As You Know, Bob, You’re In A Hard Science-Fiction Novel.

“I am? I’m in a hard science-fiction novel? How do you know that?”

“Well, Bob, look at it this way. What do you do?”

“I’m a scientist.”

“And what sort of scientist are you?”

“Well, I’m a nuclear physicist.”

“Right. And do you have any mad and overly-complicated schemes to take over the world?”

“Um. No?”

“How about make tons of money by dumping nuclear waste illegally all over women and children in some underdeveloped nation?”

“What? NO! Why would anyone DO that? Thorium reactors don’t even…”

“Please, Bob. We’ll let you have your exposition later. That’s how you know you’re in a Hard SF novel. In any other setting, a nuclear physicist would by definition be the villain. And who are all your co-workers here on this ship?”

“Well, there’s Dave the astronomer, and Karen the biogeneticist, and Shu-Ling the botanist, and Raymundo the geologist.”

“Okay, so two things to notice. First of all, everyone on this ship is a scientist, right?”

“Well… yeah.”

“So, no one is here just to pilot the ship?”

“Dave does that.”

“Or fix the ship?”

“Raymundo in an expert mech…”

“Or cook meals?”

“Karen is a professional chef at…”

“Okay, now you’re just embarrassing us all. Not only are the women all in the life sciences, one of them is actually your cook?”

“She’s a professional chef. That makes it not sexist.”

“Of course it does. And she, not to mention all of you, can have completely different full-time careers as well as being world-class, practically-Nobel laureates because scientists are just that smart, right?”

“Well… yeah? But I don’t do any of that stuff!”

“And what do you do for fun?”

“I play the violin.”

“And you did what with that back on Earth?”

“I was the concertmaster for the Boston Orchestra.”

“Of course you were. Why scientists should probably be running the planet Earth rather than running around in spaceships.”

“Well, we’re saving the planet from climate change and overpopulation and corporate greed actually, but I think your suggestion has merit…”

“I am just shocked to hear that. Bob, Karen had a question about nuclear physics she asked me to pass along: How much radiation should we expect to take traveling near the corona of that M-class star we’re approaching?”

“Well, that depends very much whether we’re talking about alpha, beta, or gamma radiation. As you know, alpha radiation consists of the nuclei of helium atoms, about which the electrons orbit…”

“Why are you answering the question of a double Ph.D as if she’s a high-school student? And using the Bohr model, which hasn’t been current for like fifty years?”

“Um, because… well, um…”

“Is it because your readers’ last contact with nuclear physics was in their junior year of high school? In Mr. Kramer’s class? That he went over once? For thirty minutes? While they were asleep?”

“Dammit.”

Living In The Snow Queen’s Mirror

So, in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Snow Queen,” the setup for the story is that the devil, disguised as the headmaster of a school for trolls — and was there ever a better setup for an analogy? — constructs a mirror that amplifies everything bad and ugly that it reflects, and refuses to reflect anything good or beautiful.

In other words, Hans Christian Andersen anticipated social media. Right down to the trolls.

The beauty of it, I suppose, is that on actual social media, you don’t even have to break the mirror. It comes pre-broken for your convenience, and is no less effective for all that. In fact, I am struck by the way that it works exactly like the shattered mirror in the story: it becomes lodged in our hearts and our eyes. It hurts us. It gets us used to accepting its distorted view of the world, and our distorted view of other people. And gradually, we forget that there was ever anything to love about them, or the world. Or, what is worse, we take only the distortions of people for reality and decide that the only way to make the world beautiful again is to get rid of those horrible people.

Further, in The Snow Queen, the only thing that still seems beautiful to the boy whose eyes and heart are distorted are the snowflakes, cold and perfect. And it seems to me that this is exactly how we react on social media: eventually, the only thing that seems beautiful to us is our causes, perfect in our imaginations. No human can measure up to the perfection we see there. And yet, like snowflakes, we will find that “causes” are ephemeral. Ever changing their details, and ready to melt at a touch, ever to be replaced by newer, more perfect causes, that will surely, this time, be the most beautiful. The most perfect.

