Archive for September, 2012
Recently, I have listened to, or have participated in, discussions of the differences between mainstream and science fiction. What is the difference between what a science fiction writer writes, and what a lit-fic writer comes up with, when both are working in, say, a near-future setting?
Many years ago, I read P.D. James’s The Children of Men, in which human sperm, worldwide, becomes nonviable. The setup is pure SF. I waited, therefore, for an SF payoff. I expected someone, anyone, some scientist somewhere, to try to find out why this was happening, but no one really did. Oh, they sort of tried, offstage, but then they just threw up their hands and decided it was hopeless. (Yeah, that sounds like scientists, doesn’t it?) Nor did she ever explain why sperm that had been frozen were rendered equally nonviable. Even after I figured out James didn’t care about science fiction, or the sperm, and that this book was about something other than the sperm, I couldn’t turn off the expectation that it should be about the sperm. At least a little. Because she was being totally insincere about the sperm.
Now I’m in the middle of Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot, which the cover copy describes as a near-future, post-apocolyptic novel. The engine of the plot is the FUS events that have changed the landscape of North America. What FUS stands for is pretty easy to figure out, but it so far is a kitchen-sink catch-all concept, with a heavy emphasis on global warming. The first quarter of the book excited me: two sections of two main characters, both of whom I loved. The first, Woo-jin, was my favorite. He is a delightful dishwasher (the best dishwasher in the world) living in incredible poverty. The second, Luke Piper, suffers a devastating loss in childhood, which leads to a one-eighty reversal of his life’s trajectory.
Then we get to Abby, who encounters a bunch of clones, and my heart sinks. It sinks, because the clones are not real, not in any sense that human clones have been depicted in dozens of other novels. They are not emotionally true. They are kind of funny, the endless numbers of them attending an impossibly old grand-dame, aging Mae West style, but at the same time, they feel inauthentic. I do not believe the author believed in them.
Likewise the sentient glacier that ravages Canada and the U.S. Yes, this is a big global warming moment. The glacier sounds totally cool (no pun intended), but it happens as a throwaway, its story given to us in an awkward lump of exposition by a teacher-character to another character who already knows the information. The sentient glacier reminds me of something in Gabriel Garcia Marquez–it hints magical realism–except this is not magical realism. In magical realism, everyone in the book accepts weird events as normal. Here, everyone freaks out. I must conclude, once again, that the author doesn’t care about this magical glacier he has created. He doesn’t love it on its own terms; he is using it. I don’t know what he’s using it for, a symbol, a joke, but at this point, I am expecting the story to grow faucets and a drain, because it is beginning to resemble a kitchen sink.
The farther I get into the book, the more confused I become as to the author’s sincere intent. It turns out that Abby, the character who encountered the clones previously, is a clone herself. Gasp! So that’s why those other clones upset her before! But Woo-jin has come back, too, and that is a good thing. Also, we are alerted early on to a puppet-master, Dirk Bickle, who may very well tie this all together. We’ll see.
In spite of my difficulties with the book so far, I’m enjoying it. It is witty, tragic, and satirical. The parts I like the best, however, are the mainstream parts. None of the post-apocolyptic SF elements are new, and for all their noise and flash, not much of the author seems to be invested in them.
Boudinot is compared to Phillip K. Dick in one of the cover blurbs. There is a paranoid aspect to the novel, but where Dick related a paranoid and dark view of the near future, every bit of what he wrote came out of his core. He was not trying to tell us anything. He was being. He was in every one of his inventions one-hundred percent. I’m not sure Budinot is.
When it comes down to it, intent is the difference between someone who’s writing SF, and someone who’s writing mainstream, but using the trappings tropes of SF for symbol or mere effect.
Photo: Quelccaya_Glacier.jpg (Photo by Edubucher)
The year was 1987.
There was this blank wall at the back of the family room. The previous owners hung framed mirrors back there and it looked good, but we wanted something different. So much to do, moving in, though, so we let it slide.
