Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Frank Herbert

The analytical laboratory

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The Martian

Over the last few months, there’s been a surprising flurry of film and television activity involving the writers featured in my upcoming book Astounding. SyFy has announced plans to adapt Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in the Strange Land as a miniseries, with an imposing creative team that includes Hollywood power broker Scott Rudin and Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt. Columbia is aiming to reboot Starship Troopers with producer Neal H. Mortiz of The Fast and the Furious, prompting Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original, to comment: “Going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump presidency.” The production company Legendary has bought the film and television rights to Dune, which first appeared as a serial edited by John W. Campbell in Analog. Meanwhile, Jonathan Nolan is apparently still attached to an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, although he seems rather busy at the moment. (L. Ron Hubbard remains relatively neglected, unless you want to count Leah Remini’s new show, which the Church of Scientology would probably hope you wouldn’t.) The fact that rights have been purchased and press releases issued doesn’t necessarily mean that anything will happen, of course, although the prospects for Stranger in a Strange Land seem strong. And while it’s possible that I’m simply paying more attention to these announcements now that I’m thinking about these writers all the time, I suspect that there’s something real going on.

So why the sudden surge of interest? The most likely, and also the most heartening, explanation is that we’re experiencing a revival of hard science fiction. Movies like Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival—which I haven’t seen yet—have demonstrated that there’s an audience for films that draw more inspiration from Clarke and Kubrick than from Star Wars. Westworld, whatever else you might think of it, has done much the same on television. And there’s no question that the environment for this kind of story is far more attractive now than it was even ten years ago. For my money, the most encouraging development is the movie Life, a horror thriller set on the International Space Station, which is scheduled to come out next summer. I’m tickled by it because, frankly, it doesn’t look like anything special: the trailer starts promisingly enough, but it ends by feeling very familiar. It might turn out to be better than it looks, but I almost hope that it doesn’t. The best sign that a genre is reaching maturity isn’t a series of singular achievements, but the appearance of works that are content to color inside the lines, consciously evoking the trappings of more visionary movies while remaining squarely focused on the mainstream. A film like Interstellar is always going to be an outlier. What we need are movies like what Life promises to be: a science fiction film of minimal ambition, but a certain amount of skill, and a willingness to copy the most obvious features of its predecessors. That’s when you’ve got a trend.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

The other key development is the growing market for prestige dramas on television, which is the logical home for Stranger in a Strange Land and, I think, Dune. It may be the case, as we’ve been told in connection with Star Trek: Discovery, that there isn’t a place for science fiction on a broadcast network, but there’s certainly room for it on cable. Combine this with the increased appetite for hard science fiction on film, and you’ve got precisely the conditions in which smart production companies should be snatching up the rights to Asimov, Heinlein, and the rest. Given the historically rapid rise and fall of such trends, they shouldn’t expect this window to remain open for long. (In a letter to Asimov on February 3, 1939, Frederik Pohl noted the flood of new science fiction magazines on newsstands, and he concluded: “Time is indeed of the essence…Such a condition can’t possibly last forever, and the time to capitalize on it is now; next month may be too late.”) What they’re likely to find, in the end, is that many of these stories are resistant to adaptation, and that they’re better off seeking out original material. There’s a reason that there have been so few movies derived from Heinlein and Asimov, despite the temptation that they’ve always presented. Heinlein, in particular, seems superficially amenable to the movies: he certainly knew how to write action in a way that Asimov couldn’t. But he also liked to spend the second half of a story picking apart the assumptions of the first, after sucking in the reader with an exciting beginning, and if you aren’t going to include the deconstruction, you might as well write something from scratch.

