ACTIVE SEARCH: HE COULD SEE

Our old friends Strunk & White advise: Use the active voice. And though I’m not a 100% devotee of The Elements of Style, this is advice that every author needs to hear and do his or her level best to follow even if, like me, you occasionally (or often) fail to see the passive voice wander its way toward your own writing.

(See what I did there?)

It is simply impossible to edit your own writing. That’s why there are people like me in the world—editors. We really do actually serve a vital function, and even for you indie author-publishers out there. You can not look at your own writing objectively, and neither can I.

But that doesn’t mean either of us should surrender to whatever gaps there are in our craft and rely on the expertise of others. We need to learn how to write well, and keep learning how to write better. The simple truth is that an editor or agent who reads your manuscript will expect it to be a first draft, and therefore imperfect. But there’s a fine line—an invisible line, really—between good enough to fix with an edit and not good enough to even bother to edit. That being the case you want to get your writing as close to perfect as you can, secure in the knowledge that there’s no such thing as perfect anyway.

That’s a long, one might say “passive,” way of saying: Write good.

And one of the ways you write good fiction is not by avoiding the passive voice entirely (even Strunk & White admit it occasionally has its place) but by making its inclusion in your writing a conscious decision and not an unconscious mistake.

I already told you you aren’t going to be able to see that in your own writing, that you can’t be objective, so . . . what the heck?

Good news, people: You can’t be objective, but Word can!

One way to spot passive constructions in your own writing is to have your computer search for it, and though it may not be possible to set up specific searches that will find all instances of passive voice, there are a few tricks that will point out a few of the most common passive constructs. It’s important here to state that what you’re doing is searching for it, not replacing it. You want to FIND these phrases, then go into the text and fix them in a deliberate way, specific to that sentence, that paragraph, that scene, that collection of characters, etc.

Try this one first:

he could see

Since you can’t do a whole word search on a phrase, this will also find she could see.

This is what you might find:

He could see the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid.

What’s wrong with that?

All of your writing should be coming from a specific point of view. Whoever that character is who’s seeing the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid is also seeing, hearing, tasting, touching . . . experiencing everything you’re describing. That being the case, why specify that he (or she) could see this thing happening? The easy fix:

The space shuttle narrowly avoided the tumbling asteroid.

That thing just happened, and we (your readers) know that the POV character could see that, otherwise how would we know?

What the original sentence does is add a separation between your character and your reader. I’ve talked about this idea of emotional distance before. Let your readers share in the experiences of your characters, as those experiences are happening, rather than reporting from arm’s length what that character was seeing, hearing, etc. “He could see” has the effect of rendering that moment as hearsay.

But then again, Strunk & White did tell us that sometimes the passive voice is appropriate. This is why you let your computer find that phrase, but don’t let it make any creative decisions for you. If all you’re doing is replacing he could see with nothing, just deleting it, if the POV character was a woman you’d end up with:

S the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid.

You want to  make the full edit.

And you may  want to leave it as is, if the context of the scene calls for it:

Galen activated the exterior camera and after tense seconds of fine tuning he thought he could see the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid, then the screen filled with static.

This is stressing the fact that Galen is watching this happen through an unreliable device, so he—and your reader—isn’t sure if that’s exactly what was happening. Leave that alone.

And as always, all rules are suspended in dialog. Rarely does anyone speak in perfect, complete sentences. And characters often have to report things:

“Galen said that when he looked in the telescope he could see the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid,” Bronwyn reported.

Don’t just cut he could see, use Word’s objective tool to find it then your subjective tool (your amazing creative brain) to decide if you really want that there or if there’s a more active way of saying it.

I’ll throw up some more of these in the weeks ahead, but for now let’s get back to actively writing active fiction!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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AN EVIL EMPIRE, BENT ON WORLD DOMINATION (BUT WHY?)

In August of 2012 I asked you why your villain is bent on world domination. Just as villains need motivation—we need to understand why that character is doing what he, she, or it is doing—governments don’t operate in a moral, ethical, or political bubble either. So if you’re designing an evil empire—or a kingdom of peace and plenty—that same question stands: why?

What motivates the empire, the kingdom, the interstellar federation, etc.?

This is a scan of the actual book I’m reading: an Ace edition, ©1959.

This is a scan of the actual book I’m reading: an Ace edition, ©1959.

