Books About Building

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

We Are Legion coverAlmost 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

Rissa Kerguelen coverF.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.

Working Girl, Tess at conference tableOccasionally 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.)

When Worlds Collide coverThe 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

Civilization VI screenshotThe 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.

The Ring Of Charon coverOld-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.

Witness house raising sceneThe 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.

Portraying the Transhuman Character

More Than Human

Kevin Wade Johnson’s comments on my recent post about The Good Place raised a couple of issues worth a closer look.  Here’s one:

Lots of science fiction, and some fantasy, deals with characters who are greater, or more intelligent, or more gifted in some way, than mere humans.  But we the authors and readers are mere humans.  How do we go about showing a character who’s supposed to be more sublime than we can imagine?

It’s one thing to have characters whose capabilities are beyond us.  Superman can leap tall buildings with a single bound; I can’t.  But I can easily comprehend Superman’s doing so.  (I can even see it at the movies.)  On the other hand, if a character is supposed to be so intelligent I can’t grasp their reasoning, or has types of knowledge that are beyond me, that’s harder to represent.  I can simply say so:  “Thorson had an intelligence far beyond that of ordinary men.”  But how can I show it?

Long-Lived Experience

There are a number of ways this can come up.  For example, if a character lived a very long time, would their accumulated experience allow for capabilities, or logical leaps in thinking, beyond what we can learn in our short lives?

I’m thinking of a Larry Niven story—I’m blanking on the name:  maybe one of the “Gil the Arm” stories?—in which a character who appears to be a young woman turns out to be centuries old, and when she drops the deception, she moves with uncanny grace—she doesn’t bump into anything or trip over her own feet, because she’s had that long to train herself in how to move (without the limitations imposed by our bodies’ degeneration from aging).

Of course, a story about long-lived people doesn’t have to take long-lived learning into account.  The depiction of the “Howard Families” in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love almost seem dedicated to the opposite proposition, that no matter how long we live, we’re basically the same kinds of personalities; we don’t learn much.

Galadriel, radiantIn a similar way, Tolkien’s immortal elves may seem ineffably glorious to us, but their behavior often seems all too human—especially if you read The Silmarillion, where elves make mistakes, engage in treachery, and allow overweening pride to dictate their actions in ways that may surprise those of us familiar only with LotR.  On the other hand, the books and movies do succeed in convincing us that characters like Galadriel and Gandalf are of a stature that exceeds human possibility.

Logic and Language

There are other ways to have transhuman abilities.  As Kevin observes, Niven’s “Protectors” fit the description.  Niven imagines a further stage of human development—something that comes after childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—that we’ve never seen, because when our remote ancestors arrived on Earth from elsewhere, they lacked the plants hosting the symbiotic virus necessary for transition to that final stage.  The “trans-adult” Protectors are stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans.  They also think faster.  Thus Niven shows them as following out a chain of logic with blinding speed to its conclusion, allowing them to act long before regular humans could figure out what to do.  Because this is a matter of speed, not incomprehensible thinking, Niven can depict a Protector as acting in ways that are faster than normal, but are explainable once we sit down and work out the reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes, arena fight sceneA visual analogue is used in the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.  Unlike most other treatments of the character, Guy Ritchie’s version supposes that Holmes’ incredible intelligence can be used not only for logical deduction, but to predict with lightning speed how a hand-to-hand combat may develop.  Holmes thus becomes a ninja-like melee fighter, so effective as to confound all opponents.  The movie shows us this by slowing down the process that to Holmes is instantaneous:  we see a very short montage of positions and moves as they would occur, or could occur, before we see Holmes carry out the final “conclusion” of his martial reasoning.  This allows us to appreciate what the quasi-superhuman character is doing and why, without actually having to execute the same process ourselves.

Preternatural intelligence may be more subtle in its effects.  Such a person may, for example, be able to understand things fully from what, to us, would be mere hints and implications.  So, for example, when Isaac Asimov introduces the members of the Second Foundation in his Foundation series, he tells us that their tremendous psychological training allows them to talk among themselves in a manner so concise and compressed that entire paragraphs require only a few words.

Speech as known to us was unnecessary.  A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy.  A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line—even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice.  (Second Foundation, end of chapter 1, “First Interlude,” p. 16)

Second Foundation coverBreaking the fourth wall, Asimov warns us that his account is “about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man—with myself as blind as the audience.”  (same page)  He then adroitly avoids showing us any of the actual conversation; instead, he says he’s “freely translating” it into our ordinary language.  This move illustrates one of the classic ways of presenting the incomprehensible in a story:  point out its incomprehensibility and “translate” into something we can understand.  (Note that this is much more easily done in writing than in a visual medium such as TV or the movies.)

A similar technique is used by Poul Anderson in his 1953 novel Brain Wave, which starts with the interesting premise that in certain regions of space, neurons function faster than in others.  When Earth’s natural rotation around the center of the galaxy brings it into a “faster” area, the brains of every creature with a central nervous system speed up, and human beings (as well as other animals) all become proportionately smarter.  Anderson notes that the speech of the transformed humans would be incomprehensible to us and, like Asimov, “translates” it for our convenience.  When a couple of the characters, in a newly invented faster-than-light spaceship, accidentally cross the border back into the “slow zone,” they are unable to understand the controls they themselves designed until the ship’s travel brings them out and lets their intelligence return to its new normal.  (Anderson’s concept may have been the inspiration for the “Zones of Thought” universe later developed in several fascinating stories by Vernor Vinge.)