As it happens, the recent spike of action on the adaptation front has coincided with another announcement. Analog, the laboratory in which all these authors were born, is cutting back its production schedule to six double issues every year. This is obviously intended to manage costs, and it’s a reminder of how close to the edge the science fiction digests have always been. (To be fair, the change also coincides with a long overdue update of the magazine’s website, which is very encouraging. If this reflects a true shift from print to online, it’s less a retreat than a necessary recalibration.) It’s easy to contrast the game of pennies being played at the bottom with the expenditure of millions of dollars at the top, but that’s arguably how it has to be. Analog, like Astounding before it, was a machine for generating variations, which needs to be done on the cheap. Most stories are forgotten almost at once, and the few that survive the test of time are the ones that get the lion’s share of resources. All the while, the magazine persists as an indispensable form of research and development—a sort of skunk works that keeps the entire enterprise going. That’s been true since the beginning, and you can see this clearly in the lives of the writers involved. Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and their estates became wealthy from their work. Campbell, who more than any other individual was responsible for the rise of modern science fiction, did not. Instead, he remained in his little office, lugging manuscripts in a heavy briefcase twice a week on the train. He was reasonably well off, but not in a way that creates an empire of valuable intellectual property. Instead, he ran the lab. And we can see the results all around us.

Quote of the Day

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Frank Herbert

For Dune, I also used what I call a “camera position” method—playing back and forth (and in varied orders depending on the required pace) between long shot, medium, closeup, and so on…The implications of color, position, word root, and prosodic suggestion—all are taken into account when a scene has to have maximum impact. And what scene doesn’t if a book is tightly written?

Frank Herbert

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2015 at 7:20 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Frank Herbert

A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating…You’re not killing the goose, you’re just producing an egg.

Frank Herbert

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2014 at 7:30 am

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“Make it recognizable!”

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David Mamet

I’ve mentioned before how David Mamet’s little book On Directing Film rocked my world at a time when I thought I’d already figured out storytelling to my own satisfaction. It provides the best set of tools for constructing a plot I’ve ever seen, and to the extent that I can call any book a writer’s secret weapon, this is it. But I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the moment when I realized how powerful Mamet’s advice really is. The first section of the book is largely given over to a transcript of one of the author’s seminars at Columbia, in which the class breaks down the beats of a simple short film: a student approaches a teacher to request a revised grade. The crucial prop in the scene, which is told entirely without dialogue, is the student’s notebook, its contents unknown—and, as Mamet points out repeatedly, unimportant. Then he asks:

Mamet: What answer do we give to the prop person who says “what’s the notebook look like?” What are you going to say?

The students respond with a number of suggestions: put a label on it, make it look like a book report, make it look “prepared.” Mamet shoots them down one by one, saying that they’re things that the audience can’t be expected to care about, if they aren’t intrinsically impossible:

Mamet: No, you can’t make the book look prepared. You can make it look neat. That might be nice, but that’s not the most important thing for your answer to the prop person…To make it prepared, to make it neat, to make it convincing, the audience ain’t going to notice. What are they doing to notice?
Student: That it’s the same book they’ve seen already.
Mamet: So what’s your answer to the prop person?
Student: Make it recognizable.
Mamet: Exactly so! Good. You’ve got to be able to recognize it. That is the most important thing about this report. This is how you use the principle of throughline to answer questions about the set and to answer questions about the costumes.

A recognizable notebook

Now, this might seem like a small thing, but to me, this was an unforgettable moment: it was a powerful illustration of how close attention to the spine of the plot—the actions and images you use to convey the protagonist’s sequence of objectives—can result in immediate, practical answers to seemingly minor story problems, as long as you’re willing to rigorously apply the rules. “Make it recognizable,” in particular, is a rule whose true value I’ve only recently begun to understand. In writing a story, regardless of the medium, you only have a finite number of details that you can emphasize, so it doesn’t hurt to focus on ones that will help the reader recognize and remember important elements—a character, a prop, an idea—when they recur over the course of the narrative. Mamet notes that you can’t expect a viewer to read signs or labels designed to explain what isn’t clear in the action, and it took me a long time to see that this is equally true of the building blocks of fiction: if the reader needs to pause to remember who a character is or where a certain object has appeared before, you haven’t done your job as well as you could.

