Tag Archives: Science Fiction

“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

I had no real idea what I was going to write this week then this turned  up on io9. Thank you, Mr Heinlein (and thank you io9 for sticking it where I could see it). Problem solved.

“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

I should imagine all writers get asked this question—a lot. You can cube that number for writers of Speculative Fiction, and you can cube it again for Science Fiction writers on their own. It’s understandable really.

Everybody, who isn’t a writer, is curious about where writers get their ideas. Writers are less curious and more envious when somebody comes up with a great idea (a ‘Bugger, wish I’d thought of that’ moment is something all writers will recognise (Check THIS out, so very envious).

With non-Speculative Fiction (excepting maybe Crime Fiction, where people back slowly away from the writer in case the scribe feels like doing a little hands-on research) people can kinda see where the idea might come from: a marriage break-up, an historical incident, a present-day incident, a conversation overheard in the street, and so on. Those sort of things make sense to readers, because everybody with an imagination will have had those moments of wondering.

With Fantasy, people can kinda see that the idea may derive from the 7000 odd years of mythology and legend that just sits there in the collective unconscious. Horror pretty much comes from the same place as Fantasy, but it does cross the line into Science Fiction (and Crime Fiction).

But pure SF?

Heinlein’s letter shows the answer. I don’t know if he trawled through his notebooks for his friend Theodore Sturgeon, or if he just started spilling ideas onto the page in a flood, it could have been either, but the important thing is that all the ideas actually built an entire world in very few words.

Even the ‘ghost cat’ idea creates a world in sixteen words.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a reason why Heinlein is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Science Fiction writers. This flood of ideas is part of the why and the world creation is a lot of the rest of it. Everything connects together in Heinlein’s work. He describes a world from the inside in a master class of how to do exposition. (Read the beginning of Starbeast if you don’t believe me). He takes an idea to its logical conclusion and that logical conclusion is the world building, then he lets his characters loose in that world.

Not many writers can do that. Really. It’s a rare gift.

However, the ideas bit is what all Science Fiction writers do automatically. We don’t even think about it. Some science journal or political journal has some article and we instantly think, ‘hmmm, I wonder?’

I wonder: if building bots that mimic human play in online games  will lead to them being used as NPC characters in new games, which will lead to Machine Intelligences being released onto the net; if sons leaving DNA in the mother will allow dead sons to be cloned from these tissues at some point in the future (it is probable that daughters leave the same DNA behind, but male DNA is easier to find in a woman); and so on. Instant extrapolation.

And this happens pretty much anytime I read anything scientific, or political, or sociological, or…okay pretty much anything I read about pretty much anything…because I’ve trained my brain over decades to do this. And all those stray thoughts stick somewhere in my memory. I only write down really cool ideas (or what I think are really cool ideas). I actually learn about stuff by writing stories about them. Sometimes the stories fail, but I’ve figured out sommat about the idea, then later that same idea will pop up in another story, which works because I understand the idea better now.

Don’t get me wrong here, a lot of writers will do the same thing, some will probably have looked at my two instant extrapolations above and gone “Is that all you saw? Sheesh, what about this…?”

But to answer the question ‘where do SF writers get their ideas from?’ is easy, from reading stuff and wondering how the hell it would affect the world. The “My God, what if” of Brian Aldiss.

If dead children can be cloned from DNA left behind in the mother, what about taking that same DNA and using it to create ‘spare-part’ clones for the children? What about using it to create a designer clone because the first (naturally born) version turned out a bit disappointing? What would happen if the ‘natural’ child was disinherited and the ‘designer’ child became the heir? What would it be like to have a younger, ‘suped-up’, version of you running around with all the money you should have inherited? What would a world that allowed this to happen be like?

That’s where we get our ideas from. But of course, Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, Anderson, Wyndham, Le Guin, Shelley, Wells, Aldiss, Verne, Gibson, Vinge, and all the rest of the greats, have been doing the same thing for centuries.

And doing it better.

But what can I do? My brain is trained now, so I’m stuck with it.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Filed under Genres and other foolishness, Storytelling, Art, and Craft, World Building

Has SF Lost Something over the Decades?

