Roger Floyd, BA, PhD Science, writing, writing science fiction, environmental.


What Should Science Fiction Do?

I’m a science fiction writer.  While only a very few people have read any of my works, (mainly editors and critique group members), I do have wide-ranging opinions on the subject and have presented them in this forum occasionally over the past several years.  Science fiction can be a powerful medium for examining the human condition, for teaching us about ourselves as human beings and as stewards of the land and water on this blue and green and white and brown planet we live on.  I believe it should be used largely in that way.  Most sci-fi does that.

But sometimes sci-fi presents works that seem to defy that concept.  Not that that’s inherently bad, but that it goes against my grain when sci-fi runs off the deep end and simply blathers on about nothing in particular.  The most particular example of this is the character of “Q” in the Star Trek universe.

“Q” is an all-powerful character, capable of doing anything “he” wants.  (“Q” is played by a male actor, but there’s nothing about “him” that insists he has to be male.)  And I mean “anything” in the most literal sense of the word.  He could change the gravitational constant of the universe if he chose.  Can you imagine?  What power!  What immense omnipotence!  Such vast strength!  While the episodes in which “Q” appears have been well-written and are actually quite entertaining (“Q” does bring a little humor to the otherwise staid bridge crew on the Enterprise), I wonder if “Q” really serves a purpose in science fiction.  He’s waaay too powerful.  Like a god that could strike down anyone he/she wanted at any time.  I suspect he was devised to show how we humans would react to being put in the presence of such a powerful being, of such an all-powerful entity.  In the first episode in which he appears, he puts the entire human race on trial for crimes against—well, I’ve never been sure against what—but is eventually persuaded not to obliterate all humans by Captain Picard and the others.

“To obliterate all humans.”  Does this serve the basic interests of science fiction?  What do we learn from this?  Were there a real entity such as “Q” in the universe, it’s likely we’d all be dead by now.  “Q” is so far above all the known physical laws and concepts of this universe that his existence is inherently impossible.

I suppose “Q” does play a role in teaching us about how it is possible for an individual or small group to go up against a larger organization and still win, (“you can fight city hall”)  but in terms of the broader science fiction universe, “Q” is so unwieldly as to be almost unworkable.  And unimportant.  I suggest we keep our characters more modest.  Let us invent characters we can relate to.  Characters like ourselves.  Characters who show us the way, rather than running so far ahead we can’t keep up.


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All The People

One of the most interesting words in the English language is “people.”  It can have several meanings.  My dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition) has several definitions, leading with “human beings making up a group or assembly or linked by a common interest.”  Fair enough.  Basically, it refers to a group of “persons” who have something in common.  That definition can be further broken down into specific groups like “all the people at the football game,” as opposed to “all the people who aren’t at the football game.”  Or “all the people in the United States,” to be distinguished from “all the people in Great Britain.”

The biggest group is, of course, “all the people in the world,” which just illustrates the somewhat flexible usage of the word, because “people” can be used to include all those the speaker wants, and exclude those he/she doesn’t.  Current events show this quite well.

But as a science fiction writer who has developed other worlds with suitable inhabitants living thereon, I find myself wondering if the word “people” can be used to include beings who aren’t of this world.  Will we ever come to the point where we need to refer to the “people” of another planet?  Since we’ve never seen or heard from beings from outer space, we have to look at fiction to draw comparison.  Were there “people” on Mars who invaded Earth in H.G. Wells’ novel, War of the Worlds?  Are there “people” who inhabit Middle Earth?  Are Klingons “people”?  I suppose that is more a matter of how the author(s) views his/her fictional characters, but I’m using the term outside the author’s intent and looking at them in a broader context.  What are they?  Really.

It’s certainly very likely that we on Earth may be called on to use a word, whether “people” or some other, to refer to the real, non-fictional beings we find on another planet.  (If we ever do, of course.)  That may be a long time coming, but what if we do?  Will they really be “people”?  Do we have within us the wherewithal, or even the chutzpah, to call them a term that we have thus far used to refer only to ourselves, in part or whole?  Since the word has such a flexible meaning, calling them “people” doesn’t necessarily include them as part of us, other than the fact that they exist in the same galaxy, the same universe, the same time continuum as we.  But let us step back and examine ourselves in this matter.  How will we view them?  How we use the word will be, without a doubt, a reflection of how we really view them.  It will be a testament of our regard for them, of what we can distinguish about them.  Come to think of it, that’s how we use the word today anyway.

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Where Do All The Writers Go?

