a thought on genre

My own comment is that science fiction is unique among genres in that we are all of us growing into it.  Few of us will go on to a life as a cowboy, or a hard-boiled detective, or even, unfortunately, a grand romance.

But all of us are living in a world where the future is increasingly poaching on the lands of the present.  Science fiction gets its power, some of it, from its views of the future, but its hidden purpose is to prepare us for the accelerating present, and to help us make some ragged peace with that.  – CMR

Some notes on “A Thousand Solomons”

First, let me say that there may be spoilers below. But secondly, let me suggest that you may not want to know any of this. It always seems to me that an author diminishes his own work, by showing what it was built from, how it came to be. It’s up to you, if you want to know any of this stuff. But I would say it’s, at a minimum, worthwhile to have read the actual piece first.

I wrote several short stories in a minor frenzy, in late spring 2015, in a search for one that might be competitive for the BSFS amateur writing contest. Really, it was a huge relief, to allow myself a break from working on the novel, so initially it was a lot of fun. I felt I was suddenly off the leash I had put myself on. “Talking to Robots about Fairies”, “Emerging Grammars”, and “Superheavy” all tumbled out of me during this period. 

“A Thousand Solomons”, or ATS, was meant to have some kind of happy ending, but to be grim all along the way there. “Ruthless Valentine” was my own descriptor for the project. I had had several rejections of stories from different SF journals by this point, and in every case, it seemed unlikely to me that the editors or slush-readers could have read very far into the pieces.  I thought (perhaps erroneously) that, for a contest, the readers would be obligated at least to read the piece through once. I wanted to take advantage of that.

A Thousand Solomons is built around a question, and the piece is primarily a set-up to get the reader to that question. I’m proud that, at the end of the whole process, that question is still there, shining, confronting whatever readers reach it. 

But also, there were influences. I had been dipping into Donald Bathelme’s 60 Stories, and thinking that some very basic structure would add backbone to this piece, and alleviate some confusion about which Solomon was which. Hence the numbered passages. 

Also, I had read, when fairly young, the terrific Greg Bear novella, Hardfought. It won a Nebula award, well-deserved, and appears in his collection The Wind From A BurningWoman. There is a section in the middle, a kind of futuristic dogfight in space, where several cloned human fighters are killed by aliens. But the thing that stuck with me was that they each were killed in a unique and interesting way, the tension ratcheting up with each, until the final clone is simply translated into “sound and pure light”, which I thought then was an awesome and poetic way to die. I enjoyed giving myself the opportunity to emulate this – with a thousand Solomons, I could kill off several of them in different ways, without sacrificing the plot to do so, and underline the meager and desperate nature of his existence.

The limit of 5500 words worked both for and against me. I think every reader so far has commented that the story feels sketchy, unfinished, that they wished for more detail. I take that as an encouraging sign that what’s on the page is working, engaging readers. “No fan service,” said Michael Moorcock, and in Roger Zelazny’s collection The Last Defender of Camelot, he says something quite similar. It’s the set-piece scenes that SF authors are writing towards – minute details about the imagined technology that allows them to happen are really distractions. By omitting unnecessary detail (and particularly technical detail, in SF) an author invites the reader to become a more active participant. The story becomes our story, writer and reader together, when the reader feels compelled to imagine some details in order to make the suspension of disbelief work for her. 

But there’s a lot of other details about Solomon’s life, Eight-Colony, and the whole human history leading up to this story, that are tremendously engaging. Without the hard limit of 5500 words, I very likely would have spun out into this world indefinitely, maybe not even finding my way back to the other novel in progress, at least for a while. So I’m grateful for the limitation of the word count, and it’s a constraint I will try to impose on myself in future projects.

Project Icarus is the name of the effort to plan or design for a Helium-3 gas mine on Uranus, and use the results, potentially, for interstellar travel.

There is no asteroid named Sagan. Depending on where such an object were located, I don’t believe the current naming rules would allow for it.

When I started to write the soup scene, I was surprised at how easily I found the voice of this mysterious older woman. For a while I puzzled at this, and then I discovered where that voice arose – I had recently heard Ursula Le Guin’s scorcher of an acceptance speech, for her National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to Anerican Letters. That speech really resonated in my mind (and I had read The Lathe of Heaven and also the excellent Wave of the Mind, within the prior year, so, no surprise there.)

So why not just let that woman be Ursula Le Guin, or let her inhabit her persona? As soon as I thought it, I couldn’t not do it. I watched some videos of her speaking, re-read some passages of her writing. But the biggest aid to nailing down her speech patterns was the Paris Review interview. There’s some residual tinge of 70’s dialect in her speech – she uses “man” interjectively.

But I felt it wrong to just appropriate her name and persona – she’s a real person. So I didn’t name her in the story (though she refers to Omelas, her most widely-taught work). I did write a dedication to her, and put it after the body of the story itself. Some readers make the connection from that, and others don’t, and that’s OK.

I did write a letter to Ms. Le Guin, at some point in the process, and ask for her permission, or at least her tolerance. I tried to make the letter (enclosed with a copy of the draft story) sound engaging enough to get her attention:

Dear Ms. Le Guin, 

I wrote a story in which you appear as a character. I feel it’s only fair to give you an opportunity to say whether anything you do or say in the story feels out of character, so I’m sending you a copy.  

I knowingly took one liberty, making your eyes blue in the story. This is for artistic reasons. Also, your character is living on the planet Uranus. […]

Alas, she never replied, and I pressed on without her blessing but at least having made an honest attempt to contact her. I do hope she feels, if she ever reads A Thousand Solomons, that it was meant as an homage to someone I truly admire.

