Monday, September 22, 2008

My first series!

Another graphics element -- I used it in a grayscale illustration in the first issue of Swill.

As soon as I stuck my head in the bar I knew I was making a mistake. The place was packed and noisy and full of happy young people, a breed of human I can do well without. I started to withdraw when the bartender caught my eye and held up his hand and waved two fingers toward himself.


I pushed my way through the crowd and the bartender gestured again, moving me further down. That’s when I saw that there was a big chunk of territory at the end of the bar that was completely vacant except for a beefy beef-colored guy in a Hawaiian shirt and a dark-green fedora. He had a tumbler of something clear and fizzy in ice, a shot glass, a sweaty silver shaker and a red plastic bucket sitting next to him on the bar and he wore an expression of exceptional mildness.

The bartender smiled at me from behind his mustache. If I get much balder I’m going to have my scalp depilated and get a tattoo of his comb-over.

“Come on, hoss,” he said. “You’ve got to meet the latest. Get him while he’s here cause he’s going away fast.”

So on Friday I was feeling well enough to work -- but I didn't want to do anything I was supposed to do. Instead, I had a short story that wanted to get out. Seven pages later it was done and I'll be thrashing it over with the writer's group tonight. (Remind me to introduce you to the writer's group some time -- nice batch of folks. We are a diverse bunch to say the least...)

It's got the same setting and a couple of characters from The Little Things (currently available both on-line and in print form, see the Swill website over in the sidebar) and I realized that I've solved a minor problem that's been bugging me for a while.

I adore science fiction. The second book I was exposed to was Red Planet by Robert Heinlein and that was it. I was hooked.

But SF hasn't been an easy thing for me to write. See, the way I look at it is that if you're gonna write SF you need to make some kind of scientific speculation part of the package -- if it's just an excuse to give us weirdness you may as well just write fantasy.

But when I've tried to do this in the past the ideas ate the story. The fiction went away. And then I wrote The Little Things and found a way to make the ideas the center of the story. Make them into bar stories make the POV character part of the audience.

No more elaborate setups, everything is explained to the POV character and thus the audience, and best of all the idea is the story.

Bar stories are great. But I hate bars -- and that was the key element that really made things congeal for me. By making these stories unpleasant experiences for the POV character and by making the bartender into mean-spirited bully-ish asshole there is conflict built into the situation from the get-go.

This is a formula. That's appropriate here -- I just want an outlet for the goofy little riffs I come up with as I graze my way through the sciences. My ambitions for these stories are quite humble.

But they're gonna be fun.

The thought that triggered this entry?

Rational thought does not come easily or naturally to humans. Our brains are great for making up mythologies -- but achieving an understanding of the world and ourselves is an uphill struggle.

It's not what our brains were made to do. They've been doing brainscans of people making decisions. It looks as though most of our thinking takes place in parts of the brain that we share with fish and lizards -- what we regard as rationality gets very little play.

So what would happen if you had a brain that was made for rational thought? Here's a hint -- it doesn't go as well as one might hope...


robp said...

Hey Sean,

I've read The Little Things in various versions, as you know, and I've never found the bartender to be bullyish. Well, a little at the end, but he doesn't like the protagonist and as readers we don't know their history.

I think a bar and rational thought are two things I've always liked the concept of. Bars unfortunately tend to fill with people who need to drink in public, at prices far higher than if they had friends who would drink at their house. Maybe it's like hookers - you're not really paying for the sex, you're paying because they won't be there in the morning.

Some philosophers had this rational thought thing nailed before the scans proved them right - people make their decisions, then come up with the logical rationalizations. We know what we want without analysis; if it looks good I put it in my mouth. When I am done with the fressing, I am sure I can explain its necessity. Because it was cheese (or a redhead, or Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout).

My wife has suggested that because I don't like writing about settings I should write science fiction, because then I could create my own, but I think she's got that backward - a quick impressionistic setting can only be done if the reader is familiar with the references. If you're writing sf, you have to create an entire world.

And Little Things succeeds completely in its original world setting. The setting is the story's pivotal creation. Whereas the story I've just started is essentially an outer space western, and I won't know until I'm farther into it whether putting this story in spaceships works, I just think it's the funnest way to go with this one. And I'm fully aware of yr point re the science in science fiction as I proceed, and before I started, but there's a time when you just have to write the fucking thing and deal with your quandaries after.

Sean Craven said...

Dude, you are so right about the way backgrounds work. One of the reasons why a lot of Victorian storytelling still works in SF/F is because of the mechanics of describing an unfamiliar world -- in early fiction people were much less informed about unfamiliar peoples and places and novels were a big source of data for them.

Now that people can be expected to know what a car or a rainforest looks like you need a lot less exposition to make things work.

Unless you're dealing with the creation of a new setting, in which case all those outmoded expository techniques come out of the toolbox.

That's been a real breakthrough for me recently -- developing the ability to deliver fairly sophisticated exposition without bringing the story to a screeching halt. It's an ongoing struggle but I'm getting a grip on it.

And my ideas about the importance of scientific speculation in SF are purely a matter of creative taste -- I've enjoyed a lot of SF that didn't make use of that element. SF can be as much a matter of atmosphere as anything else.

When I say that without science-based speculation I may as well write fantasy, I say it from the perspective of someone who does write fantasy. If you aren't hung up on that kind of speculation in the first place there's no reason to try and use it. If I write a crime novel it's not likely to be a whodunnit because I'm not into that kind of thing. Same principal.