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Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

The Primacy of Ideas

One of my SF teachers, a brilliant man whom I respect very highly, said something once that I still don’t understand: “In the end, what people will remember about your fiction are the characters.” This was in the context of an intense discussion about character creation, but it seems extreme to me. In some sorts of fiction, sure. What I remember about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is Augie March.

Or is it?

Sure, I remember Augie. But I, too, am an American, Chicago-born. A great deal of what I remember about The Adventures of Augie March is depression-era Chicago, and how it shaped Augie’s character. Without Chicago, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly memorable about Augie himself. I bring this up because I’m encountering more and more new writers who seem to think that ideas don’t matter in SF and fantasy. Characters are the whole story. Everything else is backdrop. That simply isn’t true, and I think it’s time for a little pushback.

Here’s how I see it: The two essential elements in any story are characters and context. Without characters, context is narration. Without context, characters are soap opera. The magic happens when you rub one against another.

In mainstream fiction and real-world genres like romance and mystery, you don’t create your context so much as select it from a huge menu of known placetimes and cultures, like Chicago in 1933, modern-day Manhattan, or Amish country in the 1950s. There’s some tinkering around the edges, but for the most part you pick a well-documented placetime and turn your characters loose in it. If you’re a good writer, entertaining and insightful things will then happen, and your readers will come back for more.

It gets interesting when you switch from real-world genres to SF and fantasy: You can then create your own contexts. World-building is (as I like to say) a spectrum disorder. You can build a little or a lot, or go nuts and create entire worlds and societies from whole cloth.

To do that, you need ideas.

For good or ill, I’m an ideas guy. It’s just how I think. Furthermore, I have a hunch that ideas are in fact what people actually remember about good SF and fantasy. Really. C’mon, when was the last time you heard somebody ask, “Hey, what was the name of that story in which a callow young man is jolted out of ordinary life and with the help of an ironic sidekick finds unexpected strengths and talents that allow him to defeat evil in ways that change him forever?” No, you hear questions like this: “What was the name of the story that had an FTL communicator in which every message ever sent, past, present, and future, is gathered into a beep at the beginning of every message?” (I know the answer, and if you’re serious about SF you should know it too.)

When I read SF, I want to see cool ideas. When I write SF, I feel a responsibility to deliver them. It’s not just about having rivets. It’s about having rivets that nobody’s ever seen before. Is it silly to love the rivets? Well, I’ve gotten several fan letters about the wires in The Cunning Blood. The novel centers on a prison planet in which microscopic nanomachines seek out and disrupt electrical conductors, supposedly keeping the prisoners from developing electrical technologies. Well, the prisoners make non-disruptable wires by filling hoses with mercury. When your rivets start getting fan mail, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re on to something.

This sort of idea-centric story isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s the heart and soul of fantastic literature. The challenge is to use clever ideas to draw out characters that grow, change, and learn. I’ll freely admit that I’m still better at ideas than at characters. However, I’m aware of the issue and I’m throwing a lot of energy into the character side, now that I’m finally out of my teens and into my sixties.

I’ll grant the “cowboys on Mars” objection, in which an ordinary situation is dropped without modification into an exotic locale and called SF. However, it’s just as bogus to say, “Nobody cares about your starships,” when the starships are in fact a key part of the story’s context. Jack Williamson’s definition of stories as “people machines” is correct but incomplete: To have a people machine you need the machinery. Without that machinery, you have “white universe syndrome” and your story collapses into soap opera. You can choose your context from a menu, or you can build it. Either way, you need that context to make characterization meaningful.

I’ll get myself in trouble here for going further and suggesting that a story’s settings and ideas can be entertaining and sometimes dazzling, even when its characters are thinner than we’d like. That’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life. Do we remember Ringworld because of Louis Wu? Or do we remember it because of, well, the Ringworld?

As I prefer to put it: Ideas will get you through SF stories with no characters better than characters will get you through SF stories with no ideas.

That said, have characters. Have context. Rivet them together so well that both your characters and your rivets get fan mail. Then, my friend, you will have arrived.

