Tag Archives: science fiction

547. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (2)

Continued from Monday.

In the movie Scrooge, just after Bob Cratchit leaves Scrooge to return home on Christmas eve, he meets his two youngest children outside a toyshop. Inside is a wonderland of toys, including mechanical marvels. Most notable is a clockwork strongman who lifts himself horizontally and then holds himself suspended by one arm. You’ll no doubt see the movie on TV sometime this month; you can watch for the scene.

When I saw it — and every time thereafter — I found myself asking who, in an obviously poor corner of London, would buy such toys? Who would make them? Why were they there?

I buy into Christmas and its magic 100%, but I also look behind the curtain. If you are a writer, you know the feeling.

Clearly, historically, these were late Victorian toys. Their existence was a product of Dickens’ push for humanity, kindness, and his desire to make childhood the joy it never was for him. In short, these toys existed in the 1970 version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol precisely because Dickens had called them forth by the writing of the novel in 1843.

If that confused you, don’t try to write time travel stories.

As I saw the toyshop, and the poor children outside who would never have such toys, I said to myself:

Let’s write a story about the toyshop, and the man who inhabits it. Let’s make him the toy maker, not simply the proprietor. How does he feel when he see children pressing their faces against the glass, knowing that they cannot afford the toys he makes? Why is he in this poor part of London? What is his backstory?

Let’s not make him a simple fellow like the one in the movie. Let’s make him a brooding figure. Let’s unfold his story slowly, and let him find his own kind of redemption. Let’s not make him anything like Scrooge, but the product of some irreversible tragedy outside himself. And then let’s reverse the irreversible, but slowly.

The skeleton of this idea floated about in the ether for decades. The final connections came when I was writing The Cost of Empire and getting acquainted with steampunk traditions.

Clockwork. Steampunk worlds work on steam and on clockwork. The toys in the toy shop are clockwork. Clocks are clockwork. Clocks measure time. Steampunk is full of time travel. Time travel is based on unsupportable science, so it touches on fantasy. A Christmas Carol is full of fantasy, if you count ghosts impinging on the “real” world as fantasy.

Remember, the subtitle of Dickens’ story was Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

When you come right down to it, A Christmas Carol is a story about time travel. Three ghosts take Scrooge to the past, present, and future. And it displays the most cliché time paradox, that Scrooge goes back in time (from the future to the present) and becomes a different person than he would have been if he had never seen the future.

So suppose a time traveler from the future goes back to Victorian London to — no, I don’t want to tell you that yet. I have to leave something for the book.

Don’t think of all this speculation as something that moves in linear order, like an outline. Think of it as ten thousand bees in a swarm inside the author’s head. Nine thousand of those bees will be blind alleys and will never appear in the final product.

The ones that made the cut were dragged out of the cosmos by hard thought and reflection over the year it took to write Like Clockwork. Those are the “ideas” no one ever asks about, but they are the ones that really count.

The ironic thing is that Like Clockwork ended up not being a Christmas story at all. In fact, it takes place in a universe where Christmas has been all but forgotten. The part of the novel actually dependent on the toy shop ends up as about ten percent of the whole.

So if, on some future date, you are reading Like Clockwork and you ask yourself, “Where the hell did all this come from?” — the answer is, “Dickens made me do it.”

Or the answer could be, “Out of the ether.” Both answers are true.

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543. The Door

 

Photo: Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons

Here is a quote for you, hot off the grill.

There is a door. On one side is written Science Fiction. On the other side is written Fantasy. You can come from either side, and pass through either way, but it will still be the same door.

You can write pure, hard science fiction, and you can write pure fantasy. At least you can try to, but no matter how much you try there will always be a modicum of fantasy in science fiction. And fantasy will always have a hard edge of life and death, or it won’t be worth reading.

Like Clockwork sounds like fantasy until half way through, when all the weird things are shown to have a scientific basis — more or less. And in the middle of the setting of the story, there is an arch between Inner London, which looks like a Dickens movie set, and Outer London, which looks like an equation.

