And Now Back to the Main Topic!

A reader whom I respect has asked me nicely when my journal will turn from arguing law and moral philosophy and say something about Science Fiction, a topic (I admit) much more fun (and much less morbid) to open to discussion.

The problem is that my science fiction writing is my craft: it is about as much fun to talk about as listening to a carpenter talk about how to make a chair.

Now, I had a blast, I admit, writing a journal article or three making fun of poor Mr. Pullman’s creaky chair, because I can see just where the joints are not fitted, and I can see why the three-legged thing collapses under the buttocks of reader disbelief when weight is put on it. I know which legs in his plot he should have lengthened so the thing would not wobble so.

So, at the risk of boring everyone, I can talk about my work in progress. Seasoning the wood is important. Particular types of hard wood are difficult to plane smooth, and particular care must be taken not to go against the grain, or to drive a nail where later use will cause a split. You want to use a Number Two Flemish lathe to rough out the shape, and go over it first with coarse sandpaper, then with fine, to bring out the luster. You do your sanding before you do your joining, because there are angles you will not be able to reach….

Actually, talking about carpentry sounds more interesting that talking about writing. But you asked for it, dear readers, so here goes.

Do I need to give PLOT SPOILER WARNINGS for  a book that is not written, not published, and might be changed radically before it ever sees the light of day (if itGod willingever does)?

I’ll try not to give away any plot surprises that are not likely to be given away in the back cover blurb. But if you are a purist who wants a clean read, don’t read below the cut if you aim to read the book when and if it is ever finished.


Let me tell you the background of what I am working on:

Once upon a time, when I was done writing THE GOLDEN AGE, I came across a website where the posters were discussing the ideas in all seriousness. It seems there is a group called the Transhumanist or the Extropians who literally believe the invented fictions of far-future fiction are not only possible, but likely, and greatly to be desired, and likely to happen within one lifetime. In particular, they long for the days with godlike superhuman intellects can be contrived by engineering, or human minds downloaded without loss of personality into vessels (mechanisms or biotechnological or what-have-you) more durable than mere human flesh and blood. Now I am not surprised that the ideas in my humble book and the ideas of the Transhumanists overlapped to such a degree: my ideas are not that original, for I think anyone who sat down and thought about the problems and the possibilities would reach much the same thoughts.

What was odd about conversing with them, it that it was as if, say, H.G. Wells, who made up the idea of invaders from Mars, were talking to Flying Saucer cultists, people who actually believed in the Men from Mars. What I thought was fiction, they thought could well be real.

I cannot fault these fine people for their hopes: I would not mind living in a far future utopia myself. But I don’t think it is actually going to happen. They are expecting The Singularity in their lifetimes: I am not expecting to see a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime. They are expecting that science will find a way to reverse entropy (hence the name of the group, Extropians—named for extropy, the reverse process of entropy). That seems like an article of faith to me, not a scientific speculation or even a legitimate science fictional speculation. And I don’t mean that as a slur: I like religion. (I don’t like science masquerading as religion or religion masquerading as sciencebut that is a discussion for another day).

Where I differed from the honorable Extropians was in my skepticism. Here is what I was skeptical about: Even if you had the power to change human nature because you had broken down the rules of psychology to an operable engineering algorithm, you could not change the human condition. There would still be scarce resources; there would still be entropy. Scarcity means competition, which means poverty and exploitation; entropy means death. The computer minds of the far future would still forget thoughts because they have to prioritize computer time and storage space. If we were all disembodied brain-information living in a computer mainframe larger than earth, we would still eventually run out of resources for what we wanted to do. Malthus always has the last laugh. Death still wins.

To break this rule, you’d have to break the universe; and anyone who sets about the break the universe is sure to run into opposition. Ah! That gave me an idea for a war involving all of timespace in which no party, no galaxy, no cluster, no supercluster, could afford to be neutral.

So I decided to write an anti-singularity post-singularity novel.

My take on it might be different from yours if you wrote it up, dear reader, for I am of the generation that Gave Up On The Moon. We had a launch vehicle capable of orbit, capable of lunar landings, the mighty Saturn V, and now the expertise to build them has evaporated. I don’t have a flying car or a jetpack. The moon was not blown out of Orbit in 1999 as promised, nor did Khan and his eugenic supermen take over Asia, nor did the UFOs from a dying world invade. I visited the Year A.D. 2000 and all I came back with was an Internet filled with porn, where anonymous yammerheads tell you their opinions in all caps.