In the story, the shards of mirror in the boy’s heart are melted by the love of his friend, a girl who braves the dangers of winter to love him. We would do well to remember that this is the only solution. But for us, we cannot melt the shards of social media in our eyes and hearts by waiting for someone else to love us (though God knows, a good person’s love can certainly ease the process). Nor, unfortunately, can we simply stop using social media — it’s too valuable a tool for that. Instead, we must have courage to hold to the truth we have faith exists and love others in spite of their apparent ugliness. Because only in that way can we discover their real — though, like all of ours, flawed — goodness.

On Virtue Spoofing

In society in general, as well as — perhaps especially? — F/SF fandom, there has been a lot of talk about “virtue signaling,” lately. For those readers who have been living somewhere in the planetary asthenosphere, “virtue signaling” usually means that a person wants to draw attention to the rightness of their cause, their general belief system, or just themselves.

Now, there’s no problem with signaling that one believes in what is virtuous. It’s a natural and healthy human desire to believe that one is on the the side of righteousness and to oppose evil. In that sense, it’s what every good person should do: stand up to be counted for what is right. Where would we be without patriots, or abolitionists, or even the spirit of political opposition that says, “what is popular and easy is not what is right?” This kind of virtue signaling is important, and can be laudable, and even courageous.

Of course, what follows from that is that the more your virtue signaling is lauded, the more likes and approval that is showered on you for doing it, the less courageous, the less laudable, it is. Oh, you may still be on the side of virtue, but it’s easy virtue. It was easy to be anti-Nazi in Germany in 1950. It was not so easy in 1933. It was easy to be against the Vietnam War in 1968. We forget that it was not so easy in 1964.

Humans are tribal. So we like to signal that we are a part of our tribes. At least most of us do. I seem to be very weird that way, because cheerleading for the tribe bores me to tears, and is probably the reason I don’t really have one. But I’m not entirely immune: I like easy praise as much as the next person.

So a lot of what we’re seeing here isn’t really virtue signaling, as such. It’s tribal signaling. “Look at me, I am one of you. Accept me. I belong to this tribe, and I want to love whom I love, and hate whom I hate. And I have power to do so because my tribe is strong, and will protect me, and we shall have the victory.” It’s not particularly evil, but it’s not particularly virtuous. It’s just very human.

But the real problem here isn’t when tribal signaling masquerades as virtue signaling, because that’s just a coded message to the like-minded. It sounds better than literally shouting “Rah-rah-rah, my group is the best, suck it, you outcasts.” No, the real problem is what I’m calling “virtue spoofing.”

Spoofing is an electronic warfare technique in which signals or drones are sent to simulate a radar contact that isn’t really there. It’s used to make the enemy fire at nothing or to make them run away if they believe you have a force you don’t. And virtue spoofing is used the same way: to make it appear that you have a virtue that you don’t. So unlike tribal signaling, virtue spoofing is a lie. It’s a lie that we tell others, and worse, it’s a lie we tell ourselves.

I am not speaking here of the lies that real predators tell, such as the pastor who preaches fidelity while having affairs with the women in his congregation, nor the media icon who stands up for “feminism” while sexually harassing women in his profession. Those are problems, as we have ample cause to know, but more capable writers than I have said more than I could add to about that sort of hypocrisy.

No, the virtue spoofing I wish to discuss is that kind where we try to pretend, to ourselves and others, that if we just talk enough in the right ways about all the right things, then that must make us virtuous people. But that’s not what virtue is, and it has never been what virtue is. Instead, the narratives that we see constructed are essentially magic spells designed to create the illusion that we are good people. But when we do this, we inevitably place ourselves in the role of judges: Anyone who does not signal the way I do is bad. Only those who signal the way I do are good.