I’ve been an aspiring writer of fiction (largely science fiction novels) for over twenty years now, and have yet to publish a book-length work.  I have published a few short works, including one poem (free style), but nothing—short or long form—to a paying market.  Not a particularly auspicious beginning to a writing career, especially when I read every now and then about someone who writes a book, never having written a book before, and sends it to an agent or two, and they love it right off, and it sells to a publisher in a preempt for 6 or 7 figures and now they’re really well known, and accolades and awards and prizes pour in, and all’s well that ends well.  The writing magazines love to do interviews with them.  And seriously, my hat’s off to them.

But—and I put myself in this category—for every successful author like that, indeed for any successful author regardless of how long it took him/her to get there, there must be hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands of unsuccessful authors who write and write, but whose work is not deemed worthy of publication by agents, editors, publishers and the like.  It’s not good enough, they say, or it doesn’t meet our needs at the present time, or we just published/handled/represented that type of story recently, or it needs work/editing/cutting/revision, or nobody’s buying that type of work any more, or it doesn’t have zombies in it, or the undead or Abraham Lincoln, or it’s just plain lousy, or—and this is my favorite—we just couldn’t get past the writing (?).  There are a zillion reasons writers don’t get published.  Perhaps a different reason for each author.

Only a small number of writers get to the stage where an agent/publisher will pick up their work and decide to give it a go to the extent of a book or series of books; I suppose the vast majority of those who submit are never picked up.  What happens to them?

I’ve been to a number of writer’s conferences in my attempts to learn enough about writing to get published the traditional way, and at those conferences I’ve seen many who could be classified as The Great Unpublished.  They, like me, submit and submit, but nothing ever comes of it.  Some may get a book deal, but I suppose most don’t.  I don’t know of any statistics on the subject, so I find myself wondering: what happens to them?  Do they eventually quit?  Do they go on and on, endlessly submitting and getting rejected?  How many unpublished novels are out there that are eventually self-published because no one will take them?  In other words, and to put it a little more scientifically, for how many novels, is KDP an endpoint?

I’ve heard it said, and I’ve read it in magazines, that no matter what you write, someone, somewhere out there, wants your work.  This is supposed to get you to keep submitting.  You’ll find someone somewhere sometime.  Don’t give up, they say.  Granted, that’s sound advice, but personally, I’ve had little success with it.  KDP is looking better and better.

Does anybody know of any statistics about how many writers quit after giving the publishing game the old college try?  (Sorry about that.)

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Keep The Action Going – Part II

A few days ago I was exercising in the fitness facility at the apartment complex where I live, and turned on one of the TVs installed there.  I scanned the channels and came across a movie channel showing “Titanic.”  Now, those of you who read this blog and know me personally may also know I’ve railed against this movie since it came out.  My objection to the movie is that it places a silly fictitious love story in what was one of the greatest disasters of the 20th Century.  Why, I cannot fathom.  The love story interrupts the flow of the main story, the sinking of the ship, like commercials interrupt a TV movie.  I have never been interested in the love story; I want to see what happens to the ship.  I want to see how they handle the disaster itself; how the passengers and crew react; how they show the newest information of how the ship sank, and I dislike cutting into the main story to watch two people have sex in an old car.  I really couldn’t care less.  If the producers of the movie wanted to write a love story on a ship, then they should have done so, and not insert it within an unrelated highly dramatic situation.  The two don’t go together at all.  Get on with it, I say.  Keep the action moving.

I’ve talked about this subject before; you may remember reading about it after it was posted on 2019/6/23.  In writing, or making a movie or TV show, or whatever, keep the action going.  Don’t interrupt.  Allow the action to flow of its own accord.  Action will ebb and flow naturally, and may even come to a stop all by itself.  If so, go with it.  The teller of the story should stay aloof.

Here’s another example.

I left “Titanic” after only a few minutes and scanned a few more channels and came to a women’s singles tennis match.  I like tennis; I played it a lot in my younger days.  At one point, the coach of one of the players talked to his charge during one of the changeovers.  No problem there because the match had entered one of its normal rest points.  But after the action resumed, the director of the show found it necessary to cut down the size of the image of the match, and put beside it a rerun of the coach talking to the player.  Why?  I never did find out.  This forced the viewer to watch the action on what was essentially a screen about one-quarter the normal size.  My God!  I couldn’t believe it.  The coach talking to his player is unimportant.  The important thing is the tennis match.  It’s the action.  Always the action.  Never interrupt the action.

Tennis is an example of a sport with built-in pauses that TV coverage can use for commercials without causing serious interruptions.  That’s okay, it’s part of the game, though it does make it hard to watch sometimes.  All those breaks can become wearisome . . .  Perhaps that’s why soccer is such a popular sport around the world.  Forty-five minutes of non-stop action each half.  The clock keeps running.  No interruptions.  Writers and TV producers take note.