Odd Lots

  • Yes, I’ve been away from Contra for longer than I’d like, and the Odd Lots have been piling up. Some of that away was necessary for my sanity, and was spent by the pool at a resort in Phoenix, where Carol and I discussed things like the wonder of a single-celled organism that is 10 cm long. The secret appears to be evolving superior organelles. Bandersnatchi, anyone?
  • While I was gone, someone released a new OS for the Raspberry Pi: The Pidora Remix. It’s basically Fedora for the Pi. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll flip another SD card out of the drawer soonest and burn an image. Man, you have to run like hell just to stay in one place in this business.
  • The Raspberry Pi’s main competition, the BeagleBone, now has a 1 GHz ARM Cortex A8 version that ships with a Linux 3.8 kernel. BeagleBone Black supports the Linux Device Tree, which does a lot to decouple hardware details from the kernel. Looks terrific–now all it needs is an installed base.
  • I noticed a system resource draw-down when I had iTunes installed on my old and now electrocuted quadcore. The software took a lot of cycles and memory, even when it didn’t appear to be doing anything. The discussion has come up on Slashdot. (The poster also mentioned Rainmeter, which I tried once and found…ok.) I try to run a lean system here, and I frown on things that want services, tray icons, and 15% of my cycles all the damned time. (The Dell Dock does precisely that. For showing a row of icons. Sheesh.)
  • Amazon is setting up a new markeplace for short fiction, with a twist: It offers to share revenues on fan fiction with the authors of the original items. It’s unclear how many authors will accept that, but I would, like a shot. (I guess all I’d need are some fans.) In truth, Jim Strickland and I talked in detail some years back about opening up the Drumlins World to all authors who’d care to tell a story there, without even asking for money.
  • Clinical depression may be linked to sleep cycles, which appear to have a genetic basis. How to fix this is unclear, but I’ll testify that depression in the wake of losing Coriolis laid waste to my sleep habits for a couple of years. (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal for the link.)
  • The Man Who Ploughed the Sea may soon be mining it…for uranium. I’d cut to the chase and just mine it for gold, so I can buy more ytterbium for my Hilbert Drive. Alas, there’s less gold in the oceans than we thought (1 part per trillion) and not much more ytterbium (1.5 parts per trillion) so maybe I should just extract the uranium (3 parts per billion) and make yellow pigments to sell on Etsy.
  • I’m not sure I buy this, but it’s an interesting speculation: That the Younger Dryas cold snap was triggered by a smallish asteroid that crashed…in Lake Michigan. Click through for the maps if nothing else. My favorite Great Lake is deeper and more complex than I thought.
  • Save the apostrophe’s! (From a fate worse than dearth…)
  • And save us, furthermore, from new Microsoft technology that counts people in the room watching your TV. Because having more than one person watching a TV show or movie rental is…is…stealing!
  • 3-D printing is still in the stone age (and the Old Stone Age at that) but if we don’t allow berserk patent law to strangle the kid in its crib, wonderful things will happen once 3-D printers are no longer CNC glue guns. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I’m starting to think that 3-D printers like that will soon make one-off repro of small plastic parts like the ones at the center of kites practical. I guess the challenge is somehow getting the precise shape of the part into a file. If I weren’t trying so hard to be a novelist I would probably have a 3-D printer already. For the moment I’m glad I didn’t jump as soon as I otherwise might have.
  • Speaking of CNC…and guns: Plastic guns are dumb, dangerous, ineffective, and basically a stunt that seems designed (probably in Autocad) to make politicians say stupid things and make enemies. The real issue is cheap, portable CNC machines capable of cutting metal. That horse is out of the barn and beyond the horizon.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Novel Compression Schemes

I’ve been selling my writing professionally since I was an undergrad, now literally forty years ago. I’ve had to do remarkably little selling. My first story and first article both sold to the first places I sent them. I’ve never had a publisher turn down a computer book proposal. (Granted that selling books to a publisher you co-own is rarely a challenge.) My fiction has been a mixed bag, but in general a story either sells quickly or not at all.

All changed. This is the toughest market for novel-length SFF since, well, forever. I’ve just spent two years writing Ten Gentle Opportunities, and now the selling begins. This is a new thing for me. I’ve historically considered tireless self-promoters to be tiresome self-promoters, and now I are one. I hate to go that way, and if there were another way I’d already be taking it.

