Sunday, April 29, 2012

As If I Know What Positronic Means

Some years ago, I wrote a novella called The Apocalypse Experiment. The premise was that in the not-too-distant future, aliens nicknamed Portents have ended the fertility of the human race, killing all already-pregnant women and then all women who become pregnant. Humans are scared into a zero birth rate. A pair of scientists and a group of the Last Babies (the last generation to be born, now middle-aged) decide to try and restart the human race by controlling the hormones created and exuded by pregnant women, keeping them secret. Ultimately, they fail, in a tragic way that I didn't foresee until it was on the page.

Even before I'd finished writing, Children of Men came out. Oh, well.

I was horribly insecure during the whole time I was writing this novella. The lion's share of my genre reading has been edge-of-genre fantasy and science fiction - Bradbury, Susanna Clarke, Gaiman, Gregory Maguire, Douglas Adams, etc. There's not a lot of straight Arthur C. Clarke science fiction and even less R.A. Salvatore fantasy in my head. I don't know what you call this in the fantasy realm (low fantasy?), but what I like to read is known as soft sci-fi. Bradbury's later short stories are the best example of this I know, because they're mostly about people, and sometimes those people happen to be, y'know, on Mars.

Before The Apocalypse Experiment, I had only tried to write science fiction in short stories. My memory is telling me that in fact I only attempted YA sci-fi short stories before I wrote this novella, but that doesn't seem right to me. In any case, none of them were any good. The science was exceptionally shaky, because I am so thoroughly right-brained that I can barely calculate tips properly, much less comprehend physics; and I felt like I failed to get at the thing I love best about soft sci-fi. Which is: the way in which fantastic stories unknot what's essential about us, the way the best writers use the framework of science fiction and otherworldliness to show something humbling and brilliant and miraculous about the human animal. Ourselves mirrored in the future. This is also why I like soft sci-fi as opposed to hard; hard sci-fi is far more interested in the Petri dish than in the organism.

You have to write the fantastic stories properly, though, before you can capture the psychology of humans within their cage. You have to build the world before populating it with ideas, and that was what I failed to do in my stories. With the novella I wrote, I think I did a better job at this; my characters were pretty darn well-realized, and I was really proud of my plot. I was really proud of the whole thing, in truth. I still think the science is perhaps a bit embarrassing, but a reader like me wouldn't know the difference.

That's the thing that keeps driving me back to wanting to write science fiction at all. A reader like me. Someone who finds Arthur C. Clarke appallingly boring but who's devoured every damn minute of Star Trek: TNG. (Multiple times.) Someone who couldn't tell if a method of space travel was implausible, couldn't care less if the medicine is unrealistic or inconsistent.

I have a lot of smart friends, though. A lot of people who are thoroughly left-brained. One of them, for example, is a Ph.D. from MIT who's researching artificial intelligence and string theory. Their faces loom in my mind whenever I get a sci-fi idea that would cause me to invent and fumble through all sorts of crap I know nothing about, and I hear them scoffing and laughing at my ridiculous ideas about future transportation and future housing and future diets. So I get insecure. And I put those ideas aside, think about writing them later, maybe after I've been to a few cons and suffered through a little more Clarke.

The idea I'm working on now? It refuses to be put aside. It won't leave me be. I'm crazy about my conflicted, semi-Magneto-esque, completely wackadoo android, and I've just got to get his story down. I was depressed this morning to learn that Asimov (who straddles the line between hard and soft, I find) has already written part of my central idea. Children of Men all over again.

But I'm going to write it regardless. This story is developing to be a lot more like Poe than like Asimov, anyway, and I think I'm going to write in that direction, throwing to the wind all my frets about my poor sci-fi skills. It's coming out slowly and painfully, but I keep trying to remember that I wrote 25,000 words through insecurity about my ability as a sci-fi writer, and surely I can write a few thousand more now.


Matt said...

Well, I'm pretty sure that no one has ever written your exact story before, and since that's what you're doing, you should be fine.

Lots of stories use the same ideas. I recently heard two stories about a guy who came back from the dead. One was about a guy name Jesus or something. The other was about a zombie attack. The endings were a bit different, I suppose.

Unknown said...

Have you read C J Cherryh ? she writes a wide range of SF genres that aknowledge the existence of advanced science without trying to explain it, in the same way you wouldn't bother explaining how a TV worked in a contemporary novel. She also has a great gift for Characters and plot, and often features female protagonists. Let me know if you would like to read some, I have a bunch.

Unknown said...

That was Hal Taft. Don't know how to sign on to your comments correctly

Katharine Coldiron said...

It's true, all stories have been done--even combining two ideas, i.e. Zombie Jesus--but not in the exact same way each time. Children of Men was rotten timing, but The Positronic Man came out in the early 90's, so I should be okay there. As long as they don't make a film adaptation of it in the next six months.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Hi Hal! No, I haven't read this writer. I will have to look her up. Or borrow yours, I'd love to see you again sometime. It's fair to say that any science I would introduce into these stories I would definitely not explain in detail, and it's pretty poor genre writing to do that too much anyway, for the exact reason you point out.

Bret Hays said...

You had my attention at "positronic."

Remember that a lot of those brilliant left-brained people love soft sci-fi. Probably a majority; and as for the minority, those wet blankets are not worth your attention. Some of that probable majority got into their fields because of that soft sci-fi. Skeptical, deeply knowledgable scientists need to dream, too. (If you prick them, do they not... leak?) And many of them would enjoy talking about the ideas you want to explore in your fiction. Try to think of them not as haters, but as your biggest fans.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Your parenthetical cracked me up.

This is a really interesting and helpful perspective; yours is sometimes one of the faces I picture asking why I don't know how programming works and why I can't understand that there's a fundamental flaw in my idea. I never considered, not for a moment, that left-brainers would like soft SF, and wouldn't be bothered by the lack of hard science. I figured they'd be haters. The ones at the conventions saying that having 9 levels of warp drive makes no sense. You telling me that people who would do that are wet blankets, and the majority are likely to be more enthusiastic than corrective, is quite a load off my mind.

Thank you. Yet again.

Anonymous said...

One of my back burner ideas was an action/comedy about a neighborhood watch that has to confront a legitimate threat. So now there's this:

These are very good signs for you, actually. It shows that your ideas have traction and resonance.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Good point.