A friend of mine used to run a second-hand bookstore on eBay. Then he wrapped it up and was intending to take his unsold stock to the tip. This is sacrilege to me—you do not throw books away, never ever. I now have two—yes two—copies of the Da Vinci Code to prove this. My friend (hmmmm, that might be overstating the case here) slipped another copy into the job lot of books he gave me. Oh how I laughed. And I still can’t bring myself to throw ‘em in the bin.

I said I’d take any Speculative Fiction books he was going to toss. So a few hundred or so came my way. I was slowly working my way through them when I stumbled on some SF magazines from the 60s. Specifically New Worlds #107 from June 1961 and Galaxy #81 from August 1960.

So I read them.

And started thinking.

Have we lost something over the decades? Have all the writing courses , and latterly writing blogs, created an imbalance in the actual writing? Has fiction as a whole gone too far in the direction of literary quality and forgotten the basic rule of writing fiction: first tell a good story?

If you ever get a chance to read some old magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, do so. This is just before the New Wave came crashing into the party. You see a similar sort of disconnect with early 1980s SF, just before Cyberpunk spiked the wine with acid, but this disconnect between Golden Age and New Wave is really quite marked because up until that point literary concerns were subservient to the ideas.

The stories in these magazines are good, strong, well written, with clever ideas behind them. Apart from Brunner, Pohl, and Tubbs, they are written by writers I have never come across before—though they might be pseudonyms for famous writers, that sort of thing went on a lot back in those days. These stories were not collected into anthologies. These stories were considered average, normal stories of their day.

The science is, naturally, old fashioned; the cultural aspects can be a little disconcerting; the ideas are tropes that have now been mined to death; and the pace can be a little slow, but I think the average level of story-telling ability is higher than I see now in various modern SF magazines and sites. I was sucked into the stories, reading on to find out what happened next.

Yes, these are rather muscular stories, but they do drag you along. Modern SF, not so much. There are of course reasons for this.

We know all the tropes. We don’t have to explain them, we just point to the version of the trope we are using and get on with the writing. But this means that the idea quotient is lower so the literary quotient has to go up to raise us above the slush pile. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I favour clarity in the prose over pyrotechnics, because I think pyrotechnics are no use if the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene or comprehend the idea, but I do try to write great prose; I love it when somebody says, “cracking line”, or even better quotes a line back to me.

However, I also try to write good stories, with strong characters, and clever little ideas.

The lack of need to explain how a trope, like say faster-than-light drives or time travel, works in your universe (its a warp drive, its hyperspace, its the grandfather paradox, its quantum time leading to parallel worlds) frees up the writer to concentrate on other aspects of the writing. But what we forget is that these are tropes only to those of us who have read a large chunk of what came before. We forget that we should explain at least some of it for new readers to the genre. And in those explanations are spaces for new variations, new ideas, new plot lines.

Great prose is all well and good but without a great story it is essentially onanism as a spectator sport.

Read some old SF sometime. Those writers knew how to tell a story.

 

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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A Brand Is For Life?

This is about fiction writing not non-fiction.

We all know that publishers are not really the brand that readers worry about, though that might change in the future—if subscriptions take over from wholesale.

We all know that the author is the brand. The reader looks for the author’s name and then buys the book because they have enjoyed other stories by the same author.

But.

Is the actual brand the author, or the writing?

The writing is what the reader reads, not the author’s life-story. Does it matter who the author is, what they have done, how they view the world, so long as the story does its job?

I worry about being called a brand. I find this whole ‘writer as brand’ nonsense. I have two pen-names, Stephen Godden and T F Grant. One for Fantasy (Stephen Godden) and one for Science Fiction (T F Grant) because readers of Fantasy may not be readers of Science Fiction and I think it’s only fair to let them know what they are buying before they open the cover and look inside. Though, to be honest Speculative Fiction is a continuum, so there is a large chunk of either/or stuff in the middle. I suspect T F Grant will be the truly weird stuff, because ‘truly weird’ is pretty much the preserve of SF. Fantasy can be weird of course, but SF is weird based on science, that is usually mind-smackingly out there, when you come right down to it.

But even then, with pseudonyms, is the author the brand or is it the writing?

