Monday, October 21, 2013

A Science Fiction Writer's Mantra

Ages since I’ve posted anything here. My apologies.

When last I left this hallowed blog I was about to launch into a memoir of my kindergarten experiences, and how “formal education” can be anathema to learning and creativity and critical thinking and all the other things we hope and expect from our schooling.

And then all these folks posted pieces on their blogs about what they remember a dozen years after 9/11. That started my memory heading in that direction. It turned out that I remembered a hell of a lot, and before I knew it I had a few thousand words that added up in some way, but math was never my strong suit.

The 9/11 recollections reminded me of one of Algis Budys’ best essays in his old “Galaxy Bookshelf” column, written about the days directly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. His conclusions, I thought, were not all that different from some of my own in the days directly after 9/11. I tried to weave the bits of his essay into my own recollections, which was going to take more time than I had anticipated. But then, Budrys’ essay didn’t appear until over a year after the events he was writing about.

And hey – wasn’t I supposed to be doing, like, some real writing? Writing I could get published and paid for?

And in the middle of this muddle, I received an email from Delphyne Woods’ sister-in-law: Delphyne had been discovered dead in her apartment by her landlord. She had been dead for at least a week when discovered.

Everything I was working on went out the window.

Then, I thought about writing a piece about Delphyne. And I couldn’t, not really. I sat down at a little table in the Glenview Public Library and took out a legal pad. What could I say about Delphyne, who I still mostly called Joan, because that was her name when I first met her and what remained her name, for me, even after she had it changed?

Instead, I started working on a scene.

It’s a scene for a story I started back over a decade ago, but since it includes the appearance of several of the saurs I’ve been writing about since “The Measure of All Things,” I’d gone back to it, to help fill out the collection Marty Helpern and I have been hoping to put together.

Looking over the old story, with the temporary title “The Agent,” I saw things that were relevant to the whole social networking world we’ve entered since I first embarked on the story. I thought: yes, this is the time to write this thing; the time is now. Let’s get this done.

So I had a scene where the protagonist, Charlotte, a high school senior, meets up with four other young women, in person, though they have been brought together by the “app” named “Reggie” (yes, that Reggie – of the Reggiesystem in the saur stories).

One of the girls she meets up with, in this little French bakery in this shopping mall (Water Tower Place, if you must know) Valerie Walker, suddenly takes this moment to express both her her exhilaration and her frustration with the world around her. Her friend, Molly, who is a cynical, tough-as-nails kid, gets into it with her.

There in that little library, I started writing with a passion, the pen scribbling away at a speed that threatened to set the paper alight.

There was “stuff to do” – I was teaching a class in a couple of hours and I had to prepare for it, there were papers to read, notes to take. But I couldn’t get away from writing this scene because in my feelings of loss at the death of Joan, and the memories of 9/11, and the memories of the thugs that were passed off as teachers in my kindergarten class, I discovered that Valerie’s frustrations and my frustrations were speaking in the same voice. Valerie was helping me find my voice as I was helping Valerie express hers.

I couldn’t get away from writing this scene because in spite of what I may do that’s “writing related” (teaching, critiquing, editing, reading, making coffee and spitting out paper clips … ) I know that IF I’M NOT WRITING I’M GOING CRAZY. And if I’m going crazy, I’m dying.

And there has been way too much death in the air already.

And so I had Valerie say this in the little bakery:

Val took Charlotte by the sleeve. “You know what I’m talking about, right? You go somewhere, you see something, you’re looking at this awful, crazy atrium and it’s all filled with shit! And there’re all these people around and they’re all looking for this shit! Shit! Worthless, worthless shit all over the place! And you look at the mall, you look at the people, and you look at all this shit everywhere and you feel something, feel this deep rumbling, shivering, howling feeling that comes over you, rolls right up to your lips. And as it rolls up to your lips you can hear the words you’re forming – know the truth – the complete, obvious, thorough, irrefutable truth of the words in your mouth, in your head, in your heart: IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY! Sure, it can be worse – much worse. Better to be better – and it can be better. But it does not have to be this way!”

There’s more to the scene, and more that I didn’t get to, but the mantra is there: the mantra of the science fiction writer – and the mantra of anyone trying to be alive and real in this so-called world of ours, where planes are deliberately crashed into buildings, where civil rights leaders are assassinated and neighborhoods are consumed in flames, where kindergartners can’t go to teachers to stop the bullies because the teachers are the bullies, and friends I’ve known for more than three decades die alone in squalid apartments.

It does not have to be this way.

What some of us appear to have missed is that life has changed fundamentally, and science fictionally.

– Algis Budrys


  1. Wow. I have had as a writer had these feelings of touching directly what William Burroughs (and Jack Kirby) called The Source. The doorway opens with thoughts/feelings about my fellow humans who I love and the ones I hate.

  2. "The Source" reminds me a little of the opening lines of the story quoted in the post: "Sometimes it’s Abracadabra. Sometimes it’s Open Sesame. No matter the words, whether spoken or scribbled, a door opens. We pass through the door and nothing is ever the same again."

  3. Science fiction and 9/11! How interesting. I wrote a bit about that a couple of years ago.

    "There are a couple of amusing things about this fantasy event however. There are two science fiction novels written before 9/11 which contain incidents which are easily comparable to 9/11. One is Flag in Exile by David Weber from 1995 and the other is Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold published in 1998. Weber's book has a dome collapse which is supposed to appear to be due to incompetence or corruption even though it was actually sabotage. There is significant discussion of computer simulations which eventually uncover how the sabotage was done. Komarr has a collision between a spacecraft and a huge satellite. Again there are computer simulations which uncover peculiarities that cannot be explained by "classical physics". Though not deliberate sabotage there was an unknown technological factor added by unknown individuals. But in these fictional universes the mysteries are solved in days or weeks NOT YEARS."

    What is wrong with stuff called "science fiction" today is that so many people do not care about science. This is extremely ironic with all of today's cheap computers and smartphones more powerful than mainframes from the 1980s. Anyone that knew enough could use their smartphone to do the calculations to design nuclear weapons.

    But there is a curious thing about Lois Bujold's story. Cruise the Internet for reviews and see how many of them say anything about the science in the story. Most will not even use the word "science" unless it is followed by the word "fiction". But the story contains an obvious similarity to Tom Godwin's The Cold Equations. So is the problem the reviewers or is it the readers and the reviewers know what not to write?

    But that is the irony of 9/11. Bujold does not mention Newtonian Physics, she says Classical Physics, but those who know realize they are the same thing. So can anyone who really understands Newtonian physics not find the supposed top down collapse of a 1368 foot skyscraper in less than 30 seconds really peculiar? What happened to the Conservation of Momentum? Duh, what's that?

    But people who cannot recognize simple science cannot recognize good science fiction. It is sci-trope fiction or techno-fantasy, but not SCIENCE fiction.

    Typed enough, gotta get back to designing nukes on my Android tablet. I use a dumb phone though. Never know when a programmer better than me can mess with a smartphone. LOL

    Sorry about your friend. May she RIJ. Reincarnate In Joy