Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The very model of a modern science fiction novel (Part II of the series)
All right, so I said I'd have more "tomorrow" and as it happens it's now the day after tomorrow. That kind of thing happens when you write about the future. Today, something about what the model is trying to do; tomorrow or the next day, a discussion of the model itself, and then probably after that a pulling-together to show why I think there's a story in there.
If you haven't read Part I, you might at least skim through it to get some idea of what carbon sequestration is (taking carbon out of the air and putting it someplace where it doesn't come back for a while), why I want to come up with a simple model and what I intend to do with it (figure out a world that might be an interesting setting for fiction), and also a bit about where I stand on the whole climate change issue (off to the side, making up stories). A couple of people who have read Part I should also have been sent to my grouchy Ten Form Letters post, so if you feel that you need to denounce me for not agreeing with you about climate change (in any direction) or pat me on my head for agreeing (ditto), go skim through that first; on the other hand I've also had a couple friendly emails that pointed me to more and better resources.
All right, about that modeling thing: as I said before, I like to make up imaginary worlds, and I somewhat prefer imaginary worlds in different times to imaginary worlds in different places, i.e. I think it's more fun to build futures than planets. Usually the future comes first, and then I get some idea of how to put some of my stock cast into some part of it where they can play out something interesting (yes, I admit to having a stock cast. Comes of that theatre background. The same actor who plays Melpomene and Teri in the Century Next Door books also played Garsenda and Laprada in the Thousand Cultures and Pikia in In the Hall of the Martian King and Acey Carlucci in the Daybreak series. Come to think of it, it's been too long since she had a starring role. Hmm.)
Naturally, in the same way an actor prepares a role, I think about questions like how old a character was when key things happened, and how that shaped the character's outlook. We all know that people who were teens during the early, worst part of the Depression are substantially different from those who were teens during the Reagan years, and that the impatience of the GI generation because they had to take a few years out of their lives for something much bigger and then suddenly jumped back into a world with tons of big things to do, is very different from the impatient striving of Gen Y, who always moved along fast in their school years and during the boom, and are now in a work world where nothing is moving very fast. The same actor cast as a character that was born in 1910, 1922, 1967, or 1990 will bring his/her individual characteristics to the role, but needs to overlay them heavily with the character's presumed back story.
Digression on some pet peeves: This, incidentally, is one of those things that sometimes annoys me with sf writers who either have 25-year-olds in 2050 who appear to have been eight in 1985 (to judge by their childhood memories of TV cartoons and pop songs their big sister listened to) or conversely the stories set in 2025 in which a 25-year-old remembers the first day of first grade when his dad flew him to school on a jetpack. Equally incidentally, it's also why I'm less bothered than some about the "small casts" in the oeuvres of some writers; so all the wise old pompous poops in Heinlein are the same guy, and all the stolid old not-too-brainy captains in Conrad are a different same guy, and the bright, sensitive, crushed boys in Dickens are very alike – have you ever noticed how all the characters played by Robert De Niro have a certain alikeness? One might even see some resemblance between Andy Serkis's Gollum, King Kong, Caesar, and Captain Haddock, even through the motion capture process – all of them creatures more sensitive and perceptive than they should have been for what the plot wanted of them, and ultimately self-aware that their better qualities have not really been their friends, but must be lived up to anyway. The problem is not the smallness of the cast, it's the smallness of the actors … Okay, end of the pet peeves, and onward.
Anyway, for science fiction work, there are several things I try for in a model. I want it to be:
•Simple enough to hack (in that good old sense in which to hack means "to master and be expert in the use of"); if further down the road I realize I'm not quite in the right future for the story I want to tell, I want to be able to retro-fit the model, and I don't want to have to rebuild from scratch.
•Surprising, at least to me, in some aspects. I want something to jump out of it that I never thought of, because there's a good chance that readers won't have either, and my longtime readers tend to value being taken somewhere they haven't been before.
