Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ category

A Tale of Two Books About Writing Novels

September 10, 2020

The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson, Adams Media, 2011
Plot, Ansen Dibell, Writer’s Digest Books, 1988
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I read a lot of books on the craft of writing. 

It’s a little like my quest for meaning and spirit during my twenties — a search for the book or person or method or experience that could make sense of the world in a deep way.  Unsuccessful in many respects, I might add, yet that impulse informed my life too.

So it is with wanting to learn more about writing novels.  It’s another kind of spiritual quest, if you want to get highfalutin’ about it, in the form of this impulse or desire to evoke imaginatively a world and characters to care about.  If done well, such creations can seep back into our every day world in surprising and even beneficial ways.

The frustration for me is how far off the mark my written meaning falls from what I want to inarticulately portray.  This frustration is part of the impulse — maybe I can do better this time.

I look to books on writing to help.  I have two here to discuss: The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson, and Plot by Ansen Dibell.  Both are about “plot” but are really structural guides for the entirety of a novel and its characters and settings.

I have to say, and it’s the impetus for writing this post, that Ansen’s book (I love that first name) has moved into the pantheon of my top three books about writing novels. It is there with John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story (for its inspiring analysis and formulation of the elements of a great story) and Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel (for the solace of its wisdom about how daunting it is to discover the story that wants to come to life for you).

The Plot Whisperer

I will describe Ansen’s book in more detail below, but I wanted to start with The Plot Whisperer, which is presumably like a horse whisperer in leading you to water.

Alderson’s book is subtitled: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. That’s promising a lot — even me?!?

It’s a useful book in many ways about structuring and planning your novel. She has a method with schematics and diagrams, a plot planner, which may or may not inspire you. Her book, unavoidably, shares some characteristics with many, many writing craft books: Three-act structure, the importance of theme, showing over telling, what makes a good protagonist, what makes a despicable villain, and so on.

I confess to a prejudice against shoe-horning any novel into the three-act boot, as if it’s magical footwear, but I always translate it into just being statements about the beginning, middle and end of a story.

She is good about the emotional trials, how many writers struggle over their stories.

I found of use her visual way to lay out the different facets of your story as you develop it. I wrote previously, for instance, about her method of circling around potential themes in The Quest to Write with Meaning .

She has seven questions to ask for every scene and its relationship to the plot, which you can find in many places, but still are valuable:

  1. Does the scene establish date and setting?
  2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?
  3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?
  4. What dramatic action is shown?
  5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?
  6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?
  7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?

There is much more to her book than I will cover here. The most inspiring thing I took away from Alderson’s work was her identification of “The Universal Story” and its three phases — comfort and separation, resistance and struggle, and transformation and return. That’s a lot to think about: what those words mean.

Plot

Ansen Dibell was an American science-fiction author who passed on in 2006. She also became well known for her writing about writing, in particular for Plot.

(Ansen Dibell was a nom de plume and probably a wise choice — her real name was Nancy Ann Dibble. It’s amusing that some reviewers on Amazon assume Ansen is a man (as I did at first). It probably helped, back in the day, with male science fiction readers’ prejudices about women writing in “their” genre….)

Without cutting down Alderson’s book too much, I rate Ansen’s book so highly because it seems to arrive from within the novel writing experience, whereas Alderson’s book is more from the outside looking in. Ansen’s stance is more “this is what it’s like, what I’ve found that works, what you need to think about” rather than as a template bestowed upon neophyte novelists.

I like Ansen’s writing voice a lot; that is her, still in the world.

“But you know, and I know, that writing is as much a process of discovery as it is one of invention, and the more serious you are about your writing and the more complex the story you’re trying to tell, the more likely it is to start creating itself in unexpected ways.

“Unfortunately, the inevitable flip side is that the story is also more likely to take a quick dive into the sock drawer, unless you can identify what’s going wrong and choose an effective strategy for coping with it.”

And so we have this book of hers, with her strategies about two problems: creating plot and controlling plot.

Let me highlight just a few of the insights and strategies she talks about.

