FROM SCIENCE TO FICTION—THE SCIENTIST SHIFTS GEARS
Why have I decided to become a writer? What is it that’s fueled this odd transition I’ve made from rigorous scientific study to the far more subjective pursuit of novel and short story writing? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I started down the road toward producing a novel. Until late in my life, I hadn’t been in the habit of spending long hours developing the life stories of fictitious characters and putting them in difficult, almost outrageous situations, trying to understand why they did what I tasked them to do. Now I sit daily in front of a computer, hacking away at those coal-black keys, putting words on a screen, words in virtual reality, words that don’t exist in solid form until I print them out, words that meld into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, and finally, chapters that condense into a unified whole. That’s been a big change in my life. Some might describe it as a quantum shift. I’m not sure I can describe why I made the change in the first place, but I do have some thoughts on why I’ve continued for so long.
The process has been tedious and complicated. It’s taken me 17 years to get to the point I’m at now, with three science-fiction novels under my belt (actually, they’re in the computer and on flash drives; I wonder where that expression came from) though none of them as yet has been published.
When I started my first novel I told myself I wanted to write something entertaining. I didn’t really define the word “entertaining” in my mind; I thought that writing the novel would define it sufficiently to the person reading it. In retrospect, that may have been a somewhat naïve attitude, though not terribly so. It’s not naïve to want to give someone a story that will hold their attention all the way to the end. A story that will immerse them in an alternate reality and sweep them to a civilization light-years from their own, and hopefully make them say, “I enjoyed that. Has he written anything else?” A story that will make them forget, if only for an hour or so, the mortgage payment, the crabgrass, or the shutters that need painting.
Except for the members of one critique group, one agent who requested a full copy of the manuscript (and subsequently declined to represent it) and a few odd persons here and there, no one has yet read my first novel in its entirety, and no one at all has read either the second or third. I realize it may sound a little presumptuous of me as a writer who’s never published a novel or even a short story (and it isn’t for lack of trying) to write an essay on why I write. It shouldn’t. I feel I’m a writer as much as anyone else who puts words on paper. I claim the title of “writer” if not “author” as much as anyone who has published several novels. I have written my own works and find them agreeable, if others do not. You can see a couple of my short stories and novel excerpts (now redacted from the actual novels, though) on this blog site.
Perhaps I should drop this pretense of being an author and go back to my day job. That’s not likely. I am thoroughly retired now, so that would be hard to do, and a little frivolous, really. I’m not about to give up on that first novel or the process of writing. That novel took twelve years to write, including numerous revisions over the past eight or nine years. The first draft came in at 240,000 words, so obscenely long it had to be revised and cut down. Oh, yes, there were revisions—many of them, both major and minor, each consisting of scrolling through that immense composition like a sci-fi Wagnerian opera, and going through it again a few weeks or months later. But it was all that revising, all that cutting and rewriting and electronic pasting that produced a unified whole at around 124,000 words that could be said to be finished well enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to send it through a critique group, or to an agent or to anyone else who wanted to read it.
Actually, I’d been thinking about the basic concept of a novel for several years before I began. The final narrative was a reaction to a “what if” scenario that asked, “What would happen if visitors from outer space landed on Earth during autumn?” I was living in Cincinnati at the time, and autumn in Cincinnati can be quite lovely. The colors on the trees are as spectacular as any place outside New England. The brilliant reds, oranges and golds of the maple trees, and the deep burgundy of the sweetgum, not to mention the light buff-brown of other trees, notably elm and oak, in concert with the cool, dry north winds that whistle down from Canada and the northern US, give the city an iridescent feeling I’ve felt very few other places. So, I wondered, would a visitor from another solar system enjoy the spectacle as we do, or—and I thought this more likely—would he think that the trees were dying? He might even feel responsible in some way. (I use “he” here for lack of a better term to indicate the gender of visitors from outer space.)
It went on from there. If the visitor thought the trees were dying, totally misinterpreting the phenomenon, what else might he misinterpret? Would he be so ignorant and insecure as to not understand weather, or geologic phenomena, or the various animals he encountered? A real concept began to develop.
So when the first line of a science fiction novel appeared in my mind one lazy August afternoon, I went upstairs to my computer and typed it out. I completed the first paragraph, and then the first page.
From there I couldn’t stop. Though I kept my regular day job, evenings and weekends found me at the computer. And through a succession of computers, too. I was obsessed with putting words on a screen. To use a well-worn chiché, I’d been bitten by the writing bug, and I haven’t stopped yet. In fact, I find it more than a little coincidental that I started writing long works at the same time the advent of the modern personal computer made writing—especially the process of revision and the storage of that writing—easier and far more comfortable than pen and paper or the typewriter.
