Sunday, February 23, 2014

One Chapter Before Breakfast

(What follows was originally written for an ASIMOV'S blog. Sheila Williams bought my novella, "The Principles", but she thought that her readers might appreciate a little explanation about its background and its logic. Unfortunately the magazine's blog is delayed. And that's why I'm publishing it here.)
My personal history is vague, particularly to me.

I once wrote an alternate history about Christ.  The central premise was that the Lord and Savior was born female instead of male, and two thousand years later, a young woman lives in a world both radically changed and perfectly familiar.  I'm not much of a file keeper, and my minimal records include the date of the first sale and its publication history.  If compelled, I could generate a rough timetable about when the story was written, and if I read it again, I could offer up informed guesses about why I did this and that.  But most of the past has vanished to me. This happens with most of my work.  I am enthusiastic and driven while focused on a project, but I usually divide my time between several stories at once, and once a story sells, I walk away. At least until the galleys come around.  Which brings me to one good reason why I'm an exceptionally lucky writer.  After several months of distraction and forgetfulness, reading my own work feels rather like reading it for the first time.  I have come across a tale composed by someone very much like me, but not quite me, and hopefully, not too much of it sucks, and maybe I even like it.

That earlier story is called “The Boy”.  According to my website, it was published in ASIMOV’S SF more than a decade ago.  But besides a few mental images and the general tone, the story was written by a stranger.

But not the premise, however.

On the face of it, Christ is an unlikely fascination.  I don’t attend church, save to help marry and bury people.  I can’t remember when I wasn't agnostic.  Which is not the same as being an atheist, I should mention.  To me, atheists are as rabidly certain as any good Baptist.  There are no burning opinions about God in my soul.  I believe in nothing but my own deep ignorance about deities and the various hierarchies in our vast universe, and that’s how I have been for all of my half-remembered life.

Why would a skeptic care about God’s daughter and a history transformed?

Maybe it’s because I live in a complicated, often dangerous world--with the emphasis on the words “I live in”.  A few dead prophets left behind institutions, and those institutions have endured for centuries, outlasting nations and entire languages.  Indeed, successful faiths are often responsible for the creative destruction of nations and languages.  Each religion has its rules and a deep hold on society.  That first story, “The Boy”, offered a glimpse of a matriarchal society and the critical business of sex ratios.  But I couldn't let it go.  What I wanted to explore was something more sweeping and thorough, except in those places where I focused hard on the boring and splendid aspects of 20th Century life.

Think of this novel as a kind of bar bet.  Two guys sit in a tavern, and both of them happen to be me. One of me challenges the other, saying, “How about this?  A chapter a day, every day of the week.  Quick chapters and minimal plotting, and let the ramble lead you where it wants to go.” And the other me agrees to the challenge.  Why not?  We’re talking about a chapter before breakfast.  How hard could that be?

The beginning date is lost.  But I remember crawling out of bed in the dark, grabbing coffee before slipping into my basement office before the rest of the house was awake.

This was after the spring of 2006.  The dog had died; nobody needed to be walked.  For several months, I held to my goals, building a hundred chapters, give or take.  There might be an old CD carrying the earliest draft, and who knows what lives on various flash drives?   The routine was pleasant enough, like the bus man’s holiday, and it was all very part-time, right up until that one morning when my various story threads connected with each other, on their own, and this steady patience suddenly took a hit of meth.

There is a strong dose of autobiography to the story.  Which is to say that I was doing what a lot of middle-aged authors do.  Studies show that the third decade of life produces vivid memories, some of the most intense that we will ever know, and why not make your past work for you?