Our friends were all beginning to buy large-screen TVs that were the size of a two-car garage. We thought of putting a TV on that side of the room, the only side it would fit on, but our old (even then) cable line would not extend that far from the source without significantly degrading our signal. And those big old fat-butt TVs were really expensive. We carried on with a small TV that fit in the niche built for that use on the opposite wall.
I tried various pieces of art on the wall, but nothing was big, or bright, enough. It’s kind of a big wall, at the end of a fairly long room.
One day, some time in the mid-nineties, my husband brought home an original oil painting from a charity auction. I hope it was a good charity, and that the money was put to good use, because I did not fall in love with this piece of art. Nonetheless, the painting was large, it was bright, it filled the space, and the colors–mostly orange and blue–went. It hung on the wall for eight to ten years. I never liked it that much, and each year, I liked it less.
One day, I took the painting down and foisted it off on an antique and collectible shop. I left it there on consignment, with the understanding that if it did not sell in thirty days, it would be donated to charity. I was asked if I wanted to be notified in the event it did not sell, to be given an opportunity to take it back. I did not.
Once again, I was left with a blank wall.
One Christmas, I attempted to hang a bunch of angels and lights up there, but really, it looked pathetic. Lame. Back to the blank wall.
So I had an idea: What if I took close-up photos of my backyard roses and hung them in an arrangement of eight? Right size, right colors. Off I went to Ikea to buy eight cheap, black, eight-by-ten frames.
Just beyond where they had the frames I was attracted to an oddity (not an unusual experience at Ikea). It appeared to be a package of three rolls of gauzy, jewel-toned fabric. I thought it was the type of fabric sold in craft shops: sheer, pretty stuff you might ruche around the tree, or over a mantle, at Christmas. I can always use more of that stuff, I said to myself, and purchased it, along with the frames.
Once home, I began printing up my photography.
The effect of all those roses was lame, almost as lame as the Christmas decorations had been. Even before I even framed them, I could see I had myself another dead end.
I decided to look at the fabric I’d bought, to cheer myself up.
Turned out, it wasn’t fabric. It was art.
It was a triptych of an out-of-focus orchid. The entire three panels measured about eight by fifteen feet all together. It was awful, and I could not imagine anyone hanging this thing up, it was so ugly.
But the colors were beautiful, jewel tones ranging from ruby, to gold, to emerald, to sapphire, to amythyst. I thought for a moment I could still use it to ruche around during the holidays, but then I read the tag: No washing, no drying, no dry cleaning, and no ironing. The material was an uber-unnatural polyester; I couldn’t use it for anything. There was nothing to do but take it back.
But then, like a zombie, not thinking, I brought over my eight frames. I began laying them down. At first, I attempted to put them together, to keep the orchid together. No. I placed them again, choosing to frame the prettiest color rectangles.
I had my wall. I had my art piece. The year was 2010. It took twenty-three years to fill my wall.
What I learned from this serendipitous artistic journey:
1. Had I known what I was buying, I wouldn’t have bought it. Therefore, it is sometimes better not to know what I’m doing, and to do it anyway.
2. I returned to Ikea a week or so later, and saw the ugly triptych displayed on the wall. Had I taken note of it, I would have known what I was buying, and would not have bought it. Fortunately, I was oblivious. I learned that being oblivious can sometimes be a good thing. I would argue that this is a different lesson from the first. The first was lesson was the value of ignorance; the second, obliviousness.
3. Sometimes it takes twenty-three years to fill a blank wall. I need to learn patience.
4. It is good to let my zombie-self take over some tasks sometimes.
There it is: Ignorance, obliviousness, patience, and zombie-ness, all working together, solved my art problem.
Photo: I took it. All rights reserved.
You don’t want to build a house from my blueprints. The house would not stand. You would not want to write a novel from my outline, because I am a gardener.