Showing and Telling

We can glean some general principles from these examples.  If the extraordinary acts don’t actually have to be shown in the medium I’m using, I can simply point to them and tell the reader they’re there.  In a written story, I can say my main character is a world-class violinist without having to demonstrate that level of ability myself.  (Although if I have some experience in that particular art, I’ll be able to provide some realistic details, to help make my claim sound plausible.)  But if the supernormal achievement is something that can be shown in our chosen medium, we have to be able to demonstrate it:  a movie about the great violinist will have to exhibit some pretty masterful violin-playing, or those in the audience who know something about the art will laugh themselves silly.

Flowers For Algernon coverWe should note that there are good and bad ways of telling the audience about a character’s superiority.  In the unforgettable short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which consists entirely of diary entries by Charlie Gordon, the main character, the text vividly shows us the effects of an intelligence-raising treatment on a man of initially lower-than-normal intelligence.  The entries improve so radically in writing competence and understanding that when Charlie describes how his brainpower is beginning to exceed that of ordinary humans, we believe him, because we’re already riding on the curve of rising ability up to our own level that is apparent in the text—a true tour de force of writing.  On the other hand, in the drastically worse movie version, Charly (1968), the screenwriters are reduced to having Charly stand in front of an audience of experts and scornfully dismiss the greatest intellectual achievements from human history—a weak and ineffective technique at best for conveying superiority.


This quick review of the problem turns up several methods for handling supernormal abilities in a story.


  • If the superior ability is intelligible to us ordinary people in the audience—maybe it’s just doing normal things faster—we can have the wiser or super-enabled person explain it to someone less wise: our last post’s Ignorant Interlocutor.
  • If the advantage is mainly a matter of speed, we can slow it down to a speed at which regular people can follow the action.
  • If we can get away without actually showing the ability in question, we may be able to point toward it, or “translate” it into something we can understand, and convincingly tell the audience about it—if we can achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.
  • If a character is supposed to be, let us say, preternaturally wise, and there’s simply no way to avoid showing that in the dialogue, the best we can do is to evoke the best we can do—have the character be as wise as possible—and imply ‘like this, only more so.’ This method—like “projecting” a line or a curve—is the method of “supereminence,” which is sometimes employed in theological talk about things that are inherently beyond our full understanding.


Kicking around this question makes us aware that portraying the more-than-human character is only a special case of a more general problem.  When our stories try to incorporate anything that’s indescribable, incomprehensible, how do we handle that?  Our F&SF stories frequently want to reach out beyond the boundaries of human experience, yet in a tale written for ordinary humans.  We’ll talk about the more general question next time.

Changing the Past – Or Avenging It


Avengers Endgame posterI set out to do an analytical essay on Three Theories of Time Travel—until I realized that Larry Niven’s astute and entertaining brief article “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (1971) had already covered those theories pretty well.  (You can find that article in Niven’s All the Myriad Ways, and a couple other locations.)  So I decided instead to comment on how they’re used in Avengers:  Endgame, which seems to invoke at least two and possibly three different theories.

Maybe I’d have been better off sticking with the original plan; this post has turned out to be considerably longer than I’d planned.

Endgame came out on April 26, 2019, and was released on disc August 13, so it’s still new enough at this writing that I should issue a

Spoiler Alert!

I’m not going to address the mechanics of how one might travel into the past—whether via Tipler machines, or wormholes, or simply thinking oneself into the past à la Jack Finney.  (Endgame manages it via what the movies refer to as the “Quantum Realm,” which is completely incoherent in one way but rather fascinating in another—a side issue I won’t go into here.)  I’m interested in what happens if you let causality turn back on itself.  I can think of three main ways of handling the question of changing the past.  Each has its pros and cons, from a storytelling point of view.

“Make It Didn’t Happen”

First, let’s suppose we can change the past (and, by extension, the present and future).  The idea arises because we often wish we could go back and undo something—either our own actions, or the broader course of history.  Niven observes, “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence.”  He goes on to note, “The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”  These twin aspects of the idea generate plot tensions and conflicts immediately, on both a personal and a historical scale, so it’s not surprising they’re so popular.

Back to the Future posterThe most familiar example, of course, is Back to the Future (1985-1990).  In the three movies, Zemeckis played several variations on the idea of making history come out differently.  The cultural reference is so well-known that Marvel was able to riff off it for a comic moment in Endgame.  Scott Lang, the young and relatively naïve Ant-Man, says they’ll be okay if they obey the ‘rules of time travel’ (at about 0:35).  Tony Stark, the all-round genius of the Marvel movies, derides Scott for having gotten his “rules” from BTTF, and proceeds to shoot the notion down as hopelessly unscientific.

And Tony’s right, in the sense that building a theory of time travel purely on the assumptions made in fictional stories is silly.  We don’t know what would happen if it were possible to change the past; we haven’t done it.  That would make time travel really dangerous if it could be attempted in real life.  On the other hand, that same lack of knowledge leaves a wide field open for the fiction writer.  We can make whatever assumptions we like, as long as they’re consistent.  We can imagine that you can only go back in time a certain distance, at a certain geographical location, as in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (1981-84).  We can imagine that the transition requires vast energies, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Technical Error” (1950).  Or we can invoke the imaginary “Pym particles” of Ant-Man lore and time-travel at will.

This first theory of time travel generates the paradoxes we know and love.  We have the “grandfather paradox,” in which an effect removes its own cause.  (I go back in time and kill my grandfather.)  We have what Wikipedia calls the “ontological paradox,” in which an effect becomes its own cause.  (I go back but my grandfather fails to show up, so I marry my grandmother instead and name my son after my dad…)  I talked about these a bit in a 2016 post on the TV series Timeless.