See, if you say the author is the brand then anything the author does affects the brand. There is a danger that the author’s personality becomes fixed, that they keep churning out the same stuff, because they are seen as a brand.

My personality is not a fixed point, my tastes are not fixed, and I reserve the right to change my mind about just about any thing at any time for no more reason than I feel like doing so.

But if ‘I’ am a brand then changing my tastes, my opinions, the way I interact with the world becomes part of that brand. Changing any part of it can lead to accusations of hypocrisy or—that old favourite of the ‘we-so-special’ classes—selling out.

That’s the problem with making your personality, whatever flavour it reeks of, part of your marketing process, part of your platform. You are telling people, ‘This is me. If you agree with my political views, my philosophical views, my lifestyle choices, then please buy my stories’. You are asking people to join your tribe and fight all-comers on your behalf.

Then you write something that is an exploration of some facet of the world that goes directly against what you have told your tribe you believe in, and maybe your viewpoint shifts because of the writing of that work. Because at heart that is what I—as a writer—do; I write about stuff that interests me, in a way that gets my juices going, all the while learning something new about how I see the world. Without that interest, without that excitement born of trying something I have never tried before, without that exploration, then I get bored and churn out monkey-chum.

But what happens is you write something that says the exact opposite to what you said in your last novel? What happens then? Your ‘tribe’ loses all faith in you because you told them that you were one of them. There is no room for flexibility if your brand is a fixed point. There’s a falseness to a brand, if it is built from artifice.

So my advice is to make the writing the brand. Write the best you can. Range far and wide across all the genres and sub-genres you want to explore, don’t be fixed spot, remain a moving target. Who you are is inherently part of the writing process, but don’t make it part of the branding process. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep without slumping into tedium.

Essentially, get the hell out of the way. Let the writing do the talking.

Brands are fragile. They are a shared delusion (like cyberspace: *tips hat* to Gibson). I’m a real person. I’m robust. And I reserve the right to change whenever I feel the need.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Why Her World Shouldn’t Fall Apart

What makes Speculative Fiction (SF) — Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, or any of the many sub-genres — different from other forms of fiction?

Simple really: in SF the normal everyday experience of the reader and writer need not apply — the position’s already been taken by ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone. Weird stuff happens and as a writer you have to make sure that only the weird stuff you mean to happen…um…happens. You don’t want to add an entire other level of inadvertent weirdness through sloppy phrasing. Keep your weird under control with accuracy. And a bullwhip.  And maybe some cream puffs, because ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone are notoriously lactose intolerant.

Other genres (OG) have their own sweet irritations, but in SF you have to be precise, very precise.

In the OG the line, Her world fell apart, is a little melodramatic, maybe a little clichéd, possibly a little meh. Soap opera stuff, not a deal breaker with the reader, just a shrug of the shoulders and a “Come on, pal, entertain me since you can’t write a decent sentence. Full plot-speed ahead and damn the conjugations.”

But in SF you have to allow for the margin (as Samuel R Delaney put it) that her world might literally fall apart. Poof, Earth gone, everybody floating in space, wondering whose turn it is to put the cat out, where the cat is, and why exactly can they still breathe if the world is in tiny pebbles all around them?

Another classic example of this sort of line.

He threw his eyes down the road, remember Tom Cruise doing this in Minority Report?

Well, to be accurate, he dropped his old eyes down a concrete corridor, chased them as they bounced and skidded and squirted out of his clumsy hands until finally he just managed to catch one of them as it tumbled down a drain. Carefully scooping it up and then merrily using that very same eye to open a biometric lock. He must have corneas made of diamond — well, I suppose he is Tom Cruise after all.

You throw your *gaze* down the road (and that is still a dodgy line in any genre (AG)) not your eyes. And if you have delicate organs covered with a material, which can be scratched by a SPLINTER, and then proceed to play football with it, it is entirely possible that an extremely sensitive device that has to look through that self-same material to see either the iris (or worse the retina) might, just might, throw up a false negative, don’t you think?

Don’t write her fingers pierced his bicep, because they might if she has talons.

Don’t write he was overcome with the fragrance of the flowers unless you mean he passed out.

Don’t be sloppy.