— I found invaluable a section on how to test a story idea. I’ve had so many great ideas for novels over the years that led nowhere. “I think that’s what the traditional advice to ‘write what you know’ really means: to choose things that matter enormously to you, things you have a stake in settling, at least on paper.”

— She advises on practicalities: multiple viewpoints, how do you switch; the dread world-builders disease, where it becomes more fun to create the world than to write about it; keeping exposition under control.

— Her chapter called Building the Big Scenes: Set-Pieces really provided me a different and valuable way to think about the progression of a novel. Set-pieces! This is the first craft book I’ve read which talks about set-pieces.

What is a set-piece? These are the memorable landmarks of the story, like the duel between Luke and Darth Vader. “Seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama and suspense in a story.” This isn’t every scene. In even a long novel, she says, there might only be between six and a dozen. She calls it “outlining from the inside” by connecting each set-piece, as you block out the story in a rough form.

— There is another entire chapter about using melodrama as a carefully administered spice to occasionally add zest to the story. It’s not always to be avoided, as would be my tendency. Get a little dramatic! “Melodrama is a part of our common emotional and cultural language.” She uses the idea of “a curse” as a symbol for melodrama in her discussion of how to use it, which I found fascinating. Even if you don’t believe in it, some of the characters will….

There is much more but this gives you an idea of this excellent book about fiction writing.

Her final advice:

“Use the simplest possible structure that conveys what you want to convey, presents what you want to present. … It’s not the form but the content…

“Now, quit reading. Go write.”

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An afterword:

It struck me after reading over Martha Alderson’s seven questions to ask about a scene: The frame of mind to ask those questions is exactly not the frame of mind that allows the flow of imaginative writing to which we aspire.

The questions are good, but need to be limited to being pursued after something is written, for revision. Or even better maybe, reading them just before buckling down to the heart of the thing itself, following a man through a room as he abruptly swerves to speak to his sister… the devising is of a different order than a list of analytical questions.

Distraction – Science Fiction For Our Times

August 22, 2020

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 1998, Bantam Books
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Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells is often given as an example of a writer who predicted the future. For example, almost 100 years ago he foretold wireless communication systems, and before that he wrote about devastating atomic weapons and the doomsday scenarios they might cause.

Given that the pace of technological and social change has accelerated so much from Wells’ time, Bruce Sterling’s feat of prognosis in his sci-fi novel Distraction, from 1998, is equally impressive in its way.

For me, it is not so much the specifics of the world in 2044 that Sterling imagines, it’s that he’s captured much of the weird atmosphere that we’re living through today.

Although published in 1998, Sterling must have been writing it for at least a couple of years before that. This is before Google, and Y2K; before Napster and massive downloading of music files; just after the first online purchase (of pizza) in 1994; and before social media platforms, and corporate and political interests, have turned the internet into a surveillance system mixed with genuine information and outlandish conspiracy theories.

In brief, the story’s protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, is a political operative who has just got a senator elected, and is casting about for work for himself and his “krewe” (anyone who can afford them has such an entourage). Oscar has the advantage of not having to sleep very much, and the social disadvantage of having been birthed as a clone from a test tube, with a few genetic tweaks. He is quite philosophical about this.

Oscar comes across as a well-meaning guy who wants to see the world progress, while all around him the political and social system is coming apart at the seams.

Extortion by bake sale

An Air Force base nearby in Louisiana, mistakenly left out of the budget by the dysfunctional national government, has soldiers blockading roads with the pretense of a bake sale to extort money from the citizenry.

The renegade governor of Louisiana is running his own nomadic militia and using outlaw biotech to further his presidential ambitions.

Rabid internet disputes become street fights between ideological militias. Half the population is unemployed and the United States has a 20-year-old State-of-Emergency. Covert wiretapping is a national pastime. Whites are considered a violent, unpredictable, suspect minority. Squatters take over federal buildings as needed. Climate change has made genetically modified crops necessary for people to survive.