One thing that’s not always obvious is that the idea of changing the past requires a second time dimension.  There’s the familiar one that’s typically represented by a “timeline,” a one-dimensional line ordering events from past to future.  But if someone changes the past, then the old line has to be replaced by a new one:  imagine a second timeline lying next to the first.  Every time a change is made, another timeline gets added.  The set of lines forms a plane, extending through a second dimension, in which each new timeline happens after (in some Pickwickian sense) the last.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that we’d changed history.  Marty can’t rejoice in having “fixed” his family unless the new timeline succeeds the first, just as events along the timeline succeed each other.  Hence, a second time dimension, to accommodate the sequence of timelines.  (This may, or may not, be related to what TV Tropes calls “San Dimas Time,” a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

As a narrative device, the chance to change the past creates suspense.  But it only works if you don’t look too closely.  The author has to stage-manage things carefully so that changes of all sorts don’t start happening in all directions, and this means that time travel must be rare.  If we imagine a period of hundreds or thousands of years, during which people invent time machines every so often and start changing the past, it would become impossible to make sense of what was happening.  Different changes, each with their rippling “butterfly effects,” would take place, one after another—or even at the same, er, time.  (I tried playing around with that idea in an as-yet-unpublished story called Getting to Gettysburg.)  So I’m skeptical about stories based on letting time travel become routine, as in “Time Patrol” scenarios or Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Avengers Disassemble

Does Endgame, after all Tony’s disclaimers, involve changing the past?  Maybe not; but it’s hard to see how the story can avoid it.

Thanos with Infinity GauntletThe screenwriters chose to set themselves an interesting dilemma that makes the simple time-travel solution (go back and kill Thanos) unusable.  When the time-travel possibility arises, five years have passed since the Snap, in which Thanos killed off half the people in the universe.  Life has gone on.  Tony and Pepper, for example, have an adorable little girl.  But eliminating the Snap would also eliminate Tony’s little daughter Morgan, along with everything else that’s happened since.  That’s unacceptable (at least to Tony).  So the Avengers are not trying to avert the Snap; instead, they want to bring back, in the present time, all those who disintegrated.

The reason they have to go into the past is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones, which Thanos destroyed after the Snap.  The Avengers will need to use the Stones for a Snap of their own to bring back all the people Thanos destroyed.  But in order to avoid changing the past, they will have to put the Stones back in their earlier times after they’ve been used.  This is a clever idea, but it’s going to be really tricky to execute in practice, as we’ll discuss below.

It’s Already Happened

Meanwhile, the business of a second time dimension may make us start to wonder about the whole idea of changing the past.  Maybe we’ve forgotten to take into account the integrity of the original time dimension.  After all, if something happened in the past, it has already happened.  The effects of past events should be baked into the present that follows from them.  If I go back to 1800 and leave a hidden time capsule, let’s say, I should be able to dig it up in 2019.  You might say that the change I wish to make has already taken place.

Kate and Leopold posterBut it follows that if I can find the evidence in the present, then I know the event occurred in the past.  (That’s what “evidence” means.)  If I find the time capsule, I know that it was buried.  This may allow me to predict or “retrodict” my future changes to the past on the basis of what’s known now. If I find the time capsule, I know I’m going to bury it—or someone else will.  A key scene in Kate and Leopold (2001) relies on just such a discovery about a future event that changes the past.  (Have we mixed up the tenses enough yet?)  Bill and Ted makes even more comically inventive use of this aspect.

But on this theory, the event in the past isn’t really a change.  It was always that way.  The time capsule persisted through all the intervening time.  You can’t change the past, because your change is already included in the past we know and thus embedded in the present.  As Niven puts it, “any attempt on the part of a time traveler to change the past has already been made, and is a part of the past.”

This approach deprives us of the fun of changing history, but I rather like it.  It ensures the timeline remains consistent with itself.  In fact, one version of this postulate is referred to as the “Novikov self-consistency principle,” named for Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov.  We avoid grandfather paradoxes:  we already know I didn’t succeed in traveling into the past and killing my grandfather, because here I am.  If I try, something will go wrong.  On the other hand, ontological paradoxes are still allowed, as in Heinlein’s classic novella By His Bootstraps (1941).  In fact, I tend to think of this as ‘Heinlein’s theory of time travel,’ because he used it extensively—not only in Bootstraps and the even more baffling  “—All You Zombies—” (1959), but also in the delightful The Door Into Summer (1957).  Of course, Heinlein’s by no means the only writer using a Novikov-type theory.

One reason I like this type of time travel story is that everything fits neatly together, like a puzzle.  The fun of the story is in seeing how they’ll fit.  In that sense, the enjoyment of you-already-changed-the-past stories resembles that of the Greek tragedies, in which an oracular pronouncement tells what’s going to happen, and the story shows how it happens.  No matter how Oedipus tries to avoid the awful future foretold, he can’t.  The efforts to avoid the predicted outcome may themselves produce it.

In such a tragedy, where time travel isn’t involved (except to the extent the oracle itself is future information acting on the past), the Greek tragedy tends to suggest that the outcome is determined by some kind of Fate, whether we like it or not.  (Niven puts this view under the heading of “determinism.”)  But the Novikov-type theory can also be seen as compatible with free will.  Even actions freely taken, once they are complete, become part of the fabric of history, not subject to further change afterwards—except to the extent that backward causation via time travel is possible, which alters the whole meaning of “afterwards.”

The Door Into Summer, coverA subclass of these stories assumes that the time continuum somehow defends itself against change.  It may automatically “self-heal” to swallow up minor changes, or all changes:  Edison doesn’t invent the light bulb, but someone else does.  Or the time stream may simply be designed so that with “fail-safes” that prevent catastrophic causality failures.  At the end of The Door Into Summer, the engineer hero seems to be speculating in this direction:  if time travel could be used commercially, he thinks,

it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.  He gave us eyes, two hands, a brain; anything we do with them can’t be a paradox.  He doesn’t need busybodies to “enforce” His laws; they enforce themselves.  (p. 158)

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverIn a modern context, God seems to take over the role of Fate—not by predetermining everything, but by designing the system (i.e., the universe) so nothing can go fatally wrong with causality.  Something similar, I think, lies behind the way the time travel “net” portal functions in Connie Willis’s time travel stories.  If allowing something through the net would create a paradox, the net simply won’t open—which leads to some tortuous reasoning by the characters as to what is keeping the net from openingaat  a particular moment.  Something like Providence seems to be at work.  The only causal loops allowed are what we might call ‘virtuous loops’—those that work out right.

