Conflict and Challenge
The “conflict” we expect in a story can take many forms. External, internal; protagonists against themselves, against other people, against nature, against society. If you grew up on adventure stories, as I did, you may tend to focus on showy external struggles—wars and battles. (Explosions!!) Even more so if your formative reading included comic books: the first question for a new issue was always, who is Spider-Man fighting this month?—even if there might be more long-term interest in the issue’s developments regarding Spidey’s love life or character development.
But in some stories, or parts of stories, the focus is on building or making something, rather than fighting something. The underlying engine of such a story might better be called challenge than “conflict”—a struggle to achieve some definite end product, rather than to defeat an adversary. It’s a sort of engineering story, rather than a crisis—although there may be crises along the way.
Bob the Builder
Almost every possible kind of conflict can be found in Dennis Taylor’s “Bobiverse” science fiction novels: We are Legion (We are Bob), For We Are Many, All These Worlds (2016-2017). (Looking them up, I’m pleased to see a new sequel, Heaven’s River, is now out in audiobook form.) The series touches on a whole range of SF tropes, from first contact to space war to ecological catastrophe.
Bob Johansson, software magnate, dies in the 21st century and wakes up a hundred years later as a sapient computer program, intended to be the guiding intelligence of an interstellar probe, like a computerized version of Jerome Corbell in Niven’s A World Out of Time. Once under way, however, Bob strikes out on his own, becoming involved with rival probes from another country, the evacuation of a failing Earth, and (eventually) honest-to-goodness aliens. His probe is equipped with 3-D printers and other gear that allows him to “clone” himself—build new ships run by copies of the Bob program. Each Bob instance takes a new name and, once running independently, develops a slightly different personality. Hence the book titles: we eventually have a whole armada of Bob spaceships, single-handedly—if that’s the right description—planting new human colonies and conducting interstellar wars.
But you don’t bootstrap your way into an armada overnight. A good bit of the story, especially in the early parts, requires Bob to balance multiple demands. How much of his productive capacity should be directed to manufacturing new Bobs, and how much to hunting down dangerous opponents? Or transporting human refugees to new worlds? To make matters more interesting, some of the Bobs specialize in research, coming up with new scientific discoveries that need to be engineered and adapted for others’ use—as time, transport, and communications permit.
Part of the fascination involves how Bob gradually builds up a sort of interstellar network of cooperating AI ships. (Of course they cooperate; they’re all Bob. Sort of.) How he does this, what difficulties and complications he runs into, is as intriguing as the more exotic or action-oriented sequences. It’s very cool to see one lone intelligent probe gradually develop into an entire star-spanning civilization.
Building Ships and Planets
F.M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen books (1976)—published in various combinations—are the saga of a young woman who starts out as an enslaved orphan under a vicious tyranny on Earth, and ends by bringing back a space fleet to overthrow the tyranny. She allies herself (both militarily and maritally) with the equally formidable Bran Tregare and the Hulzein family, who share that goal.
When I say “space fleet,” I’m not talking about thousands of massive ships. This is a bunch of modest-sized spacecraft manned by an assemblage of quirky, anarchic individuals—more like a Star Wars rebel fleet than an Honor Harrington space navy. Much of the middle section of the story is taken up with the long-term preparations needed for the eventual battles. Rissa and Tregare redesign and refit their stolen spaceships for combat; pull together the aforesaid individualists into a functional fighting group; and gradually, cautiously, get to know and love each other, after a battleground marriage for political purposes. That simultaneous slow build of machinery, financing, and relationships is as engrossing as Rissa’s initial escape from the “Total Welfare” system or the ultimate invasion of Earth. Even the engineering problems, solved in the context of these budding relationships, hold my interest throughout.
Or take Heinlein’s juvenile novel Farmer in the Sky (1950). Teenaged Bill Lermer emigrates with his family to Ganymede, which is being terraformed into a habitable site for Earthly settlers. The big moon is completely barren, devoid of life. The “terraforming” involves not just big technology, like the atmosphere plant and heat trap, but also the creation of soil suitable for farming, inch by inch. Rock has to be ground into soil, then seeded with Terrestrial microbes, earthworms, and the like, before the first crop can be planted. This process, which Bill sees at ground level—he’s a farmer-to-be, not a planner or engineer—is endlessly fascinating, though no doubt the details would differ if the book were written today, with seventy years’ more knowledge about the solar system. It left me with an abiding sense of how complex the web of geological and biological factors really is, underlying something so seemingly simple as dirt farming.
Building a Business
Not that you have to go to Ganymede to find a narrative about constructing something new. I recently mentioned R.F. Delderfield’s “Swann saga.” The hero (and the heroine) here are building up something apparently mundane: a trucking business, using the newfangled horseless carriages, to connect the railroad network to the small towns and hamlets of Victorian England. The characters tumble in and out of various conflicts, but the underlying thrust of the story is about the growth of a business. We see its material factors—vehicles, storehouses, roadways, Adam Swann’s unique organizational planning gizmo—but, more importantly, the varied people whose talents and peculiarities contribute to the success of the whole operation. Building a business enterprise can be as rewarding as building a spaceship—or a planet.