Technology has moved rapidly forward in the last hundred years or so, and so has politics, though arguably at a slower pace. Some of us are old enough, for instance, to remember the Cold War and Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire,” the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As a fan of “golden age” science fiction, I tend to read a lot of SF that came out of the Cold War years, and though I’ve encountered a few examples of authors who found a way to rise above the propaganda of their day to take an at least slightly more liberal view, most tend to work from the prevailing “them vs. us” thinking.

In the February book pulled from my SF grab-bag, The War Against the Rull, author A.E. Van Vogt imagines a future in which humanity is locked in a perpetual war with the eponymous Rull, and the hero struggles with recruiting other intelligent aliens to help in the fight, before they’re recruited by the Rull.

Though I’ll admit I’m still a couple chapters from the end, it doesn’t seem as though Mr. Van Vogt was willing to break out of the Cold War mentality prevalent in the mid 1950s, when the original stories that were later combined to make this novel were written.

Here’s how Van Vogt describes this future Cold War from human hero Jamieson’s point of view:

Like all highly developed human beings who had a galactic outlook on life and the universe, Jamieson knew that for a hundred years “civilization” had had a slanted definition: a race was civilized to the extent it was able to participate in the defense against the Rulls.

From a practical point of view, no other definition could be considered.

To me that feels eerily similar to former President George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001 statement: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Though that had some traction in the days immediately following 9/11, America’s allies—and other countries—more or less ignored that toothless declaration.

So if Van Vogt’s future Earth mirrors the U.S. then what of his version of the USSR?

The first time we actually get into the head of a Rull is in Chapter Twenty-two of twenty-five chapters, or page 191 of 221 pages. Up till then it’s been a one-sided struggle against an enemy as faceless as it is remorseless. But finally we see what brings the Rulls in contention with humanity:

He had come in his great anger to discover what was wrong. Many years before, the command had been given: Expand into the Second Galaxy. Why were they-who-could-not-be-more-perfect so slow in carrying out these instructions? What was the nature of the two-legged creatures whose multitudinous ships, impregnable planetary bases and numerous allies had fought those-who-possessed-Nature’s-supreme-nervous-system to an impasse?

This makes the Rull more like the Nazis than the Soviets in that they clearly see themselves as better than their enemy on a primal level. They are the perfect sentient being, so all the rest of the sentient beings are pointless. This is a sociopathic culture.

But I hope now, in our more enlightened age, we can be a bit more discerning, more thoughtful in our creation of empires, evil and otherwise.

Yes, Nazi propaganda was full of the superiority of the Aryan master race, and US propaganda during the Cold War saw the Soviets as a faceless, intractable enemy that sought to eliminate individuality—to turn us into “pod people” like we saw in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

But the fact is that the Nazi regime, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America in their various incarnations, grew, spread, and operated for reasons that rarely if ever matched either their own propaganda or the anti-propaganda of their enemies.

Governments exist in the name of money.

They control money, raise money, spend money, steal money, horde money, print money, and so on. Sometimes they do that in subtle and even benign ways, sometimes they march us off to war in order to go get someone else’s money (in the form of oil, property, gold, salt, spices, etc.).

Governments don’t just go to war because they’re “evil.” They don’t just go to war to “destroy evil,” either. Sometimes, as happened in World War II, America managed to take the place of the British and French Empires as the global trade leader and defeat a force of horrifying, genocidal evil. Win-win.

But then what was accomplished a couple decades later in Viet Nam?

So your evil empire has spanned the galaxy . . . why? They squeeze every last resource out of occupied systems . . . but why? What is it that the aliens invading Earth actually want? In some stories we’re told they’ve come here for water, but there’s water all over the place in the universe, and it certainly seems as though it would be easier to melt a Kuiper Belt object than to invade an inhabited world, especially one inhabited by a habitually warlike species. In one movie they came here for gold.

Why would they want gold?

Frankly, we don’t really even want gold anymore—not enough to go to war over, anyway.

So then . . . why?

And just as with villains, it’s not nearly enough to just say that an empire is “evil.” If a villain is someone whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent, that same criteria should be applied to an evil empire.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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(UN)HAPPY ORGANIZE YOUR HOME OFFICE DAY

According to Days of the Year, today is Organize Your Home Office Day.

As someone who works from home, I suppose I should recognize this day, add it to my calendar, embrace it, and . . . act on it?

