About Writers, book reviews, Research, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op

A Question For Mimi

Mimi Speake is an historian of sixteenth century Europe & therabouts. She delves into the private lives of such as Bernard Délicieux, the Friar of Carcassonne and Henry of Navarre. Nothing seems to delight Mimi more than to accurately include in her stories obscure details about the financial information of a walled town from that period, or a seminal work on algebra, or even lore about La Fée Verte, the green fairy.
And uh, Mimi is the only historian I know. So, I have a question for her.

Is Google messing with history? Not on purpose. But is that repository of human knowledge fatally flawed because of what it does not include?

I ask because I recently searched for early reviews of Arthur C. Clarke’s first book, Against the Fall of Night, published by Startling Stories magazine in 1948. Despite the story itself being vintage Clarke, the novella was initially panned for its word dumps of the author’s social theories. They added nothing to the story. I know this because I read it as a kid and I still remember my eyes glassing over the pages of preaching.
A few years ago, I re-read it. The book that I re-read said it had been published only because fans had expressed interest in reading Clarke’s first novel. It’s forward discussed Against the Fall of Night’s initial reception (dismal) and included some of those early reviews (bad.)

But Google has unwittingly rewritten history. I cannot find any of those original reviews. The Fall of Night is today presented as if it hadn’t bombed; as if it is just another good book by Clarke, even though he had to rewrite it in 1956 as The City and the Stars.

I know. I know. Google is not a complete history of anything. It is only a collection of whatever bits people put on the ‘Net. (But I wonder how many people think about things that are not on the Internet.)

So, Mimi, if I may follow-up, how do you find information that is not on Google?

And for everyone, a broader question:
To what extent are search engine results and social media the background against which we frame our questions? Do they guide the answers that we accept?
In short, does the Internet shape our collective consciousness?

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About Writers, blogging, publishing, reading, Research, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Online Montmartre

Imagine if you will, a gathering of writers, illustrators, publishers, editors, publicists, personal assistants & purveyors of writing paraphernalia sharing expertise and enjoying one another’s company. No matter what your writer’s question, probably someone here will happily reply based on their own experience.

Writers Groups exist online for you to join and interact with according to your own schedule. I belong to the SciFi Roundtable on Facebook, a group of writers serious about their work but with a hearty sense of humor and tolerance for the writing life. Different opinions are respected, even encouraged. (Avoid opinionated and competitive groups; they are vexatious to the spirit.)

While you can make connections and build rewarding friendships in writers groups, the real value of finding your own online Montmartre is the synergy of creative, hard-working minds similar to your own. The right group will teach, entertain and inspire you. You know it’s the right group when people take pride in helping others become successful.
Oh, and just sayin’, you’ll probably also want to join a readers group in your genre. 🙂

But, enough work. Go eat:

HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO YOU AND TO YOURS
From All Of Us Here At The Writers Co-op!!

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About Writers, blogging, Research, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Hurricane Irma, Muse of the Moment

Well, my lady and I survived the pre-hurricane madness, long gas lines, depleted grocery stores, near-apoplectic news readers 🙂
Now, we’re hunkering down in Naples, Florida amidst enough supplies to restart civilization, got good books for when the power goes out & we have friendly, helpful neighbors. We may be better off now than before Irma appeared.

We’ll huddle in a candle-lit interior room away from windows with the cat & inevitable litter box while Irma blows past Sunday. Later, there’ll be no power. (Been here, done it) That’s when the neighbors will come out because without A/C, why not? People sharing a disaster are not shy. We all know exactly what’s on the other’s mind. “Good to see you. Are you OK? Need anything? Wow, look at this mess.”

Now is a time to observe human nature. The place will get cleaned up, people will return to their individual lives. But for the moment, we can relate to our neighbors, family and friends on a level of shared concern. It’s a teaching moment for writers.

In your own life, what event has been a teaching moment?

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About Writers, blogging, Research, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Here A.I. Comes, The Artificial Part, Anyway

Enjoying science fiction sometimes allows you to watch the future arrive. Artificial intelligence will soon happen. Robots have begun to replace human workers and they will assume roles as autonomous decision makers. Legal rights and protections between us and them will have to be worked out. We are about to decide who “us” is.

Yesterday, Mika Koverola posted on the Facebook group, SciFi Fandom,
“I’m conducting research into the connection between ‘science fiction hobbyism’ and people’s attitudes towards robots as a part of my PhD at Helsinki University. …. Please take my Science Fiction and Robots survey (https://tinyurl.com/SciFiRobots) and help science by spending approximately 45 minutes telling about your views on science fiction, robotics and ethical choices.”

A survey on how I feel about A.I. robots? Help science? How could I say no?
Mika’s questions explored my feelings towards A.I robots. How much do I trust companies that make them? Who do I think is responsible if they harm humans? Will it distress me if they make medical decisions contrary to the wishes of the patient? What are my reactions to people having sex with robots? The usual.

It struck me that if we give robots the right to tell us what to do, we surrender control to whoever controls the robots. Of course, the only way we would give rights to robots is if we assume A.I. is like us. When people talk about “true” A.I., the underlying assumption is that artificial intelligence confers personhood. Put another way, intelligence, even if artificial, is assumed to equal humanity.

Really? Is intelligence really our criteria for who we are? Or is it an awareness of something and we are that something?

What do you think we are?

