Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Tag

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre   Leave a comment

Winner of the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novel

I’ve read Hugo Award-winning novels that I greatly enjoyed, and in a few cases, changed the way I see the genre. I’ve read others that left me frowning, wondering how the book could have risen to such prominence. (Very few of these, I’m happy to report.) Until now, there’s never been anything in the flatland known as “Meh.” If asked before now, I’d have maintained that such a reaction was highly unlikely. So imagine my surprise to find that the winner of the 1979 Hugo for best novel – Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre – left me without a strong reaction one way of the other.

The story takes place on a future Earth that, at an unspecified time in the past, was ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. The event is recent enough that spending time in a still radioactive crater can have lethal consequences. The descendants of the war’s survivors have adapted to a changed world, splintering into well-defined groups: desert nomads in the arid lowlands, clannish scavengers, scattered communities of town folk in the hills and mountain valleys, and a single city of high-tech xenophobes who have maintained a tenuous connection with an off-world civilization. (Whether or not these “off-worlders” are human was never clear to me.) One splinter of the human population is made up of Healers, who travel the region providing health care. Each of them is a sort of medical knight-errant. In addition to mundane healing skills, these Healers carry with them genetically engineered venomous snakes – an albino cobra, a diamondback rattlesnake, and the eponymous dreamsnake in this case – that are living pharmaceutical factories. These altered snakes can be used to provide anything from vaccines to cures for cancer. The dreamsnakes, one of which is assigned to each Healer, have a more specific purpose. They are alien creatures with a venom that has mind-altering properties, used to ease the ending of a life when death cannot be averted. The dreamsnakes came to Earth from that off-world civilization. They are difficult to breed and are therefore scarce and greatly valued. Without one, a Healer isn’t really a Healer.

While tending to a cancer-stricken child of desert nomads, a Healer named Snake – a name that is rarely bestowed upon one of her calling – badly misjudges the people she is helping. This results in the death of her dreamsnake, a gentle creature named Grass. The loss of her dreamsnake is devastating, leaving Snake unable to perform one of her most important functions. Snake’s quiet confidence runs headlong into her overwhelming guilt over the death of Grass, leading to a complicated combination of self-doubts and determination. What follows is a quest for redemption and understanding, as Snake seeks to replace Grass. Along the way she must endure a stalking lunatic, and comes to the rescue of an abused child.

Meanwhile, a young desert nomad, guilt-stricken over the crime his people committed in killing the dreamsnake, follows Snake with the intention of defending her reputation when the Healer community learns of the loss of Grass. The handling of this character weakened the story for me. He appears too seldom to make for an effective subplot, and the relationship between the two characters is rather sketchy, based essentially on a single scene at the beginning of the book. As he follows Snake, she goes on a quest to seek aid from the high-tech City, where she and her adopted daughter – the child she rescues – are coldly rebuffed. By pure chance, that event, and an encounter with the “crazy” who is following her, leads Snake to a very dangerous solution for her problem. The young nomad never really figures into any of her darker adventures, so until the very end I was never quite sure why he was in the story at all. How he does fit in at the end, I’ll leave readers to discover and judge for themselves.

All of this takes place in a landscape that came across to me as little more than stage dressing. Much of the setting is described only in broad strokes, with a sprinkling of details. As a result, for me the setting never really develops a life of its own. It’s just there, decorated with such exotica as tiger-striped horses, otherworldly seasonal storms in the desert, and – of course – dreamsnakes. The story seems to drift through this imagined landscape without the two really coming together as parts of the whole.

Fiction that works best for me balances world building with character development and plot. When this doesn’t happen, I find the story overall just sort of slips by me. I never fully engage. And that’s what happened when I read Dreamsnake. There were moments of interest and a lot of intriguing concepts – such as the ability of people, through training, to control their own fertility – but the balance of character, plot (the young nomad was a sporadic distraction that never quite gelled as a subplot), and world building wasn’t there for me. I don’t regret reading the story – it was an unusual tale and otherwise well-written – but I’m afraid that Dreamsnake goes on that list of books for which a single reading was quite enough. As for winning the award, this is a novel that would have stood out in the late 1970s on the strength of its unusual concepts, and the main character Snake. I’m not too surprised that it won. And so my recommendation is to read it for yourself, and see what you think.