I persevered. More hours of sitting in front of the computer, my ass growing larger each day. I enjoyed the time I spent there. It was a challenge to put down something that would stand the test of time and give anyone who read it a satisfying escape into an alternative universe. The first line I developed that August day no longer exists. In one of those numerous revisions, I cut it and the prologue it introduced, as well as several chapters following. Like many beginners, I began the novel far too early in time and much had to be trimmed. A sensible word count trumped retaining a favorite line for nostalgia’s sake—a casualty of the “kill your darlings” admonition.
A second and third novels followed, rounding out a trilogy. The second took about four years, the third around two, in total. I felt I was actually learning how to write. Within that intensity of writing I interspersed several short stories of two to five thousand words and a couple of novellas of around twenty thousand words. And that’s where the situation stands today.
But that’s not the end of the story. Settled within that “intensity of writing” resides another more abstract notion that has recently taken shape in my mind. And it speaks directly to the question of why I write.
I’ve always had a fascination with outer space and space travel. I’ve followed what little space program there was since the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s when V-2 and Aerobee rockets blasted off from White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. I read Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley and other rocket and space pioneers in their heyday. Then NASA came along, spawning Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the moon landings, the Space Shuttle and, finally, the International Space Station.
In the 1970’s, as the Space Shuttle was first getting off the ground (sorry about that) I considered applying to NASA as a mission specialist or payload specialist. I asked myself, “Why couldn’t I qualify?” With a PhD degree in a microbiological specialty, skill and proficiency in the latest molecular biological techniques, and a slim (150 lb) figure, I thought I stood a good chance of being selected.
That would be the high point of my career, following in the footsteps of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and so many others. But alas, I have been compromised by severe, though correctable nearsightedness, and would never have been able to pass the physical exam. Astronauts can’t wear glasses or contact lenses in outer space. Besides, I’d already begun a family and started a career on Earth as an environmental virologist. I was committed to a life in research, and so contented myself with my original career goals and allowed the US space program to continue without me. They’ve done quite well in those intervening years, I believe. I’ve accepted that I will never fly in space until spaceflight becomes as common as airplane travel, and that’s not likely to happen in my lifetime. I’ve left the US space program behind; I don’t need the Space Shuttle any more.
At this point I’m going to take this essay in a slightly different direction.
I believe it’s instructive to consider the three groups of human beings at work in fiction: the writer (or writers), the characters, and the readers. Of those three—and this is true largely for science fiction, fantasy and horror—only the characters ever find themselves in the extreme, almost preposterous situations so prevalent in those novels. In science fiction, only the characters get to travel in faster-than-light spaceships, or wander down a wormhole, or engage in warfare in military space vehicles of fantastic proportions. They are the only ones who possess the ability to speak to aliens and learn their ways, their hopes, their fears. Only the characters take trips we Earthlings merely dream of. Fiction is all about the characters—they’re the secret to good science fiction. The writers and the readers (other than a few astronauts), safe in their own little Earth-bound world, are carried along by the sweeping grandeur of the story as though gravity mattered little any more. All this from the mind of the writer.
Now, though, that realization that space, while out of reach in physical fact, has given me the chance to make the trip virtually. Characters of my own devising are not as nearsighted and can fly in outer space (or whatever space I put them in) and I fly vicariously with them. I send them on trips to other planets and even to the stars beyond, something my physical body cannot do. (Neither can most of my potential readers, for that matter.) Now, when and wherever my characters go, I and my readers go with them. I can send them on a trip to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, or any of millions of real or fictitious planet scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy, and we travel with them. My readers and I watch them, follow them, speak to them, and they reply. We share their cramped sleeping quarters, eat in their mess hall in the weightlessness of space, and travel with them as they explore a strange planet. We watch as they attack the alien life forms or vicious monsters, and mourn if they die. We rejoice when they return to Earth. And the memories of those journeys are just as real and enduring as if we’d actually been there.
That’s a large part of why I write. Still, it’s only a partial reason. As I asked above, what is it in the first place that makes a person decide to spend all that time inventing characters only to send them to stars beyond and force them into life and death situations? I believe ultimately there may be no real all-encompassing answer. We writers sit at the desk for reasons that elude us. “We can’t not write,” we say, or “It’s in my blood,” each time with a plaintive sigh, knowing full well that platitudes won’t cover the whole reason, and will never satisfy those who asked in the first place.
As a scientist, I’m used to looking for factual, quantifiable, relatively obvious reasons for why something happened. I want something I can measure, something I can see and quantify. I want facts and figures, numbers and data. Examining the inner workings of an artist’s soul is foreign to me and I revert (redundancy alert) to broad generalizations, leaving the exact details to others more attuned to the workings of the right brain. I used to work in the real world; now I dabble in the unreal.
Thank heaven for that word “real.” What would science fiction writers do without it?