Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My skeptical muse

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Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

Earlier this month, the critic Rich Horton, who has long been one of the kindest supporters of my work, published a nice writeup of my novelette “The Whale God” in Locus. It was a gratifying review in many ways—Horton calls me “one of [Analog editor Stanley] Schmidt’s best recent discoveries”—but I was particularly struck by the following paragraph:

One of Nevala-Lee’s idea engines is to present a situation which suggests a fantastical or science-fictional premise, and then to turn the idea on its head, not so much by debunking the central premise, or explaining it away in mundane terms, but by giving it a different, perhaps more scientifically rigorous, science-fictional explanation.

This is a very shrewd analysis, and it covers basically all of my published stories. And it isn’t an accident. As I’ve noted before, it’s a convenient, flexible story structure that allows me to explore interesting ideas in the guise of a mystery, and I owe it entirely to The X-Files, as much as a writer from another generation might have obsessively returned to Star Trek.

In high school, I spent a fair amount of time writing X-Files fanfic, and I imagine that a critical reader might say that I never really stopped. My first published short story, “Inversus,” which appeared in Analog in 2004, was probably my most transparent homage: the lead character, Margaret Lime, was basically just an amalgam of Mulder and Scully, and the story itself—which detailed an outbreak of psychokinetic activity in Boston—followed the show’s formula almost beat for beat. At first, I thought about doing a whole series of these stories, but after the second one was rejected, I took my fiction in a somewhat different direction, which is probably for the best. The kinds of stories I love don’t necessarily involve a pair of government agents investigating the paranormal in a spooky small town: they’re narratives in which the line between science and superstition is so blurred that only rigorous thinking can save the day. This kind of story can be told anywhere, at any time, using a wide range of characters, which is why my own work has taken place in settings as diverse as New Hampshire and Vietnam and the Spanish Civil War.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files

And there’s one important difference between my own stories and the show that inspired them: in my version, Scully, or her equivalent character, is usually right. Part of this has to do with my affection for Scully herself, as well as the fact that I’m trying to sell stories to magazines like Analog, in which you’re expected to make the underlying science as accurate as you possibly can. It’s also a personal preference: I happen to think that a rational explanation—which often involves a fair amount of ingenuity—is more interesting than a paranormal one, at least when it comes to paying off the plot. In some ways, my stories have a little in common with the locked-room mystery, a genre I’ve never attempted but regard with a lot of respect. You begin with an impossible murder that seems like it might involve magic or a temporary suspension of the laws of physics, then logically establish how it might really have been done. A hint of the paranormal provides the hook; the logical explanation the reward. And if I’ve done my work right, as in a story like “The Last Resort,” all the pieces are there in plain sight, and a clever reader can—and often will—get there ahead of the protagonist.

Which also gets close to the heart of why The X-Files still means so much to me after all these years. Ultimately, the show is a dialogue between two strong personalities, a debate that continued for season after season even as the series itself kept stacking the cards in Mulder’s favor. Yet Scully remains the richer, more rewarding character. (It’s no accident that my three published novels all feature a thinly disguised homage, although Rachel Wolfe has since evolved in her own surprising directions.) The more I revisit the show, the more Scully’s skepticism starts to seem less like a form of denial than a distinct, joyous, sometimes equally insane approach to the game. Each episode starts with a puzzle that the two leads need to crack, each with his or her own set of tools, and although the genre of the show itself demands that the skeptic always be wrong, this just means that she needs to reach deeper the next time around, and be a little smarter and more inventive when it comes to explaining away this week’s werewolf or telepath. That’s the Scully I adore. And every story I write is a love letter.

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2013 at 8:31 am

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