Learning by Doing

Occam asked a question after my last post, wondering what problems I'd found in the draft of my manuscript. The short answer is that I'd chosen the wrong main character, midway through the writing process. I'd actually started the thing without any real notion of a strong main character at all, then later gone back and added a bunch that made the main character out of a very powerful person in the novel.

It was only subsequently re-reading an old copy of Orson Scott Card's book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that I realized my mistake.

The odd thing is that I'd read that book before, and other similar words of sage advice, yet they hadn't stuck with me until I'd gone and made the errors that they warned against. It's as though it wasn't enough to read that there was a hole in the floor. I had to go trip in it to learn not to step there.

I suppose I've learned that lesson enough times in my life that I shouldn't be surprised by it anymore, and yet there it is. It's still surprising.


Trunk or Edit?

So I have a novel I've been working on for awhile now, one that I thought was finished a few months back. I started sending around query letters while I was doing some background reading on novel and query letter writing.

As an aside, there is a shockingly large amount of good information out there on novel and query letter writing. Or should I say, there's a shockingly large amount of information that's well written and persuasive on these topics, and quite a bit of it is SF related.

At any rate, having done the reading I began to realize that there were serious structural problems with my book that would likely make it impossible to write an effective query on its behalf. And this was going on while my queries, written to the best of my minor abilities, were going nowhere.

Fortunately it does seem to me that the problems I'd pinpointed were, though serious and extensive, soluble with cutting and reworking. We'll see if that pans out.

Now I'm deep in rewrite mode, and wondering when one decides that a book should be trunked rather than edited. Sure, if it looks like the problems with it are so extensive that no rewrite will do it justice, it should be trunked. But when else? Because I'm very much inclined to agree with the advice (found extensively) that one should only rewrite very selectively. It's almost always better just to start afresh with a new project.

At this point I've decided to finish this rewrite and begin again with the querying. If the second round goes nowhere, I'll trunk it and try again. But of course it'd be hard to trunk something that I like and that I've worked on for many months. Chalk it up to a learning experience? We'll see what happens.


Neil Gaiman's American Gods

Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a Very Good Book. It has excellent dialogue, characterization and an absorbing plot, squarely within the Fantasy genre. (It's not SF at all). To discuss it, I'm going to have to include some mild spoilers, so be forewarned.

Basically it asks what if each immigrant group came with its own gods to US shores, and what if these old gods were still pottering about, living like people with relatively normal lives but with odd magical abilities?

And what if the old gods were being weakened somehow by modernity, disappearing slowly, but trying to fight back? It's an interesting and potentially very fruitful sort of mythic storyline.

The main problem with the plot involves  the supposed Huge Upcoming Battle, that pits the old gods and the new American gods of media, the internet, and so on. (The two sides remain somewhat ill defined throughout, particularly the latter side, pitched as more or less evil).

The problem is that there is no conflict between those aspects of modernity and the old gods. Indeed, the old gods should expect to find solace and succor in technological advances such as the blind eye of media and the hyperactive internet. TV doesn't compete with the old gods, it makes them more real. The old gods live quite nicely on the internet.

The actual competition is between the old gods and the newer or better marketed gods of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The actual competition is between the gods, old and new, and other sources of modernity such as science, skepticism and humanism, thought patterns that conflict with the very notion of gods or the supernatural.

(Of course, a large part of this conflict involves co-optation in one way or another. It isn't ever simply a matter of replacement, not on anything like a global or national scale).

I expect that Gaiman didn't take those latter routes because it would have been more difficult to come up with a compelling narrative -- or the kind of narrative that he found fruitful -- by having a fight between the old gods and Jesus, or gods and the godless. Those would have been very different stories, and to do them right one would have to avoid the morass of cliché that surrounds them.

In the interview section that closes out my copy, Gaiman says he wrote up an encounter between the main character and Jesus, during a scene replete with Christian symbolism. He says he found it "very unconvincing", so cut it from the book.

What results is, again, a Very Good Book, but one that skirts the surface of the issues involved, leaving many of the deepest foundations unexplored.


On Reading Frankenstein

So I finally got round to reading Frankenstein for the first time. It's often called the first real Science Fiction book, and I thought for that reason alone it ought to be on my reading list. Then passing a good hardcover edition at a book sale for two dollars sealed the deal.

First, a point I have to assume everyone makes about this book, is that the plot has virtually nothing to do with the movie editions that I can recall from my childhood. So let's get that out of the way. No furious hordes with pitchforks. It's a very internal book, going on mostly in the heads of the (two) protagonists.

The best part of the book, arguably one reason for its success, is that it's short and the plot is linear and has some impetus. (Though it's pretty obvious). And the romantic trope of the Faustian bargain for knowledge is a classic.

But there are so many holes in the plot that I find it difficult to get deeply into it. Why should Victor Frankenstein create a being that he finds so horrible? If you look at the critical passage, he first finds the monster beautiful, and then a paragraph later finds it ugly, with no explanation for the change. I suppose we are to assume that the monster became ugly in being brought to life, but this is a supposition I find incredible.

