Archive for March, 2013

Saving the Galaxy

Science fiction likes to work on huge scales.  And with few resources.  One common theme I’ve noticed that runs through many science fiction novels and short stories is the idea of one person or a small group of people saving–with just their wits and maybe a weapon or two–a huge section of space such as an entire planet, or a star system, or a section of a galaxy, or even the entire galaxy itself.  Many times it’s only one or two people, and not always the person or people you’d expect.  It’s frequently not the captain of the starship, but rather someone else lower down on the team.  And when they’re through, they walk away as though nothing significant happened and go back to what they were doing before the attack occurred.  But the plot thread of a small group saving the world, or at least the world they know, is relatively common.  It occurred in Star Trek several times.

One well-known example is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, where Ender, a teenager and a whiz at space-themed computer games, saves Earth and the entire solar system from destruction by the invading forces by just his sheer skill at manipulating spaceships to defeat the enemy forces.  He’s so good the admirals and generals whom you’d expect to have considerably more knowledge in that field than him, simply sit around and watch.  I always found that terribly unlikely, and have never wanted to write a story using that sort of plot.

The movie Independence Day is also a good example.  Two guys commandeer a small scout ship from the enemy (and, very unrealistically, learn how to fly it in about five minutes) and then go out to do battle with the invaders.  Makes a good story and a movie, but is so highly unlikely, even patently ridiculous, I can’t get into it.

This type of story line isn’t unique to science fiction, it occurs in other genre, too.  James Bond did it often.  But it seems to have taken hold in sci-fi to the extent that it’s a very common plot theme.  Personally, I like to keep my stories oriented more toward an individual or small group doing nothing but saving themselves, either from invaders, from well-meaning friends, or from their own faults and shortcomings.  This seems to me to make a more realistic story line, even if it happens to be set in the distant future.  Just like us today, people in the future will always have serious interpersonal relationships.  We may travel to distant planets or even galaxies at supra-light speeds, but that’s not going to expunge all our problems.  Robots may serve us all our wants and wishes, and clean the floor in the process, but we’ll always  have to take care of our own emotions.  What goes on inside our head will never be automated like Star Trek‘s Commander Data, and novels and short stories will always be written to point that out.

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Shorter Attention Span?

I was in a bookstore a few days ago, browsing in the Science and Nature section, which is right next to the science fiction area, and when I finished I moved over to sci-fi and began my weekly browse there.  I didn’t find anything I particularly wanted to buy at that time, though I did find several new titles that looked like good possibilities for future reading.  But while in sci-fi, I ambled past the usual display of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, and a comment that I’ve heard over and over from people in the publishing business came back to mind.  That comment is, people who read novels don’t want long novels anymore.  Shorter novels are the norm and a novel over, say, 90,000 words won’t stand much of a chance getting published.  I disagree with that assessment, based on their arguments.

The argument is that in our highly electronic world, with Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, instant text messaging and so forth, people have begun to expect that all information they receive will be in the form of shorter and shorter texts, and that novels will have to be so too.  We’re too busy to read long novels, they say.  We’re accustomed to getting our information in shorter and shorter bits.  We’re too busy with the affairs of daily life to sit down and read anything longer than 140 bits on a cell phone screen.  This is the reality of modern life, they say, and don’t write a novel any longer than 80 to 90,000 words, and even hitting that level is pushing it.  While that may be the reality of today, I find that extrapolating that argument to novels false and misleading.

Sure, we read a lot of tweets and Facebook posts, many of which are only a few words.  And we communicate in a special shorthand on cell phone messages so we don’t have to write out the whole word or phrase.  OMG! or LOL springs to mind.  But that doesn’t necessarily carry over to reading for pleasure.  Just because a person Tweets several times a day, and texts others repeatedly doesn’t mean that person is committed to short novels, nor does it mean he/she has a shorter attention span, and I find it unrealistic to base an entire concept in publishing on it.  Novels, in the form of paper books or e-reader downloads, are still selling, including the aforementioned GRRM’s novels, and each of those is huge.  The last four Harry Potter novels sold well, and they’re also big books.  In fact, the opposite may be true.  Many people, tired and exasperated with having to read short snippets of information all day long, may look forward to being able to pick up a longer work when they get home.  Who knows?  My novels tend to run over 100,000 words, and I’m proud of them.  I certainly have no hesitation in shortening them if I could do it and not destroy the structure of the plot, but to cut it down just because “people expect shorter novels nowadays due to our increasingly hectic lifestyle” turns me off and I’ve so far resisted.

