Monday, November 14, 2011

Welcome Aboard

Cruise ships and closed luxury resorts of the Club Med model offer the illusion of travel without exposure to other cultures.  Insulated vacations for bigots?  Safe zones for uneducated, uninterested human hamsters?  Or is it more about scarfing every penny for the corporation and not letting profit escape into the host economy?

Science fiction as a genre works on the same model.  

Choosing a book the cover of which proclaims it to be science fiction ensures the reader an experience of a certain kind.  They’ll know from the first page that it’s science fiction.  They’ll be kept supplied with ideas and action.  Embedded lectures will be fascinatingly scientific.  Plausible will be a watchword for every event, opinion, or speculation.  

Best of all, human foibles, other than glaring character flaws necessary for plot twists, will be emphasized by their absence.  There will be no ambiguity or irony.  The strong reliable captain really is strong and reliable.  What is said is meant literally.  They say what they mean and we know why they do everything; motives are kept clear as empty space.  
No messy human stuff, in short, will stay this story’s courier from the swift completion of its plot points.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas, we are told.  Repeatedly.  Science fiction fosters a sense of wonder about such things as the scale of the universe, the vast sweep of human ambition, and technology’s potential to transform everything.  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Sir Arthur C. C. Clarke told us in Profiles of the Future, 1961.  Magic is full of a sense of wonder.  Big ideas and the scope of far-flung adventures in futures where technology can do for us what wishful illusionists could only dream of, that is science fiction.

Science fiction is for ten year old boys, someone once observed.  He shall remain unnamed to protect him from the fen with Dixie cups of cold vomit who may wish to throw it on him.  Despite anonymity, however, this observer of science fiction had a telling point.  Boys of that age are interested in precisely the mix of things comprising science fiction.  They are also uninterested in girly crap like relationships, how people get along together, and all that touchy-feely emo stuff.  Cooties repel them.

This harsh observation is made in reference to the original readership for science fiction, which were indeed ten year old boys and engineer types with arrested development.  Many will hasten to point out that science fiction has moved on, grown up, and learned to embrace almost all literary traits from a wider world.  They’ll point to the New Age, which transformed the Golden Age of Science Fiction by infusing arts and humanities into the breadboard circuitry and Estes catalog trope and topos.  They’ll congratulate themselves with swelled chests and speak of science fiction being as good as any other genre and better than most, hastening to add that literary is just another genre, so take that, academic snobs.

Examples can be found to prove any point.  Yes, there are literate genre tales and moronic literary crimes.  Yes, there are works that span the range and exceed all limits, even in the science fiction idiom, even as there are fumbling pilferage of science fiction’s refined notions by clumsy literati desperate to seem bright even as their inspiration and ability wanes.

A good story well told is a writer’s goal and a reader’s joy, and good writing does not depend upon idiom, genre, or form.  

And yet.

And yet, science fiction in aggregate tends to be insular.  It resists change, generally speaking.  Space opera routinely dominates awards, notable exceptions aside.  In recent years, juvenile has become a term that seems to add cachet to a science fiction story’s chances at winning an award or being liked, bought, read, and discussed by the science fiction readers.  Does this mean they seek to rediscover the frisson of novelty experienced when they were kids first finding science fiction?  Are they sense of wonder junkies flailing for a fix?

Some dismiss such questions, saying they are outdated.  Science fiction has grown up, they assert.  It embraces all styles, approaches, and qualities of writing in the wider sense, they claim.  

Countering these objections requires an explanation for why, then, science fiction continues to be recognized as distinct from other genres.  Despite expansion and undeniable growth, science fiction has retained hull integrity.  

Which returns us to the initial image of cruise ships and closed luxury vacation resorts.  There are in fact things science fiction does differently.  Other genres do not focus on technology, for example.  In an April 1975 essay for Natural Science, Isaac Asimov wrote, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”

Some say science fiction predicts the future. It is more accurate to say it explores potential futures, some more realistic than others, some more solidly rooted in known science than others, but all considered possible.  Thus came the proposed new appellation, speculative fiction.  This came in with the New Wave writers, who had studied humanities perhaps more than science, and who wanted to free themselves from the picayune reliance on straight extrapolation from some science nugget.  Yes, science fiction speculates, sometimes from informed perspective, other times more like a grizzled geezer panning for gold in random streams.

Editor, writer, and bearded prospector Damon Knight defined science fiction as what ever he pointed at when he said science fiction.  His finger has written and, having written, has moved on, so we’ll have to rely on our own finger-pointing now, each of us.  Name calling is popular, too; feel free to join in.