The second issue, more extensive and so more annoying, is that the monster goes from being a real, flesh and blood thing to an unreal, supernatural thing. Without alerting anyone to its presence, it's able to track the protagonist through thousands of miles of inhabited Europe, jumping into frame at just the right time. What, is it also capable of invisibility? Again, this is incredible and so weakens the story.

(I leave aside the premise of the plot: that a nineteenth century chemistry amateur could create or revive -- it's never fully described -- a human being from a mass of something. I'm willing to suspend disbelief that far for the purposes of the book. But not much farther).

The third issue is the whole -- tediously long -- passage outlining how the monster supposedly went from being a dumb beast with a blank slate of a mind to an eloquently thinking, speaking, reading person. It all comes out of a simplistic empiricist view of mind, where a creature can stand by and watch a family for months and months and by so doing learn everything it needs to carry on complex, literary conversations. It's wildly implausible, dated and tendentious.

The monster would also have to have been invisible and inaudible to have done this, but that gets us back to the former problem.

Further, I didn't find any of the main characters (except perhaps Walton at the very beginning and end, who is more or less a nonentity) to be really sympathetic. I'm sure I've heard people claim that the monster was sympathetic, but he's not. He makes his points: he's ugly, he's been maltreated and shunned, but he's also a vicious murderer. And Victor Frankenstein comes across hardly any better: by turns moody, inept and self loathing.

Perhaps the worst issue for me though was the style: nineteenth century romantic melodrama, with a lot of tears, gasps and fainting.

And it doesn't help that while I find the Faustian bargain a fruitful trope, I also rankle with the purer versions of it, of which Frankenstein is one. While there are dangers to power, and science gives power, to imply that knowledge is wholly evil is both factually wrong and also morally deeply questionable.

I'm sure others had a better view of it than I. I'd be interested to hear why.


Fantasy and Science Fiction

In an earlier blog post I said that SF was a subcategory of Fantasy fiction. Now I'd like to expand a little on what I think the distinction is between SF and Fantasy as separate fiction categories.

A lot of ink has been spilled and pixels darkened on this topic in the past (for example, by Orson Scott Card), and I don't consider myself an expert on it all. But with that caveat out of the way, it seems to me there are two ways to approach the problem: as a functional matter or as a more philosophical matter.

Functionally, Science Fiction is fiction about scientific topics. In particular, it tends to be future-oriented, dealing with new technologies or scientific discoveries, or with extrapolations from present technologies and discoveries. It tends to involve space ships, artificial intelligence, computers and aliens from different planets.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is functionally about the past or a magicked present. It tends to involve medieval trappings like swords and castles as well as sorcerers, dragons, and alien creatures from the realms of human mythology like elves and dwarves. If it's set in the present time it tends to involve creatures like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches and again magic.

But I think we can begin to probe a deeper difference. SF worlds, it seems to me, are generally those that are closer to a naturalist paradigm where the universe runs by mindless physical or natural laws. The characters or their predecessors gained power through a scientific understanding of those laws, using it to construct new technologies.

Fantasy worlds generally work differently. They have the feel that the basic structure of the universe is sentient. For example, the universe understands spoken words, and so things like spells are possible. It is what we would call a "supernatural" metaphysics, and science often appears impossible or stunted in such worlds.

Of course, there are plenty of in-between places. Much of mid-20th century SF, for instance, dealt with ESP, and some SF deals with souls. People did think at one time that there would be a science of these things, or that they might work by physical law. Now we know they don't, indeed that the phenomena don't exist, so it seems to me that any story dealing with such things is a ways towards being Fantasy.

And of course there are other issues of so-called 'hard' vs. 'soft' SF, where 'soft' SF is again somewhere midways between being Science Fiction and Fantasy. One might say that Star Wars lives in such a place, although the notion of "the Force" is also sufficiently supernatural that one also might push aside all the functionally SF aspects of Star Wars and just say it's a space fantasy.

These semantic games are fun for awhile but when you step on the throttle you just spin your wheels. In the final analysis what's important is the quality of the story.


Biology in SF

Here's an interesting blog post about a recent discussion between Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins on biology in Science Fiction. I've heard Tyson make similar claims in the past; he certainly could be right. But after thinking about it for several years on and off, my inclination is to opt for Dawkins's take.

Biology may be undirected, but environmental impactors are likely to be similar enough even in alien environments that we should expect rough similarities between how organisms evolve, at least on average.

This depends, however, on our aliens growing up on planetary environments rather than (e.g.) in space. Is it possible for life to evolve in space? I don't think there's any way to know, but clearly any such life would have radically different variables constraining evolution than that on a planet.

The other point here that impinges on SF is one of narrative, however. It's difficult to come up with compelling narratives about creatures that are very different from humans. And the more different they are, the more difficult it becomes. It's harder to create characters with whom we can empathize if they don't think in ways similar to ourselves, if they don't act in ways we can begin to understand.