The Latest – Variation on a Theme: A Fantasy in Four Moments   Leave a comment

When I decided to self-publish fiction a little over nine years ago, I started with a space opera that turned into the five book series War of the Second Iteration. Science fiction was already my default setting, so I led off with the sort of fiction I know best. This was followed by The Gryphon Stone, a story that blends science fiction and fantasy. From the very beginning, I knew I would not limit myself to space opera style sci-fi. How far from this default setting I might stray wasn’t clear even to me until I published Toby, a story that has nothing of fantasy or science fiction in it at all. That project made it very clear to me that I should stop referring to myself as a science fiction writer and simply think of myself as a storyteller, one not overly concerned with genre constraints. It’s a more comfortable and, I believe, more honest assessment.

My newest book clearly reflects that decision. It’s not science fiction by any stretch, although two of the main characters are serious fans of that genre. Variation on a Theme is a fantasy, one set in the real world of the late 1970s. The fantasy element has nothing to do with any epic themes. There are no sword-swinging heroes, axe-wielding dwarves, or ancient wizards. It’s more of a metaphysical fantasy, one built around a very old idea. What would you do differently, given the chance to relive part of your life? What would you be willing to give up, to take that chance?

An old theme to be sure, and here is yet another variation on it.

Comfort Reads   Leave a comment

Recent troubled times – pandemic and politics – have tested the mettle and coping methods of us all. Although writing (see previous entry) provided me with a measure of escape, I remained anything but an exception to the rule. In some ways the pandemic, in its early stay-home-stay-safe phase, was less of a hardship for me than for so many others. I did miss gathering with friends, but as a writer, spending time alone is simply the way of things. You might say self-isolation was part of my job description. It certainly didn’t hurt that my wife retired just as the pandemic fell on us like a collapsing building. Being in the mess together offered a considerable advantage. Even the sporadic shortages, including food items, fall into the “It could be worse” category for us. Flexible menu planning – my wife and I both like to cook and have between us a respectable repertoire – prevented a major problem in that regard. And in that collection of recipes we have many that make you feel better about life just by cooking and eating them. They may not always be the healthiest eating, but some days it doesn’t pay to worry too much about that. You’re eating to relax and feel better about life, something that surely has therapeutic benefits, if not taken to extremes. Comfort food, in other words.

You can only eat so much, and stay healthy. When immersed in the writing process, I can ignore what’s going on, but I can’t write 24/7, and sooner or later I am out in the real world, coping. It wears you out. I doubt anyone reading this would argue that point. And so when I’m not writing, I seek other things to distract me without undue effort, and early in the pandemic one of those comfortable distractions was rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Returning to Middle Earth was a thing I did in my teens, when life challenged me in ways that made escape desirable. An old habit, then, brought forward to the present day. The feeling of comfortable familiarity provided enough relief that, when I turned the last page of The Return of the King, I found myself scanning the bookshelves, thinking of other works that had, in my teens and early adulthood, taken me from my troubles. I found myself making quite a list, and committing to rereading other old favorites while the troubled world continued to lurch awkwardly around me.

Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy was next up, a work that seemed to age better as the reread moved from Foundation, to Foundation and Empire, and finally to Second Foundation. Asimov was learning and growing as a writer as these stories evolved, and you can see things progress in that regard. That’s probably why the last book seemed less naïve than the first. Not that the first wasn’t a fine example of comfort reading, of course. It was simply an interesting progression, one that didn’t register during earlier reads and rereads.

As the year 2020 went on, adding wildfires and continent-spanning plumes of smoke to our woes, I indulged in more comfort reads. Cities in Flight by James Blish, The Stone That Never Came Down by John Brunner, Tau Zero by Poul Anderson, City by Clifford D. Simak, and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, among others, all passed under my gaze for the first time in decades. 2020 ended, but 2021 seemed to look back and say, “Here, hold my beer.” So I kept reading – and writing.

Although some of the worst-case scenarios have not played out as we feared, the world seems inclined to remain a thing that challenges sanity, so this habit of pulling old favorites from the shelf and indulging in comfort reads is likely to continue. And if things ever settle down? To be honest, I’ll probably keep reading those old favorites. It’s been a fine thing to revisit these books that meant so much to me, once upon a time, and there’s no shortage of such books in this household. It will surely be a habit that endures past the pandemic’s end.

