Archive for category Time Travel

What Not To Write

That fashion makeover series ended recently, and it put me in mind of my own set of rules for writing, and more importantly, reading. When I pick up a book, digital or paper, I try to be flexible. I try to get into the author’s world, the world s/he has built for me.

I try very hard not to constrain the author with my expectations, even though I always have expectations. I’ve read the blurb, I’ve looked at the cover, I’ve considered previous work of the author’s I might have read, I’ve considered what I’m in the mood for, and only then will I make a judgement about whether or not I wish to dive in.

And a book is never exactly what I expect. Or hardly ever. I try to be flexible, to go along with the author’s plan. I don’t have to instantly agree one-hundred percent with every authorial decision. I am forgiving. What s/he does right is much more important than what s/he does wrong. I am picky, but not unreasonable.

That said, there are a few things that stop me cold. I may not throw the book across the room, but I may put it down and go watch TV or play Candy Crush.

I would prefer you don’t:

1) Overuse italics.

Italics are wonderful for indicating emphasis, foreign words, or a character’s internal dialogue. For pages-long backstory or flashback, they are horrible. Exposition of backstory in itself has issues, but put it in italics, and it ruins my eyes as well. It’s not easy to read. A multi-page chunk of italics signals: Here comes a bunch of stuff I somehow have to get through before I can continue with the actual story. So please just give me the actual story.

2) Let a single paragraph go on for pages and pages.

All right, maybe I don’t have that much of an attention span. Or maybe I need to rest my eyes. Or I’m sleepy and need to turn out the light. Whatever the reason, I like to stop at a logical place. If a chapter or scene break isn’t coming up soon, I’ll stop at the first paragraph at the top of the page. I don’t enjoy stopping mid-paragraph.

3) Use science fiction or fantasy tropes only as metaphor or literary device:

Many years ago, I picked up P. D. James’s The Children of Men. I kept waiting for scientists somewhere to figure out the physical cause for the worldwide male infertility at the center of the novel. Chapter after chapter passed, but scientists were barely mentioned. It seemed we were meant to believe they had given up, that somewhere, off camera, they were shrugging and saying, “Oh, well. That’s too bad.” Eventually, I understood that no cause was being offered, that the author had no interest or curiosity whatsoever in a physical cause. Universal male infertility was a literary device, a metaphor for an expression of the author’s religious views. Realizing that was a kick in the ovaries for me.

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses time travel as a literary device to tell the story of a romance and marriage. Although it was enjoyable, the story as a whole fell flat for me. Time travel becomes mundane used in this fashion, reminding me more of the trials of any married person who can’t keep track of the comings and goings of a spouse, rather than the mind-blowing possibilities inherent in time travel.

4) Go on and on about whaling, to the detriment of character and relationship development:

I’m talking to you, Herman Melville.

5) Let your isms show:

Are you a communist? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as China Mieville, I am happy to read your work. Are you a conservative Catholic? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as Tim Powers, I’ll read your work, too.

Every one of us has deeply held beliefs the right of which to express are guaranteed by our Constitution, and bestowed upon us by our Creator. Those beliefs will be embedded in our fiction, but subtly, if we are good storytellers.

The foregoing is  not intended to tell anyone how to write. It is intended only to express my opinion. What are your great reading gripes?

So not east to read....

So not easy to read….

Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Niccolo_de_Niccoli_italic_handwriting.jpg

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Genre and Me and Me in Different Mediums

About ninety percent of my reading is in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Back in the eighties and nineties, the split was more like fifty-fifty between Spec Fic and “other.” And it’s more than that. I can say that ninety percent of the literature I revere is in science fiction and fantasy, and only ten percent in other fields.

Revere is a strong word, but it is the word that comes to mind. I like a lot of things, and I admire talent in a lot of genres, but it is science fiction and fantasy that hits me in the gut and sets my brain on fire, that makes me wonder “…how the hell did he/she come up with this?”.

While moaning about the demise of The Hour, and re-watching season four of Mad Men, I realized something perhaps a bit odd: My percentages for genre in television would be exactly opposite. Ninety percent of what I revere in television is not science fiction or fantasy. The list goes on and stretches back for decades.

Revered in Comedy: Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, M*A*S*H, Keeping Up Appearances, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Revered in Drama: Breaking Bad, The Hour, Sopranos, Mad Men.

In the drama category, a case could be made that mainstream TV gives me a lot of what I love in SF literature, my number one draw to SF, which is that I am transported to a different time and/or place in which everything is different from what I know. Or, almost different.

I have been to Albuquerque, but met no one while there who was involved in cooking or selling crystal meth. The shots of the desert in that show take my breath away, so starkly beautiful in Breaking Bad.

I have also been to the nineteen-sixties, but I did it as a teenager, not as an adult at a Manhattan ad agency. The time travel aspect of Mad Men is a bit sf-nal.