So I wanted to write a post-singularity novel that treats the singularity with the same cynical realism with which the history has treated the space program. I wanted a universe with no magic and no faster than light drive.  I wanted posthumans, no matter how superintelligent, to still suffer from the laws of cause and effect and supply and demand: no matter what their energy supply or how they sustained their larger-than-galactic thinking mechanisms, they still hungered, they still died. There still ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, not in this universe, at any rate.

My plan was to have each volume in the story scale up from the previous volume. The first volume would take place in the near-future, and involve only the Earth, and the final would take place in the Year A.D. Oh-My-Gosh-That’s-Lots-of-Zeroes, and involve everything from here to the Corona Borealis Supercluster one billion light years away. I am following in the footsteps here of TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson, and also AT THE ESCHATON by the great Charles Sheffield.

If THE GOLDEN AGE was my attempt to rewrite Olaf Stabledon’s LAST AND FIRST MEN, then this current project is my attempt to rewrite the dismal vision of his STARMAKER. I am not an ambitious writer: I merely want to write the greatest space epic ever.

That is the monster I have been attempting to capture on the nib of my pen for the past year. I am about 200 pages into it, and less than a tenth of the way into my outline.

So much for the background. Now for the progress report:

In the early morning hours of this Saturday, I had a breakthrough with a scene that was causing me great difficulty, when a certain plot-twist naturally suggested itself.

Pacing is an important requirement, as is the seamlessness with which one plot development arises, both naturally in hindsight but unexpectedly in foresight.

The trick of plot tricks is to trick the reader. Got that?

The trick has to be fair and square. The reader cannot see it coming, but once it comes, he should clap his hand to his brow and say, “Of course!  What else!”  rather than say, “Jeez, what a creaky plot contrivance. Why not just put up a sign that says LAZY AUTHOR NEEDS THIS DUMB THING TO HAPPEN TO MAKE THE ENDING COME OUT AS DICTATED?”

Sometimes a minor correction can have major results. I had two characters talking, Menelaus and Soren, and in the first draft, Soren was friendly from the beginning of the scene, trying to arrange for Menelaus to fit into a future society into which cryonic suspension has just, through no wish of his own, deposited him. On the advice of my wife, I rewrote the chapter. Menelaus was too passive. Because Menelaus is the hero, and heroes do things, they don’t just have things done to them.

I lost a lost of good images and good lines during the rewrite. Sad, but writing is not for the sentimental. Writing is a business, just like being a hit-man. Except the pay is not as good.

(The passiveness of the heroine was one of my wife’s main discontents with THE FAMILY TRADE by Charles Stross, a book she read in manuscript because of the author’s generosity. I wished he had given her the chance to advise him before the book was done, because she several had suggestions, fairly easy to implement, that would have improved, perhaps, the manuscript. There was a scene where the heroine was in prison, basically doing nothing, and she should have been doing something, or so I hear. I did not read it, so I cannot say how well it was executed. The basic story idea for THE FAMILY TRADE is a brilliant one: Assume a Zelazny-like universe were one family has the power to cross between worlds, but only with what they carry on their persons. What trade naturally suggests itself? What is worth the most money and requires the smallest load? Suppose that any time you came to a border, you can can “cross” to a parallel world where the borders and walls and fences are differently placed, take a dozen steps, and cross back, and so now the Berlin Wall (or whatever) is behind you. With that talent, what would you be? When I heard Stross’ idea, I clapped my hand to my brow and said “Of course! What else!”— you can read the book and see if you found the answer executed in an entertaining way.)

((EDITORIAL COMMENT: my wife insists that I add here that she enjoyed THE FAMILY TRADE books very much.))

(((There was one supremely clever idea I just heard about, that the editors, servants of the Dark Lord, forced poor Mr. Stross to remove, which I really really wished he had not. I would not dream of telling it to you, dear readers, because I dare not spoil the possibility that the esteemed Charles Stross might use it in some as-yet undrempt sequel in the same background. If anyone reading this knows what I am talking about, I mean the idea about the helicopter. CHARLIE! YOU SHOULD HAVE KEPT THE IDEA ABOUT THE HELICOPTER!! It was a freaking Wizard idea. Simply oo-rah wizard cool, not to mention QX and shiny as a king’s tin hat.)))