Occasionally this kind of constructive work also crops up in a modern corporate context. My catalogue of movie favorites contains only two stories I can think of that convey some of the excitement—the romance (in both senses of the word)—of big business. The Secret of My Success (1987), with Michael J. Fox and Helen Slater, is mostly a knockabout farce, but we do respond to the infectious enthusiasm of Fox’s character. What makes him more engaging than the other “suits” is that he’s excited about the idea of serving customers and making a productive business grow. Similarly, in Working Girl (1988), we’re mostly taken up in the plucky struggles of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill to break the glass ceiling of the secretarial pool; but we can also admire the artistry and accomplishment of the radio broadcasting merger deal she puts together.
Castaways and Escapes
Construction in the midst of a crisis can become an epic in itself. In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide (1933), much of the story is taken up with the desperate challenges the protagonists must overcome as they race against time to build the spaceship that will enable them to escape Earth’s destruction. (Pay no attention to the 1951 movie version, which is a catastrophe in its own right.)
The oncoming disaster adds dramatic tension to an effort that would be heroic even if it were undertaken without that threat in view. We see the thousand dedicated people of Cole Hendron’s “cantonment” working on the massive project; striving to obtain the necessary resources as civilization begins to crumble around them; making the scientific breakthrough they need to control atomic energy for their engines; defending the ship against attacks by mobs reverted to barbarism; and rejoicing in immense relief when they find they can construct a second ship that will allow all of them, not just a fraction, to escape Earth’s doom. Even the momentary pauses to describe the design of the ship, or the careful preparations to take along the necessary plants, animals, and knowledge to recreate Earthly life on the new world, are engrossing in the context of the mighty achievement. In fact, after all this build-up, the actual brief space-flight is almost an anticlimax.
The whole subgenre of castaway or “desert island” stories almost automatically incorporates themes of making and building, often by ingenious improvisation. In an earlier post I mentioned Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), a childhood favorite of mine, and Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955). Disney fans may recall the impressive treehouse of the Swiss Family Robinson movie (1960), faithfully re-created at Disney parks. In more modern renditions such as Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Castaway Planet series, the main characters are similarly involved in carving out a place to live in an otherwise uninhabited locale.
Resources and Technology
The interest of stories like these is akin to the way we enjoy playing certain kinds of games, those with a “resource management” feature. I am, for example, perpetually fascinated with Sid Meier’s famous Civilization games. In managing a selected civilization throughout its history, we can get into wars with other “civs,” whether they are run by the computer or (in some versions) by another human player. But war is not essential to winning the game, as it is in chess. Exploration, the founding of new cities, and scientific development are vital, and offer other ways to win. While the danger of war with other cultures adds an important spice to the game, I find I’m more interested in discovering new places and developing a well-functioning culture.
Similar features can be found in other popular video games—Starcraft, Warcraft (but not World of Warcraft, which is a role-playing game), Settlers of Catan. Even the venerable Monopoly fits this description to some extent. To the extent to which these games are focused on winning, we do engage in a conflict; we seek a higher score than our competitors achieve. But sometimes it’s a relief to play a game that doesn’t directly involve fighting.
I mentioned scientific development in connection with Civilization. Researching how to make new sorts of units and improvements is crucial to that game. (By contrast, in Monopoly all we need to build houses and hotels is money, and monopolies.) Stories about building frequently involve playing out the consequences of a new technology, if only because new tech opens new opportunities and hence new fields for development.
Old-time space operas sometimes touched on this factor, but tended to short-cut the extensive work of implementing a new technology in favor of getting directly to the action. E.E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne (1965), last of the Skylark tetralogy, alludes briefly in chapter 8 to the impact on Earthly industry of the fantastic scientific advances in the previous volumes. But those changes hardly have an impact on the story. We see a slightly more gradual and plausible development in a couple of books from Roger MacBride Allen, The Ring of Charon (1990) and The Shattered Sphere (1994), where a newly discovered artificial gravity technique gets put to use in progressively more advanced ways. Even the Delderfield Swann series mentioned above is based on the new opportunities created in the 19th Century by railroads and the internal-combustion engine.
Blessed are the Peaceful Makers
The peculiar enjoyment of stories about building comes, I think, partly from the sense we share with the characters of accomplishing something. The action of the story is constructive rather than destructive.
Granted, we’re perfectly willing to applaud destruction too, in a good cause. (Take that, Death Star!) And stories of violent conflict are perfectly suited to give us edge-of-the-seat thrills that are harder to come by in narratives of making. Still, we don’t always want an adrenaline rush all the time. It can be quietly satisfying when we don’t have to focus on winning a war, or on the danger of losing something dear to us and the desperation of defending it.
The satisfaction of successful making came up in a post last Christmas about the appeal of concreteness, whether in baking cookies or in building ships (as in the denouement of Pretty Woman). Both construction and destruction are sometimes necessary: “A time to build up, a time to break down.” But building responds to a different facet of our humanity than destroying. A good story may speak to one or the other, or to both.