Posted September 5, 2021 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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Remembering Gateway by Frederik Pohl   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1978

I went through a phase as a reader when short fiction – science fiction specifically – was my thing. Publications such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Galaxy, made up the bulk of my reading. For reasons I’ve now forgotten (this was at least forty years ago), I’d become fascinated by science fiction in its short form. Because of that fixation (one that I’ve never entirely lost) I came to read a serialized novel in Galaxy entitled “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl, one of the masters of the genre. I’m no longer sure what sort of impression the serialized version of what became an award-winning novel left on me, but it was strong enough that I recognized the title on the list of Hugo Award nominations when I started receiving material from the 36th World Science Fiction Convention.

I had such literature showing up in the mail because I’d acquired a membership and intended to attend. How could I not? It was being held in Phoenix, Arizona, the city to which my entire family had relocated two years before. No travel needed; even a hotel room was unnecessary. I’d read so much about WorldCon, as it’s generally known, mostly through the Hugo Award short-story anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov. I wanted to see one for myself. I stumbled over the fact that the WorldCon was happening in Phoenix when I start patronized a bookstore devoted to the genre (that, in itself, being a mind-blowing novelty for a small town guy). Long story short, when the Hugo Award for Best Novel was bestowed, I was there to watch it happen.

Though I read it as a serial, the version of Gateway that I now remember is the book, recently reread for this essay. If there were changes from magazine to book forms, they are lost to me. Picking it up again after so many years, all I could recall was that it had something to do with abandoned alien starships, a guy with serious issues, and a black hole. That proved accurate, as far as it went, though the novel turns out to be considerably more complex than those vague memories gave me to believe.

In a nutshell, Gateway takes place on a near future, somewhat dystopic Earth, that at the time I read it surely seemed a plausible extrapolation of the late 1970s. Human society is even more stratified than we see today, and poverty is an all-too-common way of life. The main character, Robinette Broadhead (who regularly reminds the reader that he is male, name notwithstanding) is a man from such a background who gets lucky in a lottery. He uses the money to buy his way into a place called Gateway, an asteroid full of alien technology left behind by a race humans have decided to call the Heechee. Among the artifacts, and central to the story, are hundreds of preprogrammed starships. People try their luck making voyages on these ships, hoping to return with artifacts or knowledge worth significant sums of money. And a great deal of luck is involved. Very few strike it rich, missions frequently return empty-handed, and death is an all-too-common fate for those who take the risk. In spite of the danger, there’s no shortage of volunteer “prospectors,” and Broadhead decides to be one of them. That is, until he arrives and finds out just how dangerous being a prospector can be.

The structure of the novel alternates chapters of Broadhead’s life after his Gateway experience, during which he is undergoing serious psychotherapy, and the events that took place while he was aboard the asteroid. (Sprinkled through the tale are “sidebars” made up of mission reports and personal ads from Gateway that add significantly to the world building.) It’s obvious from the start that Broadhead is a mess, and as the halves of the story, present and past, alternate, the reader gradually comes to understand the mental health issues he brought with him, to which Gateway added a massive burden of guilt.

Robinette Broadhead comes across, to me at least, as something of an anti-hero in spite of himself. He has the best of intentions, but his courage almost always hangs by a thread, and when the tension causes him to snap, he proves to be a danger to himself and others. He is also a man of considerable compassion, and has a capacity for love that is often at odds with his insecurities. All of this conspires to lead him into some poor decisions, and therein lies the tale. He does eventually take flights aboard three Heechee spacecraft. The first is a bust, he succeeds in spite of himself on another, and on the last – well, that’s where the black hole comes into it. It seems a standard of science fiction that black holes almost never do anyone any favors. And this one, while it leaves Broadhead a wealthy man after all, also bestows that burden of guilt I mentioned earlier. A burden that leads to the therapy that makes up half the story.

The story ends with Broadhead finally accepting an unpleasant truth, even as he manages to hold it all at arm’s length, ambivalent to the end. It feels as if the story dangles somewhat loosely instead of coming to a firm conclusion, but as this turned out to be the first book of a series, that’s understandable. The story doesn’t really end here. I’ve read the others, and if you like this one, they’re definitely worth your time.