 Snap’s world lay pinned against the Thames, from St. Paul’s to the Clock and on to the Tower, with London Bridge somewhere near the middle. It would be hard to chart the boundaries of Snap’s world, as it was a world of fogs.

Balfour walked with Snap as far as Pickwick’s and took his leave. From there, his path took him along the wider thoroughfares — and the widest were none too wide — past the shell of St. Paul’s. It was familiar territory for Balfour. He was one of the few whose nature allowed him to move freely between Inner and Outer London.

Eventually, he reached The Wall at Newgate Arch. As he faced the opening, it was a weathered arch with carvings mellowed by the corrosive fog until they were quite unreadable.  He passed through and looked back. On this side of the wall, the gate was foursquare and framed in brick. Every brick was identical and a caliper could not have found a variation in the lines of mortar.

The city beyond was foursquare as well, with rectangular buildings on rectilinear streets. A small fragment of humanity lived with Snap in Luddie London; the rest lived here.

Yin and yang. Dark and light. Old and new. The look of fantasy and the look of science fiction. It makes for a nice tension.

542. Characters

Characters in science fiction are . . . different. Let’s look at a few.

I have little interest in sterling characters who fight for the right, without a blemish or a flaw. That’s a good thing actually, since no one else does either. My only exception is Kimball Kinnison (of the Lensman series). That’s him overhead, walking with his buddies Tregonsee and Worsel.

I have no interest in literary characters who live their little lives and make novels out of the trivialities of existence. Here is a test; if a book seems to only have readers because it is required in college literature classes, maybe you should just go read some science fiction.

I like people — and characters — who do their job and a little more; who don’t think that the sun rises and sets in themselves, but who are also not passively afraid to assert themselves.

I don’t like villains who are deeply and intractably evil. I make use of such characters if I need them, but I keep them off stage. They are boring, seen up close.

I like my villains to be like my other people, rational and a little bigger than life, but affected by a flaw of character or aligned to the wrong side. They are usually selfish, but good heroes always have a bit of selfishness as well.

An interesting hero is necessary; an interesting villain is a nice bonus.

I don’t expect other authors to have similar taste, and some of my favorite books have characters I would not have chosen to write. Genly Ai comes to mind. If you don’t recognize him, he is the character through which we experience Ursula le Guin’s the Left Hand of Darkness. It is a fine book, and he does the job her story requires of him, but he is a bit of a cypher. I like Sparrowhawk better, and that is probably a big part of why I like A Wizard of Earthsea better.

And then there’s Alvin (or any other character that Arthur C. Clarke ever wrote). The City and the Stars, in either of its incarnations, (See 332. and 333.) is a mind expanding tour of the universe, but its protagonist is dull, dull, dull.

Zelazny’s characters are universally smart assed, universally delightful, and hard to tell apart.

Heinlein’s characters are all Heinlein.

541. Who is Balfour?

If there is a single characteristic of Steampunk that stands out as nearly universal, it is the use of changed versions of real persons. For instance, in The Cost of Empire, I made some fundamental changes in the British royal family (Victorian era) to get the Prince of Wales I needed for the story.

In Like Clockwork, there are quite a few alternate real people who pop up at the very end, but the most important is Balfour who is one of the main characters. You met him just before and on Halloween. Today we find him ruminating on what he has learned.

#     #     #

What do you do the day after your alter ego calls you out? Balfour spent the day in bed.

First he replayed the moment Hyde — he still thought of him as a separate person — had said, “Why now? Why not now?” It was a valid observation, but it missed the point. For endless iterations of the year, Balfour had not remembered.

“Why now?” was a valid question, and Hyde had not answered it. Why not yesterday, or a year ago, or a hundred years ago? How could Balfour change in a changeless land? Or was the land itself finally beginning to change?

Balfour took The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the shelf where it had lain unread and unremembered. He spent some time with it. It now seemed cumbersome and circuitous, but the ghost of Hyde had understood it well. It was a piece of rebellion against his father’s religion and a piece of youthful arrogance, all jumbled together.

