The Speculative Fiction Spectrum for Writers

A new non-fiction book by “Wired” editor Steve Silberman, _NeuroTribes_ contains a very interesting perspective on the origin of the problems writers of science fiction encounter in the course of selling or popularizing their work.

_NeuroTribes_ is not about writers as such. More accurately, it’s about those of us referred to as geeks in popular culture. A fascinating chronicle of the latest findings on the Autism Spectrum, it includes in its historical background a chapter on Hugo Gernsback, made famous for popularizing science fiction largely through his work as the original editor of “Astounding Science Fiction.”

Gernsback, for whom the Hugo award was named, can be thought of as the poster child for Asperger’s Syndrome (yes, it’s still a real neurological condition in DSM-V, it’s just been relabeled as part of the autism spectrum). Looking back on my experience at this year’s Worldcon, it’s a bit embarrassing to recognize his set of eccentricities in so many of the attendees. Myself included.

Unlike Gernsback, we live in a world where being obsessed with the beauty of math, a captivating story, or the ideas of SF do not automatically earn an individual a one-way ticket to a mental institution. (The wealthy have almost always been exempt. Remember the old saying, “Fans are Slan?” The fan who originated that escaped from an institution, where he was to be sterilized.)

We live in a world where science fiction movies are popular, but the fact that the most popular are scientifically inaccurate should give writers worried about accuracy a hint. The vast majority of people want a good story with interesting characters, not a science lesson. IMO, a writer needs more than talent, hard work, and a great tolerance for rejections. They also need to know if they are even capable of writing a hero that neurotypicals can identify with. If not, sharpen your focus on hard-core SF ideas, and write those kinds of stories. Be thankful that you can do a virtual book tour instead of the IRL kind. You can’t know your audience unless you first know yourself.

Wherever you are on the spectrum (I highly recommend reading _NeuroTribes_ for its nuanced treatment of a complex subject) go with your strengths. Life is too short to waste beating yourself up because you don’t fit the standard neurological genre.


Dead Mothers in YA and Life

An article recently published in “The Atlantic” by Sarah Boxer excoriated authors of modern children’s movies for creating story-lines with “disposable mothers” so that the child characters can then go off and have adventures. Mothers who are dead, in other words, are a handy convenience.
Though Ms. Boxer concedes that the dead-mother plot device predates Dickens and the Brothers Grimm, she finds something peculiarly repugnant about its usage in modern story-telling. In fact, she insists that the true modern meaning of this trope is that mothers are viewed as no fun, and of no special significance to anyone, especially the child heroes. She then goes on to savage “the mother of all modern motherless movies,” Disney’s _Finding Nemo_, for having a “perfect dad” and a misogynist mindset. No exaggeration here – she actually compares the evil stepmother-in-waiting to the vagina dentata.
Because she has braces. Yikes.
No literary snobbery going on here, is there? Dickens and the Brothers Grimm (however revolting the latter is in its original incarnation) are classics, and modern genre … isn’t.
As a mom who writes genre fiction, and who once had a post-apocalyptic YA novel rejected by a Hollywood producer because “it has too much death for kids,” I have a few opinions on this subject. (BTW, I pitched this when _Hunger Games_ first came out, and my ms. didn’t have anywhere near the up close and personal encounter with death, so go figure. I’m rewriting it with a different vision.)
The lifeblood of genre fiction is conflict, and there is no greater existential conflict for a child than to lose his or her mother. Death of the mother or both parents is everywhere in YA, and a fair amount of middle-grade fiction as well. Coming of age means a child leaves the nest – or is pushed out – and not only survives, but in the process discovers who she is, and sets her feet firmly on the lifelong path to become her best self. That’s the happy ending, anyway.
The other thing is, as a writer, you need to write not what you know (that’s what research is for) but what you feel in your heart that is authentic about the human condition.
My mother died when I was eight years old. My heart knows a great deal about such loss. I don’t know how to write about mothers and daughters having ordinary lives together. I suspect a lot of genre fiction writers are in the same boat. Were we just born introspective book-worms with a yen for fantasy and SF, or did some terrible event in our lives drive us inward?
The last time I was at a genre workshop where the writers had relaxed enough to talk a bit about their early lives and influences, I found to my surprise that nearly everyone there had lost her mother young.
Literary writers don’t have a lock on tragedy in their lives; I like to think a writer and her art can be the stronger for surviving it. If that’s a genre conceit, I’m guilty.

