Bryan Thomas Schmidt: Space battle and action scenes in science fiction (a dialog)

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is on a blog tour for his newest novel, The Returning, a sequel to his debut novel The Worker Prince. On the blog tour for his first novel, Bryan stopped by to discuss how golden age science fiction influenced him. Since then, Bryan has not only written another novel, but he also edited the Space Battles anthology. This time around, Bryan and I discuss space battles in golden age science fiction, as well as action scenes in general through all of science fiction. It was a fun discussion and I was delighted that Bryan had the chance to stop by. You can read our discussion below.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt: So Jamie, good to talk pulps again. I always enjoy our conversations. You mentioned, after seeing Space Battles, the anthology I edited, that you had wondered about my take on space battles in the history of science fiction. And I must admit, as a kid who fell in love with sci-fi because of Star Wars and Star Trek (both original series, ahem) that space battles and science fiction have always been almost hand-in-hand in my mind. I love action. Even now, action movies are always my favorites. I like drama, I like comedy, and a good mix of those is great as long as there’s good action. So that’s what I try and write with the Davi Rhii books and the feel I most wanted to capture was that Golden Age feel as we’ve discussed in the past. So getting started, what’s your sense of the place space battles have science fiction for you? You’ve read a lot more pulp than I have, at least recently. What draws you to science fiction stories? Does action play a part?

Jamie Todd Rubin: Well, I can appreciate the fondness for movies like Star Wars, and shows (and movies) like Star Trek, but I must admit that I’m one of those rare breed of science fiction writers who is generally uninterested in media-SF. I like written stuff, and that is where most of my influence comes from. Star Wars probably took space battles to a level never achieved before 1977. But space battles have been a part of the literature from almost the beginning and in those early days of the Golden Age and just before, they were portrayed about as realistically as what we see inStar Wars. While lasers in space makes for an exciting story, it doesn’t seem to be an optimal weapon. Willy Ley pointed this out in a rather remarkable article in the August 1939 issue of Astounding called “Space War.” In that article, he made a very closely reasoned case for why bullets would still be superior weapons to lasers in a real space battle. Someone took this to heart, because I recall seeing just such a weapon used in the second-coming of Battlestar Galactica.

I tend to be more connected to space battle stories when it is the battle that is secondary to the story itself. There is a rather remarkable space battle in the fourth Foundation story, “The Big and the Little.” Foundation stories are often criticized for being mostly dialog and that is true, but people seem to forget the battle that takes place at the end, and the clever tactics used to surprise the enemy fleet. I tend to be turned off by the galaxy-wide, planet hurling battles you get from someone like E. E. “Doc” Smith in his Lensman stories. I prefer the smaller, somewhat more realistic battles you get from someone like Malcolm Jameson in his “Bullard” stories of the 1940s; or the kind you find in Joe Haldeman’s stories of the 1970s.

But you edited an entire anthology of space battles, Bryan. What worked for you? What is it about a space battle story that makes it a good story?

BTS: Well, the Foundation stories were very much more intellectual action than physical action. The ideas explored and examined are amazing and it’s done with great depth, but yes, they are not “action” stories in the typical sense, and that’s okay. John C. Wright’s “Count To A Trillion” last year was very much like that and, to some degree, so are Michael Flynn’s TOR series Spiral Arm. So I don’t think action is the sole element of space opera. Certainly political and personal scheming and lots of twists and turns in plotting are common elements as well as larger-than-life characters and a sense of good v. evil and epic scope. But in many ways, it’s the action pace that makes the stories so popular because it’s really good escapism. We all have an inner hero who dreams of saving the day, I think. And we can live vicariously through those stories and have those laser battles and starship dogfights in our mind that won’t likely happen in our real lives and that, in many ways, are more exciting and interesting than our everyday lives. I think that’s a big part of the appeal. So if you have a fast pace, fun gadgets and ships, an interesting, imaginative setting that evokes the creativity of readers, and add interesting characters, especially with fun banter, fans tend to enjoy that. All elements which Star TrekStar WarsBSG etc. had and which many of the Space Battles stories employed. I also used it in my Davi Rhii books.

And I think the realistic nature in regards to space battles is one area where readers and even writers tend to fudge and it’s acceptable to do so. Mess up things like gravity, planetary set up, solar systems, geology, etc., and you’re much more likely to get criticized but everyone enjoys blasters and starfighter duels. It’s the same way that FTL, although scientifically impossible as far as we can see, is still used as a trope widely.