I tend to think of myself as a very organized person. I’m not a huge fan of “clutter,” though often find myself surrounded by it. I’ve worked with people whose offices resemble the set of some near-future post apocalyptic epic in which the space had been ransacked and looted for anything of value, then left full of papers and broken coffee mugs and garbage.

That’s never been me. I’m tidy and organized.

In fact, I was once accused of organizing my office as a means of “work avoidance,” and in fact have accused myself of just that. I’ve advised writers to not have an office, or even a desk, and to unbind themselves from the “temple” and make themselves able to write anywhere and at any time.

And yet I seem to have entirely set that advice aside of late, attaching myself to my little home office nook up in the loft area at the top of the stairs. I don’t even have a proper office—a room with a door. Our house is just exactly the right size for a family of four, and was purchased when I wasn’t working full time from home, but still wrote in off hours on a laptop usually on the living room couch.

But as my old laptop finally starts to age out of any practical use I find myself working in what I lovingly refer to as “the downtown office” less and less, my little nook has become my office, my world headquarters, my sanctum sanctorum, and as you can see in this picture, it’s too small, too messy, and actually kinda depressing.

Boy, in the cold light of the flash it looks so depressing...

Boy, in the cold light of the flash it looks so depressing…

But there is at least a little method to the madness.

I’m right handed, so the legal pads and word list on the right, in front of the modem, are handy and useful for taking notes. The computer itself is fairly well organized, though I may have a slightly more complex than necessary file structure. I recently adopted a semi-Kanban method of putting the most pressing files in folders marked TO DO, MOST USED, and THIS WEEK, and that’s been working to keep the more pressing issues front and center.

Note the Sci-fi Paperback Grab-bag box to the far right, under a stack of papers that are waiting to be filed (which I do every Saturday). It is keeping the file cabinet drawers closed, as is my cheap but effective shredder. And my shoulder bag.

In this picture you can see the even less strictly organized left side of the desk, which is where we find piles of papers, bills, notebooks, and whatnot. Directly to the left are more or less works in progress, behind that, slightly less pressing stuff. And some pens.

Holy God do I need a new chair.

Holy God do I need a new chair.

Shit. My pony fell down.

Jesus is this depressing.

I gotta get outta here.

That’s it. Time to take my own advice and work at least half time on my laptop, and start living the plan to work off site entirely at least one day a week. I’m letting stuff like email and Twitter and the internet in general distract me, which is making me work less. That godawful chair is killing my back. The sedentary nature of my life is making me gain weight and feel terrible.

Organize my home office?

Screw that.

I’m leaving my home office.

And starting right now, I’m setting aside a couple sheckles every month for a new laptop.

Maybe this summer I’ll actually go outside.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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FAREWELL, LEONARD NIMOY

Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many, I hope you’ll indulge this old Trekkie with one more sad post to note the passing of someone who, though we never met, has meant a lot to me my entire life, or at least since the day after my second birthday.

I’ll let Captain Kirk (via screenwriter Jack B. Sowards) say what I can’t . . .

“We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this:

“Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.”

And with that, a star has winked out.

—Philip Athans

 

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 3)

A few weeks ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. At the end of that process, I chose the first random book and came out with The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Though the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read more, and read for fun more, my brain just won’t allow me to read a book “just because,” and I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on. Let’s take a look at what SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke can teach us from this very early book in a very long and distinguished career. But if you haven’t read the first week’s post first, go back and catch up!

This week, let’s see what The City and the Stars can teach us about religion and technology.

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I wrote: “Researching religions both contemporary and historical is a worthy pursuit for any author, though if you’re writing the farthest of far-future science fiction you may imagine a post-religious society.” I then went on to use Dune as an example of a far-future SF novel in which religion is a pivotal force. Now here we have The City and the Stars, set some millions of years in the future and it does precisely what I touched on myself: it imagines a post-religious world:

Deluded though these creatures might have been, their long vigil had at last brought its reward. As if by a miracle, they had saved from the past knowledge that else might have been lost forever. Now they could rest at last, and their creed could go the way of a million other faiths that had once thought themselves eternal.