The 1978 WorldCon, known also as IguanaCon II (even though there’s only ever been one of them – go figure) remains the only WorldCon I’ve ever attended. It represented a turning point in my life. Through it, I made a connection with the science fiction fan community in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, resulting in friendships that have endured to this day. Many memories from that event are held dear, and among them stands the one and only time I watched a book I’d read and enjoyed win one of these Hugo Awards.

What Did I Know?   Leave a comment

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 1975

 

na·ive·té (noun)

  • lack of experience, wisdom, or judgment.

  • innocence or unsophistication.

In 1974 one of the featured selections of the old Science Fiction Book Club was a new novel by an author I was barely familiar with: Ursula K. LeGuin. A couple of years before, I’d read he award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness and enjoyed it, so when The Dispossessed appeared in the SFBC newsletter I decided to give it a try. I was in my senior year of high school, a standoffish nerd and misfit, with the majority of my life experience coming in the form of books I’d read. However, I was well-read for a kid my age, and had always cast a net wide enough to encompass history and current events, among other things, so it would never have occurred to me that this book would be a bit of a reach. I would not at the time have doubted my ability to grasp the underlying concepts of LeGuin’s latest (the first Hugo winner I ever read before it won the award). It was science fiction, after all. I would dig it.

When it came time to reread this Hugo winner, doubts emerged. I could recall very little of the book or what it was about. I usually do much better than that. That didn’t stop me from reading this classic of the genre, but I was not far into the novel before something became crystal clear. There was no way, in my teens, that I had even a clue regarding the basic themes of this book.

Those themes are big ones, if typical for LeGuin: anarchism, revolutionary societies, capitalism, socialism; male-female relationships; the freedom and burden of individuality. The Dispossessed takes these on through the story of one man’s naive assumptions about another culture, assumptions that are severely challenged when he visits that world and sees it in real life. At the same time, he is a living challenge to the assumptions made by the people he meets regarding his own world and culture, and how these shaped him. These matters provide the essential conflict in the story, as the character Shevek tries to be true to who and what he is, and the society he identifies with, while at the same time carrying forward research in physics that his own people see as being without real value. It’s why he’s left home, to complete that work. He is a man caught between the rock and the hard place when he must walk away from things he knows and believes in, and learn to live in an alien society that will allow him the freedom to make a major discovery – though for their own purposes. He is about to complete a theory that will change everything by allowing all the human worlds in LeGuin’s Hainish universe to communicate instantaneously regardless of the great gulfs of space between them. However, the grand cosmological puzzle Shevek hopes to solve seems a secondary concern to nearly all around him, as war and social upheaval shake the world to which he travels in the hope of completing the work.

Alternate chapters tell the story of Shevek coming of age on his collectivist home world of Anarres and his unsettling experiences in the capitalistic societies of the world named Urras, a planet that considers Anarres its moon. The story of personal conflict is clear enough – and the cultures and worlds LeGuin builds are exotic enough – that I surely enjoyed the book when I first read it. I certainly enjoyed the illusion of understanding it. Reading it again after 44 years, I was amazed and chagrined to realize much of the book never touched me at all. Big themes – anarchism, revolutionary societies, capitalism, and all the rest – and all of them passed under my notice, unable to really touch me in the naiveté of my adolescent years. All I was left with years later was the memory that, yes, I’d once upon a time read the words within this book. It would have been a superficial read at best.

This is not the first Hugo Award winner I’ve reread years after the fact for this weblog, and in each of those cases I was well aware of picking up things missed by my younger self. Life’s experiences accumulate and your perspective shifts; things are made clear that were muddy before or, worse, seemed clear but were not truly understood. But this is the first such book I’ve read that prompted me to look back across the years and realize that, in a sense, I hadn’t really read it at all in 1974. I read it for the first time, with full appreciation for the author’s work, this time around, more than four decades later.

What Just Happened?   Leave a comment

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Winner of the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Some might consider what follows to contain spoilers. If you have not yet read this book and believe you might do so someday, proceed at your own risk.

