The cyborg on the page
In an excellent anthology of his short stories, the author Joe Haldeman describes an exercise that he used to give to his students at M.I.T., where he taught a course on science fiction for many years. Reading it, I found myself wishing—for just about the first time ever—that I could have taken that class. Here’s what Haldeman says:
For this assignment, I gave each student a random number between 8 and 188, which corresponded to page numbers in the excellent sourcebook The Science in Science Fiction, by Peter Nicholls, with David Langford and Brian Stableford. They had to come up with a story using that scientific device or principle. I further restricted them by saying they had to use a story structure from one of the stories in our textbook The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg. The point of the assignment was partly to demonstrate that art thrives under restrictions. (It was also to give them a starting point; many had never written fiction before, and a blank page or screen is a terrible thing.)
Haldeman notes that he always does his own assignments, at least to demonstrate the concept for a couple of pages, and that in this case, he was given the word “cyborg” and the structure of Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon.” The result was a solid short story, “More Than the Sum of His Parts,” which was later published in Playboy.
Not surprisingly, I love this idea, for reasons that longtime readers of this blog will probably be able to guess. Constraints, as Haldeman observes, are where fiction flourishes. This partially because of the aforementioned tyranny of the blank page: any starting point, even a totally random one, is better than nothing at all, and a premise that is generated by chance can be more stimulating than one of great personal significance. (When you’re trying to write about something important to you, you’re often too intimidated by the possibilities to start, while it’s easy to get started on a premise that has been handed to you for free. As Trump might put it, what have you got to lose?) There’s also the fact that a kind of synergy results when you pair a story structure with a concept: the dialogue between form and content yields ideas that neither one could have generated in isolation. Nearly every story I’ve ever written has resulted from a pairing of two or more notions, and I’ve developed a fairly reliable intuition about which combinations will be the most fruitful. But I haven’t really experimented with structure in the same way, which is why this exercise is so useful. When I brought it up with Haldeman, he said that the assignment is designed to make students think of form as a tool—or a toy—that can be explored and enjoyed independently of plot, which is a point subtle enough that a lot of writers, including me, never get around to playing with it. But when I take my scheduled break in a couple of months to work out a new story, I’m going to give it a try.
It’s revealing, too, that the story that Haldeman uses to illustrate his point is about a cyborg, since that’s what we’re really talking about here—a mixture of artificial and organic parts that theoretically forms a single viable organism. (In the actual story, it doesn’t turn out well.) Sometimes you start with a few components from off the shelf, or an assortment of discrete pieces of information, and once you start to combine them, they knit themselves together with newly grown tissue. In other cases, you begin with something more natural, like the chain of logical events that follow from a dramatic situation, and then add parts as needed. And incorporating a bit of randomness at an early stage results in solutions that never would have occurred to you otherwise. There’s a famous design exercise in which students are told to draw the human body in a state of movement, and then to construct an apparatus that will support the body in that position. At the end, the teacher points out that they’ve been designing furniture. That’s how writing works, too. Writers are frequently drawn to metaphors from carpentry, as when Gabriel García Marquez compares writing to making a table, or when José Saramago says that any chair he makes has to have four stable feet. But the result is more interesting when you don’t think in terms of making a table or a chair, but of creating a support system that will hold up the bodies you’ve set in motion. A cyborg carries his essential furniture with him at all times, stripped down to its purest functional form. And that’s also true of a story.
If every story is a cyborg, there’s also a range of approaches to how visible the parts should be. Some wear their artificial components openly, like Locutus of Borg, so that the result is a style in itself, while others keep their enhancements hidden. A book like Joyce’s Ulysses, with its endless experiments and pastiches in form, looks like a manufacturer’s catalog, or a fashion spread in which the same handful of models show off various possible outfits. I don’t recall offhand if Joyce assigned the various epic episodes, literary styles, and symbols to the chapters of Ulysses at random, but I’d like to believe that he did, simply because it’s such a pragmatic tool: “Let the bridge blow up,” Joyce once said, “provided I have got my troops across.” Sometimes the writer takes pleasure in making the joints between the pieces as invisible as possible, and sometimes it’s more fun to play up the artifice, or even to encourage the reader to spot the references—although a little of this goes a long way. It’s a matter of taste, which is another reason why the use of randomness at an early stage can be a good thing: the more detached you are from the big conceptual blocks of the plot, the more likely you are to make the right decisions when it comes to the details. If you’re the kind of writer who wants to crank out a story a week for a year, as Ray Bradbury once advised, Haldeman’s exercise is invaluable. (As Bradbury says: “I dare any young writer to write fifty-two stories that are all bad.”) I wouldn’t want to take the same approach for every story, since there comes a point at which the author himself starts to resemble a machine. But when used wisely, it’s a nice reminder that every story is more than the sum of its parts.