[No comments] December Film Roundup: To close the year we dug into our crate of Billy Wilder DVDs, with mixed results. So mixed, in fact, that this month's Roundup can illustrate the principle that it's a lot easier to talk about a bad movie than a good movie.

I still love Wilder, but as I see more of his stuff I think my impression of him has been distorted by the 1959-1961 seasons, where he directed three of the best movies ever made in three consecutive at-bats.

[Comments] (1) Situation Normal Author Commentary #1: High-level structure: Hey, folks! My second novel Situation Normal came out three weeks ago, and I've heard that at least a few people have finished it, so I'm reinitializing a tradition I started with my first novel, Constellation Games: author commentary.

With Constellation Games I did a chapter-by-chapter commentary as the book was serialized. I won't be doing that this time—Situation Normal is significantly longer than Constellation Games, which was itself really long for a science fiction book. Instead I've written a number of topical essays; a combination of "stuff for fans" and "stuff I wish I'd known when I was planning a big novel."

I'll be posting chunks of comentary every Tuesday and Friday; I have about a month of stuff depending on how I split it up. Today's episode takes a look at the structure of the book on the highest level. All of these essays will have big spoilers for Situation Normal, but since this one's a high-level overview I think it's vague enough that you could read a bit to see if the book sounds interesting.

Plot structure

The single best piece of writing advice I've ever gotten, or at least the best one I consciously remember, comes from Jim Macdonald, who compared plotting a novel to a game of chess. At the beginning of the story, the crucial thing is to get your characters "out on the board" as quickly as possible.

One you do that (this is my own discovery and not part of Jim's advice), you can get a long way through the plot by writing a scene for each pair of characters and seeing what they have to say to each other. I don't know if anyone else does this as a conscious strategy but I see it happening a lot in ensemble TV shows like Star Trek. I did this in Constellation Games, e.g. "Daisy and Ariel haven't had a scene together, what would they say to each other?" But this doesn't quite work in Situation Normal because the characters spend most of the book in small, physically isolated groups. What I did instead was shuffle the groups.

In Situation Normal, Cedar Commons is the "chessboard". At the beginning of the book, most of the major characters are drawn to the planet. This lets me write "before" scenes with sets of characters who already know each other:

Then I turn on the particle accelerator. The Situation goes Normal, and all the characters are shuffled and flung back into space. Now the characters are separated again, but every grouping of characters contains wildcards:

Over the course of the book, the characters become even more isolated than this. Myrus is sent to the Youth Festival, Becky leaves Sour Candy. But at the end of the book everyone comes together a second time, at Nimar, pulled together by the gravitational pull of the plot.

Because the characters spend so much time in separate plotlines, a lot of fun scenes didn't happen. Churryhoof and Myrus make things very difficult for each other without ever meeting or even becoming aware of each other. Ethiret-Jac and the Chief only have the tiniest interaction, but in that interaction I see the seed of an amazing scene: those two are effectively the same character, and you can just see how much they hate each other.

I'm not crying over what might have been. This is a huge book. I cut major characters and plotlines to get to where we are today. But compared to Constellation Games, there are a whole lot of scenes I could have written but didn't.

The Lebowski Connection

It's now a bit of a cliche to love The Big Lebowski, but it went through a long wilderness period where it was dismissed as a post-Fargo brain fart, so let me have this. I've loved The Big Lebowski since opening day, March 6, 1998; and one of the things I love about it is the plot, which is pretty tightly constructed (not perfect) but seems random and incoherent because the POV character doesn't understand what's going on. Since POV is so tight, the moviegoer must see the film multiple times to piece together what the Dude can't.

In Constellation Games a whole lot of stuff could have been cut without affecting Ariel's through-line (e.g. Ragtime and the Mars mission). For Situation Normal I wanted to work on tighter plotting, and naturally I took The Big Lebowski as my model. The problem is, it's a bit much to ask someone to watch a movie multiple times to understand the plot, and it's a non-starter with a big novel. This only worked with The Big Lebowski because it's funny as hell; even then it took years for the film to get its due.

However. With multiple POV you can tell a complex story and the reader will be able to keep up even as each character stays in the dark. If you told the story of The Big Lebowski from multiple POV (let's say the Dude, Bunny, and Maud—the three Lebowskis), you could tell the story all the way through in chronological order, it would make sense on first viewing, and the core elements of the comedy would come through just fine, because no one character would know what was happening.

When writing the first draft of Situation Normal, I worked on a scene-by-scene basis and didn't really know where it was going overall. But I had a single guiding principle: all the major characters need to end up at the same place and play a crucial role in a climax that fires every Chekhov's gun introduced over the course of the book: Evidence, brands, pain debt, rre colonies, etc. No Return of the Jedi stuff (or, be fair, Constellation Games stuff) where entire subplots end up making no difference to the outcome.

