Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Oddness of the New Yorker’s Science Fiction Issue

First, an update on my book.  I’m about 220 pages into what I think will be a 300-page draft.  It’s coming along well but taking turns I hadn’t expected.  All of a sudden robots are important (robots?  I wasn’t planning to write about robots), and they are making me have to rethink some earlier sections.  I can’t quite say that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at least I’m pretty sure I’m in a tunnel and not a cave.  I’ve had to take a break from the book for awhile as I get ready to direct Camp Multimedia, but I’ll be back on it in hopes of having a draft done by mid-July—no, end of July—no, the end of the summer.  Well, we’ll see.

The issue of the New Yorker currently on newsstands is their first Science Fiction issue.  On a piece-by-piece basis, there are some good reads to be found.  I really liked the Sam Lipsyte and Junot Díaz stories as well as the remembrance by the recently deceased Ray Bradbury.  I wanted to really like the Jennifer Egan story, since it was a quasi-continuation of A Visit from the Goon Squad.  I even read the whole story on Twitter in the spirit of the thing (the entire story is told in tweet-sized paragraphs).  But the story, a sci fi spy tale, was just okay, and the Twitter part of it seemed unessential.  It read more like Lorrie Moore meets Roger Moore.

But, that said, what is odd about this New Yorker issue is the way the editors chose to put it together.  It comes in two discreet sections that clearly demarcate the literary writers from the SF writers. This enforced separation is really unfortunate and it kept the issue from being more interesting.

The first part consists of science fiction stories and essays by writers with a literary reputation (in addition to those mentioned above, there’s Jonathan Letham, Colson Whitehead, and Anthony Burgess). Again, there was some good reading here, but is it really that big a deal to show that writers of literary fiction can do SF-influenced work?  That’s not news for anyone who has read Michael Chabon or David Foster Wallace.  Or Marge Piercy or Haruki Murakami. Or George Orwell or Mark Twain.  Can I stop now?

The other part of the issue involves short remembrances by SF-identified writers like Ursula Lu Guin, William Gibson, and Margaret Atwood (though I think of her as more literary) of their early encounters with science fiction.  The majority of these pieces strike a similar tone, combining a sense of SF as an illicit form of literature with the pure pleasure taken in reading it.  In the aggregate, these pieces reminded me of Philip Roth writing about masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint. 

If the New Yorker ever does a SF issue again, they should do it the way they do their “Best Writers Under 40” issues.  Introduce readers to a whole bunch of authors they probably don’t already know but may really like.  Plenty of New Yorker readers would be interested in Elizabeth Bear’s stories on technology and female sexuality.  They’d be intrigued, if sometimes puzzled, by Cory Doctorow’s futuristic versions of social networking.  And since the New Yorker throws a lot more money at authors than change-per-word SF pulps, they could probably have gotten Paolo Bacigalupi to start writing for adults again.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

“So, what’s your book about?”

“So, what’s your book about?”

That’s a reasonable question, and it’s one I haven’t done a very good job answering to date.  But at a party when someone asks me what I’ve been up to and I say I’m writing a novel, that’s the next question. Usually, my response is “It’s a science fiction novel about a space elevator.”  That’s true, but a little deceptive.  After all, if you asked Toni Morrison what Beloved was about, she could say “Kentucky and Ohio,” which is also true but kind of misses the point.

I’m not writing a science-fiction-as-engineering-thought-experiment novel, so my book doesn’t focus on how you build the machine that lifts people from Earth into orbit without rockets (as interesting as that may be).  It wasn’t that I was trying to be misleading in my response, but since I’m only about halfway through my first draft, I didn’t really know what my book was about.  Like many people, I write via intuition with a sense that a book will emerge at the end of the process.  And, since I’m learning as I write, I’m slowly figuring out what in fact my novel is about.

So, I think I’m ready to take a stab at this.