This is a very different thing than what is truly virtuous, which is to treat people as fully human, flawed, fallible, and nonetheless as worthy of love and respect as we ourselves. It is popular to spoof virtue, because loving our neighbor in spite of his evil, in spite of his sin, and in spite of his apathy is hard and exhausting. It is much easier to look at the signals, and separate the people who matter from the people who do not matter, and it is a very short step from there — shorter, I think, than we realize — to believing that perhaps we ourselves do not matter, and to fall into despair.

 

If we are to be, and not merely seem, virtuous; if we are to practice, and not spoof, virtue, then we must begin by practicing what is hard: loving one another, and loving ourselves, while acknowledging our flaws. We must not give in to the easy venting of emotions and confuse that with real action. We must remember that in Tolkien’s words, All that is gold does not glitter. Then, perhaps, we will discover in others and in ourselves the treasure that is real virtue.

It Is The Best Of Years, It Is The Hardest Of Years… Help Make It Better

Dear Followers and Readers Of My Blog:

This is so far the weirdest year of my writing career yet. I’ve sold some stories, albeit not as many as I’d have liked. I’ve done deals bigger than any deals I’ve done before, and I’ve written more than I once thought possible.

The upside of this is that I am busier than I have ever been before, and the downside is that I am busier than I’ve ever been. And this is making the blog more erratic, and I suspect, less entertaining and informative. So I will be cutting back formally to three blog posts a week, including William Shakespeare’s Dune. I will try to get these up on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, but no guarantees.

I’m afraid I can’t figure out how to create any sort of poll, here that looks neat, but I’m going to ask for feedback in the comments. What is it about this blog you’ve enjoyed? What made you follow it? The snippets? The crossover humor like “I Cast Missile Magicis?” The film criticism? The takedowns of the “logic” behind your favorite series? The writing lessons I’ve shared?

Let me know, because this is your chance to really shape what’s coming next.

Thanks for reading,

Scott

A Few Thoughts On Worldbuilding

Most of us, as we begin writing, and begin selling, gradually start to get a handle on what our strengths are as a writer, and what we enjoy writing most of all. One of my strengths, I have been told, is the development of setting, or what is commonly referred to as worldbuilding. Worldbuilding often involves establishing history, politics, culture and geography of your F/SF world, but I’m going to talk about some techniques I rarely see used, here, which, if done right, can lend a whole layer of depth to the world not often enough explored.

For much of this, I’d like to point out that I’m indebted to S.M. Stirling, whose works abound with such things. If you can only read one of his fabulous alternate histories, I suggest The Peshawar Lancers.

Food: Is anything more fundamental to culture than sharing a meal? That’s where deals get done, where people fall in love, where poisonings occur. And yet how often meals are skipped over, or if they are portrayed, are done so in minimal terms, with people eating bland dishes of no significance. The food of a culture tells you what are luxuries, and what are staples. What flavors are favored, and which are disliked.

Art: Religion often plays a part of a fully developed world, and yet how rare is it to see the religious art of a world fully developed, despite the fact that in our own world, religion has inspired a huge percentage of the high arts. Art communicates a great deal of the culture’s values, and can be used to tell its story. Stirling does a wonderful job with this when a protagonist of his, on the dirigible ride to Delhi, contemplates a reproduction of a famous painting that draws on Kipling’s Exodus Cantos while eating a meal in the dining cabin, using food and art simultaneously to draw the protagonist’s mind to her own history.

Music: This is perhaps the hardest of these three to portray, since it’s difficult to convey instrumental sound on the written page. But naming instruments can give you an idea of what is popular and what is not, and writing lyrics can give a feel for whether this is a culture that values arias or ballads or folk verse or chant.

Thus concludes our microlesson today on worldbuilding.

Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life (Part 2)

A continuation of yesterday’s post.

Write Every Day (L): I cannot overstate the importance of writing on your novel every day. It builds a momentum up that is easy to sustain, much like running down a shallow grade. Gravity helps you. But if you stop, you have to overcome your inertia again and it’s a lot harder.