Case in point, Margaret Atwood.  She hit it big with The Handmaid’s Tale, a grim dystopia featuring harsh ideological rule in a North American society gone evangelical Christian with a Taliban-like intensity.  Terrifying, harrowing, and all-too-feasible -- listen to the Dominionist-dominated GOP politicians if you doubt this feasibility -- this extrapolation of a bible thumper’s wet dream was pure If This Goes On and What If.  

It won literary accolades as well as selling well, and Atwood, asked about science fiction, made statement the science fiction guardians of ideological purity took offense at.  They called her names ranging from Clueless and Ignorant to A Literary Snob, Thief, and worse.

Seems only science fiction writers doing it “properly” are allowed to “use science fiction’s ideas” and when Perceived Others do it, well, it’s an affront, and outrage, and a sacrilege.  Insularity was threatened by such a breach in science fiction’s hull.

A wide-ranging pattern was noticed by science fiction defenders.  Literary types, bereft of ideas, lacking inspiration, and unable to be creative on their on merit, pilfered science fiction ideas they did not even grasp, and wrote fatuous nonsense that did not qualify as science fiction but was, of course, awarded literary honors and promoted into bestseller status.  How galling for all those On Board.

This in turn brought charges from academics against science fiction’s insularity, its determinedly low brow addiction to Mere Plot, and its insistence upon arbitrating Real from Fake.  Harold Bloom’s choleric tirade against genre when Stephen King was given a National Book Award is the low water mark for literary snobbery, bigotry, and sheer idiocy.

Consider science fiction as a vacation guaranteeing integrity of experience, though, and all becomes fair and clear and warmly sunny.  

So write, and read, what you want.   

Just remember, please stay on the ship and do not leave the compound.  We need the money.  And you do not need the aggravation of encountering Those Others.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Florida Move's Gestation

How to avoid jumping into the genre box with the rest of the toys.

Instead of building a story out of what seem to be cool ideas, focus on one person and see what they're doing.

Or tell a story about a specific person.

I had this idea once that most parents would gladly change places with their kids to spare the kids suffering or trouble.

That is the tidy white bread notion.

Truth is much darker and more mixed.

But anyway, I wanted to show that urge to change places in a story.

Instead of building a story on that, which would be genre.

I focused on one guy.

He was poor.

Lived in a trailer, in fact, in FL.

Just a little window AC long since broken down and inadequate.

Eats fast food because he's unable to afford much else.

drinks a bit, to ease things.

He's retired/unemployed.

his personal space is a rat's nest.

he wears sloppy sweats because he's run to fat.

he's a heap, but barely struggles on, fixed income and social security.

And his wife has died.

And all he has to care about at ALL is his son.

But his son is far away, going to college up north.

Kid never hardly calls, and seems changed each time.

Almost my whole focus so far is on a very real guy and his situation.

Then two guys knock on his door.


Seems there's been a problem.

His son's involved.

Killed a guy.

May have to do hard time up north.

Cops wonder if he's seen his son, or heard from him.

Truth is, he hasn't.

As soon as they leave, largely in disgust at him and how he is forced to live by depression of both sorts, he sits down and has a panic attack.

He desperately wants to find his son, hear from him, find out what's going on.

He wants to make sure the kid's okay, safe, innocent.

He urgently wishes this, and falls asleep drunk, and dreams he goes up north.

Dreams he finds the kid, and the kid is indeed in trouble, but was framed, and the old man offers to cover for him while the kid takes off down south, to FL, to hide.

When he wakes up, he's in the kid's body, of course.

Here is the rub:  The kid wakes up in his FATHER's body.

And we find out the kid is a sociopath who was guilty as fuck.

Only NOW he is literally trapped in an aging, abused body about ready to give out, with no money, and no hope for much...

So by focusing on the real, I wrote what I hope is a compelling story that still manages to feature my silly idea about parents being willing to change places to save their kids.

Offered as an example of how to work without jumping in the box.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Let Me Tell You About Mother’s Day

My mother, in her early 50s, thought she had the flu so she went to the doctor and promptly had a heart problem sitting on the exam table.  Valve flutter, something she’d been told of, and ignored, her whole life.

She had the misfortune to undergo a valve replacement operation.  Worse, her body refused to give up the heart-lung machine.  The longer someone’s on one of those, the more brain damage accrues.  

When she came off it she wasn’t herself and, after a huge amount of needless stress put on her by a sociopathic bitch my brother inadvertently married, my mother died.

I’m reminded of the beautifully delivered, subtle line delivered by Brion James in BLADERUNNER:  “I’ll tell you about my mother.”