It was helpful to read an interview with SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson that had been forwarded to me by Jason Bradford.  In that interview, Robinson has a great quote:
It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place – you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

This excerpt really spoke to me because my novel takes place across a range of generations, moving backward in time.  The first section is set in a future “present,” then the second section takes place among the grandparents of the first section’s characters.  The third section involves the grandparents of the second section’s characters, which gets us pretty close to the present.  As a result, I’m regularly writing about characters who have only the vaguest sense of the future they will make possible, but they are nonetheless looking to shape it.  The characters across all three sections (at least the good ones) strive to build the world they themselves will never inhabit.  I have found this process very inspiring.

If it’s possible to write an anti-dystopian novel that’s not a utopia, that’s what I’m trying to do. 

But, let’s get back to the main point.  I need a good line at a party.  How about this (with apologies to Kim Stanley Robinson): “I’m writing a book about a space elevator.  It’s about how what we do now affects people two or four generations after us.” 

Now, bring on the hors d'oeuvres.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Apocalypse Not Now; or, why the end of the world is a cliché

I admit to having a low tolerance for post-apocalyptic science fiction.  I just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which was excellent but as much as I could take.  When I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, I was in a bad mood the whole rest of the summer, so I tend to stay away from books I should otherwise probably read, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if it means having to plunge myself into a world in decline or collapse.

Of course, I recognize that this is just a personal preference, but it seems an appropriate abuse of a blog to turn a personal preference into a virtue.  So, I’d like to make the case against the end of the world as a cliché that does more harm than good, both for fiction and for ourselves.  But first, let’s give the cliché its due. 

I remember how revelatory it was to read early William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and to see how cyberpunk broke with much of the science fiction that preceded it.  The cyberpunks refused to allow technology to solve social problems.  New technologies only created different arenas where social conflict played out.  This brought a whole new political sensibility to science fiction, and it made some of the stodgy hard SF that came before it seem not only dated but reactionary.

As a cyberpunk sensibility came to prominence within SF, narratives about courageous scientists solving the world’s problems with inventions were replaced by dystopian visions of hackers trying to outwit multinational corporations that facilitated environmental devastation.  As a corrective, this cyberpunk sensibility was, and still can be, important.  However, as a dominant narrative trope, it has its limitations.  What started out as a progressive critique can easily morph into a kind of fatalism.  If you’ve read one too many books with cynical, well-armed protagonists, you know what I mean.   If I want to see angry, white men trying to figure out what to do based on nostalgia for a lost world, I’ll just watch Fox News.

One of the most intriguing (though also infuriating) post-cyberpunk books I’ve read is Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  What makes it post-cyberpunk is its refusal of the clichés of apocalypse.  Doctorow’s novel envisions a post-scarcity world where many of the problems that obsess us now have been solved.  However, unlike pre-cyberpunk SF, those solutions aren’t the point of the book.  The book investigates what happens next.  How do people live in a kind of utopia where social interactions remain important?  The first half of the book lays out an amazing world that is so refreshingly free from cyberpunk concerns that I was able to realize how oppressive that worldview had become.  The second half of the book is inexplicably concerned with how rides work in the future-Disneyworld and a real let down, but that’s another issue altogether.

Of course, I would like to take the best of both worlds and write about a plausible future that doesn’t deny challenges yet doesn’t give into them either.  In fact, the apocalyptic mindset of the villains of the novel I’m writing has made their characterizations one of the easier tasks I’ve taken on.

Things are going well with my novel.  I’m 125 pages in and about to head into the crucial section of the book.  I’m actually going to step back from writing for a week to think about it more (and to catch up on a cascading to-do list I’ve been neglecting).  In other writing news, I hope to see Cedar Fallsians at the Final Thursday Reading Series tonight for a reading in honor of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Nancy Price’s Sleeping with the Enemy.  I’ll be premiering a new flash fiction monologue.  I also have a humor piece coming out soon in McSweeney’s, one of my favorite ezines.  I’ll shamelessly plug it when it gets published.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Language Problem in Science Fiction

