Archive for November 4, 2015

© 2015 G.N. Jacobs

Mom asked me a couple weeks ago – “Why do you like science fiction?” – over dinner.

There are many ways to take that question. Unintentional dig from someone who decided long ago the genre held no attraction for her, but wants to understand. Semi-intentional dig from someone trying to shape my writing away from the things I like. Some flavor of All of the Above. It’s Mom, bet on the All of the Above answer.

I sort of knew when I gave my answer that I’d hear from the scared part of her that wants me to write important things. To the tune of 60-percent. She didn’t disappoint; I got the email three days later saying “You are so creative and have been all your life. There has to be some way to focus that into other things.”

Of course, I will use another post to really go off on her for the hurtful parts of this conversation. This one is all about what is so freakin’ awesome about Science Fiction, Fantasy and all other forms of speculative fiction that I’m going to mostly ignore the attempt to improperly change me as a writer in someone else’s image.

My answer included elements of my stock answers on the subject of science fiction. SF isn’t really a genre, but a setting in which other stories from other genres can play out. The best case in point is Nora Roberts’ In Death Series. Take the hardboiled police procedural novel out of Evan Hunter’s (writing as Ed McBain) cold dead hands and set the book in the middle 2050s. I suppose when I get out of my own way long enough to actually read about LT. Eve Dallas, I will learn why Barnes & Noble curiously stacks the series in Mystery and not Science Fiction.

So as I said this my next point to Mom went towards the classic raison d’etre of the science fiction story: the disguised Social Commentary. Using the examples of my favorite three Star Trek episodes, I carefully explained that science fiction allows the writer to get in his or her shots at things that either need to change or must undergo the extensive discussion that explains why they must stay the same.

I brought up Let This Be Your Last Battlefield where the Enterprise picks up two gents that each have black on half of his face and white on the other half. These characters instantly revert to character archetypes that we saw in Les Miserables, the multi-decade pursuit of a downtrodden underdog by a police officer dedicated to Law & Order at all costs. Beale and Loki run around the ship trying to win hearts and minds among the crew.

The crew seem to take this contest of ideas as something amusing, because the conceit of the whole show was to assert that by 2266 (the in-show calendar year of the first season) racism would be largely bottled up on the trashcan of history. The crew politely hear both men out and don’t take sides, because people from a society that has already worked through racism and who are constrained as much as possible by the Prime Directive don’t need to take sides.

A little bit of drama results when Commissioner Beale forgets that he is a guest on the Enterprise there at Captain Kirk’s sufferance. Beale insists on a direct trip home for Loki’s trial and probable execution. Kirk explains about a mission to deliver important medicine to a nearby colony and that a Federation court convened by a more responsible authority (at minimum the Commodore or Admiral in charge of a starbase) must decide what is essentially Loki’s extradition hearing. Kirk punctuates his demands by threatening to self-destruct the ship with all souls aboard.

Beale relents long enough for the Enterprise to deliver the medicine, but then uses his greater personal power to yank out the self-destruct circuits and hijack the Enterprise to his homeworld. He explains the hatred to the crew members that one breed of the alien race is black of the left side of the face and the other breed is black on the right side of the face, a heavy-handed metaphor for racist social division based on skin color. The Enterprise arrives to find everybody dead on the planet below such that no one was able to bury the bodies. Beale and Loki beam down to the surface to finish the extermination of their people because their hate is all that remains.

I explained to Mom that in 1967 the mostly white television audience of this episode espoused views like that of Commissioner Beale. The good ones might have said I’m fully aware of the flaws of our society, but I don’t see why I have to put up with the liberal rabble-rousing on TV that wants to rub my face in those flaws like it’s somehow my fault for being successful. The bad ones freaked out when Kirk kissed LT. Uhura in a later episode Plato’s Stepchildren. According to one of Nichelle Nichols’ oft-repeated anecdotes from The First Interracial Kiss on American TV (interracial kisses had aired earlier in Britain) a man from the South wrote this letter – “I don’t hold with mixing the races, but Uhura lookin’ so fine like that…Kirk’s just gonna kiss her.”