What makes this confusing is that we’re used to analyzing causality by looking at the conditions preceding the effect.  Here, we don’t see the ‘virtuous loop’ conditions being set at any particular point in time.  The conditions have to apply to the continuum as a whole—from outside it, in effect.

You Can’t Avenge the Future

When Tony initially declares Scott’s proposed “time heist” impossible, the remaining Avengers bring in Bruce Banner as a substitute scientific resource.  Banner (who now combines his own brain with the Hulk’s body) does make a nod to the fact that his scientific expertise is primarily in biology, not physics, but the story remains basically true to the comic-book idea that a scientific genius is a genius in every science.  At about 0:59, Banner says something that sounds rather like the Novikov principle we’ve been discussing:  if you kill someone in the past, that doesn’t erase their later selves.  Apparently causality doesn’t propagate down the world lines of already-existing characters to wipe them out when their original causes go away.  On this theory, Marty wouldn’t have had to worry about disappearing even if he couldn’t get his parents back together.

On the other hand, Bruce doesn’t seem to be saying you can’t kill the person in the past; he seems to be saying that if you did kill them, it wouldn’t make any difference.  This may have more to do with what TV Tropes calls “ontological inertia” (see here, but also here).  Bruce’s approach seems to allow for wild inconsistency in the timeline, because I can be alive in 2019 even after being killed in 1971.

The simplest answer may be to conclude that Bruce wasn’t a very good physicist; maybe Tony silently corrected Bruce’s theory when Tony finally did agree to join the party.

Branching Timelines

At some point in SF history, people realized that the whole paradox thing could be avoided by introducing a third theory, the notion of multiple branching timelines.  Niven’s phrase is “multiple time tracks.”  If you change the past, the original future going forward from that point remains unchanged, but a new future comes into existence, branching off to take into account the change.  (The character making the change always seem to end up in the new branch, not the old.)  We can have our cake and eat it too:  one version of me devours the cake, but another, equally real, version of me prudently saves the cake for later.

The multiple-timeline approach gains some headway from the general popularity of alternate-history stories, and some plausibility from the fact that physicists take seriously the suggested “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It appears to solve the problem of time paradoxes.  However, it runs very close to an assumption that would make it impossible to tell a good story at all.

Stories are about action and choice.  A mere recounting of a series of experiences that happen to someone wouldn’t be much of a story (which is one reason the ending of 2001:  A Space Odyssey is so weak).  James Michener’s introduction to the novel Hawaii (1959), which describes the geological formation of the islands, is only part of a story because it lays the groundwork for what the characters later say and do.

All the Myriad Ways coverIf every possible alternative branched off a new timeline whenever there were options, there would be no point in making a choice, because whichever choice I made, another version of me would make the opposite choice.  Niven captures the problem exactly:

. . . did you ever sweat over a decision?  Think about one that really gave you trouble, because you knew that what you did would affect you for the rest of your life.  Now imagine that for every way you could have jumped, one of you in one universe did jump that way.

Now don’t you feel silly?  Sweating over something so trivial, when you were going to take all the choices anyway.  And if you think that’s silly, consider that one of you still can’t decide . . .  (p. 117)

The title story in All the Myriad Ways explores exactly that issue—what would happen if people really started to believe that all alternatives were equally real.

But suppose we assume that every choice doesn’t spawn alternate universes—just the changes caused by time travel, by backward causality.  That doesn’t destroy all narrative in the way just described.  It just ruins the story you’re trying to tell.  The main characters move heaven and earth to get into the past and make the necessary change.  They succeed!  Whew.  Victory.  —Except that in another universe, the original one, they didn’t succeed.  Somewhere, the sad failures who are Marty McFly’s parents still languish by the TV.  That’s not a really satisfying conclusion.

Alternating Avengers

The multiple-timeline approach certainly comes up in Endgame.  What I can’t make out is whether it prevails in the end, or is averted.

Ancient One and Banner with timeline simulationAt about 1:24 in the movie, Bruce Banner is having a tense conversation with the Ancient One (Dr. Strange’s mentor) about the plan to return the stones to their original places in time.  The idea is that if he takes the Time Stone from the Ancient One at (let’s say) 1:03:12 p.m. on January 31, 2010, and eventually Steve Rogers returns it to her at 1:03:13 p.m. on January 31, 2010, there won’t be a need for a branch to form.  History continues on as it had always been.  (Steve describes his mission concisely at 2:43 in the movie:  “I know.  Clip all the branches.”)  Thus, the timeline of the movie, in which Thanos Snapped half the universe away, and five years later the assembled Avengers brought them back and did away with Thanos, remains the one-and-only timeline.  There’s a helpful description of this procedure in an article from July 2019 (which is also full of spoilers, by the way).

If we leave aside how hard it would have been to put things back exactly as they were, given the butterfly effect—not all the Stone retrievals were as simple as Bruce’s—does this work?  Did the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) come up with a way to manage the dizzying time loops and still save the story?

I’m still not quite sure.  One glaring plot hole, as various people have pointed out, is that we have to account for Thanos himself.  In order to give us a great battle at the end (and what a battle it is!), the movie has Thanos in pre-Snap 2014 discover what’s going to happen and time-travel forward to 2019, where he’s ultimately disintegrated by the Avengers.  He never returns to 2014.  That seems to mean that the disappearance of Thanos did create a branch, since if he vanished from 2014 and never came back, the Snap would never have occurred.