Don’t Give Up When You Fail To Write Every Day (L): You will fail to write every day. At some point, something is going to come up that will (more accurately, “that you will allow to”) keep you from writing. There will be something with the kids, or your wife, or your job, where you will come home and say “I just can’t.”
And the worst thing in the world you can do is throw up your hands and say, “Well, I failed. I guess I don’t have what it takes” and pitch a fit about it. Get back to work the next day and go on. Make up for the lost day if you can. If you can’t, oh well, you lost a day. Keep going.

Do Not Agonize Over Shit You Will Fix Anyway In The Revision (L): This may be the most important piece of advice that I implemented, having learned it from Steven Barnes. And I resisted it for a long time. My reasoning was, “If I know what to fix now, I should fix it. I’m going to have to fix it anyway, and this way I won’t have to revise as much.”
Well, as I have said to my own students before, “That is very compelling and sensible reasoning, which is nevertheless wrong.” Okay, but why is it wrong?
It’s wrong for four main reasons:
1) The process of going back and revising kills your momentum. Part of what encourages you to keep going is seeing how much you’ve done. It’s a reward that your animal brain really gets off on. So the faster you go, the faster you go. If you kill that momentum, you slow down HARD. And unlike the tortoise, slow and steady really does not win this race, because…
2) What you’re really doing is replacing errors that you can see with ones you can’t. They’re going to creep in there anyway, and they’ll be harder to see when you DO go back and reread the manuscript. I always thought that it made more sense to fix the errors NOW than to go back later because if I didn’t, I’d be building later chapters on earlier crap, and it would all have to be fixed. There’s some truth to this* but what I didn’t realize is that it cuts both ways.  You can also come up with a solution near the end of the book that fixes things you screwed up earlier, only because you “fixed” it earlier, that new solution doesn’t work and you have to go back and fix your fix. Which is now HARDER because…
3) When you go back and revise, you will, if you’re any good, produce tighter, neater prose. That’s a good thing. But having to revise that is harder, because its so well done. So essentially, you end up throwing out TWO drafts and writing two more to replace finished prose with finished prose, rather than throwing out ONE draft and writing two more.
4) Finally, going back and revising isn’t fun, so you try to avoid it, and this means you have to fight the urge to agonize over everything. What is this character’s name? What is the name of this gadget? What is the name of this country? How exactly does the gadget work. I need to research to see if that’s plausible. And you’re stuck in a mire of Getting Everything Right The First Time. Right now my manuscript is filled with people named [NAME], and notes like [LET’S GO BACK AND MAKE JEREMY’S PARENTS HAVE A RUN-IN WITH HIS MOM] or [I’D KIND OF LIKE JAEL TO DO SOME SORT OF THEATRICAL TRICK HERE TO DEMONSTRATE FALLING IN LOW GRAVITY, BUT I DON’T WANT TO WORK OUT THE MATH RIGHT NOW.]

So that’s how I did it. Obviously ALL these techniques may not work for YOU, the reader (especially the outlining), but this is the advice I wish I could have read and understood twenty years ago. I hope it helps.

By the way, if you’re interested in more from Steven Barnes, who knows a LOT more about all this than I do, you can find the Lifewriting group here.

*There are some cases where you really want to go back and revise right then, but they’re really on the order of making a huge change to your basics. Like, “I want this character to be a 78 year old man rather than a 16 year old girl,” or “I think we should set this on Enceladus rather than on the Titanic.” Anything less than THAT, leave for revision.

Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life.

There are many things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self about life, love, writing, and many more things. I’m going to start with this one, in the hope it may be useful to my readers. Just a year ago, I would have said that writing a novel this quickly would have been impossible for anyone but a professional, probably-childless, full-time writer. Here are the lessons I learned that made this possible. I would like to especially credit Steven Barnes and his Lifewriting philosophy for teaching me many of these things. There’s a lot more over on his Facebook group dedicated to this, some of which I have not yet put into practice, but it’s well worth checking out. I’ll designate the points I learned from him with an (L).