During his interview at Worldcon last week, George R. R. Martin gave us something to think and talk about as respects a writer’s process. Alec Nevala-Lee blogged on it earlier this week. You should read that post here for what Martin said, and what Alec says, to get the context:
The gardener/architect contrast was brought up several times in various panels, and it seems to me all but Alec identified as a gardener. Is no one else brave enough to identify as an architect? Does it seem less artsy or cool to build your story in a linear fashion, brick by carefully considered brick, than to toss a ton of seeds onto your bed, stand back, and hope something beautiful flourishes?
Whether Martin made all the gardener-writers feel suddenly more cool is unimportant, but knowing who you are is of the utmost. I do know being a gardener is not all that much fun. We can’t-write-an-outline folks are branded early on, in school. We are taught outlining, and are expected to be able to do one, and then write a paper based on the outline. Like one Chicon panelist, whose name I can’t recall, I too wrote the report first, and then did the outline, and then turned in the paper. Yeah, I got the grade, but I also got the sense of being different, of being fundamentally flawed, because of my inability to do something so simple as to create in a linear fashion.
Many of us humans have the tendency to do this very thing: model the format that is against our nature, because we are given to understand that it is the “right” way. When the “right” way doesn’t turn out so well, we feel the failure. We can freeze up and get blocked.
I prefer–my brain prefers–to construct a story by coming up with a situation. A bit of contemplation, and I have a beginning. I may know a bit of the ending; at least, I decide if it’s mostly happy, or mostly sad. The tone of the ending is clearly contained in the beginning, although the details may be fuzzy. The middle is a dense fog that will not burn off for quite a while. My first-draft middles are usually hideous. I’ve no idea what I’m doing. The characters all flatten to two dimensions, and perform stupid, pointless, completely uncharacteristic tasks. Then, suddenly, they come alive and have a satisfying ending.
When I’m writing a short story, I can get through this okay. I only have to slog though thirty pages or so, and when I go back and reread that first draft (an excruciating experience), I can nonetheless find one or two paragraphs in the middle that don’t suck. Little tiny bits that are true, and not dreck. I build on those. Somewhere around the third draft, I get the flash, the revelation, of what the story is really about. The fog lifts from the middle. By the with or sixth draft, I’m good to go.
The process, scary enough in short story form, becomes an author-killer at novel length. I lose track of the tertiary characters. I am unsure enough of the main plot; subplots are therefore impossible to conceive. My main characters go all bland about chapter 5. Secondary characters threaten to take over, as it is clear the author isn’t doing her job. The middle third of the first draft is more than bad; it is unreadable, even by me.
Over the years, and by this method, I have watched my pile of unfinished novels grow and mock me.
I am determined not to die like this, and I believe I have stumbled on the solution. None of us can expect to work in ways against our nature. On the other hand, none of us can be 100% gardener, or 100% architect.
When I redesigned our back yard, I measured out three rectangular raised beds vaguely reminiscent of cloister gardens I had admired. Cloister gardens tend to be square, and our yard was a flat rectangle, but so what. No need to be literal here. I measured badly, and then I brought a contractor in to measure properly and build it. Those rectangular beds were my structure. Within those beds, I planted whatever I wanted. I placed a few rocks here and there, and a few garden ornaments. I knew I wanted roses for color, succulents for form and texture, and perennial herbs for background and hummingbirds. That was it. I loved the result. The trick was that I needed structure, but only the simplest plan I could get away with.
When it comes to the novel I’m working on, I finally realized, after decades of despair, that I needed to measure, however badly, however simply. I needed to take my situation and guess at what kind of plot structure it sounded like. I have a convent in a space habitat. Hey, that could be a closed door mystery, where we get to know the vicim a bit, the victim dies, an investigator is brought in and finds the situation to be quite confusing and the witnesses/suspects difficult. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to break through. I had found my three rectangular raised beds.
Left brain/Right brain is another way of saying Architect/Gardener. We can place ourselves on one side or the other, but we can’t be all one way. We need both sides of the brain. I will be mindful to respect both my sides in the hopes that both, working together, will serve me and my project well.