The point here is that the hero has to be DOING something. Even if he is in prison with his eyes burned out of his head by hot irons, you have to have him DOING something. Corwin of Amber scraped away at the thick oak door of his prison with a sharpened spoon he stole from a banquet, for chrissake. It was pathetic, but it was something. Corwin’s eyes grew back by magic for no reason, and a mad wizard rescued him, by magic for no reason, but who cares? Because Corwin was doing something to escape, it does not seem (to this reader, at least) like a contrivance when the plot contrives to let him out of prison. It looked like the escape was earned. That is lesson number one.

Lesson number two: even the most contrived plot contrivance can be forgiven if something is made of it later. Corwin later returns to the his cell and examines the magical picture the mad magician sculpted into a wall with a sharpened spoon. The picture comes alive and he falls into it, finding himself in the cell and lair of the magician, where, among other things, the origin of the universe is revealed, as well as the reason the universe must be destroyed. It is not Shakespeare, but, Good Gosh it is prime Zelazny: that is just a darn cool scene. If the magician’s magic picture on the wall had been mentioned only in the escape-from-jail scene, but not built on later, it would seem less realistic and hence more contrived.

Drama is about conflict, and that means, an all-powerful hero is as uninteresting as an impotent hero. The first has no conflict because there is nothing he cannot do; the second has no conflict because he can do nothing.

So in my scene, my wife made the suggestion, straight out of Creative Writing 101, of having Menelaus be the active mover of the scene rather than the passive observer. He has to initiate the contact with Soren, and have the agreement between the two men be Menelaus’s idea, not not Soren’s idea–Gabby is a sidekick. 

I added some drama by having Menelaus bet all his major organs, and, yes, his life, against an organlegger of the future, and the bet gives him a deadline he has to escape, and so in the revised version, Menelaus has to talk Soren into taking his case before sundown.

To add more drama, I made it next to impossible for Menelaus to find Soren; I made it so he did not recognize Soren when he did find him; I gave Soren a strong reason why he cannot take the case: Soren will lose his new house to the bank if he uses the money to help Menelaus.

So there is a third lesson from Creative Writing 101. If you can raise the stakes, raise them. Not only should something be at stake in the plot, more than one thing should be at stake, and the stakes should be personal to the character, as well as affecting the character’s loved ones. A doctor-drama where a surgeon is working to rescue a pregnant woman’s baby is exciting, because who does not like babies?–but it is more dramatic if the woman is his wife, and she reveals that the child is the bastard son of the Mafia assassin sent to kill the doctor due to his horseracing debts–the assassin is none other than his long lost elder brother, Racer X! Can he save his wife’s cuckold-child, the son of the man who tried to kill him, not knowing the killer is his own brother? If the child, who is actually his nephew, needs a liver transplant, and the doctor is himself the only compatible donor, having him perform surgery on himself while working on his wife while working on the child while the assassin stalks ever nearer down the darkened hospital corridors is more dramatic than merely having the doc work on a stranger. Better yet, have the scene take place aboard a sinking ship surrounded by sharks in the arctic. Even better, have it take place aboard Airforce One during a lightning storm, and the pilot is fainted at the yoke, the copilot is a Red spy, and radioactive sharks with lasers in their head are about to open fire on the plane, killing the President, who is also the doctor performing the surgery, and he has to get back to the White House in time to veto a bill to kill a basket of endangered cute puppies or something. And make his wife the Queen of England, so that the kid in the womb is the Prince of Wales. That’s entertainment.

You are not the friend of your hero, O novelist.

So now Menelaus, instead of merely passively listening to Soren educate him to the future world in which he finds himself, now has to talk a reluctant Soren into being his patron and mentor, and, in effect, talk Soren out of his house, and if Menelaus fails to persuade Soren by sundown, he goes under the knife of the organlegger.

Oh, and he missed the deadline because an alien-math experiment he rashly introduced into his nervous system wakes up and takes control of his brain at the last minute, or maybe Menelaus goes insane. He wakes up, and the sun is already gone down, and now it is too late for him.

I added that part because I did not want things to go too easily for my hero. The rule is: big heroes face big problems. They fight Titans!

Menelaus doesn’t get eaten by the shrieking eels at this time. The eel doesn’t get him. I’m explaining to you because you looked nervous.