JTR: You know, I find that I while I like to write action scenes, they are more difficult for me to construct than scenes with less action. When you are writing an action scene, whether it is a space battle, or something else, do you use a certain technique? Do you plan it out ahead of time, choreographing it somehow. Or does it just come out the way you want it to? Are there tricks that you use to convey the speed at which things happen? Sorry for all of the questions, but I really am curious about this. Not every writer can do this well, but those who can pull off rather remarkable results because they make you see what’s going on without the visual and audio aids of a television or movie screen.

BTS: You know, I did a Write Tip post on my blog about this.  But before I revisit those, yes, my background in filmmaking and film school is a big help. I imagine the scenes visually before writing them. And one thing about movie scenes is that screenplays don’t use much description and use short snippets of dialogue to keep pace moving. While a normal page of screenplay is usually roughlyh equivalent to 1 minute of screen time, in action driven movies with fast pace, a page of dialogue can go much faster. But the truth is, if you’re fighting to the death, you’re too out of breath and too focused to say a whole lot. So unless you’re writing a space ship battle with pilots sittingin cockpits, keep the dialogue short and precise. You do this by: writing in short snippets. Break up dialogue with action and write in beats. I try and imagine what each character does in a call response kind of thing. Character A does this and it affects Character B and Character C like this. Character B responds like this. Character C does this. etc.

John ran forward, machine gun trying to tear from his grip as he fired a stream of neverending bullets at the masked man. The man was unperturbed, facing him with a grin as he cackled and waited as if he knew something John didn’t, a lunatic taunting fate or a bulletproof devil, unafraid. 

Use action to break up dialogue and vice versa. This will add to pacing and tension.

“What are you?” John shouted, panting for breath as the new cartridged clicked into place and he pulled back the trigger. The machine gun bolted again, strafing the ground in a line straight toward the masked man.

Get to the point. Long descriptions of scenery and weapons don’t belong. Do it before the shooting/action starts because during it will just destroy the tension. Set up the character’s skills and weapons beforehand, too. So we’re not surprised or jolted out of our suspension of disbelief into wondering about that and taken out of the story. Instead, give us sensory details–what the characters see, feel, touch, etc.

Sweat drops clouded John’s eyes as he gritted his teeth, growling with the beat of the bucking gun. Why won’t you die? he wondered, his forearms already flaring with pain from the tension of holding and swinging the hot gun back and forth. He felt like his hands would explode any minute. How did those SWAT and Marine guys do this? He’d never missed his .48 more. He probably would be hitting more accurately and wasting less bullets.

You also have to make it believable and the sensory details help with that. In the example, we see that John is not used to the machine gun and thus is having some difficulties physically with its power, etc. We also see a tinge of frustration and regret in his wondering about SWAT and Marine guys, in addition to his phsyical issues. And it makes us wonder if he’s going to last to win the fight. Thus, adding tension, right?

Also, more than ever in action scenes, keep it tight, too. You must leave out anything that doesn’t absolutel have to be there. I also like to create waves like roller coasters where the protagonist seems to be making progress and then the other side turns it around and the protagonist is losing and couldn’t possibly win, but then he/she uses ingenuity and creativity to regain the advantage. This adds tension. It also gives readers emotional arcs to engage with as they worry about the outcome. Humor can be used very effectively here. It reveals character and it also can allow readers to catch their breath before launching back into tension. Also, the tension of the scenes is because they matter to the story. The stakes are always very high i.e. if the antagonist wins, there might be no more journey for the hero.

The link above is a post with details on how to balance action scenes with each other, etc. as well as how to specifically write them but this answer is lengthy enough already. Now, what are some of your favorite action scenes from science fiction and fantasy, particularly books? Especially ones with unusual aspects, Jamie?

JTR: Interestingly, the first scene that comes to mind is from a book that is at best fantasy or even horror. It’s a scene from Stephen King’s It. That was a remarkable book and looking back on it, I think it is even better than I originally thought. If I had the time I’d go back and read it all again. But there is a scene in that book where a group of kids (good kids vs. bad kids) have a rock fight in this warren-like area. If you were to witness the fight from the side lines, all you might see is a half dozen kids throwing rocks at one another from different positions in the dirt. But the way Stephen King writes the scene, it feels like an epic battle, something out of The Lord of the Rings, a deciding battle for all of good and evil. It utterly took my breath away when I read it, and in some ways, I look to that scene as the epitome of how to write a great action scene. It was heart-felt action and it was remarkable. If you’ve never read that book, you must go out and read it, but if you don’t have time, find that scene, because it is just–wow!

But back to more traditional science fiction. I seem to recall the opening scene of Robert Heinlein’s Friday to be a pretty remarkable action scene, first because it is in medias res, and second, because Heinlein had just that kind of compact writing style, choosing a few words, but just the right ones to give you a vivid impression of the action. I guess this is kind of similar to what you were saying about screenplays. There was Friday coming down the beanstalk, and being followed by other agents. It was whiz-bang action carried out vividly at the opening of the book–much the way James Bond movies unfold today.

