Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Science-fiction is neither cyberpunk nor broken

In his new Slate essay, Lee Konstantinou opines that Something is Broken in Our Science Fiction.
He isn’t really talking about science-fiction, so much as its subgenre of cyberpunk, which certainly still influences science-fiction subgenre naming, from steampunk to hopepunk. I’m not sure that cyberpunk has more influence than that these days – but let’s talk cyberpunk, for now.
Konstantinou calls cyberpunk a genre where the “hacker hero (or his magic-wielding counterpart) faces a huge system of power, overcomes long odds, and finally makes the world marginally better—but not so much better that the author can’t write a sequel.”
Never mind that this is the story of many novels in many genres. It’s a poor fit to cyberpunk, which usually sweeps its anti-heroes into situations where they are fitfully, perhaps only for a moment, masters of their fate. Usually, cyberpunk contents itself with not letting things get even worse. Its antecedent is the bitter Sisyphean resignation of Philip K. Dick. It’s telling that the book Konstantinou calls a parody of cyberpunk, Snow Crash, is one of the few that really embrace his straw-man of story concept in a funny and self-aware way — though, without a sequel.
According to Wikipedia, I am twelve years older than Konstantinou. I am fifty-three, so doing the math will show those were a significant twelve years. When he was a kid, he had the hammering-down of the Berlin Wall. When I was a kid, nuclear war, waged across that wall’s spiked concrete, was such a certainty that the network ABC made a prime-time movie about it.
In that light, cyberpunk was hopeful. Ecodeath and corporate control notwithstanding, we still had a world, and satellite casinos too. To state baldly, as Konstantinou does, that “cyberpunk is arguably a kind of fiction unable to imagine a future very different from its present” ignores that the present got more hopeful after the fiction. In its day it was a vast imagining, counter to both the militarized and the utopian strains of science-fiction, and more realistically human than either.
Konstantinou also dismisses style, which is a big part of cyberpunk. It’s like faulting Edgar Allan Poe for brooding. Even in our days of smartwatches, the scene in Neuromancer where the AI Wintermute chases after Case by ringing pay-phone after pay-phone is still powerful — BBC’s recent Sherlock steals it to introduce Watson to Mycroft Holmes.
Konstantinou’s biggest error, of course, is to conflate cyberpunk with the whole of science-fiction. In this century, most good and well-regarded science-fiction books are not cyberpunk, in either setting or style. Now that so much reality has come to resemble cyberpunk, in its technofetishism and anarchic capitalism, we do need new imaginings.
Thing is, we’re getting them. There’s lots of good sci-fi, and most of it owes its predecessors. No one would call N K Jemisin cyberpunk, nor Ann Leckie, nor Cixin Liu. All of them work in older traditions, and also do many things new.
So what does Konstantinou want? For his Twitter feed to be less full of optimism and fads, it seems.
Maybe the problem is less in science-fiction than on Twitter?

Destroying Budapest

My science-fiction work-in-progress is set in a single city, and I needed to see it to imagine living in it. Welcome to Pest! Only walk on gray parts….
Pest, the White Lake and the Soft Lands
Budapest was a proxy in the One-Day War between Greater Russia and Umoja East Africa. Buda is now the White Lake, a boiling toxic waste of microscopic robots that eat carbon dioxide, and anything else, to make diamonds that wash on its shores. Both embargoed no-person’s-land and boomtown, Pest houses thieves, smugglers, engineers, and skaters, daredevil gladiators who jump and spin over the Lake in maglev boots, just one fall from death.
I suppose I could have done any old thing to ruin a city, but I wanted a dusting of Science! in my fiction. I thought a fractal would make a believably consistent result small enough for microscopic robots to store. I used FractalWorks, a Mac app, to generate a tiny portion of the celebrated Mandelbrot function, and overlaid this on a large screenshot of central Budapest, so its finer arcs and whorls were the length of city blocks.