Solomon’s unusual grammar – I was desperate for a distinct voice, not just for the sake of having one, but to underline how far away, in time, in space, and in culture, Eight-Colony is from the Earth of the current time. I had been scratching though parts of Clouds & Ashes, Greer Gilman’s exquisitely-voiced Jacobian fantasy, looking for something glittery that I could steal. But every time I attempted that, it felt less like a grand heist, and more like a shameful act of petty theft. Moreso, I didn’t want something that sounded historical, nor futuristic – I wanted some third thing.

The answer came to me in the name of a certain James Bond villainess. You probably can think of the one, though I won’t repeat her name here. How she obtained or lived under such a moniker is unimaginable to me.

Tell me something interesting. The arrangement of putting the adjective after its object is called postpositive. It’s rare in English, a little more common in French(?) Once I found this, it became the defining mechanic of speech on Uri. I just had to build sentences around it – it became easy to hear sentences once I had this in my ear. Even so, I must have made fifty passes over the text, looking for and debating the ordering of adjectival phrases. Sometimes it was just easier to omit combinations of adjectives, or the adverb modifying an adjective. “Solomon read a book interesting very.” “Solomon read a book very interesting.”

Actually Solomon is illiterate – we never see him read anything. Also, though he is deeply spiritual, we never see him go to to a religious service (he was conceived as being ambiguously Muslim.) We never find out if he had parents – he’s clearly unsure about that himself. There’s a lot we don’t know about him, honestly.  The sad truth of it is, given his status as a NASA servant on Uri, I don’t know how much there actually is to know.

bad idea file – a good idea

I got no chops.  No special going-in talents or tricks, nothing more than the average careful reader’s intuition of what might work on the page.  No mantic procedures to generate astonishing, beatific text.  Never been to Iowa.  Never been to Clarion.

I stole a lot, in terms of writing advice.  If you saw my secret “how to write” files, they would be boringly predictable and familiar (though, the one thing that might be interesting is the set of common-sense advice that I’ve discarded.)

“Everything belongs to the creative and resourceful thief.” – William Burroughs

I think the one trick I have that’s good, and perhaps novel, is this:

Make a Bad Ideas file, and use it. 

Often I produce some great thought (or so it seems), or sentence or paragraph in an ongoing work, and I’m conscious that it’s good, but also that it doesn’t fit – that it has no business being where it is, perhaps doesn’t belong in this piece, at all.

My urge is to not discard any useable material – I get so little time to actually write.  Some might argue that that has been an essential part of my process – more on that in a later entry – but the painful and correct thing to do is cut it out of the piece that it just appeared in.

If you have a Bad Ideas file, you’ve immediately got a place for those fragments to go. Killer sentences like “The banjo is the loneliest instrument,” that you can’t bear to throw out, immediately have some other place to go.   You don’t have to stop and think what file they might usefully belong in – in fact, performing that calculation can be a big distraction, it can drop you right out of the head-space you were in when you produced such a gem. Just dump it into the Bad Ideas file and move on, and reassess later.

In editing, using a Bad Ideas file might seem like a kinder and thus easier solution, rather than just deleting your stuff wholesale.

And then, later, you can look back at all the Bad Ideas there, and confirm that the filtering and editing that is essential to any piece of good writing has actually happened for this piece.  If you work on something for a while, and at the end, you still have nothing that qualifies as a Bad Idea, you’re probably not being honest with yourelf.

I told my wife about this, and quipped that I wished I also had a Good Ideas file, full of stuff I could pull from. She wryly said that then I could just make a link between the two files (Good –> Bad, I’m guessing) and save myself a lot of time.  My wife.  That’s why I married her.

Now you’ll be curious what’s in that giant Bad Ideas file I keep adding to every day.  Or maybe you won’t.  But either way, I’m not showing it.

Baltimore Science Fiction Society Amateur Writing Contest 2015

I’m thrilled to report that my short story “A Thousand Solomons” has won first place in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Amateur Writing Contest! Congratulations to fellow awardees T. Eric Bakutis and Michael B. Tager, and sincere thanks to everyone who makes the contest happen each year.

Information about the Baltimore Science Fiction Society and the contest can be found at the BSFS website.  I’ve been going to the Critique Circle there for upwards of a year now, and feel like I’ve made some good friends there and gotten a lot of good advice and feedback on my early work, which has been a mixed bag in terms of quality.

The prizes were awarded at Capclave this prior weekend – Capclave is a convention that focuses on short form fiction, put on by the Washington Science Fiction Association.  I was truly disappointed not to be able to attend.  Wow, the programming looked interesting to me – I’d like to go in future years, surely.

“A Thousand Solomons” will be printed in the program for Balticon, which will be held at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, Memorial Day Weekend 2016. I will be reading the story there as well. My experiences at the Crit Circle, and the process of reading bedtime stories for my kids, have transformed my initial fear of reading my work to others, and now it’s something I really enjoy doing.  No one can be a better advocate for your own work than you can when you read it out loud.

I think BSFS intends to put the story up on the web for some period of time also.  If that happens, it will surely be linked here.

The Guest of Honor for Balticon 2016 will be George R. R. Martin. OK I have to admit I’m a little starstruck.  I have read all the GoT books through at least once.

As it is the 50th year of Balticon, many of the prior Guests of Honor have been invited to return.  Just the living ones, I’m guessing.  I’m excited to be in attendance with so many talented writers and real figures in the field (and a little apprehensive that I’m not familiar with a lot of their work!)
Info and registration for Balticon are at

www.balticon.org

Hope to see everyone there!