It’s not surprising coming from “hard” science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke that the assumption is that technology will eventually free us from the shackles of superstition. This is actually a fairly common theme in SF, even if only tacitly. I’ve been reading SF all my life and rarely is religion even mentioned at all. Most far-future characters simply don’t talk about it either way.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

But at the same time, here’s Clarke describing a post-religious world that is a utopia on the outside but he goes back time and again to remind us that the city of Diaspar is a sort of intellectual prison. These people are living lives of abject luxury but have been suppressed in their growth as a culture, and have lived in this kind of happy status quo for millennia.

Though Clarke doesn’t spend many words bemoaning the loss of a spiritual life, we start to see some hints of weakness around the edges of the techno-utopia in passages like this, which reveals the characters’’ grave mistrust of the natural world:

This planet was nearer the sun, and even from space it I looked hot. It was partly covered with low clouds, indicating that water was plentiful, but there were no signs of any oceans. Nor was there any sign of intelligence; they circled the planet twice without glimpsing a single artifact of any kind. The entire globe, from poles down to the equator, was clothed with a blanket of virulent green.

“I think we should be very careful here,” said Hilvar. “This world is alive—and I don’t like the color of that vegetation. It would be best to stay in the ship, and not to open the air lock at all.”

“Not even to send out the robot?”

“No, not even that. You have forgotten what disease is, and though my people know how to deal with it, we are a long way from home and there may be dangers here which we cannot see. I think this is a world that has run amok. Once it may have been all one great garden or park, but when it was abandoned Nature took over again. It could never have been like this while the system was inhabited.”

Alvin did not doubt that Hilvar was right. There was something evil, something hostile to all the order and regularity on which Lys and Diaspar were based, in the biological anarchy below. Here a ceaseless battle had raged for a billion years; it would be well to be wary of the survivors.

I had to go back and check that I had the word “virulent” correct in the first paragraph and it wasn’t supposed to be “verdant.” The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) defines virulent as: “(of a disease or poison) extremely severe or harmful in its effects / highly infective / bitterly hostile,” whereas verdant is: “green with grass or other rich vegetation.”

God forbid that a planet be allowed to take care if itself. The assumption on the part of both characters here is that for a world to be at all survivable it must be entirely under human control. Evolution is seen as a force of evil, resulting in dangerous organisms “it would be well to be wary of.”

This starts to show us the philosophy behind The City and the Stars, which from my reading clearly says: Technology will save us from all the bad things including superstition, war, poverty, and unbridled nature, but it’s only worth it if we continue to grow as a technological species.

Finding this exact edition might be tough!

Finding this exact edition might be tough!

The tragedy at the heart of The City and the Stars is that these societies, both Diaspar and Lys, have reached a technological singularity then stopped, progressing no farther, and that only after humanity experienced a draw-back and a sort of Dark Ages.

On to technology, then . . .

Clarke imagines his technological utopia not several decades into humanity’s future but hundreds of millions, even billions of years later. He should have known if only from the exercise of revising his own imagined technology over the decade immediately following World War II that we’d get to a lot of the things his protagonist takes for granted rather a lot sooner than millions of years form now.

Check out this description of a 3D version of Google Maps:

He rose to his feet and walked over to the image of the city which almost filled the chamber. It was hard not to think of it as an actual model, though he knew that in reality it was no more than an optical projection of the pattern in the memory cells he had been exploring. When he altered the monitor control and set his viewpoint moving through Diaspar, a spot of light would travel over the surface of this replica, so that he could see exactly where he was going. It had been a useful guide in the early days, but he soon had grown so skillful at setting the coordinates that he had not needed this aid.

The city lay spread out beneath him; he looked down upon it like a god.

And though I’ve time and again reminded SF authors that it isn’t our job to accurately predict the future, Arthur C. Clarke is one of those authors who’s been cited just as often for being right, as we’ll see in the next excerpt, as he was wrong (famously, 2001: A Space Odyssey).

“Your order involves two problems,” replied the Computer. “One is moral, one technical. This robot was designed to obey the orders of a certain man. What right have I to override them, even if I can?’’

It was a question which Alvin had anticipated and for which he had prepared several answers.

“We do not know what exact form the Master’s prohibition took,” he replied. “If you can talk to the robot, you may be able to persuade it that the circumstances in which the block was imposed have now changed.”

It was, of course, the obvious approach. Alvin had attempted it himself, without success, but he hoped that the Central Computer, with its infinitely greater mental resources, might accomplish what he had failed to do.

