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.