If Cedar Commons is the planet where everyone ends up together by chance, Nimar is the planet that everyone goes to intentionally. The middle part of the story equips everyone with the motive, means and opportunity to get to Nimar. Every major character has an individual character arc as they proceed through the same plot arc, though some characters (Dwap-Jac-Dac) change more than others (Kol).

Then the climax fires all the Chekhov's guns, and the epilogue draws the lifelines of the survivors a little bit past their second point of intersection at Nimar. It gives you a little cooldown without changing the emotional tone, like Donny's funeral in The Big Lebowski.

In my 2013 review of The Big Lebowski I mentioned how, like in a Thomas Pynchon novel, "each of [the] characters is surrounded by a protective bubble of literary genre". In The Big Lebowski each character lives in a different genre. In Situation Normal everyone is in the same genre—madcap space opera—and the characters who get the best endings are the ones who'd already been living in a compatible genre bubble, or who manage to develop one over the course of the book.

This is a smaller influence, but Myrus's subplot in particular was inspired by the John le Carré (RIP) novel The Tailor of Panama. I'm probably not remembering this right, but the bit I remember is someone tells a little bitty lie that spirals out of control and ends in death and disaster. The upside for Myrus is he never finds out about the consequences of his (totally justified IMO) lie.

Building the cast

So, all these characters who can't see the consequences of their actions, where did they come from? Going back to "Four Kinds of Cargo", the Sour Candy crew were all structured around the Chief, who's a huge weirdo. Kol was the one who managed the relationship between her adventure-story fantasies and reality; and Arun and Yip-Goru were... pretty similar to each other. In the novel I differentiated them by making Yip-Goru extremely cowardly (inspired by thons line "Why should we risk our vocalizers for a dead body?") and Arun smoothly British (inspired by his willingness to do a "Bertie Wooster routine").

Becky Twice is the starting point for all the new characters. Becky herself stems from a request of my friend Mirabai, a big fan of Constellation Games who wanted to read a space opera romance between two butch women. I had one butch woman character (the Chief) so I created another (Becky) and put them on a collision course to disastrous romance.

I didn't consciously know this at the time, but a romance story often has a red-herring partner to create tension or to contrast with the story's "real" relationship. Hiroko Ingridsdotter came out of that story need—a maximally inappropriate match for Becky. Hiroko's personality was somewhat flexible through the drafts, as she got moved from one subplot to another, but her character design has always been (Mirabai's phrasing) "high-maintenance military hard femme."

(Mirabai fan-service also explains Crinoline White, though I cut Crinoline's storyline in the final draft. I'll talk more about her in a later post, but she was basically Hiroko's style plus the Chief's cavalier attitude.)

A chain of logic gives us the other characters: at the end of "Four Kinds of Cargo", Kol suggests Sour Candy "sit out the war in a forest." In Situation Normal we see he had a specific forest in mind—Cedar Commons, a whole forest planet where he and the Chief had previously hidden their purloined Evidence.

This raises the question of why Becky is also on that forest planet, or why a "forest planet" even exists. A lot of forests on Earth are monocultures that basically exist to be cut down for wood, so it made sense to say Cedar Commons was that kind of forest. This created a good reason for Becky and Hiroko to have a whole planet to themselves (they're guarding the trees), and for Becky to have missed out on recent developments (meaning she needs the same exposition you do).

Given that a forest planet is our chessboard, who else would go there? Answer: people who want to cut down the forest and make things out of the wood. Jaketown came out of this, and Myrus and Den, the apprentice woodworkers. From that came the question: how come Becky and Hiroko didn't hear that a customer was on the way? Answer: Jaketown is running from something. Not in a panicky way, where you'd hide on the closest planet. Jaketown is a bunch of draft dodgers, and they're looking for a forest planet, where they can pretend they're doing business as usual. Churryhoof and Dwap-Jac-Dac came out of the need to have someone chasing down the draft dodgers.

At that point I had plenty of characters for a novel, with main characters from all three Outreach species, so I stopped sending people to Cedar Commons. We do have some characters introduced later in the book: Starbottle and the Errand Boy are shadowy villains who get revealed over time. Tia and Ethiret were necessary to further Dwap-Jac-Dac's character arc of ceasing to be Dwap-Jac-Dac. And the standalone arc of Styrqot and Vec is necessary to further Den's character development.

The occupation of Cedar Commons changes Den from the person Myrus remembers to the person we see in Part Four. Styrqot and Vec play a role analogous to (though much nastier than) Tammy Miram's role in Constellation Games. I could have cut Tammy without affecting the main plotline; she's actually the main character of a different book we never see. But Ariel's relationship with Tammy puts him through the transformation he needs to be ready for the climax of Constellation Games.