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About Writers, Research, Uncategorized, writing technique

Challenging Moments

We all have those challenging moments when life changes in that moment. One might think writers relish writing about their own intense moments. It is, after all, when life shows us our limits and opportunities. Many great fictional characters are forged in the fire of  intense personal experience. But writing honestly is difficult when it’s personal.
So, let’s do something difficult. Use the comments section to describe a moment when your life did or could have drastically changed. I’ll start:

 +++When World War II ended, Mom married a soldier. Like most men who spent years killing people, he had PTSD. We called it a bad temper. The soldier taught me honesty, pride in independence, the value of hard work and he occasionally beat Mom unconscious. I vividly remember standing with my own head scarcely above the man’s knee, looking down at my mother lying on the floor. I feared him until I was a teen and pointed a shotgun at him. “If you ever hit my mother again, I will kill you. I’m sixteen. They will put me in a home for juvenile delinquents. But I will get out when I’m eighteen and you will be dead.” The shotgun was loaded, the safety was off and my finger felt the trigger. If he had risen from the kitchen table, I would have shot him.

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Research, world-building, writing technique

So You Want To Build A World

“You see, to be quite frank Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It tbpolaroidwas a bit of a botch job you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that’s where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes. Well, why repair them? Why not use ‘em to get stinking rich?”

–Randall from Time Bandit

 

So you want to build a world, eh? Are you ready to be God? Because that’s what you’re doing. Creating a world, populated with millions of beings. They’re your responsibility now. What happens to them—well, that’s on you, isn’t it? And more than that, you owe it to your readers to create a functional world, an elegant mechanism guided by a clear plan and exquisite craftsmanship, a Swiss watch kind of a world.

Or—maybe not.

I know. A lot of writers LOVE world building. They revel in creating dossiers, elaborate histories, mythologies—even whole languages. It’s part of the fun. And backstory can certainly add depth and richness to a narrative, making it more believable, more real, more engaging.

But how much is really necessary? All fiction writing is world building. You set the stage, you paint the backdrops, you provide the props. You populate that world with living, breathing people, give them history, put flesh on those dry paper bones so that they rise up off the page. And no matter how closely your fictional environs hew to the real, recognizable world, it is new. You built it.

Of course, mostly when writers talk about world building, they mean a different world, and more often than not, they mean speculative fiction. I’m including fantasy under that label, as well as science fiction. Fantasy, of course, is replete with maps and legends. Sci-Fi is lousy with parallel histories (what if the Dutch empire never fell?) and distant planets where the not-quite humans behave in curiously human-like ways.

It’s tempting to want to create full and complex histories for your worlds, those impeccable mechanisms, but how much of that is really necessary? Elaborate backstory may engage you, the author, but how much does the reader really want? Or need?

Generally, it’s the small details that grab our attention and lock us in. When Robert Heinlein, in Beyond This Horizon, wrote the famous sentence “The door dilated,” the intention was to inform the reader—in a casual, unobtrusive way—that we were in a future world. The door opens like the dilating iris of an eye, and no one comments on it or wonders at it, because it is not, in this fictional world, remarkable. It’s rather a joke these days—because honestly, what a ridiculously elaborate way of opening a door—but that tiny sentence accomplishes a lot, and does it with panache.

And that’s admirable. I’m not opposed—at all!—to complex writing, but the ability to draw a reader in with an elegant, concise bit of description (three words!) is something we can all envy.

I’d like to hear about any examples of world building that you found particularly effective and inventive and memorable. I’ll start with a few of mine:

In Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany, the novel’s most prominent alien species doesn’t just enjoy food at mealtimes, they also enjoy licking small rocks. Rocks are served with meals, and the natives savor the taste of different minerals. The novel’s human protagonists also take part in rock licking, because it’s polite. Stars in my Pocket is a big, complex novel with scads of world building—but it’s this one detail in particular that remains with me, even decades later. It wasn’t important to the plot at all, but that single, concise detail locked me in. I knew I was in another world.

(This example also highlights another important point: don’t neglect the mundane things of life. Food is primary to all life as we know it, but all-too-many science fiction writers reduce food-of-the-future to cubes of protein-rich gelatin or synthetic versions of chicken curry and sweet-and-sour shrimp. Dull. Unless your world is a grim dystopia where dull food symbolizes the dreariness of life, have some fun. Eating is too sensual and visceral an experience to be wasted on drab victuals.)

Another example of notable and elegant world building: in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly, characters speak English, of course (it’s American television, after all) but they are always dropping in bits of Mandarin. It’s never explained, never even really commented on. Everybody just knows a lot of  Mandarin, particularly swear words. All of which suggests—simply, elegantly—that the political landscape of the Earth has changed a lot. (There are websites out there dedicated to translating the Mandarin bits of Firefly, much of which is hilariously weird and inappropriate, from “Filthy fornicators of livestock!” to “Stupid inbred stack of meat.”)

If I’m making any kind of an argument here (and that’s certainly arguable), it’s that less really can be more when it comes to world building. You don’t need to provide a treasure trove of details, just a few that sing out to the reader. They’ll fill in the rest with their vivid imaginations. And you don’t need to work out everything to be convincing. We live in a world where we frequently experience confusion and uncertainty. If you really think the world is a rational, well-ordered place, I’d suggest that maybe you aren’t paying enough attention. It’s comforting, I suppose, to believe that some kind of higher order underlies the fabric of creation, but—rules of physics and mathematics and biology aside—there isn’t a whole lot of empirical evidence to support that belief. Your world might be more believable if it mimics this uncertainty, if everything doesn’t fit together just so. The universe, as Time Bandits tells us, is a bit of a botch job. And God (god? who?) is, undeniably, inscrutable. Since you are God now, I invite you to follow his (her?) example. Nobody likes a tight-assed, control freak deity. Let your world breath a little.

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