Comedy, on the other hand, seems to be about home, whatever its genre, whatever its locale. Comedy transports me in a different way, and it is much more difficult for me to pin down what makes me laugh. Why did I laugh at the mother-in-law/hippo joke in Reginald Perrin every time? What was so funny about Mystery Science Theater? That concept should not have worked, but it did. And all, somehow, are about home. Remember, the characters in MST3000 return to live together in an apartment in Wisconsin at the end of the series.

I don’t notice genre as much in television. Sure, there’s the SyFy channel, but the genres do tend to bleed together more. Community gets a Hugo nomination. People not otherwise interested in fantasy watch Game of Thrones. No one seems to care quite as much about genre in TV as they do in literature. And perhaps literature is the key word here. Some books are supposed to be good for you. Books that are good for you are called literature. If you actually like books that are good for you, well, you must be an intellectual! And if you read that sci-fi stuff, you clearly are not.

On the other hand, television is not good for you, no matter what. I’ve been hearing that from the time I was old enough to operate the channel selector. (We did not have remotes in those days.) It is assumed that, if you are watching television, you are wasting time. Distinctions matter less. Oh sure, there can be the occasional PBS documentary, but when you’re knocking around a broadcast lineup that includes Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Real Housewives, My Secret Addiction, and dozens of others, watching Dr. Who, or Buffy, or Star Trek Next Generation doesn’t seem all that bad.

My point in all this is that television is more than not-always-that-bad. It is often good. It is is occasionally, in recent years in particular, as brilliant as any writing done in any genre and any form in all of time.

Cheer up, Philo T Farnsworth! Your invention is a good thing, and we love it!

Cheer up, Philo T Farnsworth! Your invention is a good thing, and we love it!

Photo: Library of Congress

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If I Set Them Free, Does That Mean I Rewrite Them?

How wise is it to rewrite old work?

In my previous post, I set free a half-dozen or so psychologically abused, frustratingly passive women I had authored. Just as I tapped out the final words, the question of should-I-rewrite-them arrived unbidden.

All of us have moments in our real lives–perhaps longer time periods–we would like to have another crack at, but as any writer of fiction knows (particularly writers of speculative fiction), to change the past is to invite unintended plot consequences. Either hilarity or mayhem will ensue, but we might not be laughing. We’ve thought out the ‘what if’ and know we’re probably better off with our lives as they are and have been, warts and all. We believe in the butterfly effect, and know there are a hoard of those bad butterflies waiting close by for us to do something stupid like invent time travel. Then they’ll swoop in and show us how incapable we are of directing events. (Yeah, I wrote one of those stories, once.)

Needs warning label!

Changing a story I’ve already written (and published) is less dire than changing my life, but still not recommended. As I type this, I’m tempted to try it, nonetheless.

Character is at the center of fiction of any genre. My sad housewives’ characters drive their tales; if changed, the entire story changes. This could be cool, or would be cool if the plot complications weren’t ninety percent the result of my protagonists’ own stupid character defects. And maybe, maybe, that’s what bugs me about these stories. If those character flaws aren’t entertaining to me…if I neither sympathize with them nor find them amusing any longer, the tale begins to bore me, just like a party I’ve stayed too long at.

So that’s it. I typed a little longer, and came up with my answer. No. Anything I reprint will appear as it did originally. Other than a comma here or there, or some formatting problem, I won’t touch it. If I can’t present it with enthusiasm, I won’t present it at all. Period. End of subject.

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Home Is Where My Spaceship Is

Last time I posted, WordPress congratulated me and offered me a prompt for my next one. It was, “What does home mean to you?”

I consulted Maya Angelou for my answer. To quote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

That’s good enough for me, definitely how I want to live. Cook a decent meal, do the dishes, see what’s on TV. Ask if either of my family wish to watch with me. If nothing’s on, curl up on the couch with a book. My daughter will go watch something on her computer; my husband might open his iPad and immediately fall asleep. We relax.

But if we’re watching or reading science fiction, we will more likely than not be enjoying tales of the mostly not-at-home, have-no-home, and left-home-never-to-return.

Science fiction protagonists can have disastrous or nonexistent home lives. Home, when it exists, is something to be invaded by aliens, zombies, Big Brother, or a rival galactic empire. Alternatively, home is a place escaped from long ago, or too boring to mention much. Or perhaps it was destroyed, and can’t be gone back to.

One partial exception that comes to mind is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. There our heroes live inside monastery/university-like concents, which are pretty cool places, and we are allowed to spend some time there before the cozy, cocoon-like atmosphere is ripped apart by political and social upheaval. A truer exception to science fiction homelessness might be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which is three volumes of turning the red/green/blue planet into a home. Granted, there are parts of the trilogy which, much as I admire it, I find a bit tedious, mainly where they are discussing what sort of government the new Martian nation will have. And that is the point. Good government is boring. Even only semi-ok government. Non-boring government is never any good.

Good homes are boring and tedious as well. There is a lack of drama between those who live there. No one screams at each other. They are generally glad to see each other. Bickering, moodiness, and grumpiness are okay, in moderation, of course. There are negotiations, to keep the peace. There is the upkeep, the cleaning, the laundry, and the rent or mortgage to do. There is a modicum of fun picking out paint colors and furniture. There is the delight of one’s stuff, which one gets to use and enjoy, and one hopes other family members haven’t messed with or moved. There are the ordinary troubles, but danger is not something we seek at home.