Balfour remembered other books he had written, or Stevenson had written, now that the dam against memory had partially broken. He remembered his youthful travelogues, and he remembered Treasure Island, the book that had made him rich. When he wrote Kidnapped he had finally given David Balfour one of his own names, and now he was using it again. He thought fondly of that character, and fondly of his young self, so far in the past that even the memories were ghostly.

He remembered Edinburgh and thought, “London is not my town. Give me Auld Reekie any time, with its narrow twisted streets stretching from Holyrood to the Castle.”

He remembered Fanny, his wife, and how hard it had been to win her. He remembered her children. He had written a book of poems for them, and for all the other children of the world.

He remembered a race of dark skinned people who had found him strange, but had made him one of their own. He also remembered a single poem written on a grave in that hot and humid land.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

It was a lie. He had not laid himself down with a will. He had laid down in exhaustion after a lifetime of fighting tuberculosis, happy to have the pain stop and happy not to face once more the terror of being unable to breathe; but not happy to let go of the life and the people he had loved.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in 1850, and now he was living in an eternal 1850, not as an infant, but as a grown man with the accomplishments of a lifetime behind him.

A whole lifetime. A lifetime that tunneled all the way from that squalling infant in Scotland to a tombstone on a mountaintop in Samoa.

How could that be?

He had some of the memories of Stevenson, but the man himself had lived and died, and surely was no more. Hyde, who lived in his soul, had said to call himself Stevenson, but what was he really? Not the man himself; at best, a shade of the man. A memory, lying in bed, remembering.

He squirmed and groaned, and fought with those memories that were his, and yet were not his.

The first memory he could call his own, separate from Stevenson, was this room. He had no memory of choosing the Clock in the time Before. Whatever had brought him here, it was by a different path than any other citizen of this new London had taken.

Whatever else he was, he was Balfour, and he had been Balfour for endless iterations of the year. He had a face that looked like the face on the cover of Stevenson’s books. He had a lean body that served him well. Stevenson had been sickly, consumptive, and Balfour was not.

The man — or the shade of the man — who had passed from Edinburgh to Samoa, wracked with tuberculosis, fighting weakness all the way, through poverty to riches, from obscurity and parental disapproval to universal fame, was not content to leave things the way they were.

He was not truly Stevenson and this was not truly 1850 by a wide margin. He was Balfour, and he was ready to do battle once again to find out what it all meant.

Curious? Sure you are. Want more? It’s coming.

539. Alien Space Bats

If you have never heard the term Alien Space Bats, join the club. I found it while searching for an illustration for this post, originally titled deus ex machina. Alien Space Bats was a better title, so I changed it. ASB refers to impossible points of divergence in alternate history stories, as in, “It would take alien space bats intervening to make this story fly.” In short, it is a funnier way of saying deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina translates roughly as the God in the Machine, referring to an event in a Greek play wherein a God is literally lowered onto the stage to explain why everything happened as it did. It is all about plausibility and timing.

If, as a writer, you drag something into the story at the last minute to explain what has been going on, you are likely to be subject to ridicule, and deus ex machina is the phrase critics will use as a club to beat you with.

I ran into a variation of this back in the Precambrian, when I was in grad school. The class was on Indian history and culture. That is South Asian Indian, not Native American. We read a story in which the hero suffered terrible tribulations and at the very end it was revealed that he had done something bad in a previous life, and that was why all these things had happened to him.

My fellow students cried deus ex machina. I disagreed. If you were a Hindu, practicing or not, this story would have sounded reasonable. The bad things that happen to Hindus in this life are all explicable; they are all because they did something wrong in a past life and there is no point in moaning about it. As in life, so in literature.

It’s actually quite Christian, in a twisted sort of way. Fundamentalists don’t look to something individuals have personally done wrong, but to original sin to tell us why the bad things happen to good people.

Nowadays, New Age thinkers (?) have stood this on its head. You hear it everywhere, “Everything happens for a reason,” by which they mean that good will come from every apparent tragedy. It is undoubtedly the least intellectually valid cliché of the twenty-first century — but that’s a whole different sermon.