At least that reduces us to two timelines, the one we see in the movie and another where Thanos does not continue to exist after 2014.  And, interestingly enough, the Avengers’ actions saved both of those timelines from the Snap.  The people who lived through the movie timeline experienced the Snap, but the lost people were eventually returned.  Meanwhile, in the new alternate timeline, Thanos never came back, he never got the Infinity Stones, and the Snap never occurred.  That’s not such a bad (dual) ending.

I don’t know.  All these causal loops produce a kind of shell game in which I’m not quite sure how things came out.  Nonetheless, it’s a great movie, if you like the Marvel characters at all.  If you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t have been reading this (but maybe the circuitous account above will be helpful).  If you have—see it again!  Just don’t try to go back to April to catch the premiere a second time; who knows what that would do to the space-time continuum.

Becky Chambers and Domestic Science Fiction

Hugo Material

Science fiction writer Becky Chambers is up for a Hugo award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzer Prize) this year—twice.  Her 2018 novel Record of a Spaceborn Few has been nominated for best novel.  The Wayfarers series, of which Record is the third book, is also in the running for best series this year.

Wayfarers series coversThe series as a whole, and especially the most recent book, highlight a facet of SF that can sometimes be neglected in the shadow of the world-shaking blockbuster epics:  stories that are concerned more with what happens to individuals and small groups than with the Fate of the World.  I’m going to tag this subcategory “domestic SF.”

I don’t mean to imply that Chambers’ tales are concerned with cosy traditional family life.  On the contrary, some of her characters’ situations are decidedly nonconventional.  This is science fiction, after all.  But family and home do play a central role.

High Stakes

When we think of science fiction—especially early modern SF, from about 1920-1940—we tend to think of adventure stories:  space opera, “planetary romances” like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or the modern revival in Star Trek and Star Wars.  In these tales, conflict was a must, and often on a grand scale.  We were Saving the World, or even the galaxy, the universe; or at least (for instance) the beloved city of Helium, as John Carter was wont to do.

Many of these early epics had to do with exploration.  We were ‘going where no one had gone before’ in the Jules Verne Voyages Extraordinaires, or in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (though in the latter case one might say instead that ‘where no one had gone before’ was coming to us).  The heroes were frequently achieving the first of something, a momentous event:  first spaceflight, first interstellar flight, first contact with nonhuman intelligence, or (when spaceflight had become routine) first landing on some particularly odd sort of planet.  Whatever they were doing, it was a big deal.

Of course this was never all of science fiction; but it made up a major part of modern SF.  And this tendency continued into the mid-20th century.  Even a scenario that initially seemed purely local and personal often turned out to have grand-scale implications.

In Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), for example, the Everyboy teenage hero is unusual only in having a pet that was puppy-sized when his great-grandfather brought it back from an interstellar trip, but has gradually grown to the scale of a medium-sized dinosaur.  The story opens with “Lummox” getting into trouble by eating a neighbor’s roses, plowing straight through a set of greenhouses, and so forth—the kind of domestic turmoil that might turn up in any situation comedy.  (At least in science fiction.)  But it eventually turns out that Lummox is actually a mere child from a fearsomely intelligent and pugnacious extraterrestrial species that lives for centuries.  When her relatives come calling, it requires a major diplomatic effort to head off an interstellar war.  What started out as a neighborhood squabble has become a planetary crisis.

E.T. poster, fingers touchingWe see something of the same development, but with a different twist, in the movie E.T.:  the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  The first part of the story focuses mainly on the friendship that develops between E.T. and young Elliott.  The situation grows into an adult-level crisis in the second part.  But Spielberg has a different take:  even at the end, the story remains centered on that personal relationship between the two main characters.  The trail of candies Elliott lays out for E.T. leads to a momentous first-contact moment; but it isn’t clear at the end whether Elliott’s contact will lead to some kind of new era for humanity, or whether things will return to normal once the alien spacecraft departs.

E.T. shows that what’s at stake in SF doesn’t have to be world-shaking.  The whole story may simply revolve around the lives of a few main characters.  And that’s what I mean by ‘domestic SF.’

The Wayfarers Books

Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), opens when a young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the motley crew of an aging spaceship-for-hire called the Wayfarer.  Her relationships with the varied personalities (and species) of the crew draw her out of herself and allow her to develop her potential in classic bildungsroman fashion.  As the plot thickens, Wayfarer does get involved in major diplomatic affairs, in a small way.  But, as with E.T., the focus stays on the characters and their interactions.  We’re much more concerned about whether (for instance) the ship’s AI, Lovelace, will succeed in being downloaded into a human body at the urging of her human beloved, than in galactic politics.  Wikipedia puts it concisely:  “The novel concerns itself with character development rather than adventure.”

This tendency is even more pronounced in the second story.  A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) leaves behind most of the characters of the first book to follow the distinct, newborn AI that ended up occupying the human body in question at the end of The Long WayOrbit entirely eschews the grand scale in favor of personal relationships, as the main character tries to decide how to manage this strange new life in the flesh while making friends with a woman who herself had an extremely odd childhood.  One review correctly observed that Orbit is even “more intimate than its predecessor.”