What does anyone else think?

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Evolving in a Weightless State

A lot has been made of evolution in the past hundred and fifty years or so, but I got to wondering what’s likely to happen in the future.  What will humans look like, say, a thousand years from now?  What will our lifestyle, our scientific advances, our political structure affect how we evolve?  It’s an interesting–and not unimportant–question.  What we do today will affect how we look in the future because that’s what evolution really is, the adaptation of living organisms, plant and animal, to their environment.  As the environment changes–say an asteroid smashes into Earth and produces a thousand-year global winter–then the organisms that wish to survive must adapt to the new environment.  Stands to reason because we’ve seen it happen over and over again.

But translating that into the future, what will humans look like in 3000 A.D.? [<—Is that the right way to use the question mark?]  By then I expect we will be spending a lot of time in space, travelling around the solar system, going to the nearest star, visiting other nearby stars and taking a close-up look at the planets that orbit around them, watching supernovas in real time.  We’re going to be spending a lot of time in a weightless state, and I suggest that will have a profound effect on the evolution of the human body.  Unless spaceships of the future have some sort of artificial gravity such as by putting the spaceship into a spin and using centrifugal force as a gravity substitute, or by some undefined force that traps people to the floor like the vague force used in the Star Trek shows.  No one ever explained how Captains Kirk and Picard and all the others could walk around in outer space as though they were flat on Earth.

But anyway, in the absence of a gravitational-like force, I predict humans will succumb to the weightless state by adapting.  We already know that weightlessness (or more properly, microgravity) has pronounced effects on the body, loss of calcium and phosphate from the bones, elongation of the spinal column due to the absence of gravity, loss of muscle mass, etc.  These effects will certainly continue as people spend more and more time in space.  Eventually someone will be born in space and grow up never having touched a planetary surface.  (As an aside, that is an astounding prospect.)  Our bodies will grow longer because gravity won’t be pulling on them, but our arms and legs will also grow in length, the muscles will be considerably reduced due to disuse, especially the legs which will wither and become skeletal-like.  All we will be able to do in microgravity is reach for things, and we may not even do that very much.  So many things will be done for us.  Robots and computers will be doing most of the work.  We humans will simply enjoy the activities of these mechanical servants, not having to do anything except think of what we want.  Computers will read our brains and give us what we want, in many cases before we even realize we want it.

We’ll look like monkeys, especially spider monkeys with long slender arms and legs that will seem–by today’s point of view–way out of proportion.  Bones may be far more delicate and fragile than now, and such a creature wouldn’t be able to live in a gravity field at all.  He couldn’t even walk around.  Trying to stand will crush his legs and spinal column.  This will be the true spaceman, not Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker, adapted to space, living in space, at home in space to a degree we can’t even conceive of now.  At least not until I wrote this commentary.

Aren’t you glad you’re still living in a gravity field?

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Rejections, Pure and Simple

One day last week I read an online article about writers who send queries to literary agents and get only a rejection letter in return.  The article gave several stock phrases used by agents in their rejections and commented briefly on each one.  Since I had completed sending in a large number of queries for a science-fiction novel about a year earlier, I read the article and each of the phrases with considerable interest, and I went to my file cabinet and pulled out the folder containing all of the rejection letters I’d gotten.

None of the rejection phrases in the article sounded familiar.  No one who rejected me had ever used any of those phrases.  In the light of the article as well as in the light of revisiting the letters after letting them remain un-read for a year, I noticed several interesting things.  First, comments such as “format of the novel not acceptable,” or “characters not fully developed,” or “English grammar poor,” or “I don’t represent this genre,” have never appeared in rejection letter I’ve gotten.  In retrospect, I wish they had and I haven’t been able to figure out how other authors get any of those comments in the first place.  I’ve never received a rejection letter that had any sort of constructive comment about the novel.  Even just “you don’t know how to use a comma,” would be an improvement.  At least it would give me something to fix before my next submission.

But second, and perhaps more significantly, I noticed a common thread among the letters.  All of them rejected my work without comment, and the rejections seemed to fall into a few categories.  One of the most common was the phrase “Not right for me/us”.  A totally meaningless phrase allowing the agent to reject without saying anything.  Another common rejection phrase was “I’m not the right agent for this work.”  Again, meaningless.  Many agents state that the publishing business is “subjective,” and while that’s so obviously true, in the light of rejection after rejection, it becomes pointless in its redundancy.  Many agents also say “good luck in finding another agent,” or “keep trying.”  Good advice, but tiring to hear over and over.

