Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why are your aliens wearing Prada?

Writing science fiction opens up a plethora of fascinating aspects to explore: "physics"-enabled magic, cool weapons, thought experiments on everything from economics and ethics to the viability of a nitrogen-based lifeform. It can be what-ifs for how we would deal with disaster if it struck in the next week to far-future scenarios on Earth or Earth-parallels or on spaceships dealing with revolution or alien encounters or just internal politics or relationships against this new background.

That last part is key: no matter how futuristic and strange the world, there are characters acting on that stage. And, unless those characters are all time-travelers, they come from a society shaped by the technology available in the story.

That's what baffles me most in some sci-fi stories I read: the world changes, but the social mores don't: in fact, they're about mid-90s and a little conservative, with no obvious in-world reason they'd be that way. Technology alters culture. Look at what the printing press and the industrial revolution and the Internet have done to society. It's the industrial 'revolution' for a reason.

How human beings react to new situations is the point of all fiction. More so in speculative fiction, where inherent social conditioning can be more easily examined by removing or changing the conditioning the characters have. If their conditioning is the same as that of an average modern person, it's removing an entire dimension from the story.

Of course, one doesn't want to completely remove those elements of a character which make them relatable. But everyone needs air, food, shelter, companionship no matter their environment nor their relationship with it. How they approach their search for their basic needs (are they employed? living in luxury in a post-scarcity economy like someone from Heinlein or Doctorow or Stross? do they get their social interaction in person? for pay? online?) illustrates a world as well or better than all the ray guns you can fit in the prop room.

So when an otherwise promising story has characters who might as well have grown up in the 90s in North America, I'm disappointed: we can all do better.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Networking 2.0

It's no secret that most business decisions have always happened in old boys' clubs, over drinks or golf or both. But now we do a lot of our socializing online. How many startups have been born from interest-based communities on the internet?

The same necessary camaraderie springs up just as easily from internet associations as from face to face ones for me, and for many people accustomed to socializing on the internet. Part of that is a paradigm shift from when I first started using computers, where I was explicitly warned by mentors that most of the people I met online would be predators and liars, and I'd never know who they really were or how old they were or where they lived, so I should never, ever give out personal information lest I be kidnapped.

This was before Facebook.

Now, while we don't bandy our mailing addresses about on public forums, those people I've met on writing forums I know as people, not Random Internet Strangers. We've talked story ideas, bemoaned the night shift, watched the hilarious faces one of our number makes when she has to take her cold medicine. And, when one or more of us has an idea, it's this network of like-minded individuals who come together and discuss it.

I've had a couple major ventures come out of my online networking; Theory Train and Lunatic Writers. They never would have come into existence if it weren't for my finding a group of like-minded friends on the internet.

As valuable as local groups and workshops are, it never hurts to be open to the possibilities inherent in new media.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rationalists Ruin Romance

One of the key ingredients, the glue that holds the genre together, is that tension between people in love before they admit it to each other. Forlornly wondering "but does (s)he love me?" is very nearly a staple of every romance novel I read, and that's if the character currently narrating even knows they're in love themselves.

Which is why rationalist main characters make for poor romance novels. In striving to behave rationally, it is imperative to assess one's own emotional state, which would eradicate those doubts about whether one is really in love oneself. From there, if one is indeed in love, that which would most increase happiness longterm is discovering that ones beloved is in love in return, so it only makes sense to ask.

If the answer is positive, the book is over by chapter five. If negative, then it's hardly a romance at all, and the sensible thing for the main character to do is to try to forget that they were ever in love. If the answer is uncertain flailing and ignorance on the beloved's part of their own feelings, then, well, ask again in a week.

There. Happily ever after approached and seized sensibly within a very short time span. But there's no catharsis in this, no sweeping moment of passion where all misunderstandings are forgotten. No encounter in the woods with Mr Darcy, because their engagement would have been announced shortly after Jane and Bingley's wedding, which in turn would have been only shortly after that of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins.

It is one of the more interesting disconnects between literature and life that the most desirable outcome for real people is the least engaging in the genre of romance novels.

This examination was inspired by the Twilight retelling Luminosity and its sequel Radiance by writer and rationality blogger Alicorn. The major departure in Luminosity is that Bella is a rationalist. As you might imagine, it changes the story significantly. One of the ways I've noticed (in hindshight: the two books are now over) is in genre: Meyer's novels are romance, with fantasy elements. The focus is on Edward and Bella's relationship, and when will they finally be fully together? In Alicorn's, while Edward and Bella are still totally and completely in love, it is a fantasy novel with strong relationships in it. The focus is on Bella and Edward's adventures in changing the world.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Peter Grant

Peter Grant grew up reading very different material than I did. He read the New Yorker, travel writers, creative non-fiction. I grew up reading sword and sorcery, the more escapist the better.
Thomas Wolfe said that creative non-fiction supplanted novels as the font of all wisdom about the world.

He doesn't differentiate deeply between journalism and creative non-fiction, holding creative non-fiction to a higher literary standard with the same core of fact. More widely, creative non-fiction needs to meet four criteria. It must be:
1. Must be based on real life.
2. Must be deeply researched.
3. "The scene" The context of events
4. Must be literary, have the style of literary prose.

The issues investigated in creative non-fiction provide the central motivation for the people, the characters. You let them emerge as you tell the stories of the people. It's about investigating a community, worming your way in to find the way the threads weave together.

In a way, that's what all literature aims for, though some genres focus on micro-communities (romance, and couples) and some try to tell the stories of entire worlds (high fantasy, like Tolkien or Carey).

Grant says that he's very aware of place in his writing, and place is almost always about people.

A considered speaker, he seems most comfortable relating stories already written down, stories about other people. Hearing him speak, it's easy to see how he's drawn out other people's stories to put on paper.