I wrote a story once, twice, more than twice...a story about running...
Friends leave a downtown YMCA on a long training run. There used to be another man in their ranks, but he was beaten to death in a local patch of forest. On this particular morning, the group crosses paths with a talented, half-mad fellow--another runner who enjoyed a long-time feud with the dead man. He was such an obvious suspect that the police arrested him. With a cantankerous nature and no money, the alleged murderer sat in a cage for weeks, but there wasn't enough evidence to bring him to trial, and he was freed. The entire community assumes that he is guilty, and when those pissed-off runners find a murderer trotting ahead of them, they decide to run a confession out of him.
The story's early versions were novel-length, and to one degree or another, they were ghost stories. The dead man was a memory and a haunting. Nobody talked about ghosts, but the living often stared at nothing, dealing with the past. In particular, my protagonist was motivated by the presence of a soul not wanting to be forgotten.
The novel was written because the situation interested me. And I wrote it because mysteries can be lucrative properties. Yet the book never sold. There were various reasons, but perhaps it's best summed up by a former editor of mine: He dismissed the idea because it was a standalone tale. Without a flawed detective solving interesting crimes, there was no series, and what publishers want is the forty-fifth book in a twenty-year marathon. That's the Gold Standard.
Sequels or not, there were some nice patches of writing. I haven't done many better paragraphs or better scenes. How well the final mystery was resolved...well, that wasn't its strength. And there was a tone to the piece that did rather limit its audience. More than one editor also rejected it because the characters were so intense, so unlikable.
The novel went into the files, migrated to a new computer, and rested. Then came that inevitable day when I needed something to do, so I savagely rewrote what I had already done.
A few miles from my front door is a fetid stream wearing a very sweet name: Dead Man's Run. The earlier novels wore that name for a title, and so did the science fiction novella. The original work needed a severe diet. I cut needless scenes. I cut characters, and suspects. A smaller work demands fewer complications and earlier resolutions, and that's what I managed--although the editor who bought it--Gordon van Gelder at F&SF--did rather wish that I would delete some faces from my mob of vigilantes. But I left the faces alone, because they mattered to me, and my central character and the main voice, Lucas Pepper, remained at the mayhem's center.
What was a sort-of ghost story became a SF story set a couple/three decades from now. About that world's specifics, very little is said. The climate is changing, but this is a cold morning in February. Wealth has been erased around the world, and wealth has shifted its residence, but Lucas is focused on the tactile world that he inhabits--the personalities of people and the physical poetry that comes with hard running. Only when he has no choice does Lucas bother with realms outside his reach, including a growing nation of high-tech ghosts.
The murdered man had an online backup. That backup is a constant presence, phoning the living runners at all hours, trying to remain involved with those carrying heartbeats. He also has discretionary funds, care of his benefactor's money and the absence of heirs. If you're going to save your essence for the future, then you have to give your backup the means to fend for himself.
On the whole, "Dead Man's Run" was well received. Some complaints were entirely predictable. Attending a convention in a distant land, I once found myself riding with a group of fans, all strangers. Passing under a banner for a 10K run, I asked about the race...and I was informed that "these things" happened every week and they were horrible and the driver wished he could run over those sweaty people with impunity. A neat moment, as if happens. And it's that spirit that informed some of the complaints about Lucas' story. Running is stupid, and why care?
Another criticism is that the situation wasn't believable. Humanity won't build backups anytime soon. Creating models of our minds, neuron by neuron, and then putting the sum total of our existence online...no, that isn't in anybody's queue. But on the other hand, that's not my imaginary situation.
Consider backups as being fictional versions of us. Our story lines, our voices and verbal mannerisms, embodied with a rough estimate of personality, each backup blessed with a freedom of action sure to cause invention and chaos. As a writer, I'm supposed to be able to fabricate a living personality in a few thousand words. Why wouldn't another twenty years of Moore's Law achieve far more compelling illusions?
A third complaint was that I didn't spend enough bandwidth on this near-future world. SF readers appreciate well-informed characters who know their terrain, info-dumping with grace. But Lucas Pepper is perceptive only when it comes to what he sees for himself. He doesn't understand the physics of carbon dioxide and methane--putting him on par with every Republican, and many Democrats too. He can't explain why India is collapsing, or even find India on a map. And while he could probably name the President, her policies would be a total mystery. The story doesn't offer deep tech-vistas about the backups, although it's obvious that Lucas doesn't approve of them or the underlying logic. What I like about the man--what matters more than anything else to the story--is that Lucas has sharp instincts about people and their passions. His ignorance about the larger world accents what he does know, and I treasure his expertise when it comes to deciphering the puzzles surrounding him.
