved. You cared about the two bi-chromatic aliens figuring out that racism was futile, and were saddened when they couldn’t give up their hatred. You looked at the Comms and Yangs and were glad that endless war hadn’t yet come. You saw the innocence of the Hill People shattered by the Klingons delivering gunpowder technology, and felt that quiet thrill of horror as Kirk faced the dilemma of matching the same technology, guaranteeing war among those they hoped to deal with peacefully, or watch entire cultures be wiped out in the name of noninterference.

We love Star Trek for its thrilling action, but we remember it for its skill at holding up a mirror and making us think, even for a moment, that it was a window.

By the time I was old enough to appreciate how bold it was for its time, Star Trek taught me it was completely normal for an American, a Scotsman, a Japanese, a Kenyan, and a Russian (to say nothing of numerous aliens) to work together with no cultural frictions, and all appropriate for kids to watch. We all know the story of Nichelle Nichols wanting to quit because she didn’t do anything and being talked out of it by no less than Martin Luther King, Jr.; but I distinctly remember being a little kid and thinking Uhura was the busiest person on the ship because she was always doing something. Damage control, coordination, communications . . . Scotty might operate the ship, and Kirk might command it, but Uhura ran the place. Even as an adult, being able to see why Nichols wasn’t happy with her role, I still can’t shake my younger self’s feeling that whenever Uhura left the ship, no one knew what to do because she wasn’t around to give orders.

And that was the impression of a little boy in the 80s and a teen in the 90s, long after the Civil Rights era. Dr. King was right: Uhura was an icon for the entire nation. How many boys and girls in a previous generation grew up with that same impression? How many used her as a role model?

Not once did she get singled out as black among Starfleet, and that was something that continued for most of the later installments. Racism very rarely came up. We saw a future where we were past all that. We saw a black who was an equal. We saw a Russian who wasn’t a threat. We saw a Japanese who fit in without being a token.

It’s a powerful message, made all the more tremendous by how subtle it is. We didn’t have it thrown in our faces. Today, you almost always have to pause the show to acknowledge this one is different, look and see. And then occasionally you have that same thing happen, such as in the first season of The Flash when Captain David Singh is revealed as gay not by pausing the show, but by a minor moment when he refers to his fiance as “he.”

That is the lesson of Star Trek. If you want to make something seem normal, then treat it as normal. Shock value has its place, but you don’t need it all the time. You can show a strong woman or a confident man without tossing them into a sexual situation; you can show someone is upset without strong language; and you can deliver a message without taking a break from the action.

The problem with heavy language and sexual suggestiveness isn’t prudishness. It’s that it becomes less exposed to children. Keep it a three-generation show (as they say in the UK — something a grandparent, parent, and child can all watch together) and you can reach everyone. The strength of Star Trek was in reaching everyone with that kind of story, without feeling like you were getting a Sunday sermon or a political speech. Pure entertainment doesn’t mean it has to go in one ear and out the other.

Building Your World: Scale

When figuring out where to set your story, one of the simplest things to do is pick how far your story extends. Does it take place entirely in one town? Does it span an entire galaxy?

There has been an increasing trend toward larger and larger settings in the last few decades, though that trend may be reversing now. It seems as if, as our perception of our own world increases and our ability to get from place to place becomes easier, we seem to think that the same should be true even in a medieval fantasy setting. Lately, though, I’ve been coming across more and more stories that detail smaller areas, as if authors are realizing that — like with the real world — “flyover country” actually contains some interesting stuff. You can set a lot of stories in one small area.  Continue reading

He is, and Will Always Be, My Friend

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Today, we say goodbye to an icon of not just geek culture, but that of America and the whole world.

Godspeed, Mr. Spock. Second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning.


Edit: I now have the chance to sit down and write more.

The Internet is filling up with tributes, and they’re nice to see. They’re filled with joy for what Nimoy had given us, rather than sorrow for what we’ve lost. And I rather like that. I’ve always preferred the Irish wake to the Roman funeral.  Continue reading

EDIT: Since posting this yesterday, several people have privately told me of more issues with Tuscany Press. Some of it has been anecdotal, but others have been verifiable; and it all adds up to an unpleasant picture. The editor-in-chief at Tuscany has told me that the essay I fisked in the following post is opinion and should not be construed as Tuscany’s stance, but he did not address the issue that it was approved by Tuscany despite being obviously wrong. I may do an update on this issue soon.

ANOTHER EDIT: I’ve posted an update on this situation here.