On Friday I'll go into more detail about the sci-fi components of the worldbuilding, and the transition from "Four Kinds of Cargo" to a novel-length story. I'll cover the secret origins of Evidence and skipping, and reveal which real sci-fi corpus was my model for the Cametre stories. See you then!

[Comments] (2) Situation Normal Author Commentary #2: Worldbuilding: Welcome back to the commentary grotto. Please, help yourself to an olive. Today I got some high-level notes on the worldbuilding for Situation Normal. In future entries I'll be going into much more detail on two very important items—the space aliens and the fictional religions—but today is a more grab-baggish look at the choices I made when customizing an off-the-shelf space opera universe. As always, spoilers (and olive pits) are ahead.

from "Four Kinds of Cargo" to Situation Normal

The single biggest worldbuilding source for Situation Normal was worldbuilding I already did for its prequel, "Four Kinds of Cargo". Over and over again I'll be telling you that some major piece of the novel originated in a throwaway line from the story. But there are also many tonal differences between the two that you probably wouldn't notice, except I'm going to point them out here.

Most obviously, I changed some of the names around at editorial suggestion, to avoid ambiguity or assonance (both of which cause readers to conflate names). The main reason I did a Retcon Edition of "Four Kinds of Cargo" was to let you go back and forth between story and novel without being confused by abrupt name changes. I don't think the names are a big deal one way or the other—"Terran Extension" and "Terran Outreach" are the same kind of nonsense. I changed "the Captain" to "the Chief" because Situation Normal contains numerous characters who have "Captain" as a military rank, but no equivalent of Master Chief or Chief O'Brien. That sort of thing.

Since there's no expectation you've read the short, Situation Normal only contains explicit references to "Four Kinds of Cargo" when that's necessary for continuity purposes. Mainly we need to refer to Terequale Bitty, the crew member who dies in the first sentence of "Four Kinds of Cargo" and who in Situation Normal is replaced, briefly, by Becky Twice. Becky sleeps in Terequale's bed (if you can call it sleeping) and inherits her coffee mug. The details are just Easter eggs—if you haven't read "Four Kinds of Cargo" it may seem weird that Sour Candy had a quenny engineer, and I don't explain it. What's important is, that engineer just died and her stuff is still on board, which makes room for Becky and sets up the expectation that the crew on Sour Candy changes pretty frequently.

In Situation Normal we learn that crew members usually leave Sour Candy not because they die ("Four Kinds of Cargo" sez Terequale Bitty was the first fatality) but because they're romantically involved with the Chief, who dumps them. Were Terequale and the Chief lovers? I never had that in mind, and it doesn't fit with how anyone remembers Terequale in "Four Kinds of Cargo", but statistically it's likely.

Becky joins Sour Candy despite not having any of Terequale Bitty's skills, because the most important thing is having an odd number of people on board to prevent votes from ending in a tie. (This may also explain Kol's bad decision to hire Mrs. Chen in "Four Kinds of Cargo".) This was more prominent in an earlier draft of Situation Normal, where at one point there were four people on the crew and they couldn't agree on anything.

In Situation Normal it's revealed that Mrs. Chen has been tracking Sour Candy, whereas in "Four Kinds of Cargo" it seems more like she's doing psyop work against Quennet. Going over "Four Kinds of Cargo" and reconstructing what I may have been thinking back in 2012, it reads like Mrs. Chen was trying to get to Terequale Bitty or turn her somehow. So it's a little weird that immediately after infiltrating the crew ("Four Kinds of Cargo") she'd go right back to secretly tracking them (Situation Normal).

In "Four Kinds of Cargo", Arun is described as not just the heavy but the negotiator. At the beginning of Situation Normal we see him pull the "Bertie Wooster routine" on Becky, but apart from that he doesn't negotiate very much—in particular, the Chief handles the drug deal with Rooroo.

In the final draft of Situation Normal there are three references to the Cametrean tradition of ritual cannibalism (as modified by Kol in "Four Kinds of Cargo"), all of which come from people mocking Ethiret and none of which are explained. The first draft contained actual cannibalism: the food served at the monastery was not neutral soup, but a Tupperware containing a jellied corestin arm:

"Our late sister Clovak," said the quenny. "Ethiret's partner in crime. An intestinal infection killed her. We're not eating that part."

Finally, this is more of an Easter egg, but the purple dress the Chief wears in "Four Kinds of Cargo" comes from the rasme thau casino Den visits at the end of Situation Normal—Den is given an identical dress even though she's a different species with a different body shape. It's the equivalent of the humiliation necktie they give you at the fancy restaurant if you dare show up without a tie. I'm assuming they still do that but maybe it only happened in sitcoms. I will say I've been to a couple fancy restaurants in my day, and I always made sure to wear a jacket and tie to avoid Den's fate.