The third story, Record of a Spaceborn Few, takes place in the same universe but, again, mobilizes an entirely different cast of characters.  Chambers is not writing a cumulative single story on the model of, say, the Star Wars movies.  Rather, each book is complete in itself, although they share a common background and characters occasionally cross over.  This in itself indicates that we are not building up to a single galaxy-spanning climax.  The author’s interests lie elsewhere.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few coverThe most recent book builds on the backstory of which we’ve seen glimpses in the prior volumes.  In Chambers’ future history, humanity, having ruined its home planet, sets out en masse to search for new homes in slower-than-light generation ships, the “Exodus fleet.”  It’s only when the are discovered by more advanced nonhuman species that they gain limited access, as impoverished refugees, to higher technologies and faster-than-light travel.  By the time of the stories, people from the Fleet have spread out to live among other species on numerous other worlds; some have even returned to their own solar system to colonize Mars.  But a substantial number of humans still remain aboard the immense ships that had been their ancestors’ homes for so long, which have now been put in permanent orbits around a star loaned to them by another species.

Record explores possible options for choosing to live one’s life in these circumstances.  Some of the “Exodans,” like young Kip, pine for the wider horizons of a planet, yet end up opting for a place within the Fleet—after spending some time going to college “abroad,” onplanet.  Others, like Tessa and her family, do take on the new experience of living in the open, on a planet.  Meanwhile, some of the dispersed humans born on planets come to decide they’d rather live aboard the Fleet, whose close-knit culture has its attractions despite the shabby and relatively modest conditions aboard; and some of the Exodans choose to create a “cultural education” center to train these returnees so they can fit into that culture.

A friendly alien observer, visiting the Fleet to gain material for a study and staying with one of the main characters, provides an external viewpoint to place these various life decisions in context.  But the core of the story is how each individual or family chooses among the different possible ways of life.  There’s no great crisis or climax, and the story doesn’t come down on the side of one lifestyle or another.  It simply lays out the possibilities.

Family Life Out There

Chambers’ stories, then, seem to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘domestic’ or small-scale concerns.  There’s a continuing theme of belonging to a family group, or something like one—even when the “family” in question, as in Orbit, consists of both ordinary embodied humans and “sessile” AIs that never leave the home they operate (giving a whole new meaning to the term “homemaker”).

The Rolling Stones coverWith Chambers as the bellwether, so to speak, we can trace similar kinds of stories back through the history of SF.  For example, another Heinlein “juvenile” novel, The Rolling Stones (1952), really is a domestic story:  the Stone family, bored with their comfortable life on the quietly citified Moon, buys a spaceship and sets off to visit Mars and then the asteroid belt, getting into various scrapes and small-scale adventures as they go.

These “adventures” can be as mundane as the teenage twins’ run-in with bureaucracy and the law when they try to import bicycles to Mars without first researching the customs duties—or as serious as a life-endangering spacecraft malfunction.  But there are no grander events or interplanetary crises involved.  (Incidentally, the book has nothing at all to do with the band The Rolling Stones, not even if you try to compare the “rocks” of the asteroid belt with—no, even I’m not going to go there.)

Another perennial favorite of mine is Zenna Henderson’s tales of the People, refugees from a far-off world who are scattered across the Earth when they must escape in “life-slips” as their spacecraft breaks up on entering our atmosphere.  These short stories each center on different individuals or families of characters, built around a common theme of finding the lost and bringing them back to their own people.  The unusual powers of the People often evoke xenophobic hostility in the Earthlings among whom they are hiding—but just as often bring out compassion and kindness from the people who take them in and help them.  The array of short stories does not really build to any climax or conclusion.  Rather, each person’s fate is a story in itself—though it is intimately bound up with those of others.

Whole subgenres of SF are inherently oriented toward the small and personal.  There’s a significant category of science fiction murder mysteriesIsaac Asimov was famous for these—which by definition revolve around a particular individual’s death, which may or may not have cosmic ramifications.  Similarly, a SF romance necessarily focuses on a particular couple; and again, while their relationship may have broad-scale importance, the story is just as sound if what matters is only the two of them.

On the Big Screen

My impression is that SF movies, even more than books, have tended to concentrate on big crises and broad scope; perhaps a visual medium evokes a particular fascination with spectacle.  (Explosions, give me lots of explosions.)  But that’s not always the case.  Now that we’ve shown we can do believably spectacular stories along the Star Wars lines, moviemakers may be turning back toward more personal-level tales.

The Space Between Us posterA good example is the teenage SF romance The Space Between Us (2017).  I’m fond of this film, though it didn’t do well as the box office and was disliked by critics.  The movie fits our survey here because it’s all about the particular pair and the other people involved with them.  There’s a base or colony on Mars, but that’s just the background that sets up the essential premise of the story—how a boy born and raised in a scientific station on Mars is determined to visit the home planet and to meet the girl he’s been corresponding with there.

I’m tempted also to cite the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers (2016).  It’s all about the two principal characters (who are the only characters for much of the story).  The stakes do rise at least to “save the ship” level when the main characters have to perform death-defying acts to prevent the destruction of the sleeper ship they’re on.  But, as a romance, it does maintain a focus on the fates of those two people—in a way that is rather poignantly realized at the end.


Becky Chambers’ Hugo nominees thus illustrate that aspect of SF that deals with the personal and local rather than the grand and spectacular.  I’m all for more of this.  Once we get over the initial amazement at space travel and other scientific advances, we can settle down to telling the small individual stories that these advances make possible—without giving up the grand-scale tales as well, of course.  In a literary realm, eating our cake and still having it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Meet Cute and Meet Hard

Two Ways to Meet

In The Holiday, Kate Winslet’s character Iris comes upon an old man who’s hobbling about his own neighborhood, having forgotten where his house is.  (He’s a once-famous movie screenwriter, but she doesn’t know that yet.)  When she takes him home, he remarks, “Well, this was some meet-cute.”  And, having lampshaded the trope by name, he introduces Iris to one of the classic conventions of romantic comedy:  the main characters’ first meeting is awkward, confusing, adorable, or just plain cute.

On the other hand, the romantic couple in adventure stories is often thrown together by the adventure itself.  The meeting is not so much cute as conflict-driven:  let’s call it a “meet-hard.”  The two types of encounters are both unusual—not your average first date—and, though they are opposites in some sense, they have some features in common.

