The other night, I watched Battle: Los Angeles, and while it was okay as a piece of reasonably brainless entertainment, it still suffered from what I call S.W.C.S. – Secret Weakness Chamber Syndrome.
Ever since the exhaust vent on the Death Star in Star Wars, all evil alien technology has come with a secret weakness, which is usually housed in a handy ‘secret weakness chamber’ located at the heart of the alien’s stronghold. This weakness allows our out-gunned and out-numbered heroes to defeat vast armies with a single blow.
In the Avengers and Independence Day, the alien hordes are controlled by a central mothership, the loss of which disables their forces. There’s a similar set-up in Edge of Tomorrow and Starship Troopers, in which the aliens troops are telepathically controlled by a single entity. In Battle Los Angeles, all the aliens’ technology is controlled via centralised command and control nodes, which just happen to make handy targets for the plucky marines. And in Captain America: Winter Soldier, the mechanism for disabling the deadly armoured helicarriers is housed, for some inexplicable reason, in easily accessible glass bubbles on the bottoms of their hulls.
And let’s not forget the Borg from Star Trek.
These weaknesses, or magic off-switches, can probably be traced back to War of The Worlds by H.G.Wells where, as I’m sure you already know, the Martian invaders – having defeated everything humanity can throw at them – are finally destroyed by germs.
These secret weaknesses make for involving plots, where the good guys get to fight back against seemingly overwhelming odds – but reality just isn’t that tidy. There is no simple re-set button to cancel the alien invasion. Instead of wiping them all out in a single explosion, you’re more likely to end up with alien casualties, prisoners-of-war, and guerrilla resistance. This is the lesson the US learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Russia may soon learn in Ukraine: nothing ends cleanly.
That’s why in my novels The Recollection and The Embers of War trilogy, I confronted humanity with seemingly unstoppable foes; and purposely neglected to provide those foes with secret weaknesses. There is no off-switch, no central brain or control system; and so none of the usual space opera narratives work.
Sometimes, you can win a temporary cessation of hostilities. Other times, all you can do is fall back. Fall back, and survive.