1) Have A Clearly Defined Motivation (L): In this case, my motivation was two-fold: 1) I had a contract promising me payment, and 2) I had another novel I really wanted to get to revising in June because a publisher asked me to. So I had to be done with this by May. Now, if I had read this a year ago, my reaction would have been something like,  Oh, all you have to do is get publishers to hand you contracts for shit you haven’t even written yet, or respond favorably to something you have? Well THAT sounds easy! Thanks for nothing, asshole!
And I would have been wrong to think that. Because what I would have been missing is that the motivation always comes from YOU. Yes, it’s AWESOME to have external motivation. But if I had decided, no bones about it, “I’m gonna self-publish this baby by the end of August” I could still have accomplished this. That decision is ENTIRELY in your control.

2) Control Your Word Count: This novel had a soft limit from the publisher of 55,000 words, and a hard limit of 60,000. This meant that I had to make absolutely sure that it didn’t balloon into an epic. At 53,000 words, it is the shortest novel I have ever written, the next shortest being about 120,000 words. Word Count MATTERS. If this had been a typical-length novel for me, I doubt it would have been finished in under six months. I can’t type that fast. Yet. So how do we control our word count? We…

3) Outline: Before I started this project, I created a thorough (about 3000 word) outline of the story, including four character sketches of the family at the center of the book. On completion of this outline, I was reasonably satisfied that I would not exceed word count. I could not allow myself any real subplots. Focus had to stay tight on the major plot from beginning to end. This meant that I could look back at the outline so that I never had the dreaded “What was going to come next” moment. Also, it was a great way to squelch rabbit trails that would inflate the word count.

4) Double Outline: Before beginning each chapter, I read the outline to make sure it would make sense, and then made further notes, including who would say what in what order. This outline would have looked like gibberish to anyone who wasn’t me. But it ensured that while I was actually writing, I got to focus on how the prose sounded, because I had already decided what to say, when.

5) Control Your Time (L): While I was writing the novel, some other things I normally do had to be put on the back burner. Short story writing, responses to calls for submissions, marketing, and, notably THIS BLOG all suffered. In fact, it’s the reason you haven’t been reading much here for the past two weeks, and the reason that this is NOT a William Shakespeare’s Dune post. Working on it. It even means that blog posts have to be shorter. This, one, for example, has now taken all the time that I can give it, so I’m going to leave part two of it for tomorrow.

I Cast Missile Magicis: Hagrid Edition

You know how Hagrid “bought” Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback from “some bloke in a pub?” And how he always was getting creatures from people?

Yup, that’s right. The Leaky Cauldron is That Tavern where all the Parties get their Quests.

“Why are we going after Black Dragon Eggs?”

“I dunno. Some big guy in The Tavern with more gold than sense is paying top dollar.”

“Is this gonna be like the time with the three-headed dog? Because we lost the bard when we went after the Giant Flobberworms.”

“Are you gonna bring that up again? I didn’t know they didn’t have ears. I thought that’s what the so-impressive bardic knowledge was for.”

“Oh, well excuse me for thinking that a ranger might know something about animals.”

“Go screw a drider.”

 

I Cast Missile Magicis

It occurred to me today that so much  would be explained if Dungeons and Dragons was actually supplying the Potterverse with its stuff. I just picture some Harry Potter wizards accidentally Apparating into a D&D plane and turning it into a gold mine. For example, this is a gelatinous cube:

Image result for gelatinous cube

As you can deduce, it’s a big monster that dissolves things. Swords aren’t much help, but maybe a couple of wizards stumble on it:

“What the hell is that, Nigel?”

“Our meal ticket this month, Rupert. Wands out. And Freezing Charm on three: One… two…”

And a few heavy blows with a hammer later, you’ve got the Acid Pops that they kept selling to the students in Hogsmeade.

Image result for Acid Pops