Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.
First contact has been made! The aliens have invited us to send a representative... to an intergalactic brawl.
Alasdair Stuart is the multiple Hugo award nominated host of PseudoPod, the horror fiction podcast. His non-fiction has appeared everywhere from tor.com to The Companion. He currently writes The Full Lid, which one of those Hugo nominations is for this year, a weekly pop culture newsletter edited by his love and life partner Marguerite Kenner. You can also find him on Twitter at @alasdairstuart and on Twitch on Sundays and Wednesday.
Alasdair: First off… you know The West Wing? If not, it's worth your time, seven seasons of very smart people talking a lot in corridors, and some just stunningly good writing. Anyway, my favourite episode of The West Wing is called Celestial Navigation in which, among other things:
- A character who talks for a living gets root canal;
- A Supreme Court Justice appointee is elected;
- And a major White House staffer attempts to navigate by the stars.
In this episode Josh Lyman, played by future Dystopian Santa Bradley Whitford, is interviewed. You find out at the end that he's explaining what's happening in real time and there's one thing he can't quite talk about. He smiles and asks the interviewer to ask him about it again the next time he's on.
Reading these questions, I know how that feels.
Gailey: How can different species from across the galaxy compete in a fair and entertaining way?
Alasdair: Well, the great and holy text Arena suggests the best way to do this is power inhibitors, gumshields, and Charles Band. There's a lot to recommend that approach, and God knows enough SF TV shows have done the 'Let's just have people fight on a soundstage' episode. Or in Battlestar Galactica's case, 'Let's have people fight on a soundstage and also process institutionalized and societal trauma through violence.'
This is always a good time, or at least a good enough time. But in order for it to be fair and entertaining? Well, for that you need one thing:
HUNGRY HUNGRY HIPPOS
Basically, pick a game that is simple and very, very stupid. Not stupid in that 'You don't believe in vaccines!' way either, but in the manner really good, broken games are. Hellraiser III level stupid. Geostorm level stupid. Games where stuff can happen to anyone at any time, for no reason other than the designer laughing too hard to consider whether that stuff should happen. Or because the designer just decided 'eh...fuck 'em.' Whichever works.
And honestly, wouldn't you want to see Earth's mightiest warrior facing off against The Sixth Ascendant Iconostatic Host, their 15,000 faces all turned downwards in confusion and horror at KERPLUNK! refusing to obey the laws of physics?
Gailey: What advantages might a human have in such a tournament?
Alasdair: Glad you asked. Homefield advantage is vital. Any human is going to be able to run rings around Warlord Ashen of The Violence Host on GUESS WHO?, but that human is going to be entirely screwed if we end up playing RAMBUNCTIOUS WARBEAST or WHOSE INTESTINE IS ON ME? So obviously, the battleground has to be Earth. I mean, odds are it's what they want anyway. They’re probably after the water. It's always the water. Or HBO Max.
Plus if we're playing at home, then there's the whole 'entire planet behind you!' thing. Which becomes the 'ENTIRE PLANET BEHIND YOU SO MAYBE GO SOMEWHERE ELSE NOW' thing if Armageddabot doesn't Armageddout of there if they win.
Gailey: How do we choose who to send?
Alasdair: My honest first blush response is: Twitch.
That network could land a plane. It played almost impossible video games entirely by committee. Plus it would confuse the living bejeesus out of Commander Chuck Broadsword and his all Conquering Space Force when they folded down from the dimension they come from.
Alternately, and this could be super fun, we all do it. One at a time. Let's be real, we've spent the last two weeks lauding billionaires for hauling themselves a skooch above the Karman line in flashy versions of the technology General Military Industrial Complex and his cronies were throwing around sixty years ago. We are NOT in great shape for interstellar invasion, and, unless you want to go full War of the Worlds, the best strategy is probably stalemate.
Think about it: Thousands of Warbears, each uniquely equipped and skilled in the arts of death, descend on Earth intent on taking it as their latest game world. Opposing them?
You. Me. That guy with the moped and the SONS OF ANARCHY shirt who cooks fancy cookies.
An army of us, all individual, all imperfect. Some of us will fail for sure. But if it's Best of Six Billion games of Uno instead of fighting the Warbears to the death? I like our chances a lot.
Besides, even if they don't get bored, there's no way they could pick up the cards.
Matt Wallace is the Hugo–winning author of Rencor: Life in Grudge City, the Sin du Jour series, the Savage Rebellion series, and Bump. He’s also penned over one hundred short stories in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler, unarmed combat, and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Nikki. His book Savage Bounty, the second installment of the Savage Rebellion series, is now available wherever books are sold.
How do you make a one-on-one fight between completely disparate species fair? The immortal B-movie classic ARENA (1989) starring perennial soap opera hunk Paul Satterfield and literally every actor from a TV series set in space in the early-to-mid 90’s, and featuring a terrible script and some truly amazing practical creature f/x, attempted to answer this question on a surface level. Set against an interspecies fighting competition, a beam-projecting AI sapped or enhanced alien fighters of different alien races’ strengths to balance battles between species. How it did this was never explained, but it created enough suspension of disbelief to keep the story moving.
But hand-to-hand combat is about more than physical strength. Physiology has as much to do with combat effectiveness and capability. You can’t shrink a being who towers over another race, and reducing their physical power doesn’t negate that size advantage. You can’t take the tentacles away from a cephalopod, which can still envelop and bind and smother a non-tentacled being.
In the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, before everyone wore the same tiny shorts and fought the exact same way and was rigidly grouped by weight class, the entire draw of the event was the spectacle of fighters with completely different styles and of completely different sizes creating utter chaos inside a cage. Maybe that’s what an intergalactic brawl is in its most distilled form. Nothing needs to be modified or balanced. We just need to throw ourselves in the biological blender with our competitors and put on a show.
The single most defining, enduring, and dangerous characteristic of human beings is adaptation. There is virtually no physical condition to which we cannot eventually adapt and inevitably overcome. But we don’t do that by changing ourselves. We don’t adapt humanity to suit our environment. We adapt by changing whatever threatens us. That change usually involves a tremendous amount of bio-crushing violence. Humans are the sharks of forced adaptation. We can kill anything. We’ve sent countless species into extinction, built condos and shopping malls where no human should be able to survive a week let alone live sustained, and we’ll ultimate murder an entire planet. We are biological wrecking machines.
So, bring it on. Whether it’s a thirty-foot sloth alien or a microbe wielding a sword made of bacteria, all we need is numbers and a long enough timeline. Send enough of us to die until we figure out how to colonize our enemy, and within a few generations at the most every other competitor in that intergalactic tournament will be speaking our language and living on coffee, cigarettes, and clinical depression.
My brawl would be a mess. We would send our biggest, strongest, most versatile fighter (Brock Lesnar, obviously, that’s not even a question)... only to find that the one tool barred from the ring is physical agility. The battle can be fought using emotional, psychological, toxic, psychic, projectile, or bacterial means, but physical force is strictly forbidden as a matter of course. Since we will, in the interest of intergalactic diplomacy, have sent Lesnar with no weapons of any kind, this will prove to be a real pickle for humanity.
All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Alasdair's battle plan is the lead-in to the biggest MMORPG of all time. Matt's approach to the fight is the opening to a biting critique of the human approach to the world. My fight-diplomacy is how we will finally learn about Brock Lesnar’s hidden telekinetic talents (it’s okay, Brock, you can tell the world at long last!).
How would you approach an intergalactic MMA match? Would humanity stand a chance against the best fighters the rest of the ‘verse has to offer?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
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