Think about what you are saying, take each word literally and make sure they say precisely what you mean them to say.

This is of course good advice in OGs as well as in SF, but it is right up there with adverbs and said bookisms in the world of the weird. Getting this stuff wrong makes you look like an amateur, it means you haven’t thought it through.

Now, maybe editors don’t care these days, maybe this is considered pedantic, maybe the X-Factor is the finest TV programme ever produced.

But do you really want to take the chance of an editor sighing, hitting delete, and then the “Thank you…but…” lands in your inbox, just because you couldn’t be bothered to rephrase an already sloppy line?

Just saying.

Take it or leave it,

So sue me (no, please don’t do that, that’s not what I meant at all).

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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If the Story Requires It

As  a writer I have no real problem with heading straight for the dark-side. I’ll write a torture scene or a bloody fight scene or some nasty vicious bit of political chicanery without a qualm if the story requires it. But that’s the important bit, If the story requires it. I do not write torture porn because I don’t really see the point. A story with the single purpose of showing people being treated abominably is a story I really don’t want to read.

It’s writers missing the point. The point of blood and gore is not the blood and gore, it’s the story and the story can’t just be, ‘Here’s some blood and gore, aren’t my characters nasty pieces of work?’ It’s like they read Elric and identified with Stormbringer.

SF&F is my bailiwick, but you see it in thrillers and other genres too.

The important thing about brutality in a story is consequences. It’s always about the consequences. If something bad happens then it reverberates, it throws out ripples of cause and effect. Should bad guys always get their comeuppance? Not always. That sort of morality play is also boring because it takes away the tension. Should they lose something because of their vicious behaviour? Yes.

This isn’t the real world. This is fiction. If, as a writer, somebody decides (and it is a decision) that a brutal character should be written as somebody to admire, then I wonder about that writer’s morality. Not religious morality, not philosophical morality, but their common decency. There is nothing admirable about rape, or torture, or mass-murder. Characters who do this are not anti-heroes, they are villains.

And don’t tell me (in the case of fantasy) that this was the way it was back in the Middle-Ages, because you ain’t writing about the Middle-Ages. You’re writing about a world that you made-up; this is your world, your rules, your choice.

Besides, the strong-men of history, the nobles who went on Crusades and slaughtered entire cities, the Mongols who gave cities a choice, surrender or die, the Spartans who created a society based completely on war, and all others of that ilk. Yeah, they were the bad guys. They were not heroes.

They may have done heroic things on times, but they did that stuff by accident. If you have a society based on might is right, death before dishonour, and unthinking obedience to a leader, every so often you are going to find yourself doing something seemingly heroic because you can’t back down. Does that make you a hero? Well, if the rest of the time you are raping, pillaging, and slaughtering people by the gross, not so much.

This holds true at smaller scales too.

Bullies are weaklings. Always. If somebody has to damage somebody else either physically or emotionally to make themselves feel stronger, then they are by definition not strong. Unless of course they are psychopaths, who do things simply because they can, because they have no empathy. Psychopaths aren’t strong either, they are sick and lacking in humanity.

Therefore, there are consequences for bullies. They are weak and will break easily. And there are consequences for psychopaths. They will never know the simple joy of a smile reciprocated.

If a character is neither a bully or a psychopath, but are damaged by their upbringing, then they’re damaged. That’s a pretty big consequence and something worth exploring.

As far as I am concerned, morality is not about how you fight but why you fight. Once the gloves come off there are no rules, but there are rules about why the gloves come off. A character who uses violence simply to get their own way is weak.

There are of course a lot of nuances here. Is a soldier ordered into an immoral war, immoral? Is a law-keeper upholding an immoral law, immoral?  Is somebody raised in an immoral society, immoral? And so on. These are the juicy bits that every writer should want to sink their teeth into. And please remember when I talk about morality, I’m not talking about religious morality, but the morality of decency, fairness, and doing the right thing.

The nuances are the tension in a story and there should always be consequences.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

 

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Storytelling, Art, and Craft, Structure and Plot

Jaundiced Futurism: Interfaces

This is an interesting thing at the moment, because designers, technologists, and manufacturers are throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

I’m not a technologist, I’m not a publicist, and I am not a fanboy of any particular company or brand. I’m just a writer of SF&F and have spent my entire life, since the age of about twelve, trying to work out what the future will be like. It’s Science Fiction, it’s about technology as well as blowing the heads off aliens — though that is always fun too.