Tuscany Press has been my go-to publishing house to recommend to fellow Catholic authors. I’m associated with Chesterton Press, a smaller indie Catholic Press (my Novel Ninja business is separate and not exclusive to Catholic fiction), but Tuscany is a larger operation and can handle more submissions at a time. However, I’m no longer recommending them, due to a recent post on their subsidiary, CatholicFiction.Net, on why science fiction is evil.  Continue reading

Science fiction authors have a tough job.

There have been a bunch of breakthroughs lately in different tech sectors. These range from coding improvements to new technology that interfaces with the human body, to stuff that many people thought outright impossible. Sometimes it’s mind-boggling. Other times it’s happening so slowly that you have to really step back and realize how different things have become.

My friend Lori took some time to introduce me to some of her favorite westerns the other night. In a scene in Shane when the characters (several homesteaders, plus the titular Shane who is helping them out) stop at a general store, the female lead (Marion Starett) pauses to examine a Mason jar in wonder. “My, my, my,” she says. “What will they think of next?”

Well, contemporary audiences no doubt got a kick out of that one, separated from Marion by almost a hundred years of technological development. The telephone, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, the rocket, the computer, cinema and television — all these were in her future, and in their past, in their present. The answer to her question was long, complicated, and unbelievable to her contemporaries.  Continue reading

Don’t Dump

One of the most common mistakes, even with professional storytellers, is to deliver a lot of exposition in a small space, or otherwise give “idiot lectures” where you have one character being a bit more dumb than usual simply so that a second character will have to explain something to him (and therefore to the audience). This is often called infodumping, and it’s often hard to avoid — but the best authors watch out for it and work around it.

Continue reading

Fifty Years of Doctor Who

Well, dear readers, it’s the weekend to talk about Doctor Who. I thought I’d share a little bit about my own personal experiences with the show.

Once upon a time in the United States, a man could walk down the street in a brown coat, floppy hat, and a ridiculously long multicolored scarf, and fully expect that no one would recognize who he was supposed to be. Today . . . well, most people wouldn’t recognize him, but that’s only because he’s not wearing a bowtie.

I’m an old-school fan. I started in the 90s, during the sixteen-year hiatus, when getting Doctor Who back on the air seemed less likely than getting new episodes of Firefly today. Yes, dear readers, there was such a dark age of television. Back then, Doctor Who was nearly unheard-of in the United States, and even today plenty of people here will refer to Christopher Eccleston as “the first Doctor.” They certainly wouldn’t get the Doctor Who reference slipped into the finale of the first season of Star Trek: The Next GenerationContinue reading

Highs and Lows

You may have heard of the phrases “high fantasy” and “low fantasy.” Or perhaps you haven’t; while they’re used very commonly in an academic sense, they aren’t as common outside those circles. As is so often the case, this leads to some confusion in the definitions. And so I decided to give you a quick overview of the topic. That’s what this blog is for, after all! Continue reading

Farewell, Ann Crispin

There are great, well-known, household-name authors that we credit with shaping our ideas of fiction. And for every one of those, there are many more that even our friends haven’t heard us talk about. For me, one of those was A. C. Crispin.

Mind you, many of my friends and authors have heard me quote some of her advice, but I rarely go around talking about her actual fiction. It feels like a disservice, even though I know there are so many books and authors out there that we can’t get to every one of them. And yet, Ann Crispin was one of my favorite authors in my teen years, and she had a deep and abiding influence on my writing style and how I approach editing.

Plus, her StarBridge series had one book that featured a deaf heroine. Very rare in fiction, much less SF&F. My hearing problems weren’t as frustrating back then, but it was a nice thing to have. And I should reread it, because it’s been years.

Today, September 6th, Ann Crispin lost her battle with cancer. I never got to meet her, and I wish I did.

An author’s estate always experiences a posthumous bump in sales. It’s not ghoulish. She’s most famous for her Star Trek and Star Wars installments, but she’s got a hefty bibliography to her credit. Check out her books and buy some. If nothing else, you’ll be providing a little extra income for her husband, who just lost the woman he loved and really shouldn’t have to worry about money right now.

And for everyone, prayers don’t cost a thing. I bet they could both use some right now.

It’s been a while. Again. If you haven’t been looking at my Facebook page, you might have wondered what was going on. I’m supposed to review books, movies, talk about public appearances . . . yep. Stuff is coming.

I figure, though, I should give a quick no-spoiler review of Star Trek Into Darkness. It’ll be quick because I basically cannot say much without giving spoilers at all.  Continue reading

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