Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A brilliant mix of science and myth

I guess most authors have, at one time or another, been asked where they get their story ideas from. With science fiction, of course, it becomes just a tiny bit harder, because what we write about hasn't happened yet. One popular approach has been to use a fantasy story and make it 'real'. Examples include the crew of the Enterprise encountering Roman gods and goddesses, and the whole premise behind Stargate, where the aliens are Egyptian gods and goddesses. Hey ho. It's fertile grounds for plots, even if it is a bit far fetched. For me, these sorts of plots have huge difficulty in scaling the heights of my ability to suspend disbelief.

So that's it for the disclaimer. What I really want to talk about is the way best-selling SF author Jack McDevitt combined myth and science in his 2003 novel, Omega.

In an earlier novel, The Engines of God, he introduced the Omega clouds, vast cosmic storms that seemed to be attracted to technology and civilization, destroying any they found. The storms caused violent weather events on the worlds they attacked. In The Engines of God we are shown the results of this destruction and are given an unsettling hint at what caused the clouds.

In this later book, McDevitt uses the good old 'what if ' question. What if an Omega cloud was known to be bearing down on an alien world which supported a burgeoning civilization, which we could describe as pre-technology? What would we space-faring Earthlings do? Especially when, in accordance with a Protocol, we're not supposed to interfere, not supposed to impose our superior capabilities on them? We can't get the Goompahs off their planet. We don't have the ships or the time. What do we do? Leave them to it, knowing they will be destroyed? Certainly, we'll try to divert the cloud – but what if that doesn't work?

The humans land on the planet, but take care not to be seen. McDevitt gives a fascinating account of how his alien civilization works, as well as how the scientists collect their information. The scientists learn the language, find out about the Goompah culture and religion, and (of course) become interested in their fate. Meanwhile, Earth's Academy (a future NASA if you will) is doing all it can to divert the advancing cloud. But if it can't be diverted, the Goopahs will be destroyed. In that case, how to warn them, to at least give them a chance? The answer is in the Old Testament and a few myths and legends. The 'Gods' have often spoken to humanity through oracles or burning bushes or disembodied voices. And the Goompahs have gods.

I thought this was an absolutely brilliant mix of hard science and human myth, presented in a totally believable way. McDevitt describes how the language is translated, how the scientists get around without being seen (no magic wands in sight) and what's happening to divert the cloud.
Mind you, like all McDevitt's "Academy" novels, it's not an easy read. The plot jumps around and the going can be slow. And I must add the Goompahs were a bit too humanoid for my taste, even if they were green. I don't think they'd be in the running for ideal mates for Earth women, though.
However, if you're riffling through your myths and legends books for ideas for your next SFR, try taking an idea and twisting it a bit. You might have a whole new angle.

Greta van der Rol loves writing action-packed adventures with a side salad of romance. Most of her work is space opera, but she has written paranormal and historical fiction.
She lives not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoys photography and cooking when she isn't bent over the computer. She has a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping her in her writing endeavours.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation! Will have to check out McDevitt's work.

  2. BTW, one of my favorite SFRs ever combined Australian Aboriginal mythology with space exploration. If you've never read The Outback Stars, you should check it out.


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