An alien, just like your grandmother used to make.
Here we are, nearly halfway through February as I type this, amazed at how well several of the other writers working on their Elite: Dangerous novels are getting along. There’s talk of outlining, approval from Frontier, plan-draft critique and all kinds of progress. You are lucky, lucky people because there’s a dedicated crew of word-monkeys typing madly to bring you a wall of Elite fictional goodness as you read this (between peeling the odd banana and picking insects from their armpit hair, but everyone is entitled to some time off). While their creativity flows in a torrential outpouring of brilliance, what have I been able to eke out of the unforgiving bedrock of my imagination? Nuggets. Thargoid shaped nuggets.
The thing about aliens is that they are, well, alien, which means they need defining/refining if they aren’t to come off the page as humans in rubber suits. (I love the original 60s Star Trek series, but that doesn’t mean I want to recreate the rubber and papier-mâché outfits on paper!) David Braben of Frontier has sketched out his ideas for the Thargoids and I’ve been busy fleshing out (deliberate pun) that vision. Doing the writer’s guide has forced me to consider the meaning of ‘Thargoid’…
In the 1930s-40s sci-fi aliens were mostly monsters from outer space, like something my five-year-old likes to draw. Around this time a little depth began to enter the genre, and writers increasingly created creatures which could possibly exist on other worlds. They had bodies which fitted with their imagined ecology, unique minds, and goals more subtle than the enslavement of mankind and the ravishing of our womenfolk to bear their next generation. They had a culture and a history. They began to feel real.
Into the 40s and beyond hardcore science fiction came into its own, where the laws of cosmology, biology, physics and chemistry became enmeshed with the story. In many cases the science was the reason for the story – the plot was simply a device on which the SF writer hung the ideas they were interested in exploring. Those ideas encompassed every discipline and sphere of human knowledge and development, and as scientific laws they were often left intact by the writers who were inspired by them.
Over-generalising, this gives us three broad categories of SF alien: the science fantasy monster, the science fiction alien, and the hardcore science fiction alien. Some novels and their authors used one of these visions of ‘alien-ness’ exclusively, others took elements from more than one.
Which brings us back to Thargoids and the writer’s guide. It’s true that while I’m focusing on the guide the word count of my story isn’t increasing. It’s equally true that, to show other writers what a Thargoid is so there is some consistency across the Elite fiction and the game, I’m having to consider every aspect of what makes a Thargoid, a Thargoid. The most crucial decision was made before I started by David Braben and the Frontier team: the Thargoids weren’t going to be people playing dress-up science fantasy monsters. (If this appeals to you, that’s fine. What you do in your spare time is your own business. I’m not here to judge.) It turns out that both the team and I want the Thargoids to seem plausible, with coherence between their ecology, evolution, biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, reproduction, history, culture and technology. The downside, time-wise, is that takes a lot of work. The upside for me is that I get a real creative buzz from putting the disparate pieces of the puzzle together into a whole Thargoid. The upside for you will be aliens that have teeth (metaphorically), are consistent across the Elite universe and, hopefully, are interesting enough to read, encounter in-game, and to inspire the creativity of other writers and game designers.
There’s a lot to do (see the ‘coherence list’ above), but I’m a pile of research and 10,000 words in, and still going strong. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal anything at this stage. Frontier will need to sign off on all my ideas and the guide, add more of their own magic, and even then details are likely to come out very slowly. For a long time the Thargoids have been a mystery, and that’s been part of their attraction. The ‘reveal’ is likely to be a-bit-at-a-time. But, for me, being able to play a part in the unravelling of a 25+ year mystery is exciting and a real privilege. I’m very much hoping Frontier, and you, will like the outcome.
For now, here is a short extract (unofficial and unapproved) from the first draft of the forthcoming writers guide. No, it doesn’t contain any secrets, but I wanted to reassure everyone I have been doing something over the last few weeks.
“MEETING THARGOIDS IN SPACE: Travel, Make New Friends, And Come Home in an Escape Pod
Space is a freezing cold vacuum, and anyone (human) caught outside unprotected would either explode, spraying blood and meaty organ-chunks through space, or instantly freeze solid into a mammalian space-popsicle.
However appealing these dramatic images of the dangers in space are, unfortunately they have nothing to do with actual physics. For the purposes of this guide we will assume that physics actually exists and allow it, and not our latent teen-imaginings, to steer this discourse. Although this guide is about Thargoids, it helps to understand the alien-ness of our insectoid friends if we compare them to ourselves.”
For now, I’ll be continuing with the guide and learning about Thargoids as I go so I can bring you a better story at the end. If anyone has any thoughts, feel free to share them below…
(Your comments are moderated before appearing, so don’t worry if they don’t come up straight away.)