…are a big part of being a science fiction writer. Of being a writer in general, really. Some nonfiction writers might be exceptions — a writer of specialized technical texts, maybe, for example — but even most nonfiction writers are doing the same thing that fiction writers and poets are doing: writing things that are meaningful to their readers.
That means being observant and making connections between the real world and what’s in your imagination. It’s a tired, old, often mocked cliche to say that writers are always writing even when they’re not writing.
But it’s kinda true. I think being a writer has got a lot in common with being a standup comedian — feel free to correct me, because I’ve never been a standup comedian. But both professions live by imagination and by inviting the reader or listener to think about how weird commonplace things we do are if you look at them with an outsider’s eyes, or how mundane things are even though we think they’re weird.
That’s what the tweet at the head of the story is about. It popped into my head, this expression we take for granted and how it might look through the eyes of my grown little ones (1 toddler, 1 kindergarten age). To them, “device” will be more common vocabulary. If you buy an ebook on Amazon, it may ask you which “device” you want it sent to, if you have multiple “devices.” More and more of us do, even if we’re relatively poor — a computer and internet connection is vital to my work, and to the classes my wife and I take, so we have a desktop PC. I have a Christmas gift laptop (thanks, Mom & Hal!). I thought of that example because I read ebooks on my phone — another “device.” When your phone or tablet gets an updated OS, the prompt tells you there’s a new OS version available for your “device.”
The word “device” has still got the old wider sense of a mechanical or electronic doohickey, hoobajoob, thingamajig, whatever you like to call such things. It still has the old sense of plan, scheme, or trick. But those older senses that are still much in the mind of a Gen-Xer like me will be overshadowed by the repetition of the word “device” in the sense of the smartphone, tablet, or other computerized whatsis.
To my post-millennial kidlets, “left to their own devices” will inherently suggest something different than it does to me. We like to call that sort of thing “the generation gap” — or at least, my generation did, inspired by the Cold War nomenclature of “the missile gap.”
If you’re too young to get that one without referring to Wikipedia, that’s cool. We like to mock each other for being different sometimes, but I’m not doing that. That’s more the wheelhouse of some comedians. I’m being a writer, and for us, and for the more thoughtful face of the standup comedy genre, it’s about finding the differences between the past, the present, and the future that may come, and spinning a yarn to entertain, and to invite us all to have a good think together.
[This post first appeared on my Patreon Page on 3/27/16 — they saw it three days before it appeared here. Everyone who supports me on Patreon, even for a single buck per month, sees nearly every blog post three days early. PLUS patrons get a FREE .pdf, .epub, or .mobi ebook copy of every new ebook I publish or old story I substantially revise and re-release, THIRTY DAYS before non-patrons get to see it. It’s free for patrons even if I charge for it elsewhere. I think that’s a pretty good deal, and it helps my family and I a hell of a lot. Last month our family van broke down, and Patreon paid for the power steering pump it needed — without those pledges, we’d have had to slog to the grocery store on foot until we could beg or borrow that money, if we’d been able to at all. And our funds available for food are limited — my wife stretches what would be a budget for a constantly thin pantry into something approaching comfortable, with plenty of good fresh fruit and veg for our two youngest (turning 3 and 5 over the next 30-odd days — my, time flies) with the magic of coupons and sale-chasing. That takes a working vehicle to do; it’s very difficult if you’re limited to the store you can walk to, and you are limited to the amount you can carry home on your back in the event that a markdown or amazing deal allows stocking up on normally-expensive staples and toiletries.
And I’m rambling. Hope you’ll consider heading over to Patreon to pitch in. And if you don’t, I’m still very happy to have you here reading — you help me, too. At the very least seeing new hits on my blog every day gives me a little boost as a writer. Hey, someone is paying attention! Yay!
I’ll end this now, before this “little” note on the end becomes longer than the actual post.]