So the point of science fiction is that by wrapping the metaphor in the garb of fantasies easily dismissed for its unreality the author gets to say more than if he or she tries to drop that First Interracial Kiss on, say, an episode of the nearly contemporaneous first season of classic Hawaii 5-0. Being able to speak up and say things that matter should appeal to people like Mom who holds her humanity slightly cheap because she had too many good reasons not to march with Dr. King, who was later assassinated creating mountains of regret. Science fiction when given into the hands of people who have something to say is never unimportant.

I didn’t get to say this next part to Mom because it came up in a conversation a few days later with another family member about Jules Verne and the ability to extrapolate the future. I said that Jules Verne writing in From the Earth to the Moon ninety years ahead of Apollo 11 predicted many things about the details of the program. That Americans would fund the effort because who else was wastefully rich enough to try and had already built up a national personality from our westward expansion that we can do anything we decide upon? That three men would go. That these three men would shoot from a place in Central Florida that seems to be equidistant from the current sites of Disneyworld and the Kennedy Space Center from the description. That the vessel would look like a conical bullet. Science fiction writers when they guess correctly prepare us for the future. Similarly, how much of our present day worry about cybercrime stems from works like Neuromancer that depicted hacking to be so very easy?

But, the real reason for enjoying and defending Science Fiction is the sheer joy I get pitching my stories to a certain type of writer: the one whose eyes light up in the presence of wild mind expanding ideas. I go to a bar after the one writers group I still attend. The what are you working on question comes up.

I wax eloquently and craptologically on the current works in progress. One is about a ruler of a planet in the Greater Magellanic Cloud who sees with the vision to be the local version of Caesar or Alexander who is forced on a great quest borrowing the rogue personality of his twin brother. I explain that I borrow the larger than life of a Caesar as written by Shakespeare, mix it with the mythic Twins Switching Places motif of everybody including the Bard and filter the awesome through the lens of Star Wars.

I got a conditional seal of approval from the woman in the conversation as long as borrowing from Shakespeare meant only taking plot elements and not the confusing, to her, iambic pentameter. I may respond in a later post that iambic pentameter in context is massively awesome. But, it was a fun moment compared to pitching my already written crime story about the George Forman grill with another woman in the room. Gleeful usage of cannibalism even in service of black satire about TV advertising, consumer culture and so on floated like a lead balloon. Still learning to read my audience.

But the point is, I just like being the guy with the interesting forward thinking ideas.

© 2015 G.N. Jacobs

Inevitably, discussions between writers turn to variations of how I do things. The answer varies with each writer who over time has developed his or her unique style, work habits, work schedule and favorite tools. The tools part of the discussion can be especially fascinating.

Close your eyes when listening to us talk about our tools. You’ll hear a lot of passion about things that essentially more or less work the same way. Write in English with intent towards creating a typed manuscript; write with the dreaded Qwerty keyboard. Inevitable, like night following day.

This came about due to the makers of the first PCs making a conscious decision to keep Qwerty so that the office assistants likely to see the most immediate gains in productivity wouldn’t freak out. It meant that preparatory to attending the expensive combined middle and high school my parents thought I needed, I had to take Typing Class. In addition to learning to nine-finger type, I also learned the value of not putting certain thoughts down on paper to avoid certain parental and familial entanglements. More on this later.

My last official speed trial said 40 WPM. But, does a speed trial really matter with the spell and grammar checks that have become routine with modern word processors? The traditional speed trial deducts for mistakes, but technology that does the 80-percent heavy lifting for proofreading renders the worry about mistakes lessening our speed to nil. Because I am specifically not the business type in a suit yelling at the long-suffering ladies in my office (a psychic predicted this of me for my mother, more on this later), I don’t need to think of my output in terms of WPM, but Words per Writing Day.

