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.