Life in my twenties was brutally ordinary. I was teaching myself to write.  I paid bills by working in a factory.  Relationships didn't last.  While I was writing the novel, I scrupulously avoided using bad dates and lost girlfriends, but what I tried to capture, with every chapter, was that endless ripe sense of possibility.  In my early twenties, every woman was a potential mate.  Every pleasantry exchanged at the college library or in the grocery felt ripe with possibility.  Will this be the one who matters?  Will this be the one who knifes me in my sleep?  What’s more, the world during the late 70s and early 80s was exceptional.  The Cold War was endless, gasoline was scarce, Iran held hostages, and there were plenty of reasons to doubt that any of us would survive to the end of the week.

The novel found life, and I began writing the novel again, from the beginning.  And my energies grew tenfold.  One chapter was written before the house woke, and several more chapters came after the house emptied out.  The book was one big file, and then two files, each as hefty as a stand-alone novel.  Then I started a third file.  My favorite writing feels like reading.  I had a sketch of what would happen, what should happen, but the story has its own momentum and little surprises, and sometimes huge surprises. I stood aside, watching events unfold.  Soon I was working all day on the project.  I would go to bed wondering what tomorrow’s first and second and third chapters would reveal.  Eventually I started a fourth file, which had to be the last.  Near the end, I would wake at four in the morning, contemplating actions and inactions from people who were vivid to me.  Nearly 350,000 words went into an epic drawn around ordinary lives, and it was great fun, and for me, the joy and passion of that experience won’t ever be duplicated.

Not in this reality, certainly.

When it comes to history, I’m an agnostic.

I don’t believe in history.

Not that I can’t enjoy reading a good story.  And of course I accept the premise that Alexander was great, and Winston Churchill definitely led an interesting life.  But with a background in science and confidence in my total ignorance of Creation, I save my respect for the idea that we don’t really know shit about the past.

Armed with laudable skills and every scrap of data, the finest scholar can invest her life in the seminal history on a single past day.  Yet in the end, sitting on her death bed, she has no business pulling the priest’s ear to her mouth, saying, “I know what happened on Calvary Hill.”

A thousand libraries don’t hold enough data to resurrect the past.

Witness accounts.  Bureaucratic records.  Forensic evidence as well as the informed sensibilities about human nature and human foibles.  These supply useful slivers of data, but the picture always remains incomplete.  Maybe someday, in a dust-free superconducting alcove on the fourth world circling Alpha Centauri B, we’ll find a thorough recording showing the earth as it stood two thousand years ago--a data ocean devoid of gray margins, invulnerable to interpretations.  But even then, the heart of history remains unknown.  One video showing every person in the world, coupled with every act and word, still falls short of Truth.  We still need to see inside every head, urges and memory weighed with precision, as well as all of those electrochemical factors that don’t resemble rational thought as much as they do the hard tossing of many, many dice.

This is how much I distrust history:

Take a perfect picture of the past.  Create a model of reality both ridiculously honest and utterly convincing.  Then let those inherent motions push into the future.  Run the simulation one billion and eleven times.  We’ll begin with the day when a virgin claims to be pregnant, and I predict nothing.  Nothing but one billion and eleven new histories.  The dice are tossed.  Little differences vanish, while other little differences become giants.  The prospects of duplicating any one of us, complete with our same first loves and the same credit card numbers, remains out of reach.  But maybe ten of these worlds will duplicate our world, complete with Christianity and a Cold War.  And however unlikely it is, perhaps one of these billion worlds will end up being very similar to the world that I invented while writing “The Principles”.

When I say I don’t believe in history, I'm boasting that I don’t believe in any single story. Life is random noise and little turns, and every day is a sandwich made from dumb moments and brilliant insights.

What I believe is that Sandra West is inevitable.

And even though I have spent a surprising portion of my last seven years thinking about Sandra, I know precious little about her.

“The Principles” is a novella published in the April/May 2014 issue of ASIMOV'S SF, and has been teased free from a much larger book.

Quentin Maurus lives in the matriarchal West.  Christianity and its offspring rule Europe and the New World as well as large portions of Africa.  Meanwhile, Asia is dominated by a second religion.  At first glance, the Maimuns might remind the reader of Muslims.  This is common mistake.  And the standoff between civilizations has a Soviet-versus-US feel.  But again, that’s an error made by many readers, sometimes including the author himself.