The title

The very first title of this book was The Furniture War. Once I'd written a bit I wanted to call it Heavy Evidence (now the title of Part Two) but was foiled by genre reading conventions: that sounds like a mystery novel. Instead Sumana and I started calling it Explosion of Honour, a title I never seriously intended to use, but which set the mood as a parody of those Baen military fiction books with goofy cover paintings.

Sumana came up with the title Situation Normal while we were brainstorming over dinner and from that moment on the book never had any other title. There are other books called Situation Normal, and there will probably be more in the future, so I hope we can all get along.


In 2007, I was doodling a novel set in 1960s Earth, called The Man From ARPA. A programmable hallucinogen fit with its countercultural phone-phreaking theme. This is a quote from my notes:

A family of "targeted hallucinogen" drugs called Evidence that induces specific hallucinations or hallucinations intended to evoke specific reactions.

So Evidence has been in my head for a while. However, this idea did not work with The Man From ARPA at all—the level of neuroscience you'd need to create it is way beyond a 1960s level. Even in the space-opera future, the Fist of Joy can't pull it off without cheating.

Instead of The Man From ARPA I wrote "Vanilla", an unpublished novella featuring a synthetic hallucinogen that was not called Evidence but had a few similarities. "Vanilla" became Constellation Games, and Evidence finally saw publication with Situation Normal. At this point The Man From ARPA is well in the rear-view mirror, but the phone-phreaking plot is still a remote possibility—the core concept is clever and I haven't seen anyone else use it. It would probably be a short story, not a novel, and set on another planet, because I don't like doing historical research.


Keeping time in terms of "shifts" shows up in "Four Kinds of Cargo" for the same reason I use 2x notation for everything in "The Time Somn Died". In a story with no human POV characters, time won't be measured in "hours" or "days", and using those words will take the reader out of the story. This is always a challenge because making up fake timekeeping words also takes the reader out of the story, without even the benefit of explaining how long a period of time has elapsed. A "shift" is a way humans have of keeping time that isn't directly tied to the planet Earth, so it served the purpose.

I expanded the "shifts" idea a little in Situation Normal: the Outreach does keep time using "hours" and "days", even though this doesn't make sense outside of Earth—part of the Outreach's human chauvinism.

At some point I calculated exactly how long a shift was and calibrated all the times in the book based on that number, but that was a while before the final draft and if you try to make everything line up precisely I suspect you will be disappointed. The one rule that has to work for plot purposes (it's part of Yip-Goru's conspiracy theory) is that a kiloshift is approximately one Earth year. This would make one shift about 8 hours and 45 minutes—approximately the length of a "shift" of 20th-century American work. In the end this doesn't matter and you can get through the book on Becky's vague sense that "[Fist] sitcoms ran five centishifts, so ten hours maybe?"

The Fist measures volume in the creatively-named "volumes", though in the final draft this is only used once, in a way that's ambiguous. ("A volume of Terran bourbon!") I'm gonna say the ambiguity is intentional.

I dunno how the Fist measures distance; fortunately it doesn't matter because of the way FTL works. Astronomical distance is measured in terms of the time, or number of skips, it will take to get there. Speaking of which...


I read a book around, like, 1989, which I've never been able to find since. I think the book was called Twister, so good luck finding it, and I'm pretty sure I read an ARC, so maybe its name changed or it was never even published. Anyway, in this book our intrepid scientists are trying to invent a teleportation machine. Instead, they make a machine that can "twist" a spherical volume of space, swapping it with the equivalent volume in a parallel Earth where humans never evolved.

In "Four Kinds of Cargo" the mechanism of FTL space travel is not really spelled out, because I think that stuff is boring. But you gotta spell it out in a novel that spans most of a galaxy, and I like to have a mechanism that gives me some constraints and plot toys, rather than just handwaving it and making space the size of Rhode Island. In Constellation Games the FTL mechanism is ports—moveable wormholes that connect two previously separate points in spacetime. This gives me some cool plot toys, most of which were stolen by the video game Portal, and the rest of which you can read in that novel.

In Situation Normal the FTL mechanism is skipping, defined as the thing I suspect those scientists in the book I read were trying to invent: something that swaps one spherical volume of space with another. This gives me lots of cool plot toys: skip overlap, questions of what is "spherical" given that mass distorts spacetime, and FTL as something that happens in discrete bursts (with capacitors that discharge) rather than continuously—more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek.

The idea of encrypted matter, which shows up at the very end of the book, is an idea I've had for a really long time and wasn't originally related to skipping as an FTL technology. I think at one point I intended to use it as a plot point in Constellation Games—something related to the shipping containers—and I will probably use it again in another story. It's too cool an idea to only use once as a minor plot point.