Writing the novella, I had an ending in mind. "Dead Man's Run" was heading towards one sharp resolution. But Lucas Pepper supplied a second, more appealing solution. Which helped make the novella a far stronger work than the earlier novels.
Sometimes I feel lucky.
And now, a second story about my favorite detective.
This project began last year, and it hasn't proved easy. Unlike the first story, I didn't have a clear dramatic situation to ride to the end. How often in your life do you chase down the presumed killer of your best friend? I decided to tell several stories at once, setting up a scenario ripe for more sequels. Also, I enjoy a smug, self-congratulatory obligation to wrestle with the larger world: Climate change and peak oil, political mayhem and political opportunity.
SF writers love to complain about the difficulties creating near-future worlds. If you're wrong about anything, goes the logic, you should be embarrassed. Your errors will bite your butt while you're still alive, and isn't that the worst fate for writer?
Well no, actually. There are worse ways to be wrong as a writer. Ridiculous characters, wish-fulfillment instead of plot, or getting everything right about the future but making it boring. To name three pitfalls.
My answer to is to surrender early. I won't predict futures. I pick a trend, throw in a pivotal historic event or two, and hang on for the ride. Freed from the obligation to be the wise seer, I can focus on the fun while enhancing the misery--whatever I want for the story.
Here's one info-nugget about Lucas Pepper's world: West Antarctica's glaciers are collapsing. This is a possibility in our world, a nightmare with genuine muscle. Yet all but the darkest, drunkest climatologists give this scenario a tiny probability of happening soon. I've seen 5 percent estimates. Of course, these estimates are useless. Glaciers are tough to model, and West Antarctica is a mysterious place. What the ice knows, it doesn't share. Not with us. To say "5 percent" is to make the open admission that you don't having any good idea. One-chance-in-twenty captures the sense that it probably won't happen, but it could happen tomorrow, and the expert can still sleep nights believing that the odds are good that the oceans won't rise five or ten feet within the next decade.
Lucas lives in the continent's heart. Florida is flooding, New Orleans is gone, while a persistent drought is obliterating the West, and that's why refugees are arriving every day--chased out of their old homes by one ugly roll of the dice.
Lucas must have had a job, but personal troubles and minimal education would strip away most careers. So how does the man make a living? I've always assumed that he has rental property somewhere in town--a house or two filled with a better class of refugee. And of course, the man doesn't spend much money, embracing a Green lifestyle if only because he has no choice. But he likes money and wants more of it, and not long after "Dead Man's Run", my protagonist began getting phone calls from various backups. Local and distant, it doesn't matter. It seems Mr. Pepper has a reputation in the land of ghosts. Solving one crime, he proved that he understands backups, and more importantly, he understands the living, and that's why the dead are eager to throw money at this good man. They need jobs done, and Lucas wants cash, and so why not set up a little business?
The new world is built on its details.
The same as the old world.
About the first story, about "Dead Man's Run", there was the inevitable complaint: We're tired of reading about global warming.
Yeah, well, I get tired of reading about computers. When they work, I like the shiny toys. But why do our stories always have to have robots and AIs and the Internet and the rest of that parade?
Oh, that's right. That machinery is already here. The machinery is growing bigger every nanosecond. And any half-honest tale about our world in two or three decades is going to have computers, or it's going to have a compelling reason not to have them.
For good obscure reasons, the next Lucas Pepper story is titled "Passelande". One goal here is to build a more fully-realized society. A small city and the surrounding countryside are undergoing profound changes. In this future, moving across space has become far more difficult. Yet all but the poorest citizens can call anyone at any end of the globe. The local people are as ordinary and remarkable as any people, and Lucas has his way of interacting with them, and because I'm curious about my protagonist, I've been fleshing out more and more of his past.
Which brings up another fair point about backups and fiction.
Every person is light-years more complicated than words can show. Each one of us knows hundreds of people--faces and names and slivers of their stories. And each of us has met and then forgotten thousands more. Our lives are built upon too many details to chronicle. I have to assume that's the situation with Lucas Pepper. In the first story, he is nothing but a runner with a drinking problem, and his only friends are runners, and that's all we need to know. But that is the most appalling, unlikely life, and that's one reason why this sequel has taken so long. I want my guy to become real. I want to do that with a minimum of words. And oh, yeah, I need to tell several stories at once, defining a world that isn't our world, although when you hold it up against the hot sun, you can sure see resemblances.
Sherlock Holmes is a backup, and a cheap one at that--an entity of great computing power, but whose life story has been stripped to brink of unreality.