Characters that Breathe True

                In the September 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, just out, is a non-fiction article by Jeff Kooistra on the usefulness of the Myers-Briggs type Indicator in creating story characters.

 For those unfamiliar with Myers-Briggs, it’s one of the more practical guides to personality out there. Since it’s based on the work of Carl Jung, this may seem a bit counter-intuitive given his gift for way-out abstract thinking. But he didn’t develop the personality questionnaire; two extremely practical people familiar with his work did. They wanted to help people figure out what kind of job would work with personality type rather than against it.

It’s also, as Jeff noted, enormously useful for writers.

Briefly, there are four pairs of preferences: Introvert/Extrovert, Intuitive/Sensible, Thinking/ Feeling, and Perception/Judging, which produce sixteen personality types. Most people are at least dimly aware of their tendency to be introverted or extroverted, and whether they’d rather think about the world or feel it. The other two are less obvious, but have to do with a preference for taking in the big picture rather than the practical details, and to make decisions versus staying open to new information.

There are many books on this subject – I like _Please Understand Me_ by Keirsey and Bates. For those who haven’t taken the brief test, I highly recommend doing so rather than just taking my word for how insightful it is.

To cut to the chase, scientist characters work most naturally if they are Intuitive Thinkers (NT), those who work with their hands or have physically demanding jobs will be Sensibles, either SP or SJ depending on how much conformity or detail work is required (think carpenters, firemen or police), and artistic personalities go well with NF, the intuitive Feeling. Those are extremely basic subtypes, leaving out the other two letters, but it’s an important classification. (Do not fall into the trap of thinking NFs are less intelligent that NTs. I’m met scary-smart NFs.)

Now, you may be wondering, what about people who don’t have a marked preference for anything? They’re just as comfortable with their intuition as they are building things, and so on. Kooistra, who is an NT, speculated that they might be uninteresting, or that they might have something interesting to offer everyone, and thus be universally charming. (Non-preference is called ‘star.’)

At one time I knew one of these star-types: a former cowboy, former Green Beret and police officer who was also a professor of statistics and military history. He read Aristotle in his spare time. He intimidated the hell out of most people because of his ultra-competence at everything. And this was a guy who made an effort not to do the alpha male thing – in teaching my self-defense class, he stressed the importance of recognizing a bad situation and running away ASAP. Told us the Rambo thing was silly.

The character in fiction most like him? Harry Dresden, of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. He is a star at all the preferences, and though he doesn’t read Aristotle and is barely competent at Latin, he loves knowledge for its own sake, he’s a sucker for kids and women, and he’s one hell of a fighter. (Yes, Butcher has had his problems with gun terminology, but it’s not Harry’s fault he says ‘clip’ instead of ‘magazine’.) He’s such a ferocious fighter he scares his friends sometimes, but he always ‘saves the cat.’

That’s what an action hero should be.


Mars, Planet of Peace

     Every few months, it seems, a story appears in the news about a country that’s planning on sending astronauts to Mars. Even Russia’s talking about it, and with all the Russian Soyuz spacecraft have done to prolong the use of the International Space Station, that’s not trivial. But as Alexander in Galaxy Quest plaintively asked, “What’s my motivation?”

     Building a road to Mars is expensive, and the economic returns are not immediately obvious or realizable. Budget cuts are looming. As the rocket engineers say, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Well, not to worry. The road to Mars is paved with another cold war.