Some other things I remember about the mysterious sci-fi book, in case you want to try and find it where I have failed: there was a hacker character, possibly named Gordon, who frequented a l33t hax0r BBS with a false front. The hacker character would suffix "-o" to statements for emphasis, e.g. "sounds like some bullshit-o."

Infrafictional works

Constellation Games was full of fictional media and works of art, and Situation Normal keeps up this enjoyable tradition. The only fictional video game in Situation Normal is the Snake-like game bundled on Myrus's replacement Fist of Joy terminal, though I cut a couple when I cut Crinoline White's storyline—Kol uses online games to launder money.

More prominent in the novel are the crime dramas which first made their appearance in "Four Kinds of Cargo"—primarily Nightside, Undeclared, and (Becky and Den's favorite) The Down Under Crew. Over the course of Situation Normal, a number of characters take inspiration from these dramas as a guide to life, which makes perfect sense as Situation Normal is the same kind of story. As Myrus says, "no magic or future stuff, just normal people in normal spaceships doing crimes."

Jammer Readout!!, the Chief's origin show, is a different sort of crime drama, and IMO the book's most direct connection to Constellation Games. The rasme thau have just made contact with aliens who have brought them new technology (the videocamera) and introduced them to a complicated wider universe. So they use the technology to have wacky fun and play out their feelings about the complicated universe. I modelled Jammer Readout!! after corny low-budget sci-fi like 1980s Doctor Who.

My elevator pitch for Situation Normal is "the Coen Brothers do Star Trek", and my elevator pitch for Aquadale Selmar's Cametre stories is "Phillip K. Dick does Star Trek." I asked myself what kind of science fiction would inadvertently become a religion (as opposed to you-know-what), and I think that's a pretty good answer. I'll cover Cametreanism in greater detail later, but here's a detail about the books themselves: Selmar's novels are the ones with "Cametre" in the title. In Cametre's Clutches, Doing Without Cametre, Through Cametre's Prism, etc. The titles that don't specifically mention "Cametre" are short stories: Don't Go Out There, The Second Copy, The Kind Permission, etc. Doesn't really matter.

Myrus spends the story reading a novel called The Object of Power, and you see little clips from it at one point as he searches for the dirty bits. The Object of Power is my attempt to play out what a fantasy novel would look like in a space-opera universe, where you have magic but also space aliens and interstellar travel. I don't read a ton of fantasy, so the style of those excerpts was mainly inspired by stories and novels I've read through my writing group.

In earlier drafts, the interactive "Princess Denweld" story Gearu and Den improvise was a generic medieval high-fantasy story. I never enjoyed rereading those scenes, so while embarking on a late-stage project to make the uhaltihaxl more alien-feeling, I rewrote "Princess Denweld" to feel more like a medieval high-fantasy story written by uhaltihaxl as opposed to humans. This gave those scenes some sci-fi oomph and made them more rereadable.


In addition to changing names from "Four Kinds of Cargo" I spent a lot of time working on new names, and new naming rules, for new types of characters. Hetselter Churryhoof's name went through several variants early on as I was establishing the rules for uhaltihaxl name construction. Her original name was "Wabang Kannakannary", but that sounded too much like a human name.

Eventually I figured out that uhaltihaxl names, like the word "uhaltihaxl", needed to sound awkward on the English-speaker's tongue. For this I used weird enjambments and little bits of chopped-up English words (similar to how I made Alien surnames in Constellation Games).

Myrusit and Denweld were the only major uhalti names I never changed. Tellpesh was originally "Tellhesher", Myrus's dad (Kemrush) was originally "Kenressy") and Den's mom (Maskitenny) was originally "Tensenny". Watkerrywun, the fake name Hiroko gives Tellpesh when bamboozling the spaceport manager, turns out to be the name of the colony where Tellpesh grew up.

"Professor Starbottle" is the name of an astronomer in The Goddess of Atvatabar, an 1892 hollow-Earth novel. While writing the first draft I read a history-of-science book that mentioned this novel, and the cool name fit the character, who "bottles" the numinous and distills it into Evidence. His full name, Thaddeus Ganapathy Starbottle, is intended to evoke Groucho Marx's high-status clowns.

Styrqot's name was originally "Styrriqo". I like that name better but it's the same rhythm and has the same rolled R as "Churryhoof", so changed it to reduce cognitive load.

The name "Dwap-Jac-Dac" is probably the deepest cut in the book. It's a reference to one of the meetups I held in the mid-90s in Bakersfield for my BBS, Da Warren. The meetup was called DWAP-JAC-DAC and it stood for "Da Warren Annual Party - Jabbacrats Anonymous Conference - Dvoren Awards Ceremony." Yes, I pulled it off—the reference of a lifetime!