“There were sixteen major political parties now, divided into warring blocs…. There were privately owned cities with millions of ‘clients’…. There were price-fixing mafias, money laundries, outlaw stock markets. There were black, gray, and green superbarter nets. There were health maintenance organizations staffed by crazed organ-sharing cliques, where advanced medical techniques were in the grip of any quack able to download a surgery program.”

Plausible deniability

There is one particular situation that Sterling imagines that really knocked me out with its futuristic insight and potential for harm that to a certain extent has already happened in our world.

He imagines political bosses throwing out ridiculous, extreme conspiracy theories about an opponent which no sane person would believe. They’ve compiled large lists of dangerous lunatics, though, and feed them all the inflammatory rubbish.

“Finding the crazies with net analysis, that’s the easy part. Convincing them to take action, that part is a little harder. But if you’ve got ten or twelve thousand of them, you’ve got a lotta fish, and somebody’s bound to bite. …That [opponent] guy might very well come to harm….

“Somebody, somewhere, built some software years ago that automatically puts [the politican’s] enemies onto [such] hit lists.”

Talk about plausible deniability.

In the midst of all this, Oscar soldiers on as a new member of a national science committee, appointed there by his senator, who by the way has become bi-polar. Oscar is good at manipulating people, mostly for their own good, but is not averse to dirty tricks either if he deems them necessary. He sees the only possible path out of the nation’s quagmire as starting with a new mission for science, where the practice of science becomes the actual primary function, rather than striving for the blessing of committees and making desperate appeals for funding.

In the end, Oscar creates a coalition between one of the large, disenfranchised nomadic militia groups and a bunch of renegade scientists.

Writer Michael Burnam-Fink, who is a major fan of Distraction, summarizes the outcome well: “While the nomads provide muscle and logistics, the scientists provide a sense of idealism and purpose for the nomads, who don’t recognize their own political power. The alliance threatens everything about the status quo.”

I’ve only provided a glimpse of the many imaginative wonders of this work, not all of them depressing. There are many parallels with our times. And often the book made me laugh out loud.

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Radicalized — A Book Review

June 16, 2020

Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow, Tor Books, 2019
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“The future’s a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids.” — Cory Doctorow

Although that quote is not from Doctorow’s novellas — longer than short stories but not nearly novel length — in his recent book Radicalized, it captures a lot about them.

41tOeBojICL._SY346_Doctorow is a blogger and science fiction author much concerned about personal freedom in the midst of media and technological juggernauts.  His fiction tends to be of the very near future variety, taking on the coercive forces of government and corporations.

It falls into a genre I call “subversive fiction” for suggesting that freedom is more than a privilege bestowed by others.  Perhaps Doctorow’s most famous book may be Little Brother, nominated for a science-fiction Hugo award in 2009, which includes information on counteracting surveillance by authorities.

Unauthorized Bread

In the first story, “Unauthorized Bread,”  Salima, a recent immigrant, finally gets fed up with being forced to toast only authorized bread in her toaster. She hacks the toaster so that other bread can provide her morning toast.  Of course, such hacking is against copyright and other laws and carries severe penalties, even though the toaster corporation has gone bankrupt.

(If you think this is an exaggerated premise, then you should read about the John Deere corporation’s efforts to keep farmers from repairing their own machines.  John Deere claims farmers have no right to access the copyrighted software that controls every facet of today’s equipment, even to repair their own machines. Only an “authorized dealership” can do that.)

The story also explores the pressure of housing developers gaining concessions beyond usual zoning requirements by making some lower rent units available, and then screwing those in the low-rent units as diligently as possible.  If the renters complain or circumvent the humiliating measures, they will be evicted.

In the end, against all odds, the renters free their kitchen appliances and circumvent the landlords’ technological controls with a few tricks of their own.

Model Minority

The American Eagle is from another planet, in this second story.  He fights for truth, justice and the American way.  Unfortunately, and quite topically, he feels he must intervene in a racist police beating of a black man.

American Eagle fights against this injustice and is done in by the system, despite being a superhero.

