(2) Fri Jan 08 2021 08:00 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 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."
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!