Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Goldilocks Planet

I recently read two science fiction novels, written some 50 years apart, with similar premises. One was underwhelming, the other was much better.

At the heart of these two novels was a paradox that's probably endemic to science fiction: the fact that our planet is balanced between precarious conditions that would make it unsuitable for human life. The size of our moon, the thickness of the ozone, the distance of our planet from the sun, the rate of its spin ... the list goes on. Scientists (like Michio Kaku) say our planet inhabits a Goldilocks zone. And yet, the imagination wants to go out into space and find "new worlds and strange civilizations" (to quote an old favorite, though I didn't quite get it right, I think). Given the odds, will we ever find another planet that humans can live on? Could some hypothetical future civilization fare any better?

Most "sci-fi opera" novels (and films) just ignore this problem. Luke Skywalker can breathe the air on any number of planets. So can Edgar Rice Burroughs' hero, John Carter. But the two novels I read recently are more in the "hard sf" camp, taking the "science" part a lot more seriously.

Both novels share the premise that a remarkably earth-like planet has been discovered. A team has been sent to take a closer look. Both planets prove to be too earth-like, too livable for coincidence. And so the major puzzle at the heart of each book is ... how? What's really going on here?

The first one I read was Ben Bova's New Earth, published in 2013. In this novel, humans cannot travel faster than light, and so the humans who arrive at the paradisaical New Earth cannot easily leave or get help from old fashioned earth. Their technology fails them, thanks to the inference of a native species, and they spend the novel trying to find out who these aliens are and why they're messing with the crew.

The second one I read was Mark Clifton's Eight Keys to Eden, published in 1960. Here, humans have mastered FTL travel, mostly because of a group of super-scientists who exist and operate above the law. A team of settlers is sent to "Ceti II," nicknamed "Eden," and find it very easy to thrive--almost too easy. Until, that is, their technology fails them and a super-scientist-in-training is sent in to help them. The hero here gets trapped with the other settlers and has to solve the puzzle with very limited clues, to finally arrive at a way to release himself from the planet--and other things, as well.

By far the more exciting and mind-bending was the older one, by Mark Clifton. Bova's novel was slow-paced and turned on a conflict of mistrust, with a minimum of tension about whether that mistrust was misplaced. Clifton's novel left the reader wondering (until the last minute) both about the alien species and the puzzle that was keeping the humans imprisoned on the planet.

In the end, neither novel solved the riddle, of course. They both concluded (or at least implied) that a planet safe for human life will be too good to be true. But one did this in the interests of encouraging humanity to trust and unity (Bova) and the other in the interests of imagining a higher destiny than space exploration--another level of evolution, so to speak.

Well, that's it. Thanks for reading. Weigh in below if you have any ideas ... I'd love to hear it.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Writing Year in Review

Nothing like filing taxes to get you thinking about last year. It wasn't a great year for my writing, but I did log my first story sale (actual money for something I wrote). I won't disclose figures, but it was enough to buy a twelve pack.

I wrote a children's book that I really liked, called "The Ice Boy." Oh, and another, called "Boris and the Spiders." And I heavily edited a story I wrote apparently in 2012, called "The Rubber Band Man in the Moon." These are all middle grade chapter books, of about the 5000 word variety. I write them, edit them to death, and then don't somehow know what to do with them.

I also wrote (it looks like) four short stories. Like I said, not a great writing year.

Apparently I did a lot of editing. I know this because I wrote a note to myself to this effect. For instance, I took a novella and added in a story thread that gives the main character a lot more depth. I added a whole subplot to another. I raked through one of my novels again. And I deeply edited a story that went through a round of critiques.

Looks like I submitted 22 manuscripts (some as many as 3 times), and almost all of those in the first nine months of the year. This was one those Ray Bradbury "snow flurries of rejections slips" periods, although 22 probably isn't that many. I need to up my game, this I know. Time to get my feet wet submitting the longer stuff, too.

On the up side: three of those rejections came with compliments, what I could call "near misses." One of those was a major market, a "professional" one. So that was very nice. And, it bears repeating, one came with with a "yes" and a small deposit in my account.

Oh, and I almost forgot: This blog hit 10,000 all-time views. It might not be a sky-rocket, but I'll take it. Thanks for reading!

Why am I telling you all this? I don't know. Camaraderie, maybe. The hope that it'll encourage one of us to keep moving forward? Yeah, it's probably that.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Full Moon at Midnight

It's a full moon, and my dog is restless. She keeps looking at me with an expectant expression. More than once she has growled, or just stared, as she does when she needs to go out. But these have been thinly veiled excuses, even for a dog. Her piddling seems hardly urgent. She just wants to go out.

I get the feeling what she really wants is to go on a hunt. To not just chase, but actually catch something, feel its fur in her teeth, and bring it back to me.

Or maybe it's to howl at the moon. Another dog down the hill is barking like mad: whiny barks that might be suppressed, half-remembered wolf howls--all he's got left in his throat to let out what's elsewhere in his genes. My dog seems to want to join in. She's been growling and half-barking. And now I've decided to leave her alone in her crate.