As famous as he is, he offers to testify on behalf of the beating victim.  His efforts to see the right thing done end up making the situation worse.  Conspiracy theories mount about how foreign American Eagle is, and his supposed ties to the Chinese or Russians or other unAmerican entities.

A corporate billionaire vigilante named “Bruce” confronts American Eagle. Eventually our superhero, after other adventures, realizes America is only willing to tolerate certain things.

Radicalized

In “Radicalized,” the third story, the country is aflame and in chaos after people are fed up seeing their loved ones die unnecessarily in the medical system.  They begin to riot, build bombs and conduct mass executions in medical insurance offices.

The hero of the story is Joe, a white 36-year-old who works in a well-paid but pointless corporate job.  He has seen many of his colleagues leave:

“…to work for experimental divisions with self-driving forklift companies, or diving into cloud-based self-serve platforms for ecommerce dropshippers, or all that other stuff that helped people get their Squatty Pottys and strobing LED USB chargers delivered to their doors with five nines of reliability.”

Even with his top-of-line medical insurance through his company, when Joe’s wife develops cancer, the insurance company refuses to cover her treatment.

A frustrated Joe, seeking some way forward, starts cruising the dark web, and gets slowly involved with the violent element at large in the country taking revenge on the pharmaceutical, insurance and medical establishment.

Joe is arrested.  He is asked to give up the names of those he communicated with.  He refuses just as his wife’s cancer goes into remission.  She visits him in jail and lets him know that a comprehensive medical care act has been passed.  She tells Joe, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?”

The Masque of the Red Death

Along with its reference to the Edgar Allan Poe story, this is an ironic tale of survivalists and the apocalypse.

The main character, Martin, intends to ride out the coming apocalypse in his Arizona stronghold he calls The Fort, along with 30 well-chosen and privileged others.

And when The Event arrives, Martin congratulates himself for having thought of every contingency.  He welcomes disaster’s arrival which will prove his astuteness.

After some time, a gun store raid goes badly wrong when the gang there tears Martin’s people to pieces.  A plague of some kind kills more.  Martin gets very sick and can’t recover. In the end, Martin gets real tired of the apocalypse.

What to think?

Overall, I enjoy and admire the subversive quality of Doctorow’s stories.

My favorite of the four is the first, “Unauthorized Bread.”  To me it’s the most human and amusingly accurate of the stories about the kinds of things many people have to deal with right now.

It took me a little while to get what was going on in the story about the American Eagle.  I left comics and superheroes behind in my pre-teen years (although I enjoyed them a lot then), and the current obsession with superheroes in the movies leaves me cold.  So probably for a younger, more with-it reader, this might have more resonance.  Its point seems accurate, but the story itself is so-so.

The third story about health care and violence is thought provoking.  I’m not at ease with violence as a strategy about anything, except in unavoidable self-defence.  But unfortunately it does seem to get attention and perhaps action, although I would argue the more likely outcome is just more violence.  But there are situations when it may seem the only course to take.

The last story about the survivalist mentality and its likely consequences rings true.

I’ll leave this with a quote by Doctorow from an interview in the LA Times:

“I think that fiction is a superb way to put flesh on the dry, abstract bones of technical and policy debate — a fly-through of an architect’s rendering of the emotional lived-experience of the consequences of our policy choices.”

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Working On A New Novel — Obsessed with Character

February 13, 2020

“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out….”
Leon Surmelian, Techniques of Fiction Writing

“Human beings are the religion of the angels….”
— from the movie Cell

Both these quotes speak to the difficulty of discovering and creating characters who come alive for us, both as writer and reader, in a piece of fiction.  The one from a famous text on writing and the other an evocative and ultimately mysterious quote from an otherwise unmemorable film.  They both allude to the imaginative challenge.

I managed to finish writing a science fiction novel last year, and I’ve been submitting it to literary agents and to publishers, so far unsuccessfully.  Although I think it’s good, and I have high hopes for it, you never know.  Maybe it will go nowhere.  It’s tough at the best of times to get published, and with all the technological turmoil….