I’m reminded, too, of something my mother told me on the ‘phone once she got off the heart-lung machine.  She was still in the hospital and a bit bleary from drugs, speaking to me across the Atlantic.  She was in South Carolina, I in Germany.  She described a journey she’d taken on a star ship of some kind, outward through the cosmos from Earth.  She said it was something like the Enterprise from STAR TREK, but more complicated and real, and also more futuristic, bigger, a star ship with proportion.  She was enthralled to observe all the wonderful sights offered by planets, galaxies, and nebulae, even by deep space itself.  She loved it and said, “I didn’t really want to come back but I thought maybe I should.”

It felt like a good-bye, although she never said it that way, and this reminded me of the last time I’d seen her.

My wife and kids had stopped by to visit my parents before shipping out to Germany.  My mother kept touching her chest, and I kept having the impression she had Kleenex stuffed in there, so that the shirt, a crew neck tee shirt, bumped out to about tennis ball size.  It was odd and I mentioned it to my wife, who said, “There was no bump.”

My mother, after her operation, described the trouble she’d had on the doctor’s examination table as “a bump in my chest, like my heart at moving wrong.”

Premonition?  Who knows.

So now it’s 2011 and I’m in my fifties and it’s Mother’s Day again and although my wife is a mother, and so am I for that matter, I tend to think of an outward journey of the soul set free because my mother, after she died, never came back to say hi.  My father did, and still does, often, but I never see my mother.  

My own little mother, so small and sturdy and sure.

Now I’m crying so I guess that’s enough.    

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Think Twice, Write Once

Current fiction, perhaps due to short attention spans, tends to deal with each story point as it arises, in sequence, rather than waiting for later resolution.  This makes for neatness, perhaps, but is untrue to life. Next time you’re writing, try to remember to leave resolution of at least a few major story points for the end.  Yes, a few readers might accuse you of being fancy or tricking them, but most will appreciate the delayed gratification and perhaps even admire your plotting -- whatever the hell that is.

I'm fascinated, too, by how "concise" is so often translated to "simplistic".  In writing advice, in how-to books, and even in the revered Strunk & White, writers are told to be brief, leading to most choosing simplistic, that being the easiest lowest common denominator to reach by way of brevity.

Short and sweet, they think.  Hemingway wrote good.  He wrote short.  Short is good. 

Concise, though, means to the point, with complex aspects condensed to the most efficient delivery.  “I’m sorry this note is so long,” Lincoln once wrote to Grant; “I did not have time to make it shorter.”  He meant it. 

Boil things down, is another way to say it.  Reduce them to their essence.  From many ingredients, soup.  Cut to the chase, movie directors say.  State the gist and get out quick, briefers are advised.  (This stands somewhat in opposition to “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you just told ‘em,” but one must use bullet statements in each phase, so the gist becomes gristle for them to chew on and mull over.)

Oh, the metaphors.

Yet it is the same regardless how it’s said:  Be concise.  Not brief to the point of underinforming.  Not short the way Procrustes shortened things.  You can saw off what doesn’t fit but you then lose those parts.  Concise includes, brevity can exclude.

So being concise is not always the shortest way of saying something.  Efficient delivery of everything you wish to communicate is the goal. 

Clarity helps.  Being clear means using correct terms, the right words, and the proper vocabulary.  One does not wax erotic by being clinical.  For each notion there is a set of words best suited to express it.  Find those, use them, and avoid reiterating unless it serves the purpose.

We have all suffered from Triplicate Syndrome.  That is when a writer uses three synonyms rather than picking the best.  It is both lazy and a habit, the kind of crutch that reinforces the injury instead of letting it heal.  “His writing leaped, danced, spiraled from the page.”  Which was it?  This image seems, at first glance, vivid, alive, vibrant, but upon another look we see it is actually confused, muddled, cloudy.  Ahem.

Pick one.

Pick the best one.

Cut the rest.

Watch this:  “Don’t be negative,” he said, striving to be as brief as possible.  “State things in a positive way,” she retorted, being longer but clearer.

Phrasing things in a positive manner makes them stand out as clear actions.  Negative phrasing sets up a mental image in which an action must first be imagined, then nullified in some way.  It is complicated, which obscures the point.

Thou shalt not kill, we’re told, but not a word how to avoid it.  Frustration results.

In order to be concise, we must think through what we wish to communicate, reduce it to a clear image, find the right words to express it, and state it positively.  This requires time and work, and practice improves the needed skills.  Making fewer errors, and honing things to precision, reduces the need for rewriting, too; a bonus.

Finally, once we know what we are setting out to do, and how best to do it, we can play with it by, say, delaying resolution of a point or two until the end, gratifying ourselves and rewarding the astute reader.

Think twice, write once.

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