Now if you are or want to be a writer — and why would you be this far into this post if that weren’t true — you are the God and your computer is the machine. So ask yourself, why do bad things happen to your characters?

Metaphysically, you may be working out some personal trauma. Practically, you can’t have a plot without tension. But when it comes right down to it, neither of these is of any interest to your reader.

Your reader takes your story and temporarily treats it as real. When he reaches the point that he can’t do that any longer, he closes the book and you’re through.

So the question is, in your story, why do these things happen to your hero? In a thriller, it may be easy. His (or her) wife, husband, daughter, boss, company, governmental agency, or law firm has done something wrong and that is the reason your hero is on the run. Motivation is set from the get-go and the thriller formula becomes a matter of clever events to carry him/her through her/his tribulations.

If your hero has brought the troubles on himself, things get a little more interesting. If he/she has complicating factors and cross-motivations, even better, but you have to dribble all this out as you go along. You can’t do it as an info dump at the beginning and you can’t do it as a cheaters dump at the end. And in our world, a cheaters dump is a more honest word for deus ex machina.

You might get away with it in ancient Greece, but not in America today. Nor — recognizing that half the people reading this post are not from the USA and a fourth of them are from India — in any place where western style literature is the norm.

This is the game we have all agreed to play, so there is no point in whining about the rules.

If you have a reason for the things that happen in your story, but you don’t give hints along the way — if you save it all up for that dramatic reveal and dump it all on your reader at the very end, you’re on your own. I can’t help you.

538. Not Like Clockwork at All

I have been writing my latest novel Like Clockwork for ten months and today (October 17) I called it “first draft done”. But it’s not that simple.

I have a file on my computer called ???When???, where I keep track of starts and finishes because I would never remember dates otherwise. I went there to make note of the tentative conclusion of the first draft and took time to remind myself how I got here.

It’s a tangle. I’ve had books that took longer to write, and books that grew well beyond the size I had intended, but I have never before had a book that refused to tell me ahead of time what was going on. I decided to share the file of my progress(?), edited to remove irrelevant family matters.

===============

January 2, 2018. I began the first page of a novel/novella with the working title Clockwork Christmas.

Jan. 13, 2018.  Clockwork Christmas is now titled Like Clockwork, after the toy store where Snap works. As of today, I am about 12,000 words into the thing. I hope it will reach at least 60,000 words to be sold as a novel, but it still could possibly be finished at novella length.

(For reference, SFWA sets novella length at 17,500-40,000 words. F&SF sets 25,000 as the largest piece they will publish.)

Like Clockwork is being constructed of (minimum and approximate) 1000 word chapters.

From roughly 17 to 22 January, 2018, I paused Like Clockwork to write posts for the website. (There were several pauses for colds and other minor illnesses which I will not record.)

On Jan 31, I wrote chapter 10 in which Balfour gets the idea for Jekyll and Hyde. He does not yet know that he already wrote it in another life.

Mar. 6, 2018, things are coming slowly. As of today, about 25 chapters done. That’s a large number, but each chapter is short.

March 11, 2018  Today Stevenson emerged into consciousness, absorbing both Balfour and Hyde. That lasted about a day, then Balfour realized he can’t be the actual Stevenson because he remembers Stevenson’s tombstone. What exactly  is he? As of now, I have no more idea than he does.

April 3, 2018, writing on the chapter Slow Time, I began to show Bartleby’s dogged determination to follow any task to its completion. The question occurred to me for the first time, is Bartleby human, or a robot or android. As of this date, I hadn’t decided if he is a person or an living story character with Melville as Fabulist, and now here is a third possibility.

April 4, 2018, writing the final paragraph of the chapter Slow Time I came to the realization that Like Clockwork is the story of a whole cadre of people who made a Faustian bargain, got what they asked for, and now are suffering from buyers’ remorse. I also came to the realization that yesterday’s question, “Is he a robot?” is answered this way — he is a cold, detached, hard boiled detective type who can’t be pushed aside from a goal or puzzle. He doesn’t need a personality any more than Sam Spade did. Not a machine, but thinks like one.

