IFComp 2015 review: Capsule II – The 11th Sandman

Capsule II cover Science fiction doesn't generally need to explain why its setting includes extraordinary technological advancements. Strong artificial intelligence? Sure. Interstellar travel? Naturally. Telepathy? Why not. The audience doesn't need convincing that such things exist. Science fiction's entire genre premise is imagining futuristic technology and its repercussions.

The trick to writing credible scifi is justifying the things it lacks. Take for example Dune: several thousand years into the future, humanity has regressed into a feudal society with relatively primitive technology. This is explained by the aftermath of a war against intelligent machines that caused a ban on artificial intelligence and advanced computing. They prefer melee weapons because shooting the ubiquitous energy shields will kill the shooter as well. Everything that doesn't fit the expectations of future technology has an explanation.

Capsule II is a choice-based story about someone who wakes up in a giant starship that is transporting half a billion humans in suspended animation from dying Earth to a new planet. The journey takes more than a hundred years and the ship wakes a single person at a time for 8 year shifts to handle unexpected issues.

The setting raises more questions than it answers, and not in a good way. If they knew eight years of solitude has a high chance of driving people crazy, why are the maintenance shifts that long? Why not wake up a team of people for a year at a time? How is it possible that they provided only a year's worth of entertainment when even a single modern iPad can hold more data than that, especially if they were concerned about people losing their minds to boredom? Why would cryogenically frozen people need nutrients? Why does this immensely big starship that must be as big as a city carry so little water and food that the only person consuming them has to ration? Why does the person literally responsible for the entire human race act like the only training they've got for the job was a weekend long crash course? Things like these need some kind of in-universe explanation. Cryosleep and starships transporting millions of people are still within genre expectations, but unexplained organizational problems are not.

The other issue is the humor. Not that the jokes themselves would be bad, but they're just so out of place and incredibly tacked-on in the otherwise dark tone the prose is going for. There's nothing that breaks immersion faster than a random throwaway joke. For example, when the protagonist switches on the ship computer it responds with a surfer dude personality. After this brief initial interaction the personality is discarded, never mentioned again, and from then on the computer displays a neutral voice. So what was the point?

That said, on the whole these are still minor quibbles. Capsule II closely resembles Moon both in style and content; I would be very surprised if it wasn't used as an insipration. The story has a certain vibe to it that compares favorably to classical 50s/60s scifi literature and space travel aesthetics brought on by Alien. The graphical design is spot on and the text effects, graphics and layout fit together perfectly.

Occasionally the story evokes vivid imagery of solitude-induced dementia. During the endgame the viewpoint switches rapidly between two characters, which underlines the chaotic situation the protagonist is in. The author has succeeded in one of the hardest design challenges of choice-based fiction: pacing the story so that it keeps moving forward without the whole or any individual part feeling too short or too long.

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