Maimuns began with a religious prophet who claimed to be the son of god.  He didn't die young and he wasn't martyred, but In many ways, his faith is a closer analogy to modern Baptists than are the Christians in the woman-led West.  Maimuns are unapologetically patriarchal.  They are aggressive and quarrelsome with one another, and after thirteen hundred years of war, they are ready to go to war with their female counterparts in the West.

Likewise, the West looks at every man with grave suspicion.

Two civilizations have divided the earth between them.  Queensland and Europa dominate one hemisphere, Persia and Greater Mongolia the other.  Each side has its own calendar, its own clocks.  Science is shared, but with deep restrictions.  Technology is roughly at the stage that we inhabited by 1980.  Perhaps computers aren't as powerful, but both sides have spent enormous capital and hope on space missions, including giant rockets and lunar bases and the Mongolian mission to Mars.  The World’s War was fought in the 1940s, resulting in a draw. There was a Vietnam, recently ended, but that tragedy was born from rather different reasons than our Vietnam.  And because each of these civilizations has one vast, unbeaten enemy, governments and churches are willing to do anything to maintain religious purity.  This is why there are no Mormons, and there never were any Shakers, and even mainstream churches are unified by convention and shared purpose and two thousand years of fear.

In Quentin’s world, almost every young male is drafted at eighteen, serving his government for ten years.

Quentin wasn't drafted, and that was a blessing that kept him safe, and it was a curse that left him profoundly alone.

In the Western word, a substantial portion of the male population is in prison, and most free citizens, male as well as female, embrace that level of incarceration.  Add to that the missing millions who are sitting on the borders of Asia, guarding the Armistice Line, and also the fact that women prefer to give birth to daughters...well, you might expect a young man like Quentin to have a busy and very happy social life.

That is, if you didn't know anything about Quentin Maurus.

Or his maladjusted world.

When I began writing “The Principles”--that is, when I was yanking obvious threads out of the big original story--I discovered one major blunder.  The original novel was told in a first-person POV, and the results weren't as effective as I hoped.  So that was one of the larger matters:  I freed myself from Quentin’s voice and Quentin’s need to be at the center of every scene.

For the last several months, most of my daily work has centered on reweaving the original novel into a 3rd person narrative.  Plus tweaking and slicing where I saw fit.

At least one more novella is coming from this work.  And a finished novel.  And there’s no telling when either will be done.

As for other warnings/asides to readers:

Extinction events might seem inevitable, but they’re often anything but.  I had fun changing the available species on this other earth, two thousand years divided from ours, including blue pigeons and bamboo bears and a rather robust population of hominids too.

Critter names and object names were approached with the spirit of a translator.  I preferred to find words that capture some essential quality about a bird or automobile, and how their world looks at them.  Hopefully my translations hold clear meanings for readers as well.  But since I’m working with a language that doesn't exist, I think I’m entitled to a little more leeway than we allow real experts and Google software.

And finally, a little warning about thunderbirds.

I grew up with dinosaurs.  When I was eight, dinosaurs were giant lizards that lived inside my imagination.  But it was a mistake to name the animals after cold-blooded reptiles.  They are not reptiles, and the wrong name infects the expectations of readers and believers, no matter how wise they might be.  In Quentin Maurus’ world, a brilliant Mongolian paleontologist uncovered some of the first fossils, and he correctly recognized the resemblance between chickens and these giant bones.  Because of that, my protagonist has a life blessed with two great gifts:  He doesn’t have to worry about fighting in a foreign war, and he grew up knowing that wingless birds the size of buildings used to run wild across the world.

Of course not fighting wars is the bigger gift.

But as Rebecca Christ might say, holding a different history in your head is transformative.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


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, 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.