A quiet running joke in Situation Normal is the apparent impossibility of finding a precise English translation for the name of a Fist of Joy spacecraft. Hiroko translates Sour Candy as Bad Sugar, Mrs. Chen translates it as Sweet-and-Sour, and Crinoline (RIP) translates it as Tsundere. Churryhoof translates Small but Sharp as Little Dagger. The Errand Boy translates Unreadable Signature, the name of his own ship!, as Small Illegible Smear.

As for the Outreach Navy, all their spacecraft are named after important political documents from member governments, in parody of/tribute to the over-long ship names from the Culture books. These went in and out of the book as necessary. Some of the ones I cut that I remember are Tryst With Destiny, Akset Swy Stands Ready, United States v. Frankie, and A Few Suggestions For The Incoming Government. You may be interested to know that The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, a very GCU-ish name for a Light Combat Platform, refers to a real pamphlet from the English Civil War.

I believe the only civilian Outreach ship we see is Jaketown, which is named after my friend Jake Berendes. It's a simple but pleasant joke of taking the tradition of naming early American colonies after royalty (Jamestown, Williamsburg, etc.), and applying it to some random guy named Jake.

Outreach colonies with names like Fallback and Temporary Junction are inspired by the planet in Larry Niven's Known Space universe called We Made It; also by some Discworld characters whose names bear Cake Wrecks-type mistakes due to a poorly-thought-out naming ceremony.

A few Navy characters have the position of "Master of Drone" on their ship (Dwap-Jac-Dac on Brown v. Board, Churryhoof on What is to be Done?, Ja-Iyo-Cat on Magna Carta). This is a reference to the Roman military/government position of magister equitum, "master of horse".

The name of the capital terminal is a dense pun: it's a computer terminal that goes inside your head, but it's also the interface through which you experience capitalism. "Capital" and "terminal" are both antonyms ("first" and "last") and synonyms ("deadly").

The next essay is devoted to a single, awesome topic: space aliens. How do you make twenty-six species of forehead aliens feel distinct? You don't! Lots of pro tips like that coming right to you, on Tuesday the 12th!

[Comments] (1) Situation Normal Author Commentary #3: Space Aliens: My favorite part of writing science fiction! If you've read Constellation Games, you already know that I love designing alien biologies and cultures. In Constellation Games, each alien species had its own histories of war and privation, which they'd transcended to become part of a classic SF multi-species alliance. In Situation Normal, I came up with two different takes on the "multi-species alliance" trope and had them fight.

Not for the first or last time, the setup in Situation Normal comes out of a throwaway line in "Four Kinds of Cargo". Specifically, when Kol goes out onto the Outreach space station he mentions "humans and their Outreach lackeys." This implies a) the Fist sees itself as an alliance of equals, with the Outreach dominated by humans, and b) there are at least two "lackey" species. Basically, the Fist of Joy is how Star Trek's Federation sees itself, and the Outreach is the Federation we actually see on screen most of the time.

Some of the Fist species have some flavor (e.g. the rest of the Fist are squeezing the jetk into a gender binary where they don't really fit), but overall they're designed to feel like a disorganized mob where no one is in charge and you can't even keep track of everyone. The key line here is:

Myrus wondered if a species could quietly join the Fist of Joy without anyone noticing. With everyone thinking someone else had invited these weird-looking people.

Whereas the Terran Outreach is an empire consisting of three species with well-defined cultures (plus brands). As Arun sarcastically puts it: "the nasty humans and their uhalti pets and their rre attack dogs."


The fundamental alien concept for the uhaltihaxl is pain debt, which makes them capable of feats of physical badassery despite a reputation as fluffy sheep people.

The book starts hitting "fluffy sheep people" early. The first thing we hear about uhaltiaxhl is the mayor of Jaketown saying they "aren't warriors by nature." The "hoof" in Churryhoof's name is designed to subliminally lock in "ruminant". And Myrus is a fluffy sheep person. He gets a moment of pain-debt-fueled badassery near the end, but all he wants is to read fantasy novels and make furniture. Churryhoof and Den are the ones who do bad stuff, and the surprise (I hope) is that they don't need pain debt to do the really bad stuff—I'm thinking of Churryhoof's decision to draft the council kids and Den's cold-blooded manipulation of Gearu.

The "six percent" conversation in Chapter 24 is important here: Churryhoof drafted the wrong kid. Myrus is in the six percent of uhalti who would never hurt anyone, and Den is at the other end of the bell curve, able to kill without remorse.

The other alien feature of the uhalti is that their extreme gender segregation means no incest taboo. You're not even supposed to know who your relatives are, so it can't matter, right? In various drafts I went back and forth on whether Den and Myrus were actually related and/or romantically interested in each other, leading to a kind of wishy-washy Arrested Development level of humor.