When I am really good despite my need to watch more television than is strictly good for me, I pull off 4,000-5,000 Words per Day. A more normal day says I will pull off 1,500-3,000 Words per Day. This is either a chapter a day or two chapters a day. I shoot for more of the former because I do feel the Reaper following me egging me on wanting more speed, more speed before I die. I also have a life coach, whom I have to pay, calling me every morning to make sure that I did my homework the night before.

This love/hate with my chosen life affects my choices for technology. On the one hand, I want the latest most mobile thing that means doing my work in the fastest way that other people (the presently mythical editor helping me get my equally mythical bestselling novels into New York shape) can easily manipulate. So I go for things like Word including the Mobile versions with the best Bluetooth keyboard that fits my hand size. I have used a variety of apps that output Word documents (See Reviews). Then Microsoft finally decided to wipe out many of their competitors with their own Mobile app. Unless the product completely sucks, go with the winner of the monopoly war.

Alternately, I go very primitive, pen and paper or manual typewriter. Usually, this is a sign that I’m still working out my story. I did take it to heart that a writer should work out the concept in the cheapest possible way ($2.99 for the 6” x 9” spiral and $2.50 for the ball point cartridge, or free waste paper run through the Olympia) before committing the words to the big technology. I sometimes need to create about six chapters in this manner before adding future chapters to my To Do List and doing them whenever the noise in my head allows. It breaks down like this: pen and paper for situations where portability is key (most days) and typewriter for when I feel the need to go unplugged in a situation where the noise won’t affect my fellow writers at the coffeehouse.

It took me a long time to realize how to do pen and paper in the most economical way possible. First, I found that disposable pens lack precisely because they are disposable. I liked Sanford Rollerballs and Pilot G-2s for a time, especially the smaller points. But, these pen lines are still the ones where you pay $12 for six and then because you have more than one you still treat them like disposables. Suddenly, going to the office supply superstore to buy the pen box becomes that strange impulse buy. I have a breadbox sized container of all the expensive disposable pens that I cleared out of my desk that I really, really would just like to give away. Any takers?

Saving money with pens meant that I had to learn to treat my pens the way mythological kings and heroes treat their swords: own one expensive pen and metaphorically give it a name. King Arthur had Excalibur. Charlemagne had Joyeuse. Aragorn had Anduril. I have Storyteller, a name that I just made up to complete the metaphor of this paragraph.

Storyteller is silver with black rubber grips and a shape much like a high-velocity rifle bullet (let’s avoid the obvious analysis here). My sister gave me the original as a birthday gift. Two weeks later, while still in the throes of buying expensive disposables, I misplaced the as yet unnamed Storyteller. Behind the sofa cushions I think. I promptly went to Staples to get the replacement because when your non-writing sister gives you a sword, I’m too cowardly to admit I lost it.

Proving the aphorism that you find things for which you stop looking, a week later I found Storyteller. But, at least I have the nearly-identical spare, Wordsmith. It doesn’t have the patina my grimy fingers gave Storyteller and the ballpoint cartridge doesn’t seat exactly the same way. For a good while, these pens rested in my drawer while I did other things and then figuratively speaking I pulled the sword from the stone. But, Storyteller needed a stablemate, Red Doom, my editing pen, a later design from the same company using interchangeable ballpoint cartridges.

So, not counting the disposables, I’m out about $80 to the Cross Pen Company, including replacement ink. When you buy the one and always know where it is, over time you get to amortize the cost into endless utility at the cheapest cost. It took months to break my habit of going into the office supply store and buying disposables, but habits can break from time to time.

My decision about pens affected my decision about clothes in that I buy shorts and long pants with the right kind of pockets so I can clip my pens to a pocket at my left hip. So, I carry four pens everywhere, Storyteller, Red Doom and two of the disposables that are for the person who asks to borrow a pen, one in blue, one in black.

And so this is but a small part of me communicating my fussy persnickety relationship to my words…