     When I was a kid breathlessly watching the Apollo program, I thought we were going because space exploration was freaking awesome. How could something so inherently cool possibly be motivated by anything else? Decades of disillusioning behavior on the part of NASA, and of course Tom Wolfe’s trenchant analysis in _The Right Stuff_, showed me how naïve I was. The entire Apollo program was all about proving to the only other superpower at the time, the U.S.S.R., that ours was bigger than theirs.

     The United States Congress has, in a general sort of way, approved a new direction for NASA that includes canceling Bush’s planned return to the Moon by 2020 and instead proposes sending another robot to Mars in 2020 and “orbiting Mars” in the 2030s. NASA plans collaboration with the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

     Meanwhile, UK scientists have designed a concept mission to land astronauts on Mars by 2021 — 12 years before NASA expects to send a manned mission to the Red Planet. The plan, which reads like Dr. Bob Zubrin’s _Case for Mars_, envisages a three-person crew journeying to Mars aboard a small two-part craft. Though India has been researching how to get to Mars for several years, the country didn’t announce its intentions to send an orbiter there until August of last year, days after NASA successfully landed the Curiosity Rover. Still, India has to be taken seriously: They’ve spent nearly $70 million on the project, and the country has become a major player in space in the last couple decades. It’s had a space program since 1969, and launched its first satellite in 1975. In 2008, the country became the fourth to successfully land a mission on the moon. The Indian Space Agency is also currently working on a human spaceflight program, though there’s no firm timetable on the launch.  

     China, of course, has plans to land on Mars. Sun Laiyan, administrator of the China National Space Administration, said on July 20, 2006 that China would start deep space exploration focusing on Mars over the next five years. The first uncrewed Mars exploration program could take place between 2014–2033, followed by a crewed phase in 2040-2060 in which crew members would land on Mars and return home.

   What do all these countries have in common? They have either been a superpower or are in the running to become one.

     Maybe we actually are becoming more civilized. If it’s too dangerous to openly confront someone as strong as you are, well, you can go into space and prove you’re cooler and smarter. Instead of blowing things up.

     For an unexpected spin-off of the space program, that’s way better than Tang.





Save the Cat versus Save the Kid: A Writer’s Approach to Character

    The classic how-to book on screenwriting is _Save the Cat_ by Blake Snyder. In this wonderful and funny book, Mr. Snyder begins by pointing out something that should be obvious: the importance of a likeable hero. Alas for us movie-goers, this is not always obvious to Hollywood, or perhaps they have a different definition of likeable than the average person.
                The likeability thing is really pretty simple. Have the hero perform an act of kindness, one that he’s under no obligation to do. Saving a cat epitomizes this ethos, but it could be anything as long as the hero derives no personal gain from the action, just the knowledge that he did some small thing that was right. Of course, this isn’t just for movie heroes – it applies to books as well.
                Having read a lot of books in my life, written a novel, and seen a few movies, I would like to propose the argument that “save the cat” does not work very well for the currently popular kick-ass female protagonist.
Steven Barnes has pointed out that female heroes who use fighting skills of any kind need more backstory than male heroes who do the same thing, which makes a lot of sense. Even these days, with America’s military filled with young women, many of whom are mothers of young children, fighting is still seen as a more natural part of the male skill set.
      The entire world does not think this way, but I assume people reading this are writing for a Western market. (A few decades ago in Afghanistan, the Russians had a saying, “If the women come up the hill after you, save the last bullet for yourself.”) Ex-military heroes are popular in thrillers; probably the most popular are from elite units that do not admit women.
        What does work to gain sympathy for the kick-ass female protagonist? Save the kid, that’s what. Your female hero’s not only tough, she hasn’t surrendered her heart. _The Hunger Games_ Katniss Everdeen is the perfect example of this. Who could not be drawn in by this young woman who hates everything about the Games, but does not hesitate to sacrifice herself for her baby sister?
         Katniss does not do this as a female stereotype. She is what we want all our champions to be. Only the strong can give, and she gives everything that she has. She is an archetype, and it’s no surprise that the story is seen by many as a Christian allegory.