(This story and commentary appeared first at my Patreon page on the 5th of this month — my patrons there saw it first. You can see my posts, too, plus get a FREE PDF of any short story I publish, even if I charge for the ebook elsewhere!)
Also, please feel free to save and share the image above wherever you wish. In fact, please do — it’s one way you can help me become better known as an author. Thanks!
This story is one possible form of the science fiction trope of virtual reality as an addiction, a no-drugs drug with the potential to spread so widely through the populace that society or even the survival of humanity will be threatened. The idea is that once virtual reality gets really realistic, it will offer people more than ‘real life’ does. People will withdraw from interacting with actual people and become shut-ins, ordering all of the groceries and other things they need delivered to their homes (perhaps by Amazon drones — no human interaction there). Toss in enough AI to hold a good conversation, and the VR addict won’t even need to interact with others through social media and discussions forums, as poor as that interaction can be for some. They can simply talk to simulated people.
As more and more people withdraw to their customized virtual worlds, the trope goes, society goes screaming down the path to hell in a printed-circuit handbasket. Nobody wants to leave the house. Nobody wants to fix the roads or the cars, nobody wants to participate in the work of governing, nobody wants to party, nobody has sex to make new children. The whole human race dwindles, becomes the last withered human locked in a basement ‘eating’ via IV, and finally even he dies leaving a mess of broken-down infrastructure and skeletons with funny goggles strapped to their faces for future alien archaeologists to figure out.
And sure, a fantasy life can be addicting. That’s what virtual reality is, just a high-tech way to enjoy a fantasy life. People do get into trouble with them — there’s a bit of that in my own past; I avoided a lot of real-life responsibilities, at one time when I was younger, by immersing myself in role-playing games. I was pretty useless to other people, but on the other hand my imagination got one hell of a workout. And of course we have plenty of other tales to choose from about the misuse, overindulgence, and addiction of/to fantasy. Perhaps you’ve seen stories in the news about the parents who neglected their child to uphold their raiding responsibilities in World of Warcraft, the young man who played his favorite game for a couple of days straight and keeled over dead, the people who have spent fortunes amassing Star Trek memorabilia or virtual property in Second Life to the detriment of their own finances. They exist, and like nearly anything else, fantasy can be overindulged with.
Virtual reality will be no different. Some people WILL fuck themselves up with it.
But the dissolution of society and extinction of humanity will have to wait a bit longer, perhaps for a really big nuclear war or engineered plague. Because like the other things we can overindulge in, virtual reality will be consumed in moderation by most, avoided altogether by many, and abused by only a minority.
Here’s a little bit of microfiction for you to enjoy. As happens often in fiction, it’s based on a real place and a real experience. I’ll leave you to decide which parts are fiction and which are not.
Copyright 2015 S.A. Barton
The eighteen-wheelers roar by above; the bridge over the creek is shorter than they are long.
Below, in the creek, cool water parting for thin boy shins, sun beating his back darker, darker, the boy crouches, peering down.
His hands part the toy cataract above a stone wearing a sleek skirt of algae filaments.
Backwards, the greeny-brown crayfish flees into the shadow gathered under the stone.
Another eighteen-wheeler approaches; low diesel thunder.
Little fingers chase after the crayfish, darting through the dark under the stone. Above, thunder, thunder, thunder, closer.
The boy grunts, smiles, flips the stone, algae skirt flaring wild.
The crayfish squirts backwards all in a burst.
THUNDER the truck mounts the bridge.
Long, long, bony arms streak out of the dark under the little bridge, faster than crayfish and boys, stretching out of a lank green shadowed crouchy shape.
Overhead the truck thunder recedes and dissipates into the distance.
The shallow creek waters fill, then pass over smooth a lost shoe mired fast in the mud.
The crayfish climbs inside, taking refuge.
This is great advice for the writer who is serious about his or her research or expertise — I’m reminded of Heinlein describing buying a roll of butcher paper and covering it with equations to figure out how to describe a ship’s orbit for “Starship Troopers”, and then merely describing the scene. No mention of math, no explanation of ballistics appears in the text. He just wanted to know how the scene should look, then described the scene to his readers.