In the end my editor wanted me to make the uhalti as weird as possible, so I went all the way in the final draft, adding the tradition of concentration of genes, and Maskitenny's and Kemrush's attempt to put it into practice with Den and Myrus. And, of course, the nearly-successful human attempt to wipe out that tradition, such that Churryhoof (who's very conservative), is happy to see it being kept alive.

One minor feature of the uhaltihaxl that I think should be present in the next release of humanity: in chapter 16, Myrus is able to "close his ears" by an act of will and not hear something annoying.


The rre are a body-snatching species who are also a colony-intelligence species. It's a similar trick to Her from Constellation Games—a collective intelligence whose components are individually intelligent—but much more fine-grained.

The rre are the opposite of the uhaltihaxl: they repulse humanoids and have a horrifying biology but are generally nice people. They were built out of a few features of Yip-Goru as described in "Four Kinds of Cargo": 1) ungendered pronoun, 2) hyphenated name, 3) lives in a metamaterial suit.

Having set that up, Yip-Goru turns out to be an unusual rre. Most of the rre we see are squares, hyper-loyal to "the rules" (Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tip-Iye-Nett-Zig) or some higher sense of morality (Tia, Ethiret-Jac). Yip-Goru is bitter, cranky, and only out for thonself.

Yip-Goru's late predecessor, Yip-Goru-Toco, is mentioned a couple times in Situation Normal. My sketch is that Yip-Goru's unusual attitude stems from trauma from being trapped in a suit and attached to Toco's dead body for a long time. But this didn't come up and was too gross to put in the story for no reason.

The metamaterial suit was mainly used a way to introduce the sanitized, human-friendly version of the rre to the reader. It's abandoned pretty quickly, as Dwap-Jac-Dac takes things in a... different direction.

The Fist of Joy

The many species of the Fist of Joy are designed as Star Trek-style forehead aliens—humanoid, but superficially different from humans and from each other. "From each other" is the most important piece because the contrast I'm setting up is actually between the Outreach and the Fist.

Since there are three major characters—Kol, the Chief, and Qued Ethiret— from these forehead-alien species, I needed to demonstrate that there's diversity within each species, and it's not a Planet of Hats thing where all the egenu are walking down the street like this.

I did this by creating minor villains whose personalities are maximally different from our heroes. The self-made Chief is mirrored by the credentialed Dr. Cwess, and sensitive Kol by the sadistic Vec. Bolupeth Vo, who draws a sharp distinction between "real life and something you'd see in the damn 3-tank", is mirrored by Qued Ethiret, who makes no such distinction.

The Errand Boy is the only major jetk character, and he's a big villain, so I ran the process in reverse, giving a number of "regular folks" bit parts to jetk: the receptionist at the Long Term Memory House, the Mormon missionaries, one of the kids in the model ICSA, and Tvez the pilot.


In Connie Willis's novel Bellwether you get phrases like "word came down from Management", and only late in the book do you discover that there's a character named Management who said that stuff. The core idea behind the brands came from a similar joke. Our experience with real-world brands (e.g. on Twitter) makes it easy to read "Strigl Modern Design did X" in the passive voice, and you don't learn until pretty late in Situation Normal that "Strigl Modern Design" is a specific person.

A couple things happened to this idea en route to the final draft. Basically, keeping you in the dark that long would not have been funny, because unlike with "Management" the fact that brands are AIs is important to the story. The most important change here is in Chapter 4, where Hiroko uses the three-ring binder to enact Trellis On-Site Security, and Jaketown on the other end finds someone to enact Strigl Modern Design at her. There's a conversation between two brands, with both sides of the conversation are mediated through humanoids.

This introduces "brands" as a satirical take on the real-world phenomenon of people switching in and out of a corporate voice. When the literal brand-as-character AIs are introduced, it's hopefully less of a shock because you see who was making the humanoids do that. After that reveal, I expanded the scenes between Den and Gearu to establish the fucked-up relationship between brands and the rest of the Outreach—something that in previous drafts was primarily Crinoline White's job.

There was some lighthearted editorial debate about how to format brand speech. Up to the final draft, brand speech was written as narration, to throw off the reader and convey the "gets in your head" feeling of a brand connecting directly to your capital terminal:

"This gentlebeing wants me to talk to you about a factory."

The hless factory.

"Presumably some kind of munitions factory," said Tellpesh-Tia.

My fallback idea was to set off brand speech with dashes—what I always think of as "James Joyce quotes"—but we settled on French-style guillemets. Italics and underlines were out because they were being used for mental asides and rre native-speech.

One of my big missed opportunities in this book is that because of the scenes I happened to cut, we almost never see brands taking action on their own. Almost always they are doing what someone else told them to do. This makes it difficult to see them as moral actors until the very end, but I assure you, they are moral actors.