“That depends entirely upon the nature of the block,” came the reply. “It is possible to set up a block which, if tampered with, will cause the contents of the memory cells to be erased. However, I think it unlikely that the Master possessed sufficient skill to do that; it requires somewhat specialized techniques. I will ask your machine if an erasing circuit has been set up in its memory units.”

“But suppose,” said Alvin in sudden alarm, “it causes erasure of memory merely to ask if an erasing circuit exists?”

“There is a standard procedure for such cases, which I shall follow. I shall set up secondary instructions, telling the machine to ignore my question if such a situation exists. It is then simple to insure that it will become involved in a logical paradox, so that whether it answers me or whether it says nothing it will be forced to disobey its instructions. In such an event all robots act in the same manner, for their own protection. They clear their input circuits and act as if no question has been asked.”

Alvin felt rather sorry that he had raised the point, and after a moment’s mental struggle decided that he too would adopt the same tactics and pretend that he had never been asked the question. At least he was reassured on one point—the Central Computer was fully prepared to deal with any booby traps that might exist in the robot’s memory units. Alvin had no wish to see the machine reduced to a pile of junk; rather than that, he would willingly return it to Shalmirane with its secrets still intact.

Here’s Clarke describing computer viruses and firewalls, though in antiquated terms (input circuits). And this in the mid 1950s. According to the article “History of Computer Viruses,” mathematician John Neumann described what would later become known as the computer virus as early as 1949. This tells us that Clarke, not surprisingly, was keeping up on the literature back then. Still, computer viruses and data security really didn’t become “a thing” until the mid 1980s, thirty years after The City and the Stars was written. Think about that the next time you read an “unrealistic” SF novel about self-replicating nano-robots.

But what I found really the most interesting thing about The City and the Stars, at least in terms of technology, was that Clarke had really thought through not just the various gadgets and gizmos that might be available to his future characters, but thought through the philosophy of technology that got them there . . .

Here was the end of an evolution almost as long as Man’s. Its beginnings were lost in the mists of the Dawn Ages, when humanity had first learned the use of power and sent its noisy engines clanking about the world. Steam, water, wind—all had been harnessed for a little while and then abandoned. For centuries the energy of matter had run the world until it too had been superseded, and with each change the old machines were forgotten and new ones took their place. Very slowly, over thousands of years, the ideal of the perfect machine was approached—that ideal which had once been a dream, then a distant prospect, and at last reality:

No machine may contain any moving parts.

Here was the ultimate expression of that ideal. Its achievement had taken Man perhaps a hundred million years, and in the moment of his triumph he had turned his back upon the machine forever. It had reached finality, and thenceforth could sustain itself eternally while serving him.

That begs a question to the science fiction authors out there: Do you have a philosophy behind the technology in your SF world? Is that a part of your worldbuilding?

I think it should be.

We’ll leave it at that for The City and the Stars, but there are thousands of great SF and fantasy books still left for me to read, so let’s see what other examples, positive and negative, will come from my accelerated reading program for 2015.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 2)

A few weeks ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. At the end of that process, I chose the first random book and came out with The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Though the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read more, and read for fun more, my brain just won’t allow me to read a book “just because,” and I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on. Let’s take a look at what SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke can teach us from this very early book in a very long and distinguished career. But if you haven’t read last week’s post first, go back and catch up!

This week, let’s see what The City and the Stars can teach us about worldbuilding.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own. 

In Chapter 20 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I touch on the very complex and challenging job of building an imagined culture. “Culture” is a pretty huge umbrella covering a lot of topic, including art.

What sort of art do the people in your world create? How do they create it? Why do they create it? Art reflects the time, place, and condition of the artist. It reflects his desires and fears, and can tell us more about a people than any history book.

In Clarke’s conception of the perfect technological paradise, the “gilded cage” of Diaspar, art played a significant role:

 It was the custom of the city’s artists—and everyone in Diaspar was an artist at some time or another—to display their current productions along the side of the moving ways, so that the passers-by could admire their work. In this manner, it was usually only a few days before the entire population had critically examined any noteworthy creation, and also expressed its views upon it. The resulting verdict, recorded automatically by opinion-sampling devices which no one had ever been able to suborn or deceive—and there had been enough attempts—decided the fate of the masterpiece. If there was a sufficiently affirmative vote, its matrix would go into the memory of the city so that anyone who wished, at any future date, could possess a reproduction utterly indistinguishable from the original.