(Aside — Bartleby’s name changed as the writing progressed. First he was named after the Melville scrivener. Then he became Helmsman. I liked that name but it implied that he was a leader type, which he wasn’t. Finally he became Hemmings, because it’s just a name with no hidden meanings.)

About here, some time was devoted to my personal life, plus the completion of an unrelated short story.

On about June 28, I became aware the Tor would accept novellas beginning July 30. Like Clockwork had been nearing its end at about 70000 words. That doesn’t work for today’s publishing industry, and some of that was less that compelling writing in a long flashback section. I had three choices. Shorten and go for Tor novella publication, stretch even further and try to reach salable novel length, or let it find it’s own length and self-publish. I have opted to make it a Tor novella, although the other choices remain if Tor rejects it.

On July 14, 2018, I finished the Tor novella version of Like Clockwork, now retitled The Clock that Ate Time. I still have to do some e-formating to match their submission engine. The novella version runs 39,365 words. I had to cut out everything relating to Hemmings and Crump, which means cutting out the Babbage and Hemmings’s brief career as a sweeper in a factory, along with the extended memory-retrieved-as-flashback that details how the Founder set up the whole thing and why. I really hated to let go of all that.

I would enjoy the long version better, but the short version is less discursive. If the novella doesn’t fly, I may try it elsewhere (if there is any elsewhere — F&SF maxes out their novellas at 25,000 words) or I may go back and finish the long version. For now, I’m just glad to be at least temporarily done with it.

The novella version went off to tor.com.

You have to understand that writing is schizophrenic. I was sure that it would be accepted. No other outlook would allow a writer to retain his sanity. I was equally sure that it wouldn’t be accepted. The market being what it is, everyone on Earth with a novella ready is going to jump into the tor.com window of opportunity.

From the end of July until the beginning of October, I worked on other projects.

Oct 2, 2018   tor.com rejected The Clock that Ate Time, resulting in disappointment followed by relief. Now I can complete the novel version. Bear in mind, it is not insanity to carefully edit out feelings of irritation and disappointment, as long as you know that you are doing it.

Now I am expanding Hemmings part of the story and grafting it back onto the whole. It is called Like Clockwork again and it is taking forever to complete.

October 17, 2018 I finished both part one and part three of Like Clockwork months ago. I have recently been filling in the middle third, which amounts to a long flashback that explains how reiterant London came to be. Today I wrote the last line of the middle section. I still have several  half-page long dialogs or descriptions to fill in, and I still haven’t quite finished deciding how to integrate Hemmings and Crump into the big finale, but I am calling it “rough draft finished”.

Still, it feels (and is) very unfinished at this stage. I think I need to fill in more of the Founder’s personality. That may take only a few touches here and there, but they have to be the exact right touches, and that can take a long time. I also have four versions to integrate: beginning, middle, and end of the latest version, along with the tor.com version which is the least extensive but most polished.

I need to find something to write next, or perhaps finally decide to begin self-publishing; it may take a long time for all the finalizing of Like Clockwork, a few hours here and a few hours there.

===============

See what I mean? This is my fourteenth book, and the only one that has driven me this crazy. I know that I did a lot of character name dropping, but that was unavoidable. I don’t expect you to understand anything except the level of madness this book has engendered.

Today I started deciding which potential novel will be number number fifteen. I plan to outline this one.

I think.

537. The Bridge of London (2)

. . . continued from Monday, and entirely appropriate for Halloween.

Balfour’s footsteps had led him to this passage outward toward a world beyond the fog, and he was determined to take it. But it was a strange passage. Balfour moved forward to touch the wall at his left and found it solid. The half-timbers were soft with age, but real; the brick infill was cracked and seamed, but real.

The London Bridge of 1850 was a span of steel supported on five stone arches. There had been a time, a brief year, when a man could walk across it and look downstream to the medieval bridge it had replaced, before that rotted hulk had been torn down.

