Posts Tagged science fiction
In this blog post I want to talk a little about putting tension and conflict into story telling. I’ve just completed reading two science fiction novels (written by the same author) in which I believe the concept of tension was handled badly. I’m not identifying the novels or the author for two reasons. One, this is not a book review, and two, I’m not trying to cut down or disparage the books (you may actually like them); I’m only trying to make a point. The problem with the books as I see them is that the author placed both protagonists in a state of high tension and internal conflict, and kept the unfortunate person in that state for virtually the entire book. I found this situation almost unreadable. Trying to read through this, page after page, chapter after chapter, was emotionally taxing on me as well. Many times I wanted to toss the books away and not finish them. (I did finish them, however, because I figured if I wanted to critique them, I’d better read the entire book.) In short, that’s a terrible thing to do to your protagonist as well as to your reader.
Placing a novel character in such a state is so grossly unrealistic and unbelievable I find myself wondering how it got past the agency and the editor in the first place. I’m surprised someone didn’t stop it before publication, or at least question it. I certainly would never put one of my characters in such a desperate situation. I might put them in that plight for a chapter or two, or three, but not for the whole book. Tension and conflict are essential in a novel, of that there is no doubt, and it may be true that I don’t have enough of either in my books. But tension and conflict should rise and fall like the tides. Keeping a character in eternal tension is unrealistic, and even science fiction has to be “realistic,” at least to a certain degree. Raise the tension occasionally; keep your characters sane (unless insanity is a part of the story). If this is what it takes to get published in this day and age, I don’t want to have any part of it.
As a good example of the variation of tension, I offer the Alfred Hitchcock movie “To Catch A Thief.” Not because it’s such a great example, but merely because I watched portions of it last night. In the movie, a cat burglar has been retired for fifteen years, but now a copycat has started burglarizing the homes of the wealthy, and the retired burglar has to clear his name and prove to the police the break-ins weren’t his doing, or go to jail. In his words “they’ll throw away the key.” (Yes, even Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t above using a cliché.) High stakes, no doubt. But Hitchcock intersperses humor and lightheartedness throughout the movie, even though it takes the main character most of the movie to identify the real burglar. I think that’s one thing that makes Hitchcock such a movie favorite; he knew how to handle tension.
As an unpublished author, perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe lack of conflict and tension are my problem. But I do know what I felt when I read the books, and I didn’t like it at all. And that’s enough for me.
Over the past eighteen years, I’ve written three science fiction novels, each about 125,000 words. That’s just the word count of each of the manuscripts as they exist today, and doesn’t take into account all the re-writing and revisions I’ve made over the years, especially to the first. The total number of different words I’ve put into those books, and taken out and moved around and cut-up and redistributed and so forth, must total over five hundred thousand.
Currently, I’m finishing the third in the trilogy, but I’m still trying to sell the first. Over the past sixteen years I’ve sent query letters to well over a hundred agents about that first book, but haven’t had a taker. I’ve met with agents and editors at meetings, but no one has yet agreed to represent it. In the meantime, I still work at writing on the trilogy, mostly on the third, but occasionally I go back and make changes and revisions to books one and two. I also write short stories and blog posts. Writing keeps me busy.
The most common question I get asked about all this is, have you considered self-publishing? The answer is yes, I’ve considered it, but I have, at least for now, rejected it. Those who have self-published a book say it’s a wonderful experience. You get a book out there on Amazon and other places, without going to the trouble of having to find an agent and a publisher.* Just do it, they say. No, I say.
Why not? My usual response is that I would prefer to write and leave the publishing details to those better prepared to deal with them. Sure, I could go ahead and find an editor and a cover artist and a printer and all that, and put the book out there. That could be done. It wouldn’t go into many bookstores, though. The most important question I ask myself about this process is: would the book be any good? There’s a lot of self-published stuff out there that isn’t. I’m sure an editor, especially an editor who looks at content, could give me his/her opinion about the whole matter, and manuscript reviewers (that is, beta readers) could give me feedback too, but the ultimate decider of whether a book is any good is the reading public, and I wouldn’t want them to read a half-ass book. Or a three-quarter ass book. Or even a seven-eighths ass book. I want to put out only my best work. I’d rather go through the regular old-fashioned process of getting an agent and publisher and let them decide if the book warrants publishing. So far, that hasn’t happened, and leads me to wonder if my first book is really good enough to be published yet. More revisions loom. And if it’s not good enough to be published through the traditional route, it certainly isn’t good enough to be self-published.
*Sometimes I get the feeling that some people self-publish because they know their book(s) isn’t/aren’t good enough for the traditional method in the first place anyway.