         Readers want to fall in love with your characters. Save the cat or save the kid? You decide.

Sleeping Pill Wakes the Living Dead

Years ago when I was a hospital intern, a doctor called a code blue one night on a former colleague, a thirty-something cardiologist who’d been hit by a pickup truck while out driving around with his pregnant girlfriend.
The EMTs pried the unfortunate physician out of the wreck with the Jaws of Life, but by the time he arrived at the hospital, he’d bled out so much, his brain was severely damaged by lack of oxygen. He was alive, but his conscious mind was gone, having retreated to that low ebb we call “the persistent vegetative state.” In other words, an irreversible coma.
He wasn’t brain-dead, but he could not respond to anything or even breathe on his own, not without tubes and a ventilator machine. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the heart doesn’t do well in this situation. We all knew he would develop cardiac arrhythmias and die. After the hopelessness of this situation was explained to his family, they agreed that he would be a do-not-resuscitate, which meant that when this young man started to die, we’d let him. Except the doctor the night he started to die changed his code status to full code.
The code blue sounded, and we all ran down there, thinking the house doctor must’ve gone temporarily insane. This guy was a no-code! The medical interns were going to pound on this poor fellow’s chest until they broke his ribs, we were going to inject him full of drugs, and for what?

Suffice it to say that he died in that rainy parking lot, and I had nightmares about it for years.
To my surprise we actually have a treatment now: Ambien. Yes, the sleeping pill that inspires all those stories of midnight gluttony and “paradoxical excitation” can work a magic we at that code never imagined: it can, metaphorically speaking, push the mind of a vegetative into a minimally conscious state. Which is no Hollywood awakening, and it only lasts for a few hours, but it’s still huge.

Stay tuned. One of these days, we’ll understand what consciousness is.

Underdog Heroes of Fiction and the Bottomless Laundry Basket

Underdogs are us.

It’s not just that the economy stinks, though that’s part of it. Underdoghood comes from being a grown-up and dealing with endless email spam, bills, laundry, and dirty dishes. Whatever happened to the robot servants science fiction promised us?  Oh, wait – we’re the ones who jump when our computers call. We’re the robot servants.

How unjust is that?

This is why every writer should think about how to throw a little unjust injury at his point of view character. Unjust injury is a way for readers to immediately identify with your hero, since it’s a more interesting route to underdoghood than gifting the hero with piles of bills and laundry. (A little of the boring details of modern life can make urban fantasy and horror believable, but don’t go overboard.)

I don’t know about you, but one of my reasons for omnivorous reading is for the fabulous escape, however brief, from mundane reality.

The first “Die Hard” movie was brilliant at engaging viewer empathy and identification with the hero. Remember how Bruce Willis’s character, Detective John McClane, spent most of the movie? Barefoot and running over broken glass. All because the chatty passenger in the seat next to him on the plane suggested that if he really wanted to relax, he should take off his shoes and socks, stand on a bath mat, and scrunch his toes. McClane thought it was silly, but he tried it anyhow. As he smiled with relaxation, all hell broke loose.

And for a great example of unjust injury in genre fiction, check out Harry Dresden, the Chicago wizard hero of Jim Butcher’s brilliant Dresden Files series. Poor Harry – smart, kind, ultra-competent good guy – is always getting dumped on. He’s lucky if his junker car starts, mechanical things constantly break down or blow up around him, the love of his life turns evil on him, his cop friend keeps arresting him on circumstantial evidence, he saves her from a werewolf and a horde of giant scorpions and she still arrests him. I can think of a great many more examples, but I don’t want to throw out any more spoilers to anyone who hasn’t read the series.

If you really prefer SF to urban fantasy, read the first book, Storm Front, anyhow.  Butcher is a master at characterization. Having read SF since I was a child, I believe that the genre cannot help but be improved by a little more of the underdog and a little less of the info-dump.