But in the meantime, I’ve started working on a second novel.  As part of that I’ve been obsessing about how better to develop the characters that will inhabit it.

The now completed science fiction novel was set many hundreds of years in the future on a failing Earth struggling to recover its potential.  This new one is intended to be more of the present day thriller variety, although situated perhaps five years in the future to give myself as much latitude as possible in creating dark situations.

Before I write about the useful advice and books I’ve come across, I want to describe my working theory about imaginative psychology, simplistic as it is.  Maybe it will help provide context for my preoccupation about developing characters.

The discovery model

I have become convinced of the discovery model of fiction writing.  We are creating, making stuff up, this is true, but the best material for that creation is what we discover in the surprising backwaters of ourselves as we write, or what comes illumined to us at the edge of sleep.  For others these riches may come wholly dressed and dancing, but for me they are fragmentary and usually wrapped in fog.  Yet there is something there.

The rest of my pet theory is that there is a deep layer of our being where reside all the archetypes and our collective unconscious in the Jungian sense.  The archetypes are forces, not things.  There too the spiralling currents and tidal streams of our personal shadow slowly circulate.  I have no idea, for the most part, about whatever the heck is going on in there.  But I’m sure it’s all homeostatic!

The next layer up, I postulate, is at the subliminal, subconscious level, at the edge of conscious realization.  The level where a whisper comes through out of nowhere about a character’s motivation, or the shape of the plot, or where appears a fleeting image of oranges on a truck.  I’ve found that you have to pay attention to these transitory strays, get them down in a notebook or on the page right now.  It’s a matter of respect for that entire submerged ocean that feeds the subconscious level, that supports you.  If you want more to come, you must not have it avoid you for your negligence.  These morsels won’t always make sense or be useful, but much more often than not they provide sustenance.

And then there’s the mundane, everyday level where I struggle to make sense with words, just as I am doing now.

Helpful books on characterization

I want to mention several books that have provided insight in my quest about characterization.  I may have a “felt sense” or intuition about a character which provides the irritating sand for the pearl I hope for, but often that intuition stays static for quite a while.  I want to learn how to nudge it along.

The first couple of books are off the beaten path of the mainstream industry of providing craft help for would-be writers.  They are Verbalize — Bring Stories to Life and Life to Stories by Damon Suede and Unmasking Arkhelogy by Jennifer Van Bergen.  Interestingly, both authors come out of an acting background.  That gives a different take on characterization which I found valuable.

Verbalize? What’s that about? Of course we’re verbalizing our stories.  But that’s not what Suede is referring to.  He’s using “verbalize” as shorthand for the process of finding (discovering?) the most precise verb to describe the character we’re working on.  I found this very insightful.

Characteristics aren’t character

Characteristics are not character, he points out, despite all the standard list of things you’re supposed to know about your main characters before writing.  (This kind of list I’ve always found sterile and mostly meaningless.)

“Words don’t create characters, emotions do,” says Suede. “… The first step for a writer is to nail down the foundation that aligns and supports all the emotion that makes books worth reading.”

The way to do that, he says, is to understand that the character who makes choices drives the scene and steers the story.  And where do these choices come from, you may ask?

A character is not a face, but a force.  The character’s choices arise from that force, and that can be symbolized as the most fitting and exact verb for that character.  This gives you a lot to play around and experiment with.  Get out the best thesaurus and dictionary you know.  Once you find a ballpark verb, check all the synonyms and even antonyms to zero in on that intuitive character shape you may already sense.

The richness of the English language is your ally.  Your character is all the shades of meanings of the chosen verb.  They embody the activity of your character, with the exceptions and focus you choose.   The energy of this “verbalization” can be elaborated into all the actions which the character takes and which bounce off the other characters.  This is Suede’s counsel.  There is a lot more to the book, and I found it fruitful.

Arkhelogy?

Van Bergen’s book, Unmasking Arkhelogy, is a slightly updated 2011 book originally published as Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious. She’s arrived at a terminology for the process of bringing out one’s own character archetypes.  “Arkhelogy” is an example, and it means doing this work investigating archetypes useful for your characters.  She feels it necessary to have her own jargon in order to be clear about what she’s describing.  The reader may only find it puzzling.  The book is also rather chaotically organized.