            Part of the problem is familiar to any viewer of the original Star Trek.  You’re sitting there watching an episode and suddenly you think, “Hey, why do these aliens speak English with vaguely Eastern European accents?”  In the original Star Trek, this was just one of those things you weren’t supposed to question, like the physics of Warp drive and William Shatner’s hair.  By the time The Next Generation came around, something called the UniversalTranslator had been invented as a work around.  One of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books explained it by having tiny fish in people’s ears doing the translating. 
            I’m sympathetic to the problem.  It really slows the pace of your dialogue if you have to wait for a translation, so it’s much easier if you can just pretend that intergalactic language barriers just wouldn’t exist. 
            Of course, it’s all a lie. 
            It’s hard enough to talk to someone one generation removed from you about the latest feature on your phone, even if you otherwise share the same language and culture.  It’s ridiculous to think that communication is going to be easy in any future-globablized world, never mind in any intergalactic context.
Furthermore, the most interesting aspects of language are often those most subject to change.  We all speak language that reflects the slang of the moment and the shorthand we use to get things done.  GGN and GR8 aren’t much different than 23 skidoo and the bee’s knees, but neither would mean much to characters in a Jane Austen novel. But too often sci-fi ignores the problem of language so that it’s easier to write narratives that stretch over hundreds or even thousands of years.
            Many contemporary SF writers go in the other direction, immersing readers in the techo-jargon of a given moment, in hopes that we will pick it up as we go along.  Sometimes this works well.  I’m reading PauloBacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and having no problem picking up the genetic engineering lingo.  But I found the short story, “The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe in Rewired:the Post-Cyberpunk Anthology to be impenetrable.  The anthology editors described it as “crammed.”  I can think of more descriptive adjectives.
            In the novel I’m working on, I need to find ways to present various forms of speech over more than a century.  The challenge is navigating between the Scylla of plausibility and the Charybdis of understandability.  I’ve gotten around this in one section by having Business English mandated as the only acceptable means of public discourse.  In another section, I’ve abused Google Translate to have conversational English peppered with a range of terms from other languages.  For the last section I need to write, I need to figure out how to make funny jokes about future settings.  That may be the biggest challenge, but it’s also the litmus test.  You know you know a language when you can make jokes in it.  

Monday, January 30, 2012

Why Julie Husband Hates Science Fiction (and why I hope she’ll read my book anyway)

It’s true.  My wife, Julie, hates science fiction.  A few nights ago, we were reading side by side in bed and she looked over to see what book I had.  When she saw the cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (which admittedly has a pretty cheesy illustration with amirrorshade-helmeted astronaut and all) she said with a harrumph, “science fiction, huh.”

I can’t really blame her.  If you judge books by their covers, then most science fiction would seem to be modified superhero comics in space.  And if you want to read something with characters more complex than your average issue of Superman, you are likely to turn elsewhere.  As Julie does. 

But I do the same thing.  I was browsing the SF shelves of the bookstore yesterday, and I soon realized there was no way I was going to take a chance on a random book.  Though I’m sure there were some decent books to be found there, who could randomly pick one out among the requisite suitable-for-air-spraying-on-your-van cover designs?

While I love great science fiction, I find average science fiction not worth my time (the way that just average literary fiction still keeps me reading through the end).  However, now that I’m working an SF novel, I’m coming to appreciate why it is difficult to write great science fiction.

When you pick up a piece of literary fiction, you can generally assume that it is taking place in the world as we know it, unless you are told otherwise.  That means most writers of literary fiction get to focus immediately on crafting intriguing and complex characters.  However, in science fiction the act of “world creation” has to come first.  Any SF piece has to posit a unique world (even if that world is Earth) with its own set of rules, technologies, and history.  The best SF develops fascinating worlds that compel readers to reconsider basic assumptions about how things work and how they might work differently. 

As important as world creation is (and it is, I would argue, the defining act of science fiction) world creation by itself doesn’t make for great fiction.  In fact, world creation often gets in the way of the kinds of things, particularly the development of unique characters, that otherwise make for good literary fiction.  That’s why there are plenty of science fiction books (and here, let me pick on Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise again) that get so caught up in their own world creation that they don’t bother to develop characters that are interesting or even meaningfully distinguished from one another.