Science fiction has a seemingly endless fascination with a particular set of ideas, and perhaps foremost among them is the dream of encountering an intelligence not of this Earth. I can’t begin to count the number of such stories I’ve read over the years (many years, now) that I’ve been a fan of the genre. Whether it’s a first contact tale or we step right into a well-populated universe, the so-called aliens are there, story after story. The popularity of this trope seems to me to be a modern manifestation of an ancient desire to seek and discover the “other,” even if we might fear the consequences. We are, after all, the animal that invented gods.

Whether humanoid in form or not, these aliens are usually reflections of us, of humanity. Depending on the author and the nature of the story, the motives and behavior of these imagined beings may be more or less human in appearance, even when stretched and strained to be something unusual. It’s rare that the tale is told with aliens involved that are utterly incomprehensible, though these are the most interesting such tales of all.

One of these, the first of the sort I ever read, is Rendezvous with Rama, by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke. Here we have a tale of an alien encounter without the aliens. A great ship appears at the edge of the solar system, on a course that will take it around the Sun and sling it back into deep space. A mission is sent to intercept this gargantuan object and, if possible, enter and explore it. The crew succeeds in doing so, gaining access to a vast inverted world of wondrous sights and often dangerous mysteries. At first inert and filled with darkness, as the object they now call Rama approaches the sun its systems are activated. It lights up and comes alive. An inner sea thaws out and fills with apparently synthetic life forms. Creatures that may or may not be robots prowl the interior. The intrepid adventurers endure storms generated by the differential heating of the inside of the cylinder. They gather data, take pictures, and manage to escape Rama before it shuts down and speeds from the solar system. They leave the encounter with more questions than they had when they first approached Rama. And they never find an unambiguous sign of the builders of the artifact.

Aliens of some sort built the thing and sent it on its journey among the stars, that is clear. But who did this? Why did they do it? The artifact itself, while providing plenty of interesting experiences, reveals next to nothing about its origins, much less its purpose. The aliens behind it are not revealed, although hints are provided. We have an encounter with their automated emissary, and following the adventure of the encounter, are left scratching our heads.

The sketchy account of the story I’ve just provided might give you the impression that this isn’t a book worth reading. What’s the point, after all? There are several points to this book, including the adventure of exploring the unknown and the tale of those explorers and how they react to the artifact and interact with each other in the process. But the main idea here, to my mind, is to illustrate the possibility that what we find as we venture forth out there may simply be incomprehensible. Our motives may not be their motives, our ideas of purpose may not have common ground with theirs, and there are bound to be cases in which – should we ever meet anyone in the first place – this will be true. Rendezvous with Rama is such a tale, an adventure experienced by humanity that shows us plainly that we are not alone, while at the same time leaving us to wonder what it all means. An encounter that leaves us guessing. Science fiction has a tradition of asking the question “what if?” To my mind “What if we can’t figure them out?” is as legitimate a “what if” question as any. In this case it generates a science fiction adventure that deserved the award it received and its continued popularity so many years later.

Of course, the big questions left hanging at the end of Rendezvous with Rama are answered in the sequels that followed – or I assume, having not yet read any of them. While I need to get around to that someday, it is I believe a testament to the strength of this story and the wonders that unfold in it, that I’ve only ever been mildly curious about the sequels. Rendezvous with Rama works as is, and is as satisfying a read now as it was when I first picked it up more than forty years ago.

The Gods Themselves   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1973

In the early 1970s the range of science fiction available to me increased enormously when I joined the old Science Fiction Book Club. My personal library didn’t exactly explode in size – I was earning just enough money with odd jobs to keep ahead of the membership requirements – but the variety of science fiction I had the chance to read increased significantly. This led to a deeper appreciation for what science fiction could be, building on the eye-opening experience of reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, reading Dune was part of the motive behind joining the SFBC. I wanted a more durable copy of that book, having read the paperback to death, and although book club editions were hardcovers only by a technicality, it was an acceptable compromise.

The SFBC did more than broaden my reading range. One of my first acquisitions, along with Dune, was the two-in-one volume of Hugo Award winning short fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, one of my favorite authors then and now. The Hugo Winners was a feast of ideas and imagination, and Asimov’s science fiction convention anecdotes left me with a powerful desire to attend such an event, one day. I enjoyed those stories so much that any book offered up by the SFBC that had received the award was immediately ordered. I’d read a few Hugo award-winning novels before, but not until then had there been any context. Knowing what the Hugo Award was, and what it meant to science fiction fandom, made all the difference.

