Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 1

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The Seasteading Institute

Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novella “The Proving Ground,” the cover story for the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

Usually, whenever I start working on a story, I try to begin with as few preconceptions about it as possible. Years ago, in a post called “The Anthropic Principle of Fiction,” I made the argument that the biggest, most obvious elements of the narrative—the setting, the characters, the theme—should be among the last things that the writer figures out, and that the overall components should all be chosen with an eye to enabling a pivotal revelation toward the end. This isn’t true of all plots, of course, but for the sort of scientific puzzle stories in which I’ve come to specialize, it’s all but essential. Mystery writers grasp this intuitively, but it can be harder to accept in science fiction, perhaps because we’ve been trained to think in terms of worldbuilding from an initial premise, rather than reasoning backward from the final result. But both are equally valid approaches, if followed with sufficient logic and imagination. As I wrote in my first treatment of the subject:

Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include.

Which led me to formulate a general rule: The largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details.

I still believe this. For “The Proving Ground,” however, I broke that rule, along with an even more important one, which is that you should resist building stories around an explicit political theme. Any discussion of this novella, then, has to begin with the disclaimer that I don’t recommend writing this way—and if the result works at all, it’s because of good luck and more work than I ever hope to invest in a short story again. (I write most of my stories in about two weeks, but “The Proving Ground” took twice that long.) Fortunately, it came out of a confluence of factors that seem unlikely to repeat themselves. A friend of mine was hoping to write a series of freelance editorials about climate change, and she asked me to come on board as a kind of unofficial consultant. She began by giving me a reading list, and I spent about a month working my way through such books as The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Windfall by McKenzie Funk, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. Ultimately, we didn’t end up working together, mostly because we each got distracted by other projects. But it allowed me to think at length about what I still believe is the central issue of our time, and even though I didn’t come away with any clear answers, it provided me with plenty of story material. Climate change has been a favorite subject of science fiction for decades, but the result tends to take place after sea levels have already risen, and I wanted to write something that was in my wheelhouse—a story set in the present or near future that tackled the theme using the tools of suspense.

Windfall by McKenzie Funk

I ended up focusing on an idea that I first encountered in Funk’s Windfall. The Marshall Islands are among the countries that are the most threatened by global warming, as well as one of the most likely beneficiaries of climate-change reparations from more developed nations. In order to qualify for reparations, however, they have to fulfill the legal definition of a country, which means that they need to have land—but it’s precisely for the loss of that land that they hope to be compensated. It’s easy to imagine them caught in a regulatory twilight zone, with rising sea levels erasing their territory, while also depriving them of the sovereign status from which they could initiate proceedings in the international court system. Funk does a nice job of laying out the dilemma, and it could lead to any number of stories. A different writer, for instance, might have taken it as the basis for a dark, bitter satire. That isn’t a mode in which I’m comfortable operating, though, and I was more intrigued by another detail, which is that one of the proposed solutions to the territorial problem is a seastead, or an artificial island that would allow the Marshallese to maintain their claim to statehood. This struck me as a pretty good backdrop for whatever story I ended up writing, and although I could have started it at a point in which a seastead had already been built, it seemed more promising to begin when it was still under construction. Science fiction is often structured around a major engineering project, both because it allows for future technology to be described in a fairly organic way and because it can be used to create the interim objectives and crises that a story needs to keep moving. (It also provides a convenient stage on which the competent man can shine.)

I knew, then, that this was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was also plenty of background material available, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. (The obvious example is The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel, who has since gone on to even more dubious ventures. But it generated a lot of useful proposals and plans along the way, as long as you treat it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you’re hoping to get someone to actually spend fifty billion dollars.) As I continued to read, however, I became uncomfortably aware that I had broken my one rule. Instead of working backward from a climax, I was moving forward from a setting, on the assumption that I’d find something in my research that I could turn into a proper story. It isn’t impossible, but it also isn’t an approach that I’d recommend: not only does it double the investment of time required, but it increases the chances that you’ll distort the facts to fit them into the framework that you’ve imposed on yourself. In this instance, I think I pulled it off, but there’s no guarantee that I will again, and as it happens, I’ve just finished and submitted a new story in which I’m frankly not sure if it works. “The Proving Ground” took a lot of wrong turns, and it was only through sheer good fortune that I was able to find a story that I felt able to write. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how I nearly followed one potential premise into a dead end, and how I found myself writing the story, much to my surprise, as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

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