Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Russia's Doomsday Device

As an excellent follow-up to writing about a science fiction future, I read an article today about Russia's Doomsday device, Perimeter. I was first shocked that they had one - the most familiarity I have with one is watching Dr. Strangelove in high school. But it exists, and it's active, and it continues to be upgraded to this day.

Perimeter's very existence is surreal and far from comforting.

The very idea of such a relic of the Cold War mentality is alien to me; the Berlin Wall came down about the time I learned to talk, so it belongs very firmly in the realm of The Past, that mystical country of questionable relevance. Perimeter drives home in the most graphic way possible that nuclear war is something that was seriously considered for a long stretch of time.

I'm quite glad we never tipped over that brink.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Science Fiction Future

It probably says a lot about my social group that "how should we end the world?" is not a question that even makes me blink anymore.

I do a lot of collaborative writing; I currently have three on the go, though one I've taken over most of the writing portion while my collaborator gives me ideas. They all tend to be post-apocalyptic science fiction, as is a fair amount of what we read and pass around to each other. But the focus isn't on the end of the world, it's on what happens after, in the days-weeks-months after everything changes. The way it ends isn't usually important, either; the most recent collaboration the end of the world was decided based on an article I'd read in the paper that morning, with no real emotional investment in it or plan to explore how we got to that point in the story.

A concept bandied about in science circles nearly as much as science fiction is that of a singularity, an idea or instant or tipping point beyond which the future is unrecognizable and can't be accurately predicted. With the rapid rate of change in technology, my friends and I tend to take for granted that we'll live through at least one more singularity.

But, given the very nature of a singularity, it's difficult to write past one. So we write not singularities, but the kind of disaster that comes from attempts gone wrong; anarchy, oppressive regimes, and accidental genocides. It's half adventure and half thought experiment as to how radical a shift we the writers could survive.

And it's a lot of fun to write.

All of it, if we ever finish, will be available free online under Creative Commons, because a communist approach to intellectual property is something else we four share. As one succinctly put it, it's better to have it out there for free and have people read it than to charge and sell one copy. In an ideal world, of course, we'd be able to exist on our writing and other people would be able to read it whenever they liked, but we don't have one yet.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Robert Wiersema

Last Wednesday Robert Wiersema came to talk to the Victoria Writers' Society about writing in the real world and his new book Bedtime Stories. He will be touring the Island and the Gulf Islands for the next eight weeks. His wife will drive, to protect society. In the book, father and son bond over bedtime stories, since father is a big reader - a writer, actually - but the son is dyslexic. Despite the similarities to Wiersema's own life, he reiterates often that his main character is not him. They may both get up at 4am to get in an hour and a half of writing before facing the day, and both write everything longhand in fountain pen before typing it up, and both have sons the same age. But the character is not him. "Chris is not me. I want to be very clear on these things," Wiersema says with a smile.

The very funny Wiersema never plans what he's going to say . . . ever. Which has gotten him in trouble on more than one occasion. He doesn't specify the occasions, but talks of surreal moments in his career as a writer. "Some days are strange. Some days you stay after work getting your picture taken for the Globe and Mail lying on the floor with the book open on your chest like publishing it has killed you." He nods at the VWS audience, "some days you give speeches you're in no way prepared for."

His topic for the night was "writing in the real world," so he elaborated on how and why he got into writing. He started by as an English Literature student, commenting that "there are few things more arrogant than a second or third year English Literature student, especially one with creative writing pretensions." Working in a bookstore was one of the two more important things in his career as a writer - the other being getting together with his wife. Working in a bookstore exposed him to what people actually read, not just what was considered part of the CanLit canon. "That was a great moment for me as a writer, realizing that there was value outside of what was considered normal."

He then posed the question, "What part of your real life gives birth to the writing?" For him, it's fear. What kick-started his first novel was he and his wife getting pregnant. He realized that he was going to be a father, and thirty. He was happy, then terrified, then wrote Before I Wake in three months in a white fear of "what's the worst that can happen?"

As a last point, he said, "If you take nothing else away from this, take this. This is the double underscore point. Write what you know is bullshit. Write out of what you know. If you have a happy marriage, don't write a happy marriage. Write about someone else's happy marriage, or about someone's bad marriage. . . . Give your characters their own tragedies."

He finished with a reading, then entertained questions he promised to answer entertainingly; a promise he fulfilled. As a writer and reviewer and bookseller, Wiersema has a lot of insight into the local book world.

An interesting note from the question period is how he got his agent; he already had a reputation as an honest reviewer who didn't pull his punches, and that got his name moderately well known, and known for integrity. That came up particularly glaringly in my notes as I've been writing this, as this is the first time I've let a speaker know I'll be writing about them for my blog.