Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thirty White Horses

As promised in the last post, here's a link to "Thirty White Horses" (pdf). When I went back to clean it up, the science seemed muted, which was fine with me. The story's still got other problems, but I don't think "wheeling in Science" is one of them. I've also got a paper up about how (it seems to me) Richard Powers uses narrative structure to help get the science across Galatea 2.2 and The Gold Bug Variations. I still don't think they're good novels, but they've got a clever, pretty, operatic structure involving a tension between student and teacher that I haven't seen before, and it's a structure that I think could be useful to others. It's also nice that Powers tried it in two books, one where the student's essentially a wide-eyed undergrad, and one where the student's a strung-out RA, so you can see the pros and cons of the variation. Ordinarily I'm not a fan of academic fiction -- the settings become academic nowheres, tethered to nothing -- but it seems natural in Powers' books.

I missed SLSA '07 thanks to childcare issues, but organizer Aden Evens and panel chair Jay Labinger were terrific and generous in making sure my work got presented. For next year, I'll see if the organizers will call in some conference childcare.

I'm working on something to do with popular science illustration, but first I've got to get a 6th-grade social studies book out of the way. Who knew 11-year-olds needed to learn about trade barriers? I guess now they do. I hope the books come with a good world map, too. Meantime, enjoy the beautiful E. coli by David Goodsell.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Idling speculation

When I started this blog I was looking for ways to use science in literary fiction that didn't involve wheeling in Science, stopping the action to point at Science, and wheeling it off again. Or, worse, stopping the action to point at Science and then build some literary metaphor around it before wheeling it off. I wanted to use science the way it seems to me to exist in the world -- as an influential, incoherent, anonymous authority, one that has vivid images and partial flashes of explanation but no compelling story.

My first shot at this, "Thirty White Horses", showed me how easy it is to go wrong and veer off into SF or speculative fiction. The story takes place in a world where rapid population growth led to violence over gravesite scarcity; the political solution was to sell a mechanistic view of life. "Peace for the living," was the phrase. People soon corrupted this into a spiritual-mayfly view of ever-changing life and a sentimental, rather breathless idea of death as profound cleanliness. Nice people don't stop for it. The protagonist is a sixtyish woman who has an unreformed sense of life and death. The story begins with the death of her ex-husband, and she finds there's no longer any way to mourn him in a way she knows as meaningful, except in secret. Young people don't know how to mourn, and old people know better.

It's a failure because as soon I got interested in the science and the what-if, the story turned into into speculative fiction, which feels to me like a cheat. "Imagine a world that's like _______!" Except the world isn't like that, and there's already a perfectly interesting world with more complexity and sharp story than you're likely to come up with on your own. The only non-hard-SF "speculative world" stories I can think of that I've really liked turn out not to be speculative at all: 1984, for instance. Victory stew, still a reality in 1988, and I know because I ate some in East Berlin. (Without benefit of Victory gin.)

The other problem, of course, is that you're staring at the science. I tried steering away from that by focusing on the politics, and framing the social change in news reports and through the lenses of a sixth-grade history text and the woman's memory. I also wrote, and then took out, a chunk of science documentary that made the mechanistic view lively and appealing. But even without overt science infodumps, it seems artificial, too model-building. And I suppose that's because it isn't personal enough.

So how did this happen? I'm guessing the problem was right there at the start: asking myself how people could live with an idea of life as machine process, and then failing to notice how people already do this. For instance, in being willing to go to the hospital for transplants. Instead I took an easier route and built a future world. Which I completely enjoyed doing, but there's more to mine in real relationships, I think. Obviously there's a thinness in fake worlds. But since the story is essentially about a woman who has no licit way to mourn her ex-husband, the real story becomes the way history has left her behind and turned her into a symbol of something socially despised -- the old way of looking at death. While she's not at all responsible for that old-fashioned notion of burials and mourning, it really does animate her, and she genuinely doesn't understand the shift in attitudes. And that part's not new or fake at all; that happens every time an important social reality changes. There are always people left behind.

I think this is what bothers me so much in speculative fiction or sociological SF. You get a very dense social reality grafted to an exceedingly thin historical reality, and the effect is twee or odd. The density of the social reality -- in this case, the problem of living as a pariah -- demands an historical reality as rich and real, I think.

I'm looking for a way to post the story conveniently.