The less successful pieces went the way of all such works. They were either dissolved back into their original elements or ended in the homes of the artists’ friends.

And this in a novel written in 1955, in which the author seems to have anticipated Napster, Facebook, YouTube, and the internet in general. It does beg the question: Where was all this information technology in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Still, the art that these people create, and the fact that “everyone in Diaspar was an artist at some time or another” speaks volumes about that imagined place and time, including the various indulgences afforded to a population enjoying voluminous free time.

Buy It Now!

Another aspect of worldbuilding that was touched on in Part 3 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and later expanded upon in Writing Monsters, is the inclusion of “monsters” both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. In my worldbuilding classes one of the exercises we had some fun with was something I called “Horse+.”

Horse+

Horse+

In a world (or future universe) in which either none of the real world animals exist, or other strange creatures are added to the existing ecosystem, we could imagine, as Edgar Rice Burroughs did in his John Carter series, or George Lucas in Star Wars, some other kind of animal that people might use as a mount or beast of burden.

Here’s Clarke’s Horse+ from The City and the Stars:

 For short distances, people walked, and seemed to enjoy it. If they were in a hurry or had small loads to move, they used animals which had obviously been developed for the purpose. The freight-carrying species was a low, six-legged beast, very docile and strong but of poor intelligence. The racing animals were of a different breed altogether, normally walking on four legs but using only their heavily muscled hind limbs when they really got up to speed. They could cross the entire width of Lys in a few hours, and the passenger rode in a pivoted seat strapped on the creature’s back. Nothing in the world would have induced Alvin to risk such a ride, though it was a very popular sport among the younger men. Their finely bred steeds were the aristocrats of the animal world, and were well aware of it. They had fairly large vocabularies, and Alvin often overheard them talking boastfully among themselves about past and future victories. When he tried to be friendly and attempted to join in the conversation, they pretended that they could not understand him, and if he persisted would go bounding off in outraged dignity.

These two varieties of animal sufficed for all ordinary needs, and gave their owners a great deal of pleasure which no mechanical contrivances could have done.

Part of what these animals do is further differentiate between the pastoral paradise of Lys and the mechanized paradise of Diaspar: two sides of the same coin. Where in Diaspar you get around on moving walkways and goods are transferred hither and yon by largely unseen robots that travel a system of underground byways not unlike the way staff moves under Disney World, in Lys they’ve genetically engineered animals to serve those same functions. This really opens up the concept of what technology is and its myriad forms, in this one story. The same problem, solved in different ways.

Later in the book, after Alvin has discovered his ancient starship and gone out with his friend Hilvar on a mission of interstellar discovery, do we encounter a monster in the classical sense of the term, or as I defined in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction as: “. . . any creature of a species that is neither a part of the civilization of sentient people or among the ranks of mundane flora and fauna.”

Though this unnamed monster is, technically, “among the ranks of mundane flora and fauna” on the world of its birth, we’ll apply this definition strictly to the point of view of our narrator, who has travelled to an alien world and encountered something wholly outside his frame of reference, and it’s dangerous and scary:

The level plain was level no longer. A great bulge had formed immediately below them—a bulge which was ripped open at the top where the ship had torn free. Huge pseudopods were waving sluggishly across the gap, as if trying to re-capture the prey that had just escaped from their clutches. As he stared in horrified fascination, Alvin caught a glimpse of a pulsating scarlet orifice, fringed with whiplike tentacles which were beating in unison, driving anything that came into their reach down into that gaping maw.

Foiled of its intended victim, the creature sank slowly into the ground—and it was then that Alvin realized that the plain below was merely the thin scum on the surface of a sea.

“What was that—thing?” he gasped.

“I’d have to go down and study it before I could tell you that,” Hilvar replied matter-of-factly. “It may have been some form of primitive animal—perhaps even a relative of our friend in Shalmirane. Certainly it was not intelligent, or it would have known better than to try to eat a spaceship.”

In Writing Monsters I encourage authors to appeal to all five senses when describing monsters, but in this instance, Alvin and Hilvar can only see this creature, through the view screens of their starship, so Clarke was careful to limit their perception of this creature to only the sensory input available to them.