As it turns out, Red Mars, despite its cover, is a good book that not only creates a unique world but populates it with compelling, emotionally complicated characters (interesting factoid: Frederic Jameson was Robinson’s thesis advisor).  It has a little more SF-as-engineering-thought-project than suits me, but I’m 50 pages away from the end of this long book and eager to see what will happen to the characters I’ve been following over several hundred pages.

Science fiction involves a unique act of juggling.  In one hand, there’s world creation.  In the other, there’s characterization.  And in the other (but wait, I only have two hands!), there’s the plot.  Ah, there’s the problem.  All three of these balls need to be kept in the air simultaneously, advancing a narrative that can develop in multiple directions.

The hardest part of my writing process has been trying to figure out how much world creation has to be explained up front and how much can come out over the course of the narrative (allowing me to develop characters and plot in the meantime).  I’ve struggled on a section that covers the concept of the leap second.  I could easily write several pages on the debates over this concept and how it plays out within the divide between the space elevator station and the Earth in my novel, but to do so I would completely lose both the plot and the development of my protagonist.  Once two balls fall to the ground, that’s no longer juggling, it’s just a toss.

So my hope is that I can keep all these balls in the air.  If it works out, I’ll have a work with a unique and compelling world with plausible and complex characters that will even appeal to Julie.  That is, if I can persuade her to look past the cover.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Week 2: There Is No Such Thing As Science Fiction

Okay, the title is a bit of a tease.  Of course, there are plenty of books labeled “science fiction” and lots of people writing in that genre.  But, for anyone who thinks the point of science fiction is to predict the future, I’d like to say: there is no such thing as science fiction.  And here are three reasons why.

First: you can’t do it.  No one can predict the future with any degree of accuracy, no matter how many issues of Wired or Technology Digest one reads.  Even in the cases when SF writers seem to foretell a future development, it often seems more like the way a broken analog clock is still right twice a day.  Throw enough predictions around and some of them are bound to come true (I believe this is the secret behind fortune telling).  More than most genres, science fiction can quickly become dated, as one era’s vision of the future is quickly superseded by unforeseen political and technological developments.  As others have noted, the most old-fashioned part of Walt Disney World is always Tomorrowland.

Second: science fiction is about the present…  I know, that’s counterintuitive, but stick with me.  What science fiction does best is to give us tools for thinking about the implications of the world we live in today.  What should we worry about?  What should we celebrate?  Where should we invest (financially and emotionally)?  We are always in our historical moment, and we can’t help but be driven by the questions that concern us at a given time.  In this regard, science fiction should be read alongside literary realism.  They have more in common than is usually assumed. 

Third: …except when it’s about the past.  As I’ve said before, good science fiction should read like narrative history, charting out a series of beliefs and preoccupations that make us question our own.  But if we try to guess what those beliefs will be like in the future, we are likely to simply project from where we stand.  The past is likely to be a better guide, at least to the extent that it offers an endless supply of ideologies and practices that are distinctly not our own.  Hence, the popularity and pleasures of steampunk, the most successful offshoot of the cyberpunk movement.  Steampunk began with a simple proposition: what if the industrial revolution and the computer revolution happened at the same time?  From there, it has spun out a fascinating and complex series of texts that have nothing to do with predicting the future but which have evolved into their own stylistic subculture (check out this great steampunk style slideshow).

As I’ve been writing my novel this week between snowstorms, all of this has been in mind.  A novel that takes place in the future does not have a burden to predict, but it does have a burden to be plausible.  It is the very plausibility of set-in-the-future writing that can make it compelling and can make us question our present and our past.  I decided to add a new opening section to the novel when I realized that the most intriguing science fiction often takes existing social relations and asks how they could be technologically represented (and, subsequently, how that representation would change the relation).  Okay, in English, that means we should take something we do now or want to do and consider what kind of technology would make it possible.  And, then what would happen?