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver


I didn’t think at the scale of blocks it could ever be so precise – if nothing else, land would collapse – so I cut out the Lake using an image editor’s predictive selection tool, to make the edges sloppy and eroded.
Both the pink and white areas are products of the fractal. The white is the Lake itself, while the pink represents Soft Lands, areas of shifting underground streams through which nanites recharge, around which smugglers tunnel.
It’s been a huge help to have the reference. Putting my characters on a literal map lets me figure out relative distances, and helps me imagine the land and the city that might grow from it.
I also thought further about my mechanical monster’s makeup. Where Lake meets land has always been seductively quiet, since earliest drafts. Instead, let the meeting of Lake and Soft Lands be a place of churn and upheaval, the turbulence of nanites going into and out of dormancy around the buzz of other nanites quantumly-uncertain just where their strange fractal stops. I have a heart murmur too.
It’s easier to name things in the context of the city’s weird sense of humor now, and I’m looking at it as more impressively built than previous drafts. Where before it was falling apart and hastily erected, now I see it as printed and reprinted, strange but regular, by the same artificially-intelligent drone “taxibots” that run the city services. This has new virtues and a very different look. And some rewriting.
If this map gets reproduced in the book, I don’t want the plain line drawing quality of most novel maps. Rather I’d commission a graphic artist to generate a cityscape, degrade that so it looked like a 12th-generation-photocopy of an old image, have all the landmarks written in sloppy marker. At top: “Welcome to Pest where you will likely die.” At bottom: “Wanna know more? Live and learn.”

AwesomeCon DC 2016 – this weekend!

AwesomeCon is a large fan convention in Washington DC this weekend, focused on visual media – this year especially, it’s a Whovians paradise. Are you going?
Saturday will just be splendid fun, but the Friday and Sunday sessions have several good panels for my booklife.
I’m hoping to see: Comics in WWII, Giant Robots, Strong Women Characters, Nanobots – which together cover my debut novel, my serial novel, and my crazy SF work-in-progress – and attend at least one of the marketing panels. Continue reading

Robots vs. androids in fiction (go robots!)

Among the characters in my new novel is a collective of former package-delivery drones that, after a war, evolved themselves into a taxi service for their damaged city.
From the earliest drafts, I saw them as small flying saucers, with only a central trunk/harness to carry goods or a seated cross-legged person. It took a little time before I saw the plot and character possibilities of robots without hands or appendages. It meant that they had continued to evolve themselves to depend on people, both as customers and even as mechanics, like Thomas the Tank Engine.
I also gave them a limited vocabulary of green and red lights, suitable for bargaining over fares, but akin to the radiation-wounded Christopher Pike on old Star Trek. This made for a stranger, more labored interaction, but one familiar to anyone who has set a digital device.
It also made it easier for the taxibots credibly to be taken for granted by the people around them while they — well, you’ll read it one day. 🙂
This is a less common take on manufactured beings. Continue reading

NaNoWriMo recap (winner!)

National Novel Writing Month was a huge personal success for me, and a big confidence booster. I will miss my silicone NaNoWriMo bracelet tomorrow.
By the numbers, 50,028 words, finished in the wee hours of November 27. On the twenty-three days I wrote, I averaged 2,175 words a day, due mainly to a big push in the first two weeks that had me writing close to 2,500 a day.
As a project, I reached the end of the draft narrative. I kept control of the pacing so I landed it roughly as I intended. It was an active effort, matching my word count to the outlines, planning scenes ahead in 500-word increments, fleshing out passages still short of their part of the total.
However measured, when I could write, I did, at speed and with some level of consistent craft throughout. I’m not sure I believed I could do it. I am glad to no longer have to rely on belief.
I don’t think I have universal advice, but for me it started well before November 1. Continue reading

NaNoWriMo update at the halfway mark (yay)

