Friday, January 8, 2016

MAKE IT RAIN:EVEN SFR SHOULD HAVE WEATHER



One thing you learn very quickly here in the mountains of North Carolina is that the weather can turn on a dime. Wake up in the morning and it’s nice and sunny; by noon the clouds have come over the ridgeline and the rain is falling. If you’re really unlucky, by nightfall the temperatures have dropped and the rain has turned to snow. If you don't know what I mean, take a look at some of Laurie's pics of Winter Storm Goliath that hit New Mexico recently.

This is my first winter here, so I haven’t experienced all that Mother Nature has to offer, but I’ve learned enough to be wary. If I were honest, I’d have to say I absorbed that suspicion at my own mother’s knee. In the days before wide interstate highways, she never went home to West Virginia for a visit between the months of October and May. Heck, even after the interstates were built she stayed off the switchbacks leading to her little mountain hometown in the dead of winter. You just never knew when a storm would blow in and leave those mountain curves deadly with ice.

I read an article recently that put this in focus. A woman from the city had moved to rural Montana and was struck by the way the weather was a constant presence, a force to be reckoned with in a way she’d never experienced in her urban life. I imagine anyone living in the Rockies, the Appalachians, Tornado Alley, the Snow Belt, hurricane-prone coasts or the flood plain of any river knows what she was talking about. In those places you watch the weather report obsessively, whether you’re a farmer or fisherman or not. You watch the sky. And if things start looking ugly, you batten down.

Writers of contemporary or historical romance are fond of using the weather as a major plot device, or at least part of the setting. How many lovers have been stranded by snowstorms or caught in rainstorms and forced to seek shelter alone together? Floods and hurricanes wreak havoc, too, though they tend to be messy. The long-term effect of drought can be a plot point for some stories, causing folks to almost lose the ranch, for example.

In SF and SFR, though, the weather very rarely plays a part. Oh, sure, you could have an ion storm in space, or a solar flare or two. Post-apocalyptic stories set on a ruined Earth do pose some weather-related problems for their characters—most often drought. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an exception; it rains or snows constantly in the nuclear winter of his book, to the misery of his characters.

Occasionally characters leave their spaceships and go “dirtside” on an actual planet, where they are subject to that planet’s weather. But SFR writers are usually so enamored of the wonders of space that planetary weather is often the last thing on their minds. If the visuals are anything to go by (movies and TV shows), all the planets our characters are visiting are either vast, hot desert wastelands or vast, cold, desert wastelands. AVATAR is a notable exception. It is beautiful and full of life, but where is the weather? Couldn’t Jake and Neytiri have benefitted from a timely rainstorm?

The mines of Rura Penthe? Or maybe just Alaska.

Maybe our limited vision of planetary weather has been formed by the two screen giants of SF—STAR TREK and STAR WARS, both of which seem overly fond of desert planets. There’s a very good reason for this—deserts are easy to find and film in here on Earth. In TREK’s case, there were lots of desert film locations within easy distance of L.A. back in the Classic series days. I’m sure George Lucas thought the desert locations for Tattooine looked sufficiently exotic to be on some other planet. Or think of the ice fields of Rura Penthe, the prison planet Kirk and McCoy are sentenced to in STAR TREK VI—surely no place on Earth could be that harsh!

Actually Earth has some pretty spectacular places—and corresponding weather. We really have to put our minds to work to come up with something more astounding. Methane rain. Phosphorescent sand storms. Walls of lighting. Or maybe just a nice, sunny day that turns nasty in the way one does some places on Earth.

The details of setting can be more than just bulkheads and decking, stale air and food from a replicator. Spaceships can be very confining and, really, they are only good for getting our characters from one place to another unless the purpose is to write the SFR equivalent of a drawing room drama or mystery. Let the story—and the characters—get out and stretch their legs once in a while. They just might see something no one has ever seen before.

Cheers,
Donna


9 comments:

  1. Since I came into SFR from a historical background, it's far easier for me to think about the weather than about what might happen to a ship in space. I also write planetary as opposed to being in space.

    My May release, which is in edits now, is set on a planet partly known for its extreme weather. There's a mountain range on the main continent that you don't mess with unless you want to die. Technology hasn't conquered those blizzards, and in my world never will.

    In the first ten chapters, I also have a massive line of severe thunderstorms coming through. Living in the Gulf South, I'm intimately acquainted with severe thunderstorms and the damage they can do. And how fast they can appear out of nowhere.

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    1. Sounds like a lot of fun, Rachel. Of course, where we live informs our writing, like everything else in our lives, so those Gulf thunderstorms (and hurricanes!) are gonna show up somewhere--even on another planet!

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  2. Great post, Donna. I actually am a little bit leery of planets like Tatooine and Dune, which are just great big deserts. Especially with a planet with no axial tilt, you'd have a difference in climate between the equator and the poles. Always given there's an atmosphere, of course. And even Mars and Pluto have seasons.

    I love me a bit of climate. Hudson and Jess caught up in unexpected snow, Morgan and Ravindra trudging through the rain in a rainforest. (Which reminds me of Avatar. Maybe it only rained at night?)

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    1. LOL. Yes, of course. But I think that would have ruined a crucial scene or two in the film.

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  3. GREAT post, Donna! And yes, good question on Avatar. It is, after all, a tropical rain forest. But no rain? Of course I suppose the plants on Pandora could be low-water usage alien flora, but it does seem odd that all that growth doesn't seem to be regularly watered.

    And, okay, weather on spaceships. I actually have that! Simulated weather anyway. I'd post an excerpt but this comment would get pretty lengthy.

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    1. I think you've recognized in that idea of simulated weather that humans instinctively need something of the outdoors. Months and years in space would ultimately be intolerable for all but a limited number of people without something like a faux park, holospace or greenhouse with plants, full-spectrum light and, yes, rain.

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    2. Yes, exactly. Even people on Earth suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) when they are exposed to dark and dreary weather. Imagine having no weather at all. (Spacecraft Affective Disorder?) Having a dedicated area where a crew can experience weather and natural conditions--the progression of the "sun" from morning to afternoon, a breeze, even brief "rainstorms"--might help humans better adjust to extended space travel.

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  4. The weather plays a big role in the events of my most recent SFR, Star Cruise: Marooned. Great post!

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  5. Maybe it's being a Brit and our weather obsession, but rain happens a lot in my planet based SFRs, lol. Right now I'm working on an ice planet short where it's approaching winter solstice and the worsening weather and temperature drop are causing all kinds of complications (I know ice planets aren't a rarity in SFR either, but the weather dominates the story plot).

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