I see oversharing extend beyond technical matters as well. I’ve seen writers spend a whole page describing what a character is wearing in detail, jarringly out-of-place sentences informing us of the exact height and weight of (usually beefy combatant male or slinky sex-kitten female trope stereotype) characters, loving in-detail descriptions of weaponry, vehicles, and other gear.
While writing, it is easy to imagine the reader hanging on every word, admiring the clever stacked adjectives, enjoying the artful turn of phrase of the image as it is built.
Well, that’s not what’s happening. 99% of the readers are slapping palm to forehead and moaning, “who gives a shit what the thread count of the protagonist’s pocket square is, and how it’s folded? WHERE IS THE STORY I PAID FOR?”
Readers have imaginations. They want brief, evocative descriptions that help them build the scene in their own imaginations. They don’t want your grubby little literary fingers in their brains trying to micromanage their leisure reading.
A few years ago, someone approached me about adapting a thriller into a screenplay. Reading through the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure where the script should begin. The first scene involved an autopsy where the pathologist missed the symptoms of a biological agent. The author took us through each stage of the autopsy including each instrument the pathologist used, where he made his incisions, and the weight of every organ.
It was clear the author knew what he was talking about, but he wasn’t telling a story, he was teaching a lesson.
The scene had no conflict until the author told us about the crucial detail the pathologist missed. The prologue read like it was supposed to function as the opening stinger of a crime drama. This might have worked if the pathologist had struggled to find a cause…
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I love building aliens. I love what writer types call ‘world building’ in general. Building strange creatures and settings is an exercise in raw imagination. To me, making stuff like this up, as the title suggests, is play.
The catch, of course, to making up good aliens is that your reader needs to be able to get some idea of what you’re describing. Some authors (and screenwriters) have gone the route of letting you fill in all the blanks with your own imagination, a la Lovecraft‘s ‘indescribable horrors’. Sometimes that works, and I’ve enjoyed reading stories where the author went that route. Its just not the route I personally take in most instances.
One way to describe an alien is to use comparisons to things your readers may have seen. I’m going this route with a story currently in process, working title The Landfill Down By The Pumphouse:
“What stood on the other side—take a lizard. A big one, like a Monitor or a Komodo Dragon. Cut off the legs and run a fringe of large black millipede legs down each side in their place, continuing all the way down the tail to the tip. Now heat the neck—think of it as plastic—and grip the head hard with pliers and pull it upward about two feet, the neck stretching like taffy. The black millipede legs continue right up this neck, but they’re longer now. About in the middle are five pairs that are even longer than those. Each of those ten splits in two at the tip, then splits in two again. The head, smashed flat and wide by your pliers, has a fine fringe of smaller millipede legs along the jawbone and covering the upper and lower lips. There are no nostrils where you’d expect. Move them to the nape of the neck, behind the skull. Now realize that all those little legs waving about incessantly on the face have tiny blue eyes at their tips, like a scallop’s eyes. There’s no face like you’d expect a face to look. No obvious place to keep a brain. Now stain the whole thing a deep maroon color verging on mahogany. Swirl threads of bright crimson through it, like Dali’s version of woodgrain.
And now you understand why I screamed. ”
(The above excerpt is copyright 2013 S. A. Barton, and all that good jazz.)
For a story that is probably going to end up somewhere around four to six thousand words, that’s a pretty long description. But I think it’s worth it, and hopefully not just because it was fun to design the alien in my head and I want you to see it too. Describing alien things in terms of familiar things has a weakness—you’re describing familiar things, not alien things. If you go the route I went here, it’s probably a good idea to shoot for a fairly weird combination so the overall impression is of alien-ness and not too familiar, as in, ‘oh, the aliens look like housecats. Cool.’
At the end of the day, it’s all up to you as a writer, or as a reader, to decide if you like it or not.