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The Summer of 2019

Well, the summer of 2019 is upon us and many things have slowed down.  People take vacations and try to get away from the hubbub of daily life.  Schools are out for the most part, and in the heat of the summer, relaxation is the order of the day.  I, too, have relaxed.

One regular part of my life that takes place largely during the school year are the weekly rehearsals for the concert band I play in.  And so, with band practice over for the summer, I had occasion to pull out my trumpet and give it a thorough cleaning.  It hadn’t been cleaned for over six months, not since I cleaned it during the Christmas holiday.  Cleaning a trumpet requires complete disassembly.  Not only does the mouthpiece come out (and get thoroughly reamed out with a stiff brush made for the job), but all the valves and each of the tuning slides have to be removed.  A trumpet has four tuning slides, one for each valve and one larger one that tunes the instrument itself.  Everything comes out.  If I wanted to disassemble any further, I’d have to get a soldering torch and unhook the different connections that hold the body of the trumpet together.  (Not a good idea.)

Now that everything is out, cleaning begins.  First I flush the entire basic unit with hot water and set it aside and turn to the valves.  The valves change the air flow through the horn and are what make it possible to play all the different notes called for in the music.  They are the most sensitive part of the trumpet, and I clean these with a rag soaked in isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol).  This removes all the old valve oil and any contaminants.  Note: Valve oil is slightly different from most lubricating oils because valve oil is an evaporative oil.  It doesn’t build up like other oils, it evaporates, and has to be replenished from time to time as one plays.  But contaminants, usually solids from saliva and in the water that condenses in the horn as one blows through it, do build up and they have to be removed.

Now the valve housings have to be similarly cleaned with alcohol, and everything allowed to dry.  I wipe off the Vaseline from each of the tuning slides and replace with clean Vaseline and put them back in their proper positions.  I add fresh oil to the valves and replace them in their housings and screw down the valve tops.  Success—we are done.  The instrument is in playing condition.  Replace the mouthpiece and away we go.

The whole process takes about half an hour, and there’s a real element of satisfaction in having a musical instrument that is clean and functioning properly.  The valves operate smoothly and the tuning slides slip in and out easily.  (That’s one way to tell if an instrument needs cleaning—the valves start sticking.  That can be awfully annoying if it happens during a concert.)

But in the world of trumpet playing, that’s the easy part.  Eventually comes the more difficult part: the actual act of playing.  Band practice will resume in August, and new music will be distributed.  I’m not a professional trumpet player; it can take me several months to master a piece of music.  By “master” I mean simply play the right notes.  I know how to blow through the horn to produce a sound, and every now and then I press down one or more of the valves to produce a different note or two, but putting all that in the proper order as called for in the music is a different matter.  A tricky passage can take a while to learn, but the final result is what we call “music.”

Music is a lot like writing.  At their heart, both are subjective pursuits.  Good music exists in the imagination of the beholder, as does good writing.  To a great extent, you know good music or good writing when you see it or hear it.  Anyone can string words together in sentences, but that doesn’t necessarily form good writing.  Likewise, anyone can play a set of notes, but will it always be good music?  Writing takes practice, just like the music, and the number of wrong notes in either can be, well, large.  For me, playing a trumpet is usually a straightforward process.  I practice the difficult passages over and over until I get them right.  Writing, though, can be sporadic.  Writing here and there, areas of relative calm followed by times of zealous production.  But in the end, one validates the other.  I take a break from writing to play.  I take a break from playing to write.  Does one help the other?  Perhaps only in the sense that one allows oneself to take a break from one to take up the other.

Either way, nothing is lost.


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The “Was” That Was

Every now and then I run across, or am asked about, the admonition that new writers learn, to limit the use of “to be” verbs in their writing.  Instead of writing, “he is/was,” or “they are/were,” instructors say, “Try something else.”  It’s good advice, as having a bunch of “was” or “were” in one paragraph or even one sentence can be trying to the reader.  Many beginning writers, myself included, have fallen into the trap of using “to be” verbs too much without realizing it.  But replacing “was” or “were” (let’s assume here for the sake of simplicity, that you write, like so many of us do, in the past tense) can be tricky.  Generally, you can’t simply substitute another verb for the “to be” verb, and keep the sentence logical and meaningful.  How does one get out of the trap of overusing “to be?”  Here’s one approach to this problem that has worked for me.

To be brutally honest, in most cases you’ll have to recast the sentence.  That sounds time-consuming, but the advantage of recasting the sentence is that it can lead to room to add more detail than with the “to be” verb in it.  It can even lead to a sentence that will have more detail in it than two sentences, but without ending up with a run-on sentence where two sentences are joined with “and” or some such conjunction.