It's after midnight, after all. I should be in bed. But I'm just as restless as she is. Craving some red meat, maybe. Feeling just a little bit wild. But my excuse is that I had too much coffee today, and too late in the day.

I'm a little further, I guess, from the primal roots of my species. Maybe not historically, but certainly culturally. I've got a thicker veneer of civilization on me. More coats of paint. Maybe some vinyl siding. I'm well hid in here, or so I like to think. "I" being that wild part of me, that just wants to run free like a dog through the woods. Hot on the trail of something ... some excitement or other. While the rest of me is perfectly content to sit in this chair in a warm house and type these fantasies into a text box.

In fact the better part of me just wants that red-blooded streak to take a nap, so I can sleep. But let's face it: that's not going to happen any time soon.

So if you hear me howling at the moon, in an hour or so, you'll know why. Just roll on over and go back to sleep. Unless you want to jog with me and my dog through the woods for a pace ...

Monday, October 27, 2014

Forget need: write from joy

Oh Joy (dog running on beach)
"Oh Joy!" by dank1012

I'm going to talk to myself out loud for a few paragraphs. You're welcome to listen in.

I've heard the advice that you should only write that story that grips you and won't let you go. You should write because you have to. You should write out of some kind of dire necessity. And I do believe there's truth in that. A lot of truth, and maybe even most of the truth.

But that's not the whole truth. From another angle, as I wrote in a recent post reflecting on playing cornet (for no earthly or professional reason), too much of our lives are devoted to duties. Things we have to do, because if we don't do them ... whatever will happen. I won't be able to pay my bills. My kids will grow up to hate me. My such-and-such will get mad at me. Whatever it is. Duty calls, and we jump to our feet (grudgingly, but quickly). And the deeper the need, the quicker our response, the more attention and energy we give that thing, and the harder we push to "do it right."

Writing, I think, shouldn't be like that at all. Or at least not the kind of writing I'm interested in. A story that has to be written is, well, a newspaper story written for a deadline. Or a sequel to a novel promised by the writer, or demanded by a contract. (I respect both of those kinds of writing, by the way. But it's not what I signed on for here!) Freedom--the kind of freedom that is essential to art--has to come from a different place. It has to come from a kind of joy. Or at least "joy" is one of the places it can come from. A superabundance, an exuberance, an overflow, an excess.

That, I admit, is its own kind of necessity. And it might be the necessity these advice-givers have in mind. But its primary trait is not, I think, need. Its primary trait is "joy." Or "enjoyment." Delight. Ecstasy. Richness. Excess. A freedom from duty, a desire that transcends the demands of everyday life, that celebrates "waste" and "profligacy." Just look at the endless hours spent clacking at a keyboard to produce a small piece of excellent, exquisite prose. Novels write far slower than they read. If they existed for reading alone, they would never be written. The writer would collapse under the pressure of duty, the duty to produce what was demanded.

The same could be said about painting. It doesn't exist only to be looked at and seen. If it did, what painter could bear the strain to produce a finished work?

So novels are written for another reason altogether. Call it "need" if you want, I prefer "joy." The very best novels are experiments in delight, distillations of endless lingering, idiosyncratic and meandering, exploratory and clever, taking the time to shed light on some aspect of life, or just to tickle some curious itch. There are mercenary novelists, I'm sure. But like I said, I'm talking here to myself about the kinds of novels I enjoy reading and would want to write. They all have that trait of exuberance, even if it's the sparse lines of Hemingway or the voluble passages of Dostoevsky, the vivid descriptions of a Neal Stephenson, the arms-length humor of H. G. Wells, the lush prose of Patricia McKillip, or the ascetic blade of Ursula Le Guin. None of these writers, I think, are writing because they have to--out of some kind of duty imposed on them from an external force. (Dostoevsky sometimes did, I realize, to pay bills. But that's beside my point.) It might not even be that they have to write this particular story because its teeth got into them. It might be that they have found room in their life, in the internal space of their interior life, to play. (Play, either frivolously, or with great earnestness. But play, nonetheless.) And in playing ... out came these delights.

I don't know if that's the way to say it. But there's something true in what I'm trying to articulate here. Something that the advice to write "what you have to" has never conveyed to me. Writing, for me, has to live outside the realm of "duty." At least for now. It has to exist in a place that's free of those kinds of mercenary constraints. It thrives on exploration, on a rich diet of leisure and thought and space and time. From there a story might well seize me and not let me go. But it seems to me it's more often the reverse: that I seize a story, an idea, an inkling, that emerges from that rich interior life, and I don't let it go until I've found out the insight it's hiding in its murky depths.

Stories, to me, don't come fully formed, but rather as semi-conscious or even unconscious nudges that I have to seize and follow out if I want to understand them. I can go on without them--and have--but I'd rather take hold of them. This doesn't feel like necessity, but rather opportunity. A chance to find joy, to pursue my bliss.


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