I’ve also read an awful lot of SF over the years and developed a pretty good bullshit detector along the way. The best SF doesn’t just come up with an idea, it then works out how it will change the world.

It’s not enough to think ‘we can communicate mind-to-mind’ you also have to think, A: why on earth would we want to do that? B: Can you switch it off? C: can anybody else listen in? and, most importantly, D: can somebody hack our minds?

So, interfaces: the boundary between human and machine.

At the moment the boundary between human and machine is the touch-screen. Tablets are not that useful if truth be told, they are too bulky. They don’t fit into your pocket, and they are fragile. The smart-phone is also only a step on the path, they are not an end-point. They fit in your pocket, but they are fragile and too small. Flexible touch-screens will be the final form-factor of this line of development, but not as simple sheets of e-paper.

Think about it, do you carry a single sheet of paper around with you, for any reason at all? No, it is flimsy, it can be blown away by a gust of wind, it is really quite hard to interact with in any meaningful way (try writing on a single sheet of paper without any other supporting structure underneath it).

Some form of scroll will be the final interface for tactile interaction with machine via a visual display. It may be a sheet rolled up in the edge of a robust smart-phone, so you don’t have to unroll the sheet just to have a quick glance at what is happening or it might be a pen-shaped object with a screen rolled up tightly within it. The screen itself will have memory materials of some sort, which will allow it to become rigid when you need to interact with it directly.

Though there will always be a place for keyboards too, unless of course a stylus and handwriting takes over — which it might. But I suspect a keyboard gives an edge in creation, it’s simply more flexible than a pen. However, this will have to be a proper keyboard of some sort, because anything else is just asking for RSI.

Keyboards need to give under you fingers. This is not for feedback purposes, this is to protect your hands. A keyboard on a touch-screen is like tapping on a plate of glass, an even worse idea is a keyboard projected onto a hard surface. So keyboards will be around for a while yet, at least for producers of content.

Speech recognition software like Siri, is an interesting development, but it isn’t exactly private. If you are talking to your machine and it is answering you then anybody within earshot knows what you are asking — and the answer. Maybe some form of sub-vocalisation married to a earbud might be the answer here, but it’s a pretty intrusive answer. It’ll have its place though. It is after all hands-free.

Net-linked glasses are even more intrusive. Augmented reality? Seriously? You want to walk around with a filter between you and the visual world, all the time? You want adverts pumped straight into your eyeballs as you walk down the street?

Really?

Nah, I call bullshit on that. There will be uses for net-linked glasses, but wearing them all the time, always being on the net, always having to put up with spam and adverts. Nope. Ain’t going to happen.

Also, these glasses will come with built in cameras, which is a major league invasion of privacy issue. I can see a time, in the not too distant future, where wearing net-linked glasses will get you punched. Each generation reacts to the one that went before. Privacy is going to be a big deal in a few years time because there will be so little of it to go around.

And I am not entirely sure that having a screen right in front of your eyes all the time will be good for your eyes. As for contacts instead…yeah, that’ll be even worse. People have freaking lasers cutting open their eyes to avoid wearing contacts (because they don’t like wearing glasses) so the idea that people will willingly place contacts in their eyes just as an interface is a non-starter.

But for the emergency services, for the military, and other specialised occupations, augmented reality is going to be a real boon.

Then we have gesture-based interfaces, which are touch-screens without the screen. They’ll be useful, but limited. Too much noise in the environment, too much clutter, will make them unreliable. Speech and gesture interfaces have an added problem…other people can interface with your device without having to touch it. Daddy wants to watch the Rugby, Mammy wants to watch the news, and Junior knows that if he waves his hand just so and makes this low buzzing noise, he can turn off the set. Fun for all the family.

And finally, linking your mind directly to the machine. Yeah…okay…you first.

As an SF writer I will, and have, used all these sorts of interfaces in my writing, but I have to create a world where such things can exist.

It isn’t this one.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

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