Sunday, May 12, 2013

Writing the Outside Context Problem Series

Guest post by Christopher G. Nuttall.

The term ‘Outside Context Problem,’ invented and defined by Ian M. Banks, refers to an encounter with something that exists outside the known universe.  His example was of a small tribe, with nothing more advanced than wind power, suddenly encountering an ironclad ship from a far more advanced society.  Historically, such encounters have been devastating; China, Japan and the Native Americans all suffered badly when they realised that the world was so much larger than they had supposed – and that their new foes were far more advanced.

It’s also something that may impinge on alternate history writing.  Let us assume that the Aztec Empire never comes into existence.  This does nothing to avert the arrival of Cortes and the Spanish.  They will still arrive in Mexico – they will just encounter a radically different world.  There is no way for Mexico to avert this date with destiny – and disaster, simply because everything that made the Spanish invasion occur took place completely outside their context.

Outside of an encounter with wizards and magical creatures, alien invasion would be the ultimate OCP.

Alien invasion has always fascinated me.  When I was a child, I read a series entitled Hood’s Army, a story about an alien invasion of Earth.  Although the series was quite childish in many respects – no sex, for example – and dated in others, it left quite an impression on me.  As I grew older, I read The War of the Worlds, Footfall, The Posleen War and many others.  I also read a great deal of UFO literature and wondered what might happen if they really were watching us.  How would we, as a society, react to them?

We are barely able to send probes to the moon or another planet in our solar system.  Any alien race capable of reaching Earth will, by definition, be able to cross the gulf between stars, a sign of far more advanced technology than our own.  Even if the aliens are limited to sublight starships only – as in Invasion or Footfall – they will still have more advanced tech and, presumably, weapons.  The more advanced the aliens, the greater the shock we will receive when they arrive.  And, for that matter, the harder it will be to close the technological gap.

However, wars generally don’t happen without a reason.  Why would the aliens invade?  The blunt truth is that Earth has very little that might appeal to a technologically-advanced race.  Raw materials?  They can be obtained from the asteroids – which aren't populated by natives who might shoot back.  Water?  There’s billions of tons of the stuff drifting around the solar system.  (I had to mark Battle: LA down for the suggestion that the aliens wanted our water.)  A new home?  Slightly more reasonable.

So, when I started writing the first version of Outside Context Problem (which some of you might remember from AH.COM) I decided that the aliens wanted a new home – one where those pesky humans were either under control or enslaved.  Does this seem ruthlessly inhuman?  Mass migrations have plenty of precedent in human history – and this can be unfortunate for anyone living on desirable land, if someone with more force decides they want to take it.  As I outlined the aliens themselves for the second version, I reasoned that they would want humanity’s genetic heritage as well, tying it in with the various stories of alien abductions that have been floating around for decades.

The aliens themselves would have a caste system, one far more pronounced than our own – and this would have an effect on their society.  Human caste systems have traditionally been based on skin colour – but we are all alike under the skin.  The aliens would have far better reason to believe in their caste system; their birth would predispose them towards certain roles within their society.  It would also account for their willingness to regard humanity as just another caste, rather than something completely separate from themselves.  They’re used to dealing with beings of different shape and form.

So far, so good.  But what about the story itself?

I started with the memory of an image I recalled from my early UFO days; a flying saucer, crashed in the American heartland.  (It was a very impressive picture.)  That would serve as the start of the story; a UFO had crashed near a military base and humanity (or at least the American Government) was suddenly aware that there was a new threat out there.  This wouldn't be a Russian spy plane, although that would be alarming too; this would be something totally outside their frame of reference.  Even if there are plans for alien invasion, they wouldn't be based on reality.

What would they do?  I think there would be a frantic attempt to determine just what the hell was actually going on – and deal with it before it became a problem.

But I also didn't think that the aliens would stand still and let the human race do their research.

One problem that pops up a lot in alien invasion books and movies – generally movies – is that the aliens are stupid.  If you watch Independence Day, you’ll notice that extremely-advanced aliens lose a craft fifty years before the movie ... and then allow the craft to fly into the mothership without bothering to check just who is trying to fly it.  Where were the crew for the last fifty years?  All right – if the aliens hadn't been stupid, the movie wouldn't have ended with a human victory.  But it still gnawed at me.

I wanted aliens who would think and plan, aliens who would realise that losing the craft meant that their cover was blown – and take steps to deal with their sudden exposure.  And how would we react to that?

Human geopolitics tend to fall into predicable patterns.  Add in an OCP and those patterns will shatter.  What would the aliens be able to do if they played on human disunity?  I reasoned that they might be able to gain allies, even isolate the United States from the rest of the world.  The mere fact that the US saw fit to keep the crashed UFO to itself would destroy faith in the American government.  Everyone else would see it as a crime against humanity – and they’d be right.  Americans outside the circle of people in the know would see it as treason – and they’d be right too.

I didn't just want the invasion to take place in America – or London.  An OCP would have global repercussions and I wanted those repercussions to be explored.  How many lids would blow off how many pots if America was suddenly attacked by alien forces?  What would happen if there was suddenly a new player in the game?  And what would happen if that new player was quietly encouraging the humans to destroy each other?

Divide and conquer is one of the oldest maxims in the book.  Why shouldn't the aliens use it?

The series also touches on many other themes.  What sort of people sign up with the aliens – or another occupying force – and work with them?  How many of them do it out of idealism, or because they believe they have no choice, or because they want power for themselves?  What sort of people carry on the fight when all seems lost?  What happens to ordinary people, caught in the middle?  How might we adapt our weapons and tactics to fight back against an awesomely powerful foe?

Last week, I completed The Slightest Hope of Victory, Book III in the Outside Context Problem.  In order to promote the book, copies of Outside Context Problem – Book I in the series – will be free from Monday 13th to Wednesday 15th.  Go here for a free sample and then download the book from here.  If you like it, please leave a review.

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Christopher Nuttall is a long-standing alternate history fan and writer, author of The Royal Sorceress (alternate history/fantasy) and numerous Kindle books.  His webpage can be found here.  

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