Several weeks ago I chanced to see a Facebook post about some predictions an artist had made in the early 20th Century of what life would be like a hundred years later, i.e., in the early 21st Century. (I’m talking about the time around 1910, here.) The predictions were interesting, but what came through for me was that the predictions seemed to be limited to devising objects and machines that would make life easier. Household items that did the work for you, and so on. Nowhere was there any prediction of major advances in health, communications, travel, and what have you. No mention of television, organ transplantation, computers, even the telephone. Those, of course, are much harder to predict. It has always been difficult to predict new technology, and much easier to merely extrapolate from what we know into the future. For example, computers, cell phones, electronic tablets and so forth have made communications much easier and more widespread than even twenty years ago. But what is the future of the cell phone? Will it just get faster and faster? Or smaller and smaller? So small it will fit on our fingernail? Or will there be another revolution in the way we communicate, a revolution that will make a cell phone look like the telegraph looked in 1910?
Advances in most areas of technology and science are slow in coming and hard to predict. When I started out in microbiology in the 1960’s, I couldn’t have foreseen the revolution in the handling of DNA that led to advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, not to mention the treatment of many other diseases, or the ability to detect incomprehensibly tiny amounts of DNA on environmental surfaces that has transformed forensics and genealogy. There was something on the horizon, to be sure, and we all knew that sometime, someone will break through and change the way we look at disease. But it’s hard to look too far ahead. All we can do is take research one small step at a time, and do the best we can.
So, what are your predictions for the next 100 or 200 years? One thing that helps us in our attempt to look ahead is science fiction. Back in 1910, very little science fiction had been written, and it wasn’t anywhere nearly as popular as it is now. To be sure, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had published what we now term science fiction, but it had limited impact on the population. Nowadays, we see sci-fi in so many places: television, movies, books, comics, etc. We’re used to looking at spaceships that travel faster than light, or time machines that transport fictional characters to unknown and unlikely places. Faster than light travel and time travel—if they ever come to exist—could be considered game changers in the same way jet aircraft changed the world for a 1910 person. (The Wright Brothers had barely gotten off the ground in 1910.) But now, let’s push the boundaries of life of an early twenty-first person. What’s coming by 2110? By 2210? For a person born in 2010, what will they see in 2100? They’ll be 90 years old, so that’s not unrealistic. Can you get out of the rut of merely extending what is known now and make real substantial predictions? I’m not sure I can.
Here’s a couple of my predictions, not necessarily game changers, though. (I’m a life scientist, it should be noted.) 1. Surgery will be non-existent. Cancer will be gone, and any necessary surgery (by 2000 standards) will be taken care of by non-invasive procedures. Nanobots may be a part of this. 2. Pollution will be gone. That’s just a decision we have to make, not a technological advance. Stopping climate change is a different matter. Even if we made the decision world-wide right now, some climate change is inevitable, though it is possible someone, somewhere will find a way to halt climate change in its tracks. 3. I don’t foresee Star Trek-style transporters, though I could be wrong. Travel is travel. You have to expend a certain amount of energy to move an object a given distance. But what the hell, let’s go for it. 4. Life span will be around 100 years, maybe even more. I’m not expecting a fountain of youth, but advances in aging will be substantial.
That’s enough for now. Got any other predictions?
I believe there is a serious lack of imagination in science fiction today. At least in one particular facet of the genre.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at some recent results that have come from the world of astronomy. For more than four years, the Kepler Space Telescope has been observing a star called KIC 8462852, looking for planets that might orbit it. The telescope has not merely identified a potential planet it by the tiny dip in the amount of light the star emits when the planet moves across the face of it—as seen from Earth, of course—but has actually recorded a remarkable variation in the light emitted, much more variation than could be caused by the transit of one planet. What’s caused the variation? No one really knows, but some astronomers think it could be due to a swarm of comets or other asteroidal material around the star. Or it might be might be variations in the light from the star itself. But the explanation that became the most popular, and the one the press jumped on, is the possibility that the variation is caused by the inhabitants of one or more planets around the star building a Dyson sphere, and their partially completed structure is responsible.
To this I say, nonsense. It’s possible, of course, and I don’t have any information to rule that out, but what concerns me is the lack of imagination that brought that possibility to light. If there is as civilization on one or more planets around KIC 8462852, the chances are that they would be so vastly different from ours that the possibility of a Dyson sphere might never occur to them. The concept of a Dyson sphere originated here on Earth. We’ve never seen a Dyson sphere anywhere. Why should we be so arrogant in our thinking as to ascribe it to a totally alien civilization? We see some variation in the light from a star and we automatically say “Dyson sphere.” If a civilization exists on a planet around that star, they may have other ideas, ideas that might never occur to us.