The medieval London Bridge had so many arches that their combined resistance backed up the Thames. In flood time, the wider central gap erupted such a torrent that boats could not pass. On the bridge, over the centuries, houses, businesses and chapels were built until only a single narrow lane remained for human passage.

The house beneath Balfour’s hand was medieval in structure and in its state of decay. The roadway beneath the skiff of snow was the macadam of 1850. The path out over the Thames was narrow and dark.

He walked forward. The houses did not make a continuous line on either side, as the true medieval bridge had done, but left wide openings, first downstream, then up. Balfour could hear the Thames below, flowing quietly at first where the bridge arched high above, then grumbling when it had to force its way around a pier. The medieval buildings passed by him in the fog as he moved forward, but he did not turn aside again to examine them. He did not care about their mysteries. He only wanted to cross and see if London still extended beyond the river and the fog.

Ancient decay flanked him. Modern industry held him up above the water. His breath frosted the air before him, and the fog about him glowed as if there were moonlight.

He walked until he had surely reached the middle of the river. A chapel reared itself up before him. He knew it. It had been destroyed long before he was born, but he had read of the Chapel of Thomas à Becket. Henry II had built it after Becket was martyred at Canterbury. It had stood at the midpoint of the medieval London Bridge. Pilgrims had come here to begin their procession to Canterbury.

He passed inside, where the fog light barely penetrated. It was an empty, barn like structure, full of echoes, looking long deserted. He could see tall windows, devoid of glass, and the half timbers up high where some light penetrated, but the ground level was close to complete darkness.

Balfour heard the sound of footsteps in the dark. He felt a presence near him, and a cold breath on his face. He reached out his hands and touched nothing. He stepped forward, reaching, and found nothing. He said, “Who are you?”

A voice out of the darkness replied, “You call me Nemesis. You used to call me Hyde.”

Balfour lunged forward but whoever spoke remained just out of his reach. He shouted, “Why can’t I see you?”

“You could never see me. When you wrote me as Hyde, you made sure your readers could never see me. Oh, you said I was shrunken and evil, but there was no detail in your description. You didn’t want to know, and you didn’t want them to know.”

“But why?”

“You can no more see me than you can see the back of your own head. Come on, man, read the koan!”

Balfour stopped reaching out. He could hear breathing in the dark, but it might have been breath from his own lungs. The voice said, “Stop trying to write Jekyll and Hyde. You already wrote it, in a far country, a thousand years ago. It’s time to stop reliving and start remembering.”

“How do you know that?”

“How else? I am you. You hived me off. You separated from me because you feared me. You did it in our youth, when God and godly parents ruled your life, and you were afraid to sin. Once you became mature, you wrote a book to try to get me back, but you failed. That is what made you susceptible to the one who made this place.”

“Who made this place?”

“Why ask me? I am you. Ask yourself.”

Balfour went on, “Why did you come to me now?”

“I didn’t come to you. I am within you. I always have been, and you have been seeking me all our life. You simply found me, at last. Why now? Why not now?”

“What . . .?”

“Stop asking. I am not separate from you. We are one, and we’re talking to ourself. It’s time to stop that.”

There was anger in the voice that rang around them. “You wrote the coward Jekyll. You gave him the elixir that would let him destroy me. I sat on your shoulder in your mind and watched you write those first words, then I took over the story.

“You wrote Treasure Island with its prissy squire and its self-certain doctor and its self-centered child actor. I wrote Jekyll and Hyde through your hand and against your will. I am your pride and your lust. I am the fire that lives inside you. I am the one whom you repressed when you agreed to help with the building of the Great Clock. I am the part of you which regrets what we did.

“You won’t even call yourself by our own name. You must stop that. We have a battle to fight together. You can’t fight it without me.”

And then Balfour — or call him Stevenson — was alone. And not alone.

#                   #                   #

There was no other exit from the chapel, although he searched for hours. What lay beyond, if anything, would remain a mystery. He emerged from the door where he had gone in. The bridge lay before him, disappearing into fog, and down its center was the single line of footsteps which he had laid down in coming here. Hyde had left no footprints. It was a mobius bridge, that only carried him back to his beginning.   finis, for now