Not that I needed such incentive to pick up Asimov’s The Gods Themselves when it became available. I was quite familiar with the work of Asimov, by then; a big fan of both his fiction and nonfiction. The Early Asimov began my fascination with writing short fiction of my own. I’d read the iconic story “Nightfall,” a number of the robot stories, and all of the Foundation Trilogy before picking up The Gods Themselves. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find it something of a departure from the work I knew. That impression came back to life when I recently reread the book a short time ago.

There are two points of view used by Asimov in The Gods Themselves, one human and the other that of truly alien beings in a parallel universe. This is by far the most notable departure. With the exception of some of his earliest short stories, I can’t recall anything else by Asimov in which the point of view is shared by a nonhuman being. (Some would argue his robot stories fit this bill, but I disagree. His robots are far too human to be considered alien life forms.) The plot involves predictably short-sighted motives of pride and profit on the human side, and a desperate bid for survival by the parallel universe aliens. The alien biology and the culture that evolved from it are drawn simply, clearly, and plausibly, creating a fascinating contrast to the more familiar human realm. Due to difference in the life spans of the aliens, and a difference in how time works in the parallel universe, there are more human characters to keep track of than alien, but the author handles this aspect easily enough. Overlapping sets of human characters hand off the tale across the years, finally ending that side of the plot on a lunar colony.

The colony Asimov imagines puzzled me. His speculations were always based on the real science of the time, and are generally well thought-out. This lunar colony, as described in the novel, doesn’t exactly inspire the reader to dream of a lunar life. Cramped living conditions, food of limited variety (mostly grown from algae and yeast) and visible dental health problems – seriously, you’re going to plant ten thousand or more human beings on the Moon and forget everything that was known in the ‘70s about hydroponics? And neglect to bring along a dentist or two? The lunar setting ended up, in some ways, feeling less plausible than the biology and sociology of the aliens.

Where this novel works best is the material detailing the parallel universe aliens, and their struggles to survive as their world dies around them. It is one of these beings, a misfit in a highly ordered society, who is the real hero of this story. She is moved to risk everything for the sake of strange beings in a universe parallel to her own, about which her people know almost nothing, and who are endangered by the very struggles of her people to preserve their own species. This basic conflict is the true heart of the tale, and is handled well.

Lunar distractions notwithstanding, I’ve always found The Gods Themselves to be one of Asimov’s best novels. In terms of style it’s a bit of old school sci-fi persisting well into the time of the so-called “New Wave,” and yet held its own in terms of innovation. Well enough, at least, to earn its author the Hugo Award in 1973.

It was several years after reading both the Hugo Winners and The Gods Themselves before I made it to a science fiction convention. It was the 1978 WorldCon, otherwise known as IguanaCon II, held in Phoenix, Arizona. I watched Frederik Pohl received the Hugo Award for his novel Gateway at that convention. I grabbed a copy in the vendor’s hall before the weekend was out and read it before the convention was a week behind me. But I have a few novels between that one and The Gods Themselves yet to reread for this series of essays.

It Works That Way, Sometimes   Leave a comment

A while back, in “The Process, Part One”, I very briefly discussed matters to do with imagination and where story ideas come from. What follows illustrates one way the tales I tell can get started. It isn’t always a daydream that points the way to the destination. On this particular occasion – and it has happened before – I had to sleep on it.

I’m currently under treatment for hypertension, and one of the medications I take has, as one of its few side effects, the tendency on my part to have “lucid” dreams. And they really are lucid. More than once I’ve not so much woken from such a dream as segued from the dreamtime into the dimly lit real world of the bedroom, early in the morning. Balanced between the two I am, for just a moment, convinced of the reality of both. All too often this segue comes as a relief, as the realization comes that it really was just a dream, and I don’t need to come up with a resolution for whatever awkward situation the dreamtime concocted for me that night. And these dreams are, far more often than not, weird. Some are seriously weird and even disturbing.

Sometimes they’re something more, posing puzzles that linger into the waking world, puzzles that I find myself thinking through whether it makes much sense to do so or not. Like the one last night, during which I was in the midst of an alien invasion. It was sort of a cross between the films Independence Day and Skyline. Strange machines in the sky, people in a panic, buildings collapsing under an avalanche of inexplicable lighting effects – you know, the standard Hollywood stuff.