But despite that, I found her ideas intriguing.

“This approach has little to do with how to ‘create’ characters or plot stories.  Rather, it is more about how to find your character and story archetypes, or even how to have them find you. Underlying this approach is the premise that each person carries within them a given set of character and story archetypes.”

You can see how this fits in with my own biases.  So what is her method?

Elsewhere budding writers are advised to use archetypes such as The Lover, The Hero, The Magician, The Sage, The Ruler, etc., to provide a basis for characters.  Such archetypes are said to be “notably recurrent across the human experience.”  Unfortunately, for me, these give no real clue about developing a specific, interesting character.  They’ve become another form of fixed and simplified stereotypes.

Van Bergen wants to develop a capability of finding character archetypes from our own experience, imagination and subconscious.  In essence we want to discover the secret lives of the characters.

A series of skills

In order to develop the skills needed to do this, she prescribes a set of exercises.  These include among others:

— Establishing character facts for the character.  These are purely factual statements.  They include no judgements or personal opinions about who this character may be.  Try to avoid any adjectives which give our slant on who this person is.  For example: “He comes to the office exactly on time.  He wears a navy suit that is a little too snug.”

— Discerning the character’s “universal drive.”  This is the most basic type of drive such as survival, or the need to love or be loved.  Most other drives collapse into these, Van Bergen says.  She might also include the drive to protect and nurture, the drive for sex, the drive to realize “the Core Self” and very few others.  Interestingly, she doesn’t see freedom as a basic urge, which is a universal drive to me.

— Elucidating discrepancies. A discrepancy is an incongruity or inconsistency in a person’s behavior that reveals something significant about the person.  Example: “He calls her his girlfriend but he makes no effort to visit or spend time with her.”

Van Bergen points out that a goal for us as writers must be to find the things that bother us most.  And understand where they come from.  That’s where the juice is.

There is much more but this gives you the flavour of her approach.  I found it thought provoking, although it remains to be seen how able I am to use it.

The Art of Characterization

Another very good book about characterization is the deservedly popular The Art of Characterization by David Corbett.  I’m giving it short shrift here, but it is mightily worth it if you are interested in this subject.  He writes:

“Just as you must untether your characters from predictability by granting them the freedom to contradict themselves, to grow, to change, so you must grant yourself a similar freedom to play the trickster, shift at will, embrace the unexpected, be free.”

But the best single piece of advice for characterization I’ve found to date is this nugget panned from David Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, which I will paraphrase:

Determine the conscious goal of a main character and then constantly ask “Why?” until the true answer reveals itself.  This should pull out backstory, history, internal beliefs, future hopes and dreams and fears, and more….

That advice is written on a yellow sticky attached to the side of my computer monitor.

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Wonder and Otherness

July 17, 2019

This is a meditation on science fiction, on what it means to me.

Science fiction makes me think of my father. The association is among my fondest memories of him.  He would avidly bring home science fiction magazines:  Analog Science Fiction and Fact, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and If.  I think he wanted to write for them.

analog_6312

I was reading science fiction novels like a twelve-year-old house on fire.  As a reader who was susceptible to the beauty of all kinds of tales, especially tall ones, I developed a keen interest in sci-fi.  Science fiction opened the world up, and not just the world, the universe.  It showed me wonder and otherness,  in different ways than I could imagine as a reasonably bright boy growing up in rural/wild British Columbia.

So my father and I came together there.

When you’re a young reader obsessed with any kind of subject, reading non-stop at every opportunity to the irritation of all around is de rigueur.

From time to time I would get so enthused I would try to write a science-fiction story myself.  I couldn’t understand why the experience of trying to write a story felt so lacklustre and unfulfilling.  Yet there was that urge to write.  Where does that come from?  And what’s it for?

I went back to reading for enjoyment, admiring the prodigious talents of Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, John Brunner, Clifford Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, James Blish and so many others.