In Writing Monsters I also covered questions like: Where does this monster come from? And that included both Outer Space and Underwater. This alien creature of Arthur C. Clarke’s shows that you can easily and effectively combine those elements, as your story and imagination demands. In terms of what this monster represents, it’s what both of these characters most fear: a primitive world, “red in tooth and claw.” There is no one to talk to here, no civilized humans . . . just animals, some of whom are giant, terrifying predators. Alvin and Hilvar don’t even work up the courage to leave the safety of their ship. The presence of the monster is meant to convey an absence of people.

I’ve also spent some time in both books discussing the often fine line between monsters and people, or monsters and aliens. It’s fair to describe “people” the same way we did monsters, just that “people” have a greater individual agency. They have humanlike brains: creative and emotional intelligence, or what I often illustrate as being the difference between a horde of mindless zombie (really a sort of natural disaster) and Dracula: a vampire (read: monster) but who retains his human intelligence and interacts with humans as a human, with human plans and feelings. So then “people” grows to include (most) vampires, elves, Martians, and . . .

The creature now emerging from the dark water seemed a monstrous parody, in living matter, of the robot that was still subjecting them to its silent scrutiny. That same equilateral arrangement of eyes could be no coincidence; even the pattern of tentacles and little jointed limbs had been roughly reproduced. Beyond that, however, the resemblance ceased. The robot did not possess—it obviously did not require—the fringe of delicate, feathery palps which beat the water with a steady rhythm, the stubby multiple legs on which the beast was humping itself ashore, or the ventilating inlets, if that was what they were, which now wheezed fitfully in the thin air.

Most of the creature’s body remained in the water; only the first ten feet reared itself into what was clearly an alien element. The entire beast was about fifty feet long, and even anyone with no knowledge of biology would have realized that there was something altogether wrong about it. It had an extraordinary air of improvisation and careless design, as if its components had been manufactured without much forethought and thrown roughly together when the need arose.

Despite its size and their initial doubts, neither Alvin nor Hilvar felt the slightest nervousness once they had a clear look at the dweller in the lake. There was an engaging clumsiness about the creature which made it quite impossible to regard it as a serious menace, even if there was any reason to suppose it might be dangerous. The human race had long ago overcome its childhood terror of the merely alien in appearance. That was a fear which could no longer survive after the first contact with friendly extraterrestrial races.

Note that Clarke is describing this creature in a way that’s firmly rooted in the experience of the POV characters. It’s described in terms of its “design”—precisely the sort of thing someone from a completely technological world might fall back on. These characters have also become so separated from the natural order that, like animals found on remote islands that have no fear of humans, they aren’t scared by it, and see it with a detached intellectualism . . . which they lose, by the way, later in the story when they leave Earth and are confronted by things, like the monster in the previous example, that really should scare them.

Next week we’ll dig deeper into the technology and philosophy of The City and the Stars.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 1)

A few weeks ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. At the end of that process, I chose the first random book and came out with The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Though the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read more, and read for fun more, my brain just won’t allow me to read a book “just because,” and I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on. Let’s take a look at what SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke can teach us from this very early book in a very long and distinguished career.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own.

The Signet mass market edition of the book that I have was probably from the early to mid 1970s, but the copyright shows 1953 and 1956. The author’s preface is dated 1954 and 1955 and reads in part:

Against the Fall of Night was begun in 1937 and, after four or five drafts, was completed in 1946, though for various reasons beyond the author’s control book publication was delayed until some years later. Although this work was well received, it had most of the defects of a first novel, and my initial dissatisfaction with it increased steadily over the years. Moreover, the progress of science during the two decades since the story was first conceived made many of the original ideas naive, and opened up vistas and possibilities quite unimagined when the book was originally planned. In particular, certain developments in information theory suggested revolutions in the human way of life even more profound than those which atomic energy is already introducing, and I wished to incorporate these into the book I had attempted, but so far failed, to write.

And this to begin a novel in which he describes virtual reality role-playing games, computer viruses, and other advances in information technology.

I’ll say again up front that the goal of science fiction really isn’t to attempt any sort of accurate prediction of the future, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes happen. It has been noted before, too, as in this article at the Smithsonian web site, that science fiction has actually inspired advances in technology, when engineers read about some groovy gadget then set about trying to actually make it happen.