Weird, yes, but after the fact, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that the dream took the form it did, considering how much of my time is taken up by reading and writing fantastical fiction. And I’ve enjoyed my share of alien invasion fare over the years. There was an oppressive quality to the dream and the waking-world residue that reminded me of the film Skyline, a movie I actually dislike because of its realistic hopelessness. Yes, faced with such a situation, it is unlikely humanity would prevail, but who wants that for entertainment? The aliens would surely have their way with us. All of which begs the question of why they’d want to have their way with us. Science fiction writers have, since the days of H.G. Wells, dreamt up a variety of motivations, the majority of which are most likely to be nonsense. Resources? Living space? Women? Please…

That’s the puzzle that lingered after the nightmare anxieties faded. It’s not a new question; I’ve heard and seen numerous readers and writers of science fiction raise it in the past. For some reason, this morning it was my time to tackle it, all because a weird dream triggered that train of thought. So – a species capable of traveling through the vastness between the stars would surely be able to tap the raw materials of the universe as needed. Why would they need to come here and make a fuss? There would have to be something about this Earth of ours they desired, something that didn’t accrete routinely from the interstellar dust from which stars and worlds are formed. Skyline was actually on the right track, in that regard, with the aliens after something you’d only find on a living world like Earth. (The way they employed their plot device struck me as being as biologically absurd as aliens wanting human women, but still…) Yes, it would have to be something very rare, if not unique.

There would also need to be a compelling reason to acquire that “something.”

And just like that, I had an answer. A thing we have here that might provide a motivation for aliens to come here, and a reason for them to want what we have, although perhaps not with hostile intent. In fact, there almost certainly wouldn’t be any hostilities. And with that answer, that idea, I found myself making note of a new place to go, and a trail in need of cutting to the destination that is a story’s climax, to reuse that metaphor I apply so often when I write about story telling.

I got up, went into the space I call an office, and jotted down some notes. Not sure when I’ll get to this one – it has a few competitors for my writing time – but the idea has been safely recorded, the trailhead marked for future exploration, and it will someday become either a long short story, or a novella. Because now that I’ve glimpsed this new story, I’ve got to write it. For me, there’s really no choice about it.

Crazy, perhaps, that it came about as it did. And yet, it just works that way, sometimes.

A Deeper Appreciation   Leave a comment

Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970

Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.

I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.

This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.

In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.

There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.

 

Book Five and the End of the Beginning – Part Two   1 comment

It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.

When I pulled The Way of Leyra’an from the file, my intention was to go through it to check for typos and such, and clean it up for self-publication as soon as possible. While doing so, I continued my investigation of the so-called “indie” author movement. What I learned convinced me that simply cleaning the manuscript up and turning it loose probably wouldn’t do. I needed outside input on the story, its qualities and shortcomings. Professional editors had been impressed by the book, but that wasn’t exactly a critique. Hiring an editor was not an option. My employment situation had become precarious and I had good reason to believe I would soon be unemployed. (I was, unfortunately, proven correct in this.) I needed to set money aside, not spend it. I latched onto the concept of beta readers, and pondered how to make use of it. All the while, I read through The Way of Leyra’an, correcting errors and making notes as ideas came to mind.

At the same time, I pulled together some amateur astronomy material I’d written for, but never posted to, my favorite astronomy forum. With some work I was able to blend it all together into a short memoir of my experiences as a star gazer in my teens, and how I came to pick up the pastime again as an adult. The idea had occurred to use this small book to test the waters of self-publishing. It became Mr. Olcott’s Skies – An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession. While I revisited the novel and began to first revise and then completely rewrite it, I used the memoir to learn what I needed to know in order to actually make a book. You know, those little things like fonts and formatting, cover art and design, product descriptions and tables of contents. (Actually, this part was a journey unto itself, and I found myself exploring things that I’d never considered would be part of the publishingg experience. That’s worth an essay to itself, someday.) The experience proved valuable down the road.