Let’s look at this from another viewpoint. I’ve been watching the older Doctor Who episodes recently, and it and other well-known sci-fi programs such as Star Wars and Star Trek have one thing in common: the aliens are overwhelmingly android in appearance. That is, they are just variations on the human anatomy. Even the aliens that supposedly came from the spaceship that crashed near Roswell, NM, are android in appearance. Green in color, but generally human. No matter where Doctor Who went, the aliens were largely humanoid. Again, extremely unlikely.
I think we have to keep in mind, both scientifically and science-fiction wise, that aliens from other planets are not going to look like us, either exactly—think of Luke Skywalker—or only vaguely, as the Roswell aliens. They’ll be wildly different in anatomy and physiology, so different, in fact, we may not even recognize them if we see them. And if they’re different in anatomy and physiology, they’ll be different in their ability to conceptualize too. A good example is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The creatures inside the pods that blasted London back at the turn of the 20th century were not humanoid at all, and I’m surprised more authors didn’t jump on that idea and continue the trend. I suppose it may be easier to get readers and movie viewers to identify with an alien if they’re generally human in appearance—think of the cantina scene in Star Wars-A New Hope. But each instance of that just perpetuates that (most likely) erroneous concept.
I have to admit that I’m as guilty as anyone in adopting that notion. All three of my science-fiction novels use aliens from other planets that are generally humanoid in shape and structure. I did write a novelette about two humans (from Earth) caught by aliens who were not humanoid at all, but as yet I haven’t gotten it published because it’s hard to get a story of about 22,000 words published when you haven’t published anything else in sci-fi at all.
In short, forget about running into Klingons out there. It isn’t going to happen. We need more stories about non-humanoid characters. I suppose in the movies, especially, it’s easier to get an actor to dress up in a monster costume than it is to construct a non-humanoid one and mechanize it so precisely that it looks like it could be real. Admittedly, that could be very expensive. But in books and short stories, authors aren’t bound by that limitation. The characters take shape in the reader’s minds, and that’s not limited to anything.
I usually write these blog posts on Sunday afternoon, after my regular stop at one of the local bookstores in the Albuquerque area. Today was no exception. The first thing I check after entering is the magazine rack of news journals to see what people are saying about national and international politics. (Right now that’s the 2016 election.) Then I begin to wander around the store, examining such areas as the hobby magazines (especially model railroading and woodworking), beginner’s guides to the increasingly sophisticated electronics products out there (phones, tablets, computers, cameras—you name it and there’s a magazine for it), some of the art and artist magazines, and eventually I wander into the book sections. My first stop is always the science-fiction area.
And what an area it is. One of the largest sections in the bookstore. I especially check the new SF/F. I tend to pay little attention to the regular stacks of books because they don’t appreciably change over weeks and months, though I might scan them just to see if anything has been added. It’s the new releases which interest me. For two reasons: primarily I want to see what’s just come out, but secondarily because they’re the ones my books will be competing against if I ever get them published. At first glance, that can be daunting.
Science fiction and fantasy seems to be a booming genre. The colors of the various book covers, often in shades of red and black, compete with the customer’s eyes for attention. I get the impression that most of the books are either fantasy, with lots of swords and knights and jousting and killing and all that, or dark sci-fi wherein wars are being fought and planets destroyed or decimated in some way. I tend to look for the less violent titles. I’m interested in internal conflict, as opposed to external warfare, but I’m not sure that’s too much in vogue at the present time. It’s so easy to write about wars and monsters and so forth, and more difficult to write about the battles and hostilities that take place within the human soul. But that’s what my books are about. (I have to admit, however, the third book in my Anthanian Imperative series does have some battle scenes. Small ones, though.) Warfare sells, I guess.
But the sheer volume of new titles in SF/F brings up another point, that of competition. Can my books, I ask myself over and over, compete with all these new titles? Eventually, I expect my books will be new, too. So, how will they fare next to those in the present display? That can be disheartening, seeing all those books and expecting mine—one more in a rack of fifty or more others—to compete. But then, I tell myself, that’s the wrong question to ask. The real point to be made here is not so much that there is intense competition among authors for the sale of their books, and there certainly is, but that each book should be considered as a title all by itself. Of course mine can compete, I say. I maintain that what is important is not whether a book competes well against established authors, but whether it is any good in the first place. Books—and I believe many people will agree with me here—should be judged by themselves, not as a contestant in a race for the highest sales that can be obtained. I trust my books to be the best I can make them. And if they sell, all well and good. If not, then I’m back to the drawing board and I’ll try again.
Then I go to the Starbucks in the back of the store and look at all the goodies.
Most of the time now, I’m retired from a life of research. I worked with viruses most of my professional life. Now I’ve moved on to trying to write science-fiction novels. Writing is more than an excuse to keep busy, though; it’s a permanent part of my life and I enjoy the time spent in front of a computer creating characters and situations and locations for them to act out. New planets and suns, and asteroids and moons—these are my life now.