Then there were the bombing scenes in Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear in which she did such a good job conveying the sense of terror and chaos of the blitz of London that I could not get through a scene without feeling shaken to the core. I can imagine someone who lived through the blitz reading those passages and saying, “Yes, that’s just right. That’s just how chaotic and horrible as it really was.” Connie would occasionally leaven those scenes with sprinkles of humor, but that was almost necessary to get you through it.

There was also a time when Piers Anthony impressed me with his ability to write action scenes. Not so much in the Xanth novels, but in his older science fiction novels, like Macroscope or his BIO OF A SPACE TYRANT series. And I thought Poul Anderson did a great job of conveying action even in books where the stage is kind of small (at least in three dimensions) like Tau Zero.

I look at the stories that I’ve sold and find them to be much more Asimovian than Heinlein-esque or King-like. My first story took place mostly on the moon and there was some action, but nothing heart-stopping. In “Take One For the Road” which appeared in Analog, the action was also fairly minimal. It was in “In the Cloud” which was put out early this year by 40K Books that I deliberately tried to break out of my low action mode and write real actions scenes. I have scenes in there of airplanes on Mars flying beneath alien cities carved into the canyons–of plane crashes, or rockets flights up to the Martian moons. And I still don’t know if the action really works. But that was, at least, a deliberate attempt on my part to throw in more action.

What about you, Bryan? What are some of your favorite action scenes from genre fiction?

BTS: Well, obviously there are scenes like the Death Star escape sequence in Star Wars which includes both Han, Leia, Chewie and Luke fighting stormtroopers as well as Obiwan fighting Vader. The Death Star Destruction sequence from later in that film is also a powerful battle sequence as well as the opening of Star Wars with the boarding of Leia’s ship. All three are iconic for me. From literature, I love the action sequences in John A. Pitt’s urban fantasy Black Blade Blues. Some of them take up whole chapters and yet are nonstop action with a dose of humor mixed in. They involve a ragtag SCA-like group having to take on real dragons outside Seattle. Peter Brett and Myke Cole also do a great job with action in their fantasy series as well as Timothy Zahn and Kevin J. Anderson in their space operas especially. The battle scenes between Presimion and the prince who stole his throne in Lord Presimion and Sorcerers Of Majipoor by Robert Silverberg are exceptional. Ken Scholes does a great job as well in his Psalms of Isak series. I also remember well the final battle in Ender’s Game which has such a profound impact on Ender. It plays out like a computer simulation really but then Ender realizes it was real and has to deal with the implications. There were also memorable battles in their training rooms from that as well. Lots of great stuff.

JTR: In addition to editing Space Battles, you have a new novel out, a sequel to the Worker Prince called The Returning. Can you tell us a little about it?

BTS: Sure. The Returning is a follow up to my debut novel, which came out last October and wound up with Honorable Mention on reviewer Paul Goat Allen’s Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 at Barnes & Noble Book Clubs. TWP was the story of Davi Rhii, a prince, who discovers he was born a slave, sets out to find his birth family and winds up caught up in a political firestorm over slavery as he helps them fight for freedom. The Returning picks up a year later with the slaves free but still struggling for full acceptance. And some of their opponents aren’t taking it lightly. Assassins are killing ex-slaves, and even Davi and his friends, Farien Noa and Yao Brahma, find their lives being threatened as they investigate. Meanwhile, Davi’s mother, Princess Miri, adjusts to civilian life, Davi and his fiancee Tela face growing pains in their relationship, and the new High Lord Councilor tries to rally support for Lord Aron, the first former slave to serve on the ruling Council Of Lords.

This one has lots of action as well. I wrote some 10 page sequences or longer, in fact. I was aiming for a thriller so a lot of the plotting is surprise oriented, not just suspense oriented, and the pacing is similar to Ludlam’s Bourne novels. I even have a cliffhanger ending that will really make you want to know what happens in Book 3 next year. Again this is classic-style space opera with the familiar tropes and larger-than-life heroes and villains battling for good vs. evil. It’s got humor and politics and family drama and a touch of romance plus that classic Star Wars: A New Hope feel.

JTR: Thanks so much for stopping by Bryan. This was a lot of fun, as always.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.


  1. I seem to recall the opening scene of Robert Heinlein’s Friday to be a pretty remarkable action scene, first because it is in medias res, and second, because Heinlein had just that kind of compact writing style, choosing a few words, but just the right ones to give you a vivid impression of the action

    yes, that’s one of my favorite action scenes in genre.


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