Take the sentence, “He was six-feet tall with a physique like a linebacker.”  That’s okay, but it can be improved by removing the weak verb “was” and rewriting the sentence and adding detail.  “His physique, like that of a linebacker, gave him a youthful look well below his actual age of ninety-seven.”  Not two sentences, and not a run-on sentence.

Another example:  Instead of “The town was situated on a hill overlooking the bay.” write:  “The town, situated on a hill overlooking the bay, served as a beacon for mariners trying the find the narrow inlet.”  Again, more detail, yet the same emphasis is still there.

Remember this:  “It was a dark and stormy night”?  This can be improved by eliminating the “was” and adding more detail.  “The storm came up quickly during the night, lashing the shore with seventy-mile-an-hour winds that blew the shutters on the old house onto the beach.”  Detail, detail.

This advice certainly isn’t meant to be all-consuming.  A few “was/were” verbs aren’t going to consign your writing to the trash bin, but too many can make it difficult to read.  Sometimes a few simple sentences with “was/were” are appropriate.  But constantly being told “he was . . .”  “she was . . .” and so on, gets tiring and it indicates a serious lack of imagination as well as laziness and even sloppiness on the part of the writer.  Take the time to do it not just “right”, but well.

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Keep The Action Going

Lately I’ve been watching reruns of the TV crime drama “Major Crimes.”  I like the action as the detectives of the Major Crimes unit solve the case.  The show is well written and the cases deliciously complicated, which keeps me guessing as to the identity of the perpetrator.  But the one major drawback of the show is the subplot involving the character of Rusty, a teenage boy who spent several years alone on the streets of Los Angeles, and his attempts to find his mother.  He’s been adopted by the Captain of the Major Crimes unit, though I still keep wondering why a teen-age boy is allowed to wander around the Major Crimes area while the team is trying to solve the case.  But more to the point, the subplot interrupts the flow of the main story, which is to solve the damn crime.  The subplot annoying and disruptive.  We’re taken out of the main story and forced to watch something that has little to do, in most cases, with solving the crime.  I, as a viewer of the show, have gotten absorbed in the main story line of each episode, and I don’t want to watch something that has little or nothing to do with the story.  I want to see whodunit.  The complicated plots make me want to know.  Yet, repeatedly, we have to put up with a rather vague, nebulous subplot for several minutes, several times during each one-hour show.  Yesterday evening I grew so frustrated that I turned the show off rather than sit through this unnecessary diversion.

Moral of the story, don’t interrupt the action.  Keep it going to the end.

A good example of a TV series which kept the action going throughout each hour-long drama is the “Law and Order” series.  Most of the episodes I’ve seen didn’t waste time on subplots.  Sure, the characters have private lives, and occasionally these were brought into the main story, but the individual episodes invariably stuck to the main story, i.e., solve the damn crime.

Another example of a show that kept the action going and didn’t waste time on personal problems was the old “Mission Impossible” series.  Here, the characters (the “good guys”) simply carried out their orders (usually having to do with espionage or some related process) and got the job done.  No unnecessary subplots involving human interest that took away from the main story.

I find myself wondering if this isn’t one of the reasons we find commercials so annoying: they take us away from the story while someone yells at us to buy a certain product or service we usually don’t want and don’t need.  Sort of a plottus interruptus.  This may also be why Alfred Hitchcock always denigrated commercials on his TV series.  He knew they interrupted the flow of the story.  Not good if you have a detective looking for a murderer.

Now, subplots can work, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against subplots, but they have to be handled well.  The important thing to remember is that a subplot must be integral to the story.  It must come at a reasonable time in the narrative, and must advance the plot.  Not simply interrupt and throw in a different story.  A possible good example of this is the movie, “Rocky.”  (The first of the series.)  The main story line revolves around Rocky Balboa as he trains for his big boxing match with the world champion, having been plucked out of obscurity by the champ and given a chance to become a big-time fighter.  Okay.  The subplot involves his relationship with his girl friend.  The reason this subplot works is that it appears at logical times in the story.  Rocky trains during the day, and sees his girl in the evening.  Sure, the action slows, but it still involves Rocky.  It comes at a reasonable point in the plot, and it doesn’t occur as a sudden interruption in the story line.  It’s a smooth transition, not abrupt.

If you are writing a novel or screenplay or short story or even a memoir, keep in mind that whenever you abruptly stop the action and go to something else, especially something quieter in the story, you run the risk of losing your viewer or reader.  Keep the action going, even if it slows somewhat.  As Aesop said once, “He who hesitates is lost.”

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