And like the instructions a director gives to the prop department, this rule translates into specific, concrete actions that a writer can take to keep the reader oriented. It’s why I try to give my characters names that can be readily distinguished from one another, to the point where I’ll often try to give each major player a name that begins with a different letter. This isn’t true to life, where, as James Wood points out, we’re likely to know three people named John and three more named Elizabeth, but it’s a useful courtesy to the reader. The same applies to other entities within the story: it can be difficult to keep track of the alliances in a novel like Dune, but Frank Herbert helps us tremendously by giving the families distinctive names like House Atreides and House Harkonnen. (Try to guess which house contains all the bad guys.) This is also why it’s useful to give minor characters some small characteristic to lock them in the reader’s mind: we may not remember that we’ve met Robert in Chapter 3 when he returns in Chapter 50, but we’ll recall his bristling eyebrows. Nearly every choice a writer makes should be geared toward making these moments of recognition as painless as possible, without the need for labels. As Mamet says: “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” And to be told a story.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2013 at 9:02 am

So what is science fiction?

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Like most authors, although I don’t always like to admit it, I’m very interested in other people’s reactions to my work. One of the singular things about being a writer these days is that one has access to a huge range of opinions about one’s writing: on review sites, blogs, discussion boards, and all the other venues for talking about fiction that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. As a result, every few days I’ll snoop around the web to see what people are saying. (One of my few disappointments following the publication of “Kawataro” was that it coincided with the demise of the Analog readers’ forum, where I had once been able to count on a spirited discussion—or at least a ruthless nitpicking—of my stories.)

For the most part, readers seem to enjoy my stuff well enough, and it’s always gratifying to find a positive review online. Over time, though, I’ve noticed a particular theme being struck repeatedly even by people who like my work: they don’t think it’s science fiction at all. Now, I’m pretty sure that my novelettes and short stories are science fiction—if they weren’t, they  wouldn’t be published in Analog, which doesn’t have much interest in anything else—but I can understand the source of the confusion. Thanks mostly to my X-Files roots, my stories are set in the present day. They all take place on this planet. I don’t do aliens or robots. And while the plots do turn on science, they’re more often structured as contemporary mysteries where the solution depends on scientific information, which I gather is fairly uncommon.

It’s worth asking, then, whether we can come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to include both my work and, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s. (Or even L. Ron Hubbard’s.) TV Tropes, usually a good starting point for this sort of thing, despite its sometimes breathless fangirl tone, argues that science fiction hinges on technology:

The one defining(-ish, definitions differ) trait of Science Fiction is that there is technology that doesn’t exist in the time period the story is written in.

Which automatically disqualifies most of my stories, since I don’t have much interest in technology for its own sake, at least not as a narrative device. I’m also not especially interested in world-building, another hallmark of conventional science fiction, if only because so many other writers are better at it than I am.

So if my stories don’t include technology or alien worlds, where does that leave me? Wikipedia comes to the rescue, defining science fiction as dealing with “imagined innovations in science or technology,” including one particular subcategory:

Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots.

Which is basically where I fit in, as long as you stretch the definition to include connections between previously unrelated scientific principles. “Inversus,” my first published novelette, is basically about psionics, but links it to a number of existing phenomena, like situs inversus. “The Last Resort” takes a known phenomenon—limnic eruptions—and transfers it to a novel part of the world, with a speculative explanation of how it might be caused by human activity. “Kawataro” fictionalizes the case of the Al-Sayyid Bedouin, moves it to Japan, and connects it to another medical mystery. And my upcoming “The Boneless One” begins with a real scientific project, the effort to sample genetic diversity in the world’s oceans, and speculates as to how it might lead to unexpected—and murderous—consequences.

Much of my favorite fiction is about such connections, whether it’s the paranoid synthetic vision of Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the constructive impulse of the great science fiction novels. (Dune, for instance, gains much of its fascination from the variety of Frank Herbert’s interests—ecology, energy policy, the Bedouin, the story of T.E. Lawrence—and from how he juxtaposes them in astonishing ways.) My love of connections is what led me to focus on my two genres of choice, science fiction and suspense, both of which reward the ability to see connections that haven’t been noticed in print. And the ultimate playground for ideas is science. The science is real; the connections are plausible, but fictional. Put them together, and you get science fiction. Or something like it, anyway.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2011 at 7:55 am

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