Still, this bit from the preface of The City and the Stars is fascinating to me. Here we see a science fiction author attempting to back-fill a science fiction novel he’d finished a decade before with new advances in technology. For what it’s worth, I think this is a fool’s errand, and as advances in technology continue to accelerate it’s going to mean revising your science fiction novel not once every decade but once every eighteen months or so.

Good luck with that.

Working our way through The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, we’ll start with Storytelling.

Taking it “step by step.”

Taking it “step by step.”

Clarke begins with an idea, or really a question, I think: “What might the world/humanity be like millions of years into the future?”

As for theme, the book left me wondering what Clarke was trying to say. He seems to waffle back and forth between: “technology will cause us to stagnate and grow complacent and ignorant” and “technology will save us from all ills.” I guess we can put it somewhere in the middle: “Technology is great but we should still keep exploring—there’s always something knew to discover.” I can get behind that.

And that’s ultimately what’s most important, not what the now-deceased author was trying to say or meant to say, but how each individual reader interprets the work left behind. This was Arthur C. Clarke’s book at first but once I bought a copy, on at least a philosophical level, it became mine, and the creative act of reading it infused the experience with all my own ideas, baggage, etc.—for good or ill.

From there, a plot emerges . . .

The City and the Stars begins in the city of Diaspar, which is the last and greatest city on Earth, believed to be the final home of the sum total of the human race. At some point in the very distant past, humans had colonized the galaxy, but were driven back to Earth after an unsuccessful war with an alien enemy. The decision was made by those humans to cut themselves off from the galaxy in general and live lives of quiet contentment in a single technological utopia that offered, among other things, immortality.

Its into this techno-paradise that Alvin is born. He’s unusual in that he was naturally born rather than having been resurrected from the city’s DNA records. Normally, people from Diaspar, after reaching the age of some thousands or even millions of years, choose to go back into the gene pool, temporarily “dying” only to be reborn in some distant future to enjoy another immensely long life. But Alvin is here for the first time and as such has some peculiar ideas, not the least peculiar is his curiosity about the world outside the city, which he’s always been told was a lifeless global desert.

He finds his way out of the city and to the neighboring nation of Lys, another pocket of human civilization, this one having gone the psychic route. The people of Lys know about Diaspar but Diaspar doesn’t know about Lys. While in Lys, Alvin discovers a strange alien robot, then the strange alien who controls it, and this sets him off on a quest to discover the truth about why his people were driven back to Earth and their vast space colonies abandoned. He eventually, with the robot’s help, finds an ancient starship, which the robot operates for him, and goes off to explore the cosmos only to find that there was no terrible enemy, that the human race more or less just gave up and went back to Earth to live in this vacant state of self-absorption, tended to by the Central Computer and its robots, in a self-maintaining city that caters to their every need.

The writing itself is fine, but suffers a bit from the author being English (which used when that should have been, weirdly archaic style choices like the initial cap in Man) and this just having been written sixty years ago or so. There’s some muddiness to the POV, some odd word choice, etc., and even some typos that are likely artifacts of Signet’s fast-and-cheap repackaging of the original Harcourt edition.

For all that, let’s go ahead and stipulate that Arthur C. Clarke was a good writer.

As for characters, truth be told there is only a bit of meat on the bones there, but even then, Clarke does a generally good job of conveying “the weird” (which is to say, anything the characters find unexpected—some of the bigger SF concepts) through an emotional connection, through that character’s reactions, like in this example, when Alvin has found his way to the hidden/abandoned subway that connects Diaspar with long-forgotten Lys, and puts himself at its automated mercy:

When the door closed behind him, Alvin slumped into the nearest seat. All strength seemed suddenly to have been drained from his legs: at last he knew, as he had never known before, that fear of the unknown that haunted all his fellow men. He felt himself trembling in every limb, and his sight became misty and uncertain. Could he have escaped from this speeding machine he would willingly have done so, even at the price of abandoning all his dreams.

It was not fear alone that overwhelmed him, but the sense of unutterable loneliness. All that he knew and loved was in Diaspar; even if he was going into no danger, he might never see his world again. He knew, as no man had known for ages, what it meant to leave one’s home forever. In this moment of desolation, it seemed to him of no importance whether the path he was following led to peril or to safety; all that mattered to him now was that it led away from home.

This shortens the emotional distance between Alvin and the reader . . . bravo, Mr. Clarke.

Next week we’ll take a deeper dive into the art, people, and monsters—the worldbuilding—of The City and the Stars.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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