But there’s a part of my life that I’ve somewhat outgrown recently. That is, my hobbies. I still maintain that hobbies are essential for a complete lifestyle and are a good way to help take the mind off the frustrations of the daily grind. I have several that I indulge in more or less frequently, but the most important and the longest-lasting hobby I’ve ever had was model railroading.
I’ve had an interest in trains since I was old enough to know what they were. I’ve always enjoyed riding them or watching them or taking pictures of them. And it seemed natural many long years ago to start building models of them and to set up a model railroad in the basement or a spare room or wherever I could find the space. But model railroading is more than just a diversion from novel writing. There are actually a lot of similarities. First, however, let’s look at the overall concept of model railroading.
Building a model railroad comes under two broad, general headings: use a real railroad (usually referred to as “the prototype”) as a system to model, or devise a fictitious railroad and make up things as you go along. I’ve done the second most of the time. This is where the similarity to novel writing begins. People who model a real prototype frequently make models of real objects and events. They make their engines and cars resemble the prototype. They use place names of real towns and geographic features. And so on. But those of us who make up fictitious railroads have to come up with fictitious towns and all the other things that populate a railroad. We generally use concepts and operating practices from prototype railroads, but we put everything in a fictitious situation. And that’s a lot like developing a novel.
A novel is a fictitious story, but placed in a recognizable world. Even in science fiction, a world has to be realistic and consistent. It won’t do to have alien creatures living within the core of a star somewhere where the temperature can reach millions of degrees. Likewise, in a model railroad, the layout has to be realistic. It has to feature not only the railroad, but houses, stations, industries, stores, towns, bridges, rivers or arroyos, mountains and hills, valleys and depressions, and so on. It must sit in a lifelike environment or be totally unbelievable. So I’ve graduated from building fictitious worlds on a board in a spare room with choo-choo trains running round and round, to placing those worlds on a computer screen and going round and round with readers, critics, editors, and other publishing personnel. There are frustrations, sure, but overall it hasn’t been such a bad transition.
I’m a writer. I specialize in writing fiction, especially science-fiction novels, but I’ve written several short stories, mostly with a sci-fi bent, if not outright. But fiction by definition is a story about something that is not real. Fiction generally uses made-up characters and plot lines, though real people can appear in a fictitious work. Even though it’s made up, much fiction can sound very realistic, even fooling some people into thinking it was real. That’s what Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Bridge of San Luis Rey did to me. I read it in high school. I thought it described a real event, it was so well written. But it isn’t—it’s a novel. It’s all made up. What the hell did I know? I was seventeen at the time. One editor of a journal to whom I’d sent a short story sent me an email asking if the story was fiction or non-fiction. I had to tell him it was a totally fictitious story, but they didn’t print it. (They didn’t like the ending.) That seems to me the ultimate complement a person can give to a writer, that his/her fiction is so real it seems like it really happened. On the other hand, science fiction stories don’t usually have that problem. If you read a story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, you know right away it’s total fiction. Or a story about a man dressed vaguely like a bat who fights crime in the most unimaginable ways possible won’t strain your ability to tell fact from fiction.
But that just brings up an important point, a point I’ve wondered about for a long time. Why do we make up stories? There’s a lot of real stories out there all the time. All you have to do is watch the evening news. Yet there are those of us who sit down if front of a computer or a pad of paper and write about things that never happened, and in many cases, could never happen. Why do we do it? As the title of this post asks, don’t we have something better to do? Isn’t there a soup kitchen we could volunteer at? Couldn’t we advocate for processes to reverse climate change? How about a walk in the woods or the wilderness? Strap a pack on your back and set out along the Continental Divide Trail and expand your mind. Take pictures about your experiences and publish a book. Get involved in real life. Anything other than making up stories.
On the face of it, making up stories about fictitious characters and unrealistic situations seems infantile and childish. We’re supposed to be adults. Shouldn’t psychiatrists be concerned that so many people sit for hours split off from society living in their own little worlds making up events that never happened? Well, no.
We write fiction for many reasons, and I suspect every fiction writer has his/her own reasons. Some write to tell a real story but in a way that the real people won’t recognize it, or if they do, will understand that others won’t be able to tell who the real people are. Shakespeare did that. Some, like me, write fiction to entertain, to tell a good story that illuminates a part of real life that only a made-up story can do. Connie Willis did that in her twin novels, Blackout and All Clear. Fiction tells us a little about ourselves in a manner we couldn’t get in any other way. Dr. Seuss did that. Fiction illuminates a small part of our humanity that we never really knew existed. Shakespeare again. There’s a place in this world for fiction, certainly, and we must realize it and get to know it. Advocating to end climate change is important, but if you want something better to do, read a novel. Better yet, write one.