Meanwhile, The Way of Leyra’an became another book altogether. Rereading and reworking it, I discovered a different, and longer, story in the material. Cleaning up or even just expanding the book wouldn’t do. This was a trilogy, no doubt about it. On the day that this thought occurred – I’d been working with the original manuscript for more than a month – I decided to take the original idea and just start over. The Way of Leyra’an had served its purpose, and it was time to write The Luck of Han’anga. As I gained momentum and a story began to evolve, I remembered how deeply I’ve always enjoyed the process of making words do what I needed them to do. I remembered how good it felt to write. Life seemed less bleak and purposeless.

One day, while working on this new novel and enjoying that feeling of having gotten a scene just right, there occurred one of those moments of absolute clarity that we all experience a few times in our lives. I understood something and knew this thing absolutely. The gloom of the previous years was well and thoroughly banished, the lack of purpose completely expunged because I was writing again, and doing so not only with the intention of publishing but in full knowledge that it would be published. In that moment of clarity I understood the nightmares and the black moods. When something defines you, when that something exists as the very core of your being, as writing has always done for me, it’s more than merely disappointing to leave it aside and walk away. It is, for some of us at least, impossible to do so without harm. The moods and bad dreams were a manifestation of the mental and emotional damage being done by my attempt to walk away from writing. The new world of self-publishing came along just in time, and I’m pleased to say no permanent damage was done.

These feelings of relief, of finally being back on the right track, were heightened with the publication of my very first book. Mr. Olcott’s Skies was released in March of 2012 and was well-received. By then I’d completed a draft of The Luck of Han’anga and found some beta readers, all of them people I knew well enough to expect they would provide honest criticism. They did; some of it made me cringe a bit, but when I read what they said and re-examined the book, I couldn’t argue the points. So I made revisions and tried to learn from it all, with my eyes already on the next book. My wife went though the final manuscript and checked it for errors, resulting in a very clean copy and a much stronger ending for Book One. I applied the knowledge I’d gained publishing the memoir and hit the publish button, and the first book of the War of the Second Iteration series went live on June 7, 2012.

By then I was well into the first draft of Book Two, and was having trouble figuring out how to end it in a way that would allow the next book to wrap up the trilogy. I actually sat down at one point and sketched out a sort of timeline to illustrate roughly the sequence of events I needed in order to reach the final scene, which was already fixed in my mind. To my surprise the overall story arc fell into not three but five sub-arcs. This was more than I’d bargained for, but I accepted what the story was telling me and forged ahead. I couldn’t help myself. There was no angst or hand-wringing involved; I was having too much fun.

And so it went, through books Two, Three, and Four. The story evolved as I wrote it, and each book built on those that came before. I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of the details and maintain continuity. By Book Four I was rereading material in the previous volumes, in self-defense. I’d had no idea what I was getting into and the climb, while manageable, was pretty steep. Then it came time to write Book Five, and it was like heading straight for a wall.

How do you end a story that’s gone on for so long? I’d done so, in a manner of speaking, four times by then. But in each of those cases there was a next book ahead to carry things forward. There was no going forward after this, and I felt oddly constrained as I wrote. (The fact that the year in which I wrote Book Five was a troubled time surely didn’t help.) I needed this to work, to be the grand payoff, and I’d never done anything quite like this before. Previous experience with individual books just didn’t seem to carry any weight. How to stop this train without turning it into a train wreck?

The story itself eventually gave me the answer. As I wrote and figured out more of what the implacable foe was and could do, and led the characters through the discoveries they needed to make within the plot, the end shaped itself. And then it was written, beta read and revised – and the end of the process seemed to come on all of a sudden. I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and rather pleased to have pulled it off. Whether or not I truly succeeded, well, you’ll have to tell me!

When I hit the button and published Setha’im Prosh, it was a strangely anti-climactic experience. Yes, it was enormously gratifying, and yes, I feel a great pride in what I’ve accomplished, but… How is it possible this is really all said and done? This has been the center of things for more than five years. Where are all those characters I’ve come to know so well? It feels strange to walk around and not be wondering what tune Robert MacGregor should play on the bagpipes next, or what new tricks the Faceless have up their sleeves. The impulse to do such things has not abated, but this story is done. Where am I supposed to go from here?

Elsewhere, of course. Into another imaginary universe, of which I have no shortage, believe me. And I already know which one it will be.

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