It begins this weekend, when I have a chance to pitch to a major SF publisher at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. The pitch happens in a time slot literally eight minutes long. I have eight minutes to make a bleary editor hungry to read my book. No pressure.

The primary challenge is to summarize the novel in synopses of various sizes, from 5,000 words down to…140 characters. Various markets and agents prefer synopses of various sizes, so they’d all better be right there on the shelf, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

This is harder than it looks; nay, it’s diabolical. The story itself is insanely complicated to begin with: One of my beta testers described it as “a Marx Brothers movie with twice as many Marx Brothers.” That’s just how I write, as anyone who’s read The Cunning Blood will understand. I have a mortal fear of not giving my readers their money’s worth, and a venial fear of being boring.

The way to write synopses of five different lengths is to start with the longest one, and write each one from scratch. In other words, don’t write the longest one and then try to cut it down to the next smaller size. This is like trying to turn hexacontane into propane by pulling carbon atoms randomly out of the middle; sooner or later the molecule has too many holes and falls apart.

It’s work, but it works. I finished the 300-word synopsis earlier this morning, and then set my hand to the gnarliest task of all: the “elevator pitch,” AKA logline. I get to summarize a manic 94,200 word story into 140 characters. I’ve actually been trying and failing to nail this for literally six months, since I finished the first draft. I first thought it would be easy, as I used to write cover copy for early Coriolis books. Heh.

The solution, as I said, is to start from the beginning. Each time I wrote a synopsis from scratch, I was forced to take two more steps up the ladder, and look down at the story from a little more height. You literally tell it again, each time with half the words you had last time. In the process, you get a clearer sense for what the story is about, and what the major themes are. Finally you end up with something you can say in an elevator between two adjacent floors:

A spellbender flees to our world with ten stolen nuggets of magic, and a crew of AIs helps him battle a repo spirit sent to retrieve him.

Will this work? Dunno. I guess I’ll find out this weekend.

Odd Lots

  • Egad. No, egad squared: A major literary agency has asked to see the full manuscript of Ten Gentle Opportunities. The novel is done, but I still have to format it for submission and write the synopsis and logline. I’m going to be busy for a few days, that is fersure.
  • IBM is taking a new slant on fluidic computers, one that operates via charged fluids. The hope is that this will allow better modeling of human brain operation. I’m skeptical, but hey, it’s a species of nanocomputer, and I’m certainly bullish on those. (Thanks to Mike Reith for the link.)
  • If anybody reading this has a 3D printer, I’d like to ask: Does the extruded plastic stick to clean copper-clad PCB stock? The obvious idea is to lay down a single-slice pattern in the form of PC pads and then etch the board with the plastic as resist. I don’t see much about this online.
  • From Chris Gerrib: How American radio stations got their call signs. One minor refinement: US callsigns beginning with AAA-ALZ and NAA to NZZ are not exclusively military. Amateur radio callsigns have used those prefixes for at least 35 years. (An OTA friend of mine outside Chicago got his Extra and selected AA9J as his call in, I think, 1976.)
  • People always seem to be recording meteors on dash cameras. I now have a dash camera. If I put it on my dash, will I see a meteor? Or will I get my money back? (Whoops. Found it in the bushes. All finds final. No refunds.)
  • Speaking of dash cameras: The manufacturer of the little sports camera I found in my bushes issued a DMCA takedown notice to a reviewer, on trademark grounds. (The DMCA has nothing to do with trademark abuse.) Hey, GoPro, Barbra is singing. Backtracking about the blunder will not help you. (Thanks to Tom Roderick for alerting me to this.)
  • Salads are way more dangerous than hamburgers. Alas, you can’t grill salad until it’s done to the center.
  • From Michael Covington comes a link to a story about how a Medieval copyist’s cat peed on his manuscript. The scribe drew a peeing cat on the damaged section, with an appropriate curse in Latin.
  • And we think we have a junk DNA problem: Amoeba proteus has 290 billion (yes, billion) base pairs in its genome, as compared to homo sap’s piddling 2.9 billion.
  • The reason all of us baby boomers didn’t die as grade schoolers may be that none of us lived in rich-guy gonzo-modern homes like these. (Why did I think that these houses were designed to ernhance estate tax revenues?)

Odd Lots