If you’re a science fiction protagonist then, you’d best not be a homebody. If you stayed home all comfy and cozy, you’d be out of a job, and possibly dead, having been invaded or destroyed as described above. No one would want to read about you or watch you.  Let us therefore raise a glass (or just drink directly out of the milk carton, I don’t care) to our SF protagonists. Let’s thank them for entertaining us, for giving up the comforts we enjoy, so that we can have vicarious adventures through them.

On occasion, I may grow tired of being a homebody; I may want to pack my bags and exchange my land-based abode for a spaceship. In that case, here are some options I might consider:

1) The Enterprise looks nice in its mid-century futuristic fashion–all whites, grays, whooshing doors and blinking lights, but it’s all a bit too antiseptic. I’d never make it through the five-year mission without missing my cluttered, mismatched, homely decor.

2) Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have a seductively strange ambience in their sentient ships. Who wouldn’t want to take a ride on something named Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, or Sense Amidst Madness; Wit Against Folly, or even Kiss My Ass? The personalities of these ships, however, are overwhelming, and I would feel quite exposed. Ships of the Culture universe can be a bit like the overattentive waiter or bus-person who keeps interrupting table conversation filling water glasses and asking if everything’s okay.

The only ship I could stay on for a long period is the Tardis. Huge inside, sentient but discreet, and with cheerful retro-techy decor. The series has implied from time to time that in between dangerous adventures and looming arcs of The End of Everything, the Doctor and his companion(s) have a some non-eventful sightseeing trips that don’t make it to the screen. This, I would like. Also, the Doctor can drop me off at home moments after I left.

That way, I don’t have to miss anything or anybody. It’s a cheat, but I think it’s a necessary one.

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Connie Willis No Cure for Insomnia

While I was reading Connie Willis’s Hugo Award nominated 2-part novel, Blackout/All Clear, I began having trouble going to sleep at night.

Sleep problems are fairly unusual for me, and when I do have trouble, it is usually caused by jet lag or some kind of extremely unsettling issue going on in my life. Neither cause applied here. Neither issue applied here, and it was clear to me that the problem was the book.

Blackout/All Clear is a time travel novel (inconveniently in two parts) in which some historians from 2060 Oxford, England go to World War II and the blitz to study up-close the lives of people in wartime Britain. They become concerned–in spite of assurances to the contrary–that their actions might change the past, and therefore, the course of history.

And here was the problem:  Connie Willis’s protagonists, every single last one of them in this book, spend the bulk of their time fretting, fussing, and trying to fix or avoid ruining the course of history. They run all over London dodging bombs while doing so. These are not your typical men and women of action. Instead, they examine their every little action, worry about every possible discrepancy between what is supposed to happen–how many casualties there are supposed to be in a bombing for instance–and what they experience in their time travels. It’s absolutely solid plotting, because after all, WWII was a close thing for England. Looking back, it’s difficult to see how they avoided getting invaded and taken over by Hitler–and that’s exactly what Connie Willis’s protagonists are concerned with. Any little thing one time traveller does might be the the flap of a butterfly wing that allows Hitler to win the war.

Lying in my bed at 1 or 2 A.M., staring at my shadowed ceiling, I know I am safely ensconced in a timeline in which Hitler lost. I am not really concerned that the novel’s protagonists’ worries are somehow true. No. It is their worrying alone that worries me. Connie Willis’s characters think like I do. They think way too much. Like them, I fret that my actions are somehow wrong, will somehow cause unknown harm in unknown quarters. Unlike them, I often let my fears dissuade me from action, which is why I am a real person and not a protagonist in a novel, ha-ha. But like them, I am thoroughly distressed that I never seem to have enough information, that information doesn’t match up like I want, and that I sometimes screw things up for the best of intentions.

Connie Willis does this thing with characters and quotidien details of their lives as well as any writer I know, including mainstream writers. Her future people flub about just as we do. They have the wrong color skirt. They miss appointments. They get flustered and don’t know what to say. Her historical people are just as good. They manage to be both heroic and petty, generous and selfish, wise and shortsighted. The book falls into the science fiction category, but its heart and soul is that of an historical novel. Reading this book, I felt as if I had personally travelled to 1940’s wartime England, and not so much at all to 2060 Oxford.

Sleep issues aside, I loved this book. After I was done with it, I went back and reread To Say Nothing of the Dog. I was struck by how similar the theme was, how worried those characters were about changing the course of history, even WWII as well. The difference was that To Say Nothing of the Dog was unrelentingly comic, and therefore caused no sleep disturbances. I rested easy in the knowledge that the characters’ worst fears would not come to pass, and that all would come right in the end.

Oh yes, and then there’s Doomsday Book, another emotional ride in the Willis time travel universe. I’ll reread that again soon, too, as well.

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