Posted tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Beta Reader Exchange?

July 21, 2022

I’ve finished a second science-fiction novel. This one is set just ahead of us in the middle of this century, which is rather daring given the speed of change.

I like to put characters in science-fictionish environments and explore what might happen with them. This second novel is part of a trilogy I’m calling The Three Eras. The first was set way in the future, in the Third Era. This one is in the First Era, and the next is in the Second. The stories are all in the same universe but each stands alone with only historical connections.

You might think that it would make sense to write them in chronological order, but my mind has worked itself out differently. It may have something to do with ease of writing. The third novel, of the Second Era, promises to be the most difficult. I’m going to have to do a lot of research, which I’ve already started, on such matters as space elevators and genetic manipulation.

But for the just completed novel set in the relatively near future (third draft or so) let me give you the pitch for it:

“What if an intellectual, even spiritual genius, like a young combined Einstein and Simone Weil, appeared as a young girl? In the middle of the 21st century, in the midst of societal decay, climate disruption and technological change, a young investigator searches for a brilliant girl who has gone missing. This is a novel about a young man still suffering from the suicidal death of his sister who makes it his mission to rescue a genius girl who wants to save humanity. He must overcome an international crime cartel, local corruption, and social and environmental disruption, to find her and keep her safe.”

Voluntary first readers?

Before I get serious with sending it out to literary agents, I would like a beta-reader or two to give it the once over. For those unfamiliar with the term, a beta-reader is a voluntary first reader who gives the writer their reactions.

I propose that if anyone has their own novel work-in-progress who also needs a beta-reader then we could exchange first chapters or synopses to see if we still want to proceed. My throw-away email for this is: 5cfstkof5osg@opayq.com .

There are beta-reader groups and services available on-line. One I’ve found which I’ve signed up for is the Critters Writers Workshop. It is “home to several on-line critique groups (aka workshops) for professional and professionally aspiring writers, artists, and creators in any endeavor.” It is free (donations welcome) and one pays for being read by reading others and writing critiques. Originally it was set up as a science-fiction and fantasy workshop, but now there are groups for all types of writing.

It is a hangover from the old internet when coming together in creative ways was the prime mover rather than the exciting possibilities of monetization, branding and Meta. The interface is a little old-fashioned, run by a guy who hearkens back to the old days. It can be hard sometimes to find the exact information you’re looking for, but I like the atmosphere of it.

So we’ll see how this goes….

[Home]

The Pain of the Long-Cutting Novelist

October 31, 2020

I finally did it, fretting and stewing and twisting my long socially distanced hair — I cut my verbose science-fiction novel down to a more acceptable length.

Originally I claimed it was a mere 168,000 words long, although in reality it was more than 10,000 words longer than that.

As a rough rule of thumb, a typical novel might be around 90,000-100,000 words (and shorter in some genres).  In the science-fiction genre, it is acceptable for it to be longer due to world-building requirements.  Around 115,000-120,000 might be an upper limit, I’ve read.

So I’ve spent the last couple of months “murdering my darlings” as such severe editing has been described, shrinking the manuscript down to a more publisher-friendly 116,000 words.

As result, I think it is better paced and focused, while keeping the main threads of the story that I wanted to explore.  But it was a definite challenge.

Prior to that, I had been sending query letters to literary agents in North America without any response other than occasional form letters of disinterest.  (This is understandable as their time is valuable and apparently out there resides an earnest horde of would-be novelists.)

I wanted to improve so I sharpened up my short and long synopses, and developed a much better pitch in the body of the query. (A beta-reader and friend helped me with these efforts.)

My pitch now is:

A thousand years in the future, the Earth is failing, and civilization barely hangs on. A young archaeologist, Nick Himinez, desperately eludes a ruthless politician’s clutches by escaping to space after the man murdered Nick’s parents. Nick vows to bring him down while the politician rapidly gains global power and pursues Nick relentlessly. As they confront each other on a moon of Saturn, Nick is forced to choose between fulfilling his revenge and embracing a last-ditch opportunity for humanity offered by a powerful, but dying, alien race.

A literary agent very shortly after I made these changes to my queries responded to me as a living human being!  She strongly suggested that I really needed to shorten the novel.  She made no commitment but said I could re-query if I could get the novel to lose its wordy weight.  That was so heartening, even if it goes nowhere.

So back to the query-letter fray, and see what happens.

And also back to working on a second novel — got to keep writing! — set in the same universe as the first but in a much earlier era.  I have missed elaborating the characters and story of that while forced to pursue the loneliness of the long-distance writer (to go off on one of my elliptical references).  And with a little more prep, that first draft will begin!

[Home]

Distraction – Science Fiction For Our Times

August 22, 2020

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 1998, Bantam Books
__________________________________

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.

[Home]

Radicalized — A Book Review

June 16, 2020

Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow, Tor Books, 2019
———————————

“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.”

[Home]

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.

[Home]

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