•Rigorous, meaning there are many things that just can't happen within the scope of the model as written. If you were to model a world where the Germans won the Second World War (oh, god, no, not another one), you 'd have to start with the number of Germans and production available at the start of the war, and by the time the last Allied power surrendered, they'd have to be fairly worn down (or it would have had to be a very, very long war). That means in turn that global occupation couldn't involve having six Gestapo officers in every elementary school or every little town in New Hampshire having its own Gauleiter with a wife, kids, and buxom blonde-braided secretary. The ratio of occupiers to occupied is so tiny that in any model of Naziworld (look, just don't do it, 'kay? We've all been there too many times already) there should be an enormous rate of winked-at noncompliance, chronic rebellion and secret networks everywhere, and so on. If everyone's got a fusion generator in the basement and unlimited electric power, you can't have gasoline priced out of reach for the average family, because you could buy a Sears Gasmaker and destructively distill your garbage and lawn clippings into methanol.
•Progressive. I don't mean oriented toward progress; I just mean things change over time enough so that life 20 years before is not too much like life now (or life 20 years from now). Oddly enough, the first time I remember running into that was a fifth grader reading Peter Dickinson's Heartsease (it's the middle book of a trilogy, go read them all), which is a fantasy novel, but a girl in her teens in an essentially feudal-level village has an abrupt memory of having been in a centrally heated, electric-lighted house on the Christmas when she was nine. This is where I got the notion of little tricks like having the teen slang in Orbital Resonance signify old-fogeytude in Candle, or that Giraut Leones, in a world where the springer is deploying rapidly, finds public transit faintly old fashioned in the first book, but by the fourth he just accepts that most new buildings don't have doors.
•Consistent and plausible, both internally and externally. That's part of my reason for modeling in the first place; coming up with a world and future that hangs together and can be a reasonable outgrowth of ours, or of a divergence point. (Or both. The world of The Century Next Door is essentially one where a large number of nightmares in the weapons labs in 1988, when I was writing it, were developed very rapidly and deployed very quickly because of big global wars in the 1990s and 2040s. The first book was written while that was still possible; the second book didn't get written till the mid 1990s. It was a bit as if I'd written a future history that involved two big wars in the near future in 1912, and then everyone had worked things out peaceably in 1914; all that stuff about poison gas, bombing raids, machine guns, and so on would be exciting but no longer plausible, so I might make up a situation where some nutcase shot the heir to the Austrian throne and everyone had signed secret treaties and honored them …)
•Tragic. This is the hard one but the most important. Great stories come from tradeoffs between good things, and it's nice to have at least the possibility of greatness. In Giraut's future, there's no poverty as we know it but humanity may succumb to couch-potato-hood; in The Century Next Door, One True really does make most of the people loyal to it into much better people than they would be as severe-PTSD refugees, at the cost of their free will. Jak Jinnaka's world is colorful and exciting (it was created to be) but it produces amoral creatures of pure ambition like Jak and Princess Shyf, and betrays and crushes the decent people who keep the system running like Dujuv. So somewhere at the heart of the model, there needs to be a tradeoff that is heartbreaking.
Some of you will have noticed that there is nothing in there about fitting my politics or depicting a world I want to live in or any of that. In fact my list doesn't even include high probability, and I don't care much about it. The real world includes some pretty extreme unlikelihoods – if there really are Many Worlds, it seems to me that there must be many more of them where the Mongols swept all the way to the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, leaving a Mongolistic Earth in the same way that Alexander left a Hellenistic Middle East; or war was averted in 1914, and we're all living under some weird racist-colonialist-internationalist structure; or after the uproar of the late 1980s, there was an effective coup, a brutal series of purges, and a Soviet Union that is still with us and still the first thing the American president thinks about when he gets up and the last thing before he goes to bed. They all seem likelier to me than the world we got.
The worlds I draw are could-bes where my cast can play out something interesting; the modeling is a way of making the could-be-ness put stress and pressure on the "something interesting," the same way that the net makes tennis interesting, or the relative paucity of rhymes and variety of intrinsic meter in English shapes our poetry, or those eleven guys trying to stop the ball carrier are why people watch football, or gravity and physiology set the limits that make dance so fascinating. Anyone is free to watch, cheer, stay and gripe, or leave and announce they want their money back, but that's what the game is in this stadium.
All right, onward to the model I built, how it works, what it seems to show …