But the one thing that stood out most strongly in a large percentage of those rejection letters was the conspicious self-orientation aspect.  Many commented on how few new authors they can take on, or how many queries they receive, or how pressed for time they are, as though that’s supposed to cushion the blow of rejection.  It doesn’t.  Hearing an agent whine about how busy they are doesn’t cut it with me.  Get an assistant or get out of the business.  Many agencies send only a form letter or a 3 by 5-inch card and say “Please forgive this form response.”  It’s not likely I will.  I can’t imagine someone so pressed for time they can’t write a few words personally.  The volume of queries received does not justify impersonality.  One agency wrote a three-paragraph letter in which most of the letter was about the agency, and the word “you” (meaning me) appeared only once.  This self-centeredness is striking; as though the agent is more interested in himself than the author.  What’s he/she thinking?

So many rejection letters I’ve gotten were addressed “Dear Author.”  They didn’t even take the time to write my name on the letter.  Agents make such a big fuss about always addressing queries to them personally, not to “Sir,” or “Madam,” or “Hey you.”  Doesn’t the return require the same level of courtesy?  How long does it take to address a letter?  I received one form letter starting “Dear Author(s), but within the letter it commented on the “positive merits” of my work.  I’ll tell you, Mr. Agent, this is not complimentary.

Most insulting, though, are the agents who don’t even reply anymore.  Many agencies state on their website “If you don’t hear from us within [length of time here] we will not be offering representation.”  Forty percent of the agencies I queried never replied at all.  All because, they say, they’re too busy.  Yeah, right.

Sure, it’s easy to sit here and denigrate agents by their letters, and I’m sure I’d feel a lot different if I got an acceptance.  At the same time, though, just getting one  blatantly uninformative letter after another, or not getting any response at all, makes it difficult for me to figure out what’s wrong with my novel.  Is it the novel or the query letter?  I can’t make constructive changes based on the self-centeredness of the agent.

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Why Blog?

What is a blog, anyway?  Sure, the term evolved from the concept of the “web log,” the idea that someone would put their thoughts down on a computer screen and post them to the “world-wide web” so anyone could read them.  Must have been a heady time back then, knowing that all you wrote could be seen by everybody.  But the concept has grown almost out of control and I now understand that several million blogs exist that compete for all our time and attention.  Including this one.

So, why blog anymore?  Or, more to the point, why would I blog?  What do I and my readers get out of it?  Well, I can’t really speak for the few regular readers I have, but I can put down a few comments on why I blog.  I could just as easily put my thoughts down on paper, either by physically writing them down in longhand and filing them away, or typing them out on the computer and printing them out.  I could, but I don’t.  That’s unsatisfying because my writings wouldn’t be seen by anyone else.  And that brings up the central aspect of blogging: that there’s more to blogging than just writing.

Oh, I do enjoy the writing aspect of blogging.  For several reasons.  Let’s examine those first.  (Drum roll, please.)

First, I blog regularly, every Sunday afternoon, and the requirement for coming up with a blog post once a week helps focus my mind.  Many of my blog posts (like this one) are not related to the science fiction I write, at least not directly, and I’m forced to shift mental gears (I know, bad comparison) and think about something else for a change.

Second, but related to the first point above, blogging gets me to thinking about all sorts of nonfiction topics, from writing to science, and forces me to put my thoughts down on a regular basis.  It gets me away from fiction into nonfiction.  That’s good exercise for a writer.  Keeps the mind working all the time.  Or at least every Sunday.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, blogging gives me a chance to get my opinions out there to the world at large.  Not that I’m all that conceited or have an exaggerated opinion of myself or my blogs, but I do believe my opinions are important in the grand scheme of things.  I have something to say, and I say it.  I don’t really have that many regular readers, but my blog postings are always there, held deeply within the bowels of the WordPress servers.  They can always be accessed by anyone who wants to see them, and there they will remain until either I croak or Kim Kardashian becomes President, whichever comes first.  If my readership increases in the future, everything I wrote will be available to new readers.

And I expect to continue blogging for the foreseeable future, too.  Comments, anyone?

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