Bumping Into Each Other

The simplest case for the meet-cute, as TV Tropes notes, is for the characters literally to crash into each other by accident—coming around a corner, for instance.  This gives us physical contact, the resulting embarrassment, and a way to get the characters interacting at once.

Notting Hill movie posterIn Notting Hill (1999), Hugh Grant’s bookstore owner chats briefly with Julia Roberts’ movie star when she browses around his bookshop.  But he kicks off the relationship when he later collides with her outside and (naturally) spills his drink on her, necessitating a costume change.  In the Good Old Summertime, the musical version of the “Shop Around the Corner” story (1949), also has the main characters meet in a collision, causing them to take an instant dislike to each other (a sure sign of impending romance in a rom-com).  The embarrassment factor is amplified by the fact that he then accidentally shreds her skirt.

But of course a couple can also “bump into” each other less literally.  For my money, the most adorable meet ever may be in the Hollies’ 1966 song “Bus Stop” (hear it here).  The singer offers to share his umbrella with a cute girl at the bus stop.  They then continue using the umbrella throughout the summer, rain or shine, as a kind of running joke, not to mention a pretext for standing close together.  I’d love to see this played out onscreen.  P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It To Psmith (1923) has another umbrella scene, but even sillier:  Psmith sees an attractive girl stranded by the rain and, in classic insouciant Psmith manner, steals someone else’s umbrella to offer her gallantly.

Serendipity posterThe recent Netflix rom-com Set It Up (2018) has the main characters deliberately arranging a meet-cute in an elevator as part of a plot to get their bosses to fall for each other.  (It fails spectacularly.)  In Serendipity (2001), one of my holiday-season favorites, the pair meet fighting over the last pair of black cashmere gloves at a department store.

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (And Back Again)

Resisting the temptation to highlight innumerable other favorite examples, I’ll point out some more exotic cases.  The earnest trash-compactor robot in WALL-E (2008) meets the girl robot of his dreams, EVE, when she is dropped nearby to scout the long-defunct Earth for plant growth.  He spends the next several sequences frantically dodging the suspicious droid’s laser blasts, before they get more comfortable with each other.  Once EVE finds a sample and goes inert, we even see WALL-E gallantly shielding her from the rain with an ancient bumbershoot.  There’s just something about umbrellas; most likely it’s that they represent a very mild way of depicting a damsel in distress.

In the best of Heinlein’s juveniles, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel (1958), high-schooler Clifford Russell is trying out a working spacesuit he’s won in a contest when he gets a distress call from someone who’s escaped from hostile aliens in their flying saucer.  When he’s captured himself, he meets the caller, Peewee, a genius-level eleven-year-old.  Given the characters’ respective ages, there is no actual romance in the usual sense, though they become fast friends—and there’s no question but that they’ll fall for each other when they get old enough.  I’d classify this as a meet-cute on an intergalactic scale.

Arabella, coverVehicular breakdown is almost as good a way as umbrellas to create unexpected pairings.  In Georgete Heyer’s Arabella (1949), the eponymous Arabella’s carriage breaks down near the country “hunting box” of the (formerly) jaded Robert Beaumaris.  A recent romance in Wild Rose Press’s Deerbourne Inn series, Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace (2019), has Erica Timberly’s car break down, in the rain, no less, occasioning her rescue by her rock-group idol, Dylan Haynes.  (Unaccountably, he doesn’t offer an umbrella.)  Angela Quarles’ steampunk romance Steam Me Up, Rawley (2015) drops the hero into the heroine’s lap in a malfunctioning balloon, this being steampunk.

The Meeting of Adventure

By the time we get to carriage or automobile mishaps (not to mention flying saucers), we’re edging into the territory of the adventure romance.  (Which may where I should have classified Have Spacesuit, except that the incident, the setting, and the characters are just so darn cute.)  The “meet-hard” in an adventure story puts romantic interests together in exigent circumstances, defining their initial relationship in a different way.

There’s an entire subgenre of adventure romance stories.  Goodreads lists (at this writing) 1,344 entries in the category “Popular Adventure Romance Books.”  And that’s just the popular ones, apparently.  However, that’s not precisely what I’m referring to here.  In some cases—The Hunger Games is near the top of Goodreads’ list—the eventual lovers already know each other before the adventure begins.  Here, I’m classifying an “adventure romance” as a romance in which the characters meet on or because of the adventure.

Speed movie posterI think of the movie Speed (1994) as a classic example.  Most of the action takes place on a bus equipped with a bomb that’ll go off if the bus’s speedometer drops below 50 miles per hour.  Keanu Reeves’ character Jack Traven gets on the bus because he’s a police officer.  His opposite number, Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), is merely a passenger who ends up driving the bus.  They bond over the course of the incident and are ready for a real date by the finale.

The adventure romance may shade over into a rescue romance, in which one character saves the other from some unfortunate fate, minor or major.  But this doesn’t have to be the case; it’s just as likely the protagonists will end up cooperating in achieving their goal, becoming what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”

A Precarious Bond

Speed neatly illustrates (and lampshades) the great strength of the adventure romance:  the stress and camaraderie of the adventure brings the couple together as “Fire-Forged Friends.”  I’m especially fond of this trope (see The World Around the Corner and Rescue Redux).  At the end of Speed, Jack tells Annie he’s heard that relationships “based on intense experiences” don’t work out, although they go ahead anyway.  Interestingly, the sequel bears that out; Annie has a new boyfriend—though that seems to have been a function of actor issues (Reeves declined to appear).

