Spaceships are cool.
As are dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs on a spaceship are very cool, as Doctor Who showed us this past year.
However, coolness is not enough to make a good story. Otherwise, every shiny blockbuster of the summer would be amazing.
The two main challenges to writing about dinosaurs and spaceship are: 1. despite their sheer awesomeness, dinosaurs and spaceships are objects without inherent personality, and 2. as scientists explore the universe and history, more questions are answered. So, how are these overcome?
1. Dinosaurs and Spaceships and Personality
A spaceship zooming past could be exciting, or it could be a chunk of metal flowing past. A dinosaur approaching can be terrifying, funny, or it could be a slobbering mess of computer generated pixels with no presence. The dinosaurs and spaceships we remember have a presence and personality.
In the Doctor Who episode mentioned above, the triceratops is like a dog and a pony combined into one. In Jurassic Park, some of the dinosaurs are dog-like, while the T-rex and raptors are treated as monsters. In a good Star Trek show or film, the Enterprise is as much a character as the actors. The Original Series is often a love story between Kirk and the Enterprise.
A prime example of the challenge of portraying spaceships is in comparing the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy to the Original Trilogy.
In the Prequel Trilogy, spaceships are mainly ‘cool’, shiny, and sleek, with a ‘gee whiz!’ factor. My favorite space-battle/chase scene is actually in Attack of the Clones, when Jango Fett’s ship launches seismic bombs that go ‘shiwim…. Bwonnnnng’ and make everything explode. However, it is only because the seismic bombs are cool, and fun to use in the Gamecube game Star Wars: Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike (not a great game, by the way, but that is another story).
Contrast this super-shininess to the Millennium Falcon.
The Millennium Falcon has a personality and mind of its own, reminding us of our own clunker cars. It is the vehicle you love and are attached to, even though it breaks all the time. Han Solo would not be half as cool without the Millennium Falcon as his true love. It speaks to his character, and is an integral part of the story.
Even beyond the Falcon, all ships in the Original Trilogy have a touch of personality. The Rebel fighters are beat up, scarred, and showing their age. A high-pitched squeal introduces the TIE fighters, warning of their dangerous presence. The Imperial Star Destroyers loom across the screen, overpowering the Rebel forces by their sheer size. In all three movies, each ship has a purpose, a presence, and a personality.
2. Knowledge: The Double-Bladed Sword
Space exploration and paleontology are both awesome, and contribute to humanity’s growing understanding of the universe and of Earth itself.
However, with each bit of information, we risk of a small piece of wonder being whisked away.
In the pulp sci-fi stories of the 1950’s, no terrestrial probes had penetrated, or scanned via radar, the atmosphere of Venus to get an image of the surface. Dinosaurs, jungles, and endless wonders could be believable there. Living on the molten-hot surface was possible. Spaceships could be any shape and size.
However, science has demoted Pluto from being a planet (no wonder Hades was so upset in Disney’s Hercules). Science has discovered Dinosaurs probably had feathers, and were more birdlike than we imagined. A tyrannosaurus rex should not be fluffy.
There are still vast mysteries and undiscovered wonders in the universe. For example, dark matter makes up a large portion of the universe, but remains a grand mystery. However, in taking apart and analyzing the LEGO blocks of the universe, we may be losing sight of the super-shiny castle of wonder.
As a writer, my job is to restore the wonder and excitement to spaceships and dinosaurs and the universe itself. Do I go far out, and ignore scientific knowledge, or do I work within the known universe to find the shades of mystery and build stories on that foundation? How do I write about dinosaurs and spaceships in a way which maintains their coolness?
How about you? What is your favorite dinosaur or spaceship? How do you work science into your writing? If you were to have a pet dinosaur, which would you pick? If you could go for a ride in a spaceship, which one would you go in? Is there anything as cool as dinosaurs or spaceships?
Here are a couple posts that inspired this post:
Just for fun, here’s the trailer for The LEGO Movie:
And, a bit of what happens at Nerd Night (a monthly party of awesome)