And finally we have the humans: Becky, Arun, Mrs. Chen, and Professor Starbottle. I gave them the same treatment I gave the Fist of Joy aliens. There are huge differences of attitude between Becky (born and raised in the Outreach), Starbottle (born and raised in the Fist), and Arun (born in the Outreach and had to flee).

Because there's no need to convince human readers that humans aren't all morally the same, I was more free about casting humans as pure villains. In "Four Kinds of Cargo" Mrs. Chen was depicted as a little sleazy, but she's despicable in Situation Normal; and if you're a consequentialist, Starbottle is the worst person in the whole story.

This only shows up in the background, especially after I converted from Commonwealth to American spellings (we'll talk about that later), but Earth culture of this time period is dominated by India. Everyone in the Fist of Joy has a very superficial understanding of American culture, but Kol makes a pretty obscure joke about the Mahabharata (about the "Tata Yudhisthira" hovercar which abruptly loses altitude) and assumes the Chief will get it. The Errand Boy misreads a fact about Hindus as a fact about humans in general. The government of the Outreach is a parliamentary democracy with a civil service; not, for example, a Galactic Senate. Just a counterweight to how US-centric these space opera settings often are.


Surprisingly, this novel's language design also comes from a decision made in "Four Kinds of Cargo". The language used in that story is Trade Standard D, which implies that language barriers in this universe are handled with trade languages rather than automatic translation, and there are at least three more of these things.

In Situation Normal, languages are almost always rendered as English (so you can read them), but this rendering is done in different styles depending on which other languages the speaker knows (a fun trick I learned from Keith Laumer's Retief stories, also used in Constellation Games) and the fluency of the POV character.

The clearest example is Trade Standard A, the Fist's military language. When Kol hears people speaking A over the radio, it's rendered as idiomatic English, because Kol himself is fluent in A. When Churryhoof (who learned A in the Academy a long time ago) overhears Styrqot and Vec speaking A, it's rendered in a way that makes visible the underlying structure of the grammar. Through Churryhoof, we see that Trade Standard A sentences are stacks, with nouns pushed onto the stack and verbs popping from the top.

Styrqot's line as heard by Churryhoof: "To the military, the research project, the brand operates, the benefit accrues." is literally: "The benefit of the research project operated by the brand accrues to the military." and idiomatically: "The brand is just running the research project for the military."

Trade Standard B and D are two languages that work together. D is designed to be really easy to learn (Becky needs to learn it quickly for plot reasons) because it just doesn't have most of the stuff you'd want in a language designed for literature or flirting. That fancy stuff is isolated in Trade Standard B, which acts as a mixin language that you can drop in and out of while speaking D.

This shows up so subtly that I could have ditched it, but I think it's a cool idea. Merikp Hute Roques refers to "boring old Trade Standard D" because for the sake of her Outreach guests she's not including much B in her patter. The comedian in the casino is working almost entirely in B, which Den understands, as befits her would-be future in marketing. Jac is fluent in A and D, but to be effective as a con artist in the Fist thon needs Ethiret's fluency in B.

For characters who learned English through Trade Standard D, their English speech is mainly rendered as a sequence of noun phrases. This is most obvious with the Chief ("Kol, the dramatic reveal!"), but we also see it in the video ad for the Youth Festival ("Our decision to send you there!"). You see how this works in detail at the Youth Festival itself, where Myrus watches a sentence get translated from English to D, and the response get translated in the opposite direction.

I had to add some clarifying bits to make it clear that the Chief doesn't talk like this all the time! She's a native speaker of Trade Standard D, so when she talks with Kol, she sounds like she does in "Four Kinds of Cargo". Only her English (in scenes where Becky is the POV character) is noun phrases.

The flip side of all this is the way Becky, a native English speaker, encounters Trade Standard D. To start with she has no sense of the language's words or syntax—it's a wash of anxiety-inducing "harna harna" sounds. After watching the Down Under Crew dub with the Chief, she can pick up individual words if they're spaceship-related. By the time she goes off on her own, she has a clumsy grasp of D, which is rendered as all of her verbs coming out as gerunds. ("Thinking I Yip-Goru anticipating a war happening.") At the very end of the book, Becky becomes aware of the linguistic underpinnings of her reality, which I dramatized by using punctuation characters to mark up different parts of speech in the text of the book.

Crazy Rooroo does business mostly in his native language, switching to D only when talking numbers. Since he learned English through his native language, his English is rendered differently than the Chief's; he tends to use weird prepositions, a bit like Tetsuo from Constellation Games.

The Cametrean abbot's vocabulary includes a lot of portmanteau words designed to sound like neologisms from bad 1970s sci-fi: "genemod", "newsfax", "farcall", "litstash", "tintshots", etc.

Kol has native fluency in all relevant languages, a purely practical decision I made because otherwise the book would be impossible to read.

No information is available about Trade Standard C.


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