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.


BK said...

Very interesting, Amy. I've been reading (re- in some cases) Heinlein, where he builds a historical fantasy to promulgate his own socio-political agenda. He does it quite well I think, as all his worlds develop out of (his) current time.

Quite apart from his adolescent male fantasies, it's interesting to see how the collapse that he forecasts (post-tells) in at least two universes that he created has not happened.

Amy Charles said...

Yeah, it is, I agree. Also interesting how accurate some of those forecasts were, which I suppose makes sense if you're projecting realistically and you have good antennae. _Friday_ seems to me a very contemporary world, even slightly dated, apart from the rapid-change legal boundaries. The info networks that had nothing to do with specific place disoriented me at the time, but I suppose that if you were aware of the early networks, it only made sense. Taylor and other ARPANETters were able to see it well before the first nodes were up.

I realized (with the help of a reader) that the story has another serious problem -- it's not really a story; it's an environment-setter, a sketch. I'd been wondering whether it could be possible for a mechanistic take to achieve real currency, and got so interested in how it could work that I forgot to have much of a story -- you know, conflict, tension, that whole business.

I woke up this morning thinking of _I, Robot_, thinking aha, I could work it like that, have a series of stories around the general idea, some conventional story-structure and others like this one --- but then remembered how tightly structured _I, Robot_ is, the increasing ethical complexity from story to story. I mean I'm roughing out the second story now, and right away the obvious thing to bring in conflict is a murder. It makes sense, given the people and sensibilities, but I don't believe I've ever killed anyone off, and it feels cheap.

Am also (still) reading _The Man Without Qualities_ now, and I like its deliberately, even obstinately wandering nature. Of course, the protagonist himself is deliberately and obstinately wandering, but even so, the tension is terrifically slow to build, and while you can see the disaster approaching it might take several years to arrive. It's a very funny book, though. Really very mean.

Black Knight said...

I've never read Friday — at least I don't remember having read it — so I can't comment.

The I, Robot format might work, I guess. The thing about that is, after the first couple of stories, you could accept the fact of sentient machines without thinking about it. So it no longer detracted from the story. Your problem with the 'obvious': my first reaction was to say 'sod it; give 'em what they want' but I think, on reflection, it would be a better twist to not have a murder but something else (the possibilities are boundless) but throw in an unexpected if not gratuitous murder of a major character in the subsequent story.

Just to show that you can. And maybe you can right another story about that ethical conflict.

Amy Charles said...

I remember _Friday_ being pretty good (dunno what I'd think of it now). Apart from the painted-on bodysuits and microfilm carried in bodacious-courier navel pouches...OK, sorry, digression, I now see the Bodacious Courier Service. Vespas? No...anyway, there was a lot of computerized money transfer, communication by something internettish, and that general delocalized sense that you get when you can do your work and take care of your affairs from everywhere at the ubiquitous screens. Also the vulnerability you have in a system like that, because although it's robust, authorities can track you and shut you down at will, at least in your current network incarnation.

I think the murder would be unexpected. I didn't expect it, and I still find it shocking. But I don't know what to make of it yet. I'm trying something where he survives but it feels like a dodge.

Black Knight said...


WTF was I thinking?