My new introduction is about a woman suffering from “caregiver fatigue,” who purchases a temporary clone so that she can send her avatar on a vacation without her family without their knowing about it and can later choose to have the avatar’s memories replace her own (it’s a kind of riff on the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” theme).  But then I have to ask, what would be the appeal and risks of such a technology, what would be it’s implications, and how would someone respond emotionally to such a thing?  I don’t believe I’m foretelling the future, and I can’t know if this concept will seem dated in a few years, but I can hope it will make for a compelling opening.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Week 1: Lost in Space

We finally got our first snowstorm in Iowa this week, but I've been in outer space.

The first section of my science fiction novel takes place on a well-established space station tethered to Earth as a space elevator.  It's the kind of topic that has been taken on in practically unreadable books like Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise (see the link for my Goodreads review), but I'm hoping to take on this traditional SF topic and demystify it.  So for the past week I've been trying to envision what day to day life would be like in such a place and what kind of futuristic assumptions are reasonable.

Like what?
- great efforts would be made to live as independently and sustainably as possible.  Plants and hydroponic vegetables would be growing wherever direct light was available.
- a combination of concerns about muscle atrophy and a need to generate power leads to a culture that highly values motion and uses technology to capture energy generated through treadmills and even walking on floors.
- a wholly interdependent community like this would carry social networking to an extreme where each member could tap into a network and feel the overall mood and concerns of the community.

But that's the big picture.  This week I've been writing about my protagonist, Jarod, who works as a tour guide and whose brother is visiting with his family.  Hopefully, a tour guide character gets to give a lot of expository information in a manner that doesn't feel forced.

And, of course, I'm left with questions.  How would day and night work when the sun only disappears during an equinox?  Would it be possible or even make sense to grow bamboo in such a location (I'm going with the idea of a giant fishbowl so that fish farming can happen, but I'm not sure about bamboo)?  As a tourist, would you be able to take good pictures through whatever version of glass looks out onto the stars?

I've stuck to my schedule this week.  Here's the pace:  1000 words a day, 5 days a week, 20 weeks= 400 page draft by the middle of June.  I'm ready to hunker down for a long, productive winter.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Day 1, or, Don't Get a Mattress Delivered the Day You Start Your Novel

Actually, I had finished writing for the day by the time the mattress got delivered, so I don't really get to complain that they brought the wrong boxspring (but I will anyway!). 

More to the point: any piece of science fiction begins with world-creation.  By definition, you're writing about a world which is not the one we all live in, and the challenge of any science fiction opening is to explain some of the rules of the world without bogging readers down in a lot of exposition.  As a reader, I prefer the kind of story that drops me into the middle of the action and asks me to put together some of the pieces.  If the characters and plot are compelling, I'll do the work to make sense of the world.

So, that was today, trying to create a world one hint at a time while developing a protagonist worth reading about.   It's my hope that the opening will read like good narrative history, which presents you with a persuasive account of a time that you don't live in and figures who don't think the way you do.

Random things I learned today: Imogen is a popular name for girls in Australia, the joule (not the watt) is a measure of energy, "untuk pergi ke" means "to go to" in Indonesian, check your receipt to make sure the salesman put down the split queen boxspring. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Day 0

Tomorrow I start drafting a science fiction novel, The Cord.  For the next half year or so, I'll be devoting myself to this project, a prospect that is both exciting and terrifying.

Back when Julie Husband and I were researching Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870-1900, I told myself that I should look for an idea for a historical novel, since I would be immersed in the kind of details that a novelist would need.  But instead of being inspired to write a turn-of-the-century book, I found myself coming up with all kinds of ideas for a science fiction project that made use of under appreciated aspects of the industrial era.   For instance, I could see how the messy process of the transcontinental railroad's construction could relate to future building of a space elevator. Ideas have been kicking around inside my head, in my notebooks, and on small scraps of paper I've been collecting.  Now it's time to put them to use. 

This blog won't duplicate the work of the novel, but it will be a space to reflect on the writing process, my influences, and some of the reading I'm doing in postcyberpunk fiction (yes, it's a silly term, but it's the one that's stuck).  Thanks for reading.  Now, buckle up and prepare for launch.