By the time I got to university, the decline but not yet the fall of my science fiction obsession rolled on.  Then I got more interested in non-fiction subjects. Once I got back to enjoyment reading, I preferred to read modern thrillers and detective stories.

And the culture changed too.  Eventually, the really cool science fiction was on the big screen. A book needed to inspire a movie.

But novels like Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, and dipping a toe (maybe more like a whole leg) in fantasy, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings still stirred me as I entered my twenties.

If-low-resWe are all strangers in a strange land, are we not?  Heinlein’s book described a human named Valentine Michael Smith raised on Mars by Martians.  He must adapt to the culture he finds here on Earth.  In a way it reminds me of the book and movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, of an extraterrestrial corrupted by the earth-bound existence he drops into.

But in Heinlein’s work, the stranger begins to demonstrate psychic abilities and unusual intelligence, coupled with a childlike naïveté. He understands, believes that “all that groks is God.”

And what is “grok?”  In the 1991 uncut version (released by Heinlein’s widow), ‘grok’ wasn’t explained for much of the book.  It seems to mean an understanding so thorough that the observer becomes a part of the observed.  For the counterculture of the day, a word was welcomed that captured breakdown of the subject-object distinction.  Although “breakdown” implies something falling apart.

The word takes on more the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated.

In any case, along with the overwhelming quest story of the Lord of the Rings with its ethical and moral themes, these two books (I read the Rings in the first single combined volume) symbolized the true interest of my mental life more than my course of studies in university about psychology.  As understood by watching white rats very closely.

What about otherness?  I just learned a new word for that: alterity.  (We may not be any further ahead in our understanding, but at least we have a more intellectually acceptable term.)

An  interesting academic article by Isabella Herman, Boundaries and Otherness in Science Fiction: We Cannot Escape the Human Condition, concludes that “we always were and always will be concerned about the other beyond the known border.”  She looks at four modern dystopian science-fiction films, asserting that science fiction is inherently political. Science fiction is engaged in thought experiments about our current human situations.  Politics necessarily applies.

For example, although Herman does describe the movie District 9 in terms of alien otherness, which is what I’m most interested in, she restricts her discussion more to the depicted extreme image of the aliens and associated political dimensions in an alternative South Africa.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what this “otherness” is that I’m trying to get at.  It’s not only about “aliens” but encounters with a mysterious universe while confined to a tiny, tiny corner of it.

Writer Gregory Benford says: “Rendering the alien, making the reader experience it, is the crucial contribution of SF.”

alien

In an intriguing article (despite its academic jargon) by Carl Malmgren, Self and Other in SF: Alien Encounters , the author mentions two directions for critics of portrayed ideas of alien encounter.  One is that whatever form the alien takes in sci-fi, it can never be really alien (or other).  However such writers as Benford distinguish between “anthropocentric” and “unknowable” aliens: the former consist of “exaggerations of human traits”; the latter, alien at the “most basic level,” partake of an “essential strangeness.”

(The second direction of criticism is about the relationship between the human and the alien.  The article cites the SF writer Stanislaw Lem criticizing the common simplistic portrayal of this relationship as Us vs. Them.)

The core of what attracts me to science fiction is the portrayal of essential strangeness.  It can really only occur through a sense of wonder, rooted in our world here today.  And projected through the kaleidoscope of whatever imagination the writer can bring to bear.

As I prepare the final draft of the science fiction novel I’ve worked on for a long time, I think on these things.

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Links to articles about sci-fi otherness, and other posts here bearing on science fiction.

There are online a number of articles (often academic criticism) about the notion of otherness in science fiction.  Here are a few:

Science Fiction and Alterity

A New Science Fiction to Understand What is Coming     This one is especially interesting.

The Transcultural Site: Interpersonal Encounters with Otherness in Lessing, Le Guin and Battlestar Galactica

Some of my posts related to science fiction (especially trying to write the darn stuff):

Why Science Fiction?

Hunting For A Science Fiction Story

Subversive Fiction