Part of that has to involve physical action: we display emotion and intention through action. An alien without roughly human-analogous appendages can't gesture. This may seem a small issue, but it's difficult to construct a decent scene where one of the main characters can't make comprehensible physical motions. And the less comprehensible they become, the worse it gets. Until it's the author who's left flailing.

That may be fine for some who want to create faceless villains or the ravening horde, but frankly one can do that with humans. Creating incomprehensible evil is actually pretty darn easy. Politicians do it all the time. So it's just as much of a cop-out to produce human-disanalogous aliens and then make them the Blob.

So at any rate while it's theoretically possible that Tyson is right and the aliens we find may all be radically different from ourselves, I think he misses the point, at least as regards SF. SF authors don't simply cook up human-like aliens because it's mindlessly easy to put a different nose on a human character. They also do so because any reasonable narrative assumes roughly human characterization and action.


Atwood and Le Guin on Realism vs. SF

Here's a post on io9 about a discussion between Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin on realism vs. Science Fiction. I agree with their stance: there is no principled distinction between "literature" and "SF". The distinction is between realist literature and SF literature (and realist or SF stuff that isn't quite up to the task). Personally, with very few exceptions I have not been interested in realism as a genre. I find it tedious. If I want realism, I prefer to get it unmodified: as well written history or biography. Further, as they point out in the discussion, realism has limitations in which subjects it can easily take on. I don't believe the same limitations apply to fantastic fiction generally speaking, since any fantasy (and here I include SF as a sub-category) can tackle any of the common tropes one finds in realism.

If you stop to think about it a bit, the whole notion of realist fiction is a kind of contradictio in adjecto. It's fake history trying to appear as mundane as possible. The problem is that some believe this provides it greater intrinsic worth than fiction which fails to meet that arbitrary standard. I've never understood why.

On the other hand, is there really any such thing as an objective or intersubjective aesthetic standard to which we can hope to aspire? Or is it all simply a matter of pose and marketing?



Really, what does the term "natural" mean, except as a term of praise?

Certainly, sometimes "natural" is used to mean "not manmade", but then aren't we ourselves "natural"? And then why should there be any difference in kind between what we natural things create and the natural things themselves?

Aren't spider's webs "natural"?



Community is a good thing. Community is also a bad thing: it can lead to groupthink and the unquestioned following of authority figures. It also splits the world into "us" and "them", those of us who are part of the community, and those others out there who are not, or who choose not to be. This is why the question as to whether or not religion is a good thing is so difficult to answer.

On the one hand, religion provides community. Community can be a very good thing.

On the other hand, religion provides community. Community can be a very bad thing.

It's banal but true to say this is part of the human condition. But is there some way to mitigate the bad parts of community, while keeping the good?


Naturalist "Spirituality" and SF

There's been some recent disagreement about the desirability or even the meaning of "spirituality" from within a naturalist framework. The word itself seems to imply a supernaturalist dualism of body and spirit. A naturalist, of course, must reject such dualism.

As we see from Chris Mooney's article in USA Today, though, some of the most ardent naturalists have been willing to embrace the term. The question then becomes what the term "spiritual" means in a non-dualistic, naturalist framework. Richard Dawkins describes it as: "a sort of sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time. All those things create a sort of frisson in the breast, which you could call spirituality." Dan Dennett says he feels spiritual when he's "just transported with awe and joy and a sense of peace and wonder at, whether it's music or art or just a child playing or some other wonderful thing off of my sailboat, being amazed at the beauty of the ocean."

So it's something like a sense of awe and wonder. I'd like to be a little more precise, though. It seems to me that in the relevant sense, a "spiritual" feeling is one that reveals a certain sort of relation between ourselves and the universe. It's a frisson or feeling that accompanies our awareness of our smallness, and in particular the smallness of our daily worries and preoccupations before the immensity of reality. It is our awareness of the insignificance of all human worries and preoccupations; the sense that we are all but a mote of dust in something vaster than we are capable of completely grasping.

That is a feeling that a naturalist can share with a non-naturalist. Indeed, I'd argue that naturalism is actually the way to approach this sort of spiritual feeling par excellence, since it is only through a scientific framework that we begin to grasp the true vastness and grandeur of reality, rather than finding phantoms of it through images of human fantasy.

But there are ways that human fantasy does approach a correct understanding of this sort of vastness. It can be done in literature, the arts, but one classically naturalist, or at least scientifically oriented way that it can be done is through SF. The great SF stories are intended to be spiritual in the sense outlined above. They give a sense of the sweep of time and space that is not normally found in other forms of literature, although of course they borrow tropes from all parts, particularly from forms of epic myth. In this way they meld the mythopoetic human impulse to narrative to a naturalist, hence to an extent real and accurate, picture of the universe. 

I don't mean that SF is always a true and accurate picture of reality, of course. Even hard SF fudges at the corners. But it seems to me no other form of contemporary literature is more interested in notions of the spiritual in a rough-and-ready naturalist sense than is SF.