National Treasure trailer sceneA similar issue about the stability of adventure romances comes up in the sequel to National Treasure (2004), in which characters played by Nicholas Cage and Diane Kruger came together over a plot to steal the original Declaration of Independence.  Their relationship has fallen apart by the time National Treasure 2 (1007) rolls around, but a new adventure gives them an opportunity to rekindle the spark.

Extraordinary Adventures

Since F&SF specializes in adventure, we see the meet-hard frequently in science fiction or fantasy works.  In the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, A Princess of Mars (1912), John Carter meets Dejah Thoris when she is captured by the green Martians among whom Carter is living, and he becomes her defender.

The principal couple in E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (first published 1928, revised book ed. 1946), Dick Seaton and Dorothy Vaneman, are already engaged when the story starts.  However, when Dorothy is kidnapped and Dick sets out in pursuit accompanied by his fast friend, Martin Crane, it turns out that Dorothy has a lovely fellow captive, Margaret Spencer.  Peggy and Martin form their own bond in the course of their epic space trip, and under these stressful conditions, it develops quickly enough that we get to see a double wedding on the planet Osnome.

The boy Shasta in The Horse and His Boy (1954), one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnian chronicles, meets an aristocratic Calormene girl, Aravis, on the road (ch. 2), and they share the adventures from then on.  These characters are also too young for an actual romance, but Lewis dryly tells us at the end that “years later, when they were grown up they were so used to quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.”

Eilonwy and TaranAnother independent heroine, Eilonwy, has grown up living with a formidable witch, which is where Taran the young hero meets her in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964).  She engineers Taran’s escape, which in only the start of five novels’ worth of achievements and escapades, with a marriage at the end (once they’ve grown up).  Don’t even look at the Disney movie version of the story, but I do highly recommend Dawn Davidson’s graphic-novel adaptation, only partway through but very promising.

And, for an example that’s had a wider audience, in the Marvel movie Thor (2011) Jane Foster discovers the hero in the desert, where he’s just been dropped by an Einstein-Rosen wormhole.  Their adventures continue through two movies, although by the third episode, lamentably, they seem to have broken up.

Only Slightly Extraordinary Adventures

Not all stories of adventure need to have fantastic elements—although by definition an adventure takes us out of ordinary, mundane life.  The dangers and thrills of the real world are quite enough.

Romancing the Stone posterOne of my favorite comedy-romance-adventures is the 1984 movie Romancing the Stone, in which romance novelist Joan Wilder ventures out of her quiet writer’s world to come to the aid of her sister, captured by smugglers in South America.  The bus she’s riding in Colombia crashes into a jeep driven by an exotic-bird smuggler, Jack T. Colton.  (I will leave to the reader the task of deciding whether this should count as a bump-into-each-other encounter, or a vehicular failure.)  Jack and Joan end up as unlikely partners in a progressively (sorry, I can’t avoid it) wilder series of escapades that end in a romance—although this couple, too, will have to wait for a sequel to fully seal the deal.

As noted above, there are lots of romance novels in this category as well.  Many of them start with the mundane and develop complications as they go; for example, Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer’s Don’t Look Down (2006), which starts out filming a movie and ends up with (as Goodreads puts it) “trying to find out who’s taking ‘shooting a movie’ much too literally.”

There is a sort of degenerate form of the adventure romance (in the mathematical, not the moral, sense) in which characters that are thrown together in a thriller automatically pair up, whether there’s a reason for it or not.  A writer can lean on the “forged in fire” trope without doing the work of showing how the characters are actually drawn together by the excitement.  For example, I have on my shelf Gardner F. Fox’s The Hunter Out of Time (1965), which made an impression on me as a kid but which, in retrospect, I have to think of as a potboiler.  When the time agent from the future who meets “adventurer” Kevin Cord turns out to be a beautiful girl, one is hardly surprised they end up falling for each other, basically because they’re there.

The Wedding Planner posterSome of these examples illustrate the gray area between the meet-cute and the meet-hard.  Whether cuteness or crisis predominates depends on the context of the story.  For example, the leads in The Wedding Planner (2001) meet when Mary (Jennifer Lopez) gets her high-heeled shoe stuck in a manhole cover and “Eddie” Edison pulls her out of the way of a speeding dumpster.  It’s a genuine danger, but it doesn’t lead to a series of adventures; the overall setting is comic (as is the danger).  On the other hand, the leads in Ready Player One (2011) meet in a gaming context, but their developing relationship is action-driven.

Where the Meets Meet

The meet-cute and the meet-hard share some features with respect to how they function in a story.

Ready Player One posterThe style of the meeting can help set the tone for the story:  comic, adventurous, or something else.  This is true even in the mixed cases.  Mary’s predicament in The Wedding Planner is slightly silly:  she’s pinned down by getting her heel stuck, and the onrushing menace is not a Mack truck but a mundane dumpster.  Similarly, Wade and Samantha in Ready Player One meet via action games; that tone is maintained when the action spills over into real life and real danger.

Both meet-cute and meet-hard have the effect of accelerating a relationship.  They put the characters in contact with each other in a distinctive and memorable way.  The quirkiness of the encounter, something the characters have in common, cuts short the process of “getting to know you” with which ordinary relationships begin.  This is especially useful in movies, or short stories, where a limited time is available for a “slow burn” relationship to form.  In that respect, these devices are similar to the love-at-first-sight convention (the “stroke of lightning”).

Finally, these non-ordinary meetings reveal something about the characters:  how they deal with unusual situations.  Are they self-conscious or self-confident?  Do they come up with quick solutions to problems (whether or not involving umbrellas)?  Do they know how to take action in a crisis?  And, not least, do they have a sense of humor?  The exceptional nature of the first meeting shows us more about the participants than we’d see if they simply met at work, say, or introduced themselves in a bar.

Either the meet-cute or the meet-hard, then, can kick off a romance with style—though very different types of romance may develop.