I keep meaning to blog! And it isn’t that I am SO BUSY – NaNoWriMo has become so all encompassing that all my draft blogs are navel-gazing treatises on processes which inform the start of my day but go by the wayside when it’s ten pm and I still have seven hundred words to go. Anyway.
In short, I am well ahead, 70% done (35,286 words out of 50,000) at the halfway mark.
I won’t be able to keep up this pace, but that was my point in pushing hard early – a strategy developed with and supported by my wife, who took point on family issues these last two weeks.
Still, to say a marathon is unsustainable as a lifestyle is to miss the point of the extremity. The point of the extremity is something personal to each extremist. Continue reading

My return to writing, via NaNoWriMo

I have long been absent from public life and social media. In July I had severe medical problems – short-lived, thankfully, but requiring rest.
In some way, the medical problems deflated me. My mood, always a little low to begin with, got lower still. I could manage family obligations, and family joys, but I was discouraged, and lost my way in my booklife.
I am still finishing the serial. But, in my lows, I saw that both my novel and the serial are very rigid stories, requiring a lot of facts or details from the real world. I wanted to give my imagination a free rein.
Thus I am doubling down on my existing commitments to the serial by doing NaNoWriMo, an attempt to put down fifty thousand original words of a new novel (as much as The Great Gatsby plus a long Sunday magazine article) between November 1 and 30. Continue reading

We might be the first intelligent life

The Economist this week reports on the work of Tsvi Piran and Raul Jimenez, calculating the frequency of gamma-ray bursts. This is not an arcane question.
Gamma-ray bursts are incredible yet short-lived generations of energy, cause as yet unknown, great enough to kill all life on a planet as close to the blast as 10,000 light-years (just shy of six quadrillion miles). The closer you get to the center of a galaxy, the more frequent gamma-ray bursts are — and thus, the more inhospitable that region is to life.
Douglas Adams described our home star as being in “the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy.” Turns out, the galactic suburbs may be the only place life could survive long enough to become intelligent.
But wait, there’s more. By Piran and Jimenez’s reckoning, our galaxy is one of the ten percent of galaxies with a high “metallicity” — meaning, with stars full of elements other than hydrogen and helium. In metal-rich galaxies, gamma-ray bursts are rarer. So, not only are we made from the ashes of older stars, but we live in a place with enough star-ash that we are less threatened with gamma-ray extinction.
In short, we might be among the first intelligent life forms.
This is a lovely, trippy idea, made earthier and more bitter by our recent brush with nuclear armageddon. It is also an idea almost completely unexplored in fiction or myth.
Continue reading

The pre-apocalypse

My writing group noted that my new story, though a different setting, is also a post-apolcyalypse tale, or at least post-disaster. One colleague included my novel in that theme, even though in my novel things are good, but about to get worse. It’s pre-apocalyptic, she said.
Something in that. My faith is that humanity will persist, but a lot of bad things are going to happen. By the standards of the past they already have. Like my mentor Philip K Dick, I’m less pinpointing details of the great shift, just exploring scenes after upheaval, where people have adapted to far different norms of environment and behavior. I no doubt absorbed this from my family history, for my parents fled war and Soviet occupation, and my own late 20th century life, where we took on huge social changes, and where the rest of the world changed vastly more. I greatly admire writers like Jim Shepard and Harlan Ellison, who change up place and time each story yet keep consistent in their approach and style.
Perhaps I’ll be more sensitive to this strain of pre-apocalyptic. I hope it will give me a way to glide across genre. I would enjoy writing historical.  Continue reading

The Autumn 2013 Plan

Speaking strictly commercially, I did everything wrong with my writing. I don’t have an identifiable genre or sub-genre. It’s a literary noir-styled fantasy thriller romance and an allegory about globalization and growing up. There’s no shelf for that. Crossing genres and styles is gaining popularity, but it’s still a hard sell to make cold.
Perhaps I could have written odd short stories and gained a following, but my novel had too strong a pull. And of course I had to write it five times over. And it’s still a big book.
So. There it is. Nothing to do about it now but change course.  Continue reading