Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gregory Benford

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 2

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

A few months before I began working on “The Spires,” I briefly spoke with the science fiction writer Gregory Benford at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. At the Campbell Awards, Benford shared an anecdote about a conversation with John W. Campbell that was so striking that I knew at once that it would end up in my book, mostly because of the editor’s comments about race, which is a subject for another post. For now, I’ll only say that the intended purpose of their encounter, which took place at the Worldcon in Berkeley in 1968, was to discuss a potential article about tachyons, or hypothetical particles that travel faster than light. Benford had written a paper on the subject—with the uncredited collaboration of Edward Teller—that he hoped to turn into a piece for Analog, and he tracked Campbell down at the hotel bar to pitch it to him in person. Campbell had written dismissively of tachyons in the magazine before, and when Benford tried to discuss it further, he was dismayed to find that the editor didn’t seem to fully grasp the physics involved. In the end, Campbell passed on the proposed article, and Benford later used tachyons as a plot point in his novel Timescape, in which they serve as a means of sending a message from the future into the past. I don’t actually mention tachyons in “The Spires,” because, frankly, I don’t fully understand the physics involved, at least not to the point that I would feel comfortable presenting it to the picky readers of Analog. (And I should confess that when Benford asked me if I knew what tachyons were, I may have said something like: “Only from Star Trek.”) But if I was thinking about particles traveling backward in time at all, it was probably thanks to that conversation with Benford.

The central premise of “The Spires,” which I still think is pretty neat, is that a mirage could work in time as well as space, with an image from the future traveling backward through the kind of atmospheric duct that produces such optical illusions as the Fata Morgana. (If this sounds confusing here, it hopefully makes more sense in the story itself.) Since the story was set in Alaska in the thirties, it occurred to me that a research facility in the present day might produce such an image by accident, casting a shadow of itself on the past without anyone even knowing about it. All I had to do was find an appropriate source of spooky radiation in Alaska, and after about ten seconds of online searching, I did. Unfortunately, it was the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program—and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe you should count yourself lucky. There are times when I wish I’d never heard of it. Here’s how a recent article in Nature describes the project:

HAARP is the most powerful ionospheric heater in the world. At its heart is a phased-array radar that emits radio waves that are partially absorbed between 100 kilometers and 350 kilometers in altitude, accelerating electrons there and “heating” the ionosphere…The facility…is perhaps the only research facility that has had to justify itself as being neither a death beam aimed at Russia nor a mind-control device. So prevalent are the conspiracy theories that HAARP has even been referred to in a Tom Clancy novel, in which a fictional facility is used to induce mass psychosis in a Chinese village.

In other words, it’s the last thing that you should put at the center of a serious science fiction story, precisely because it appeals to an audience of adolescent conspiracy theorists. I should know, because I used to be one of them. In college, I spent the better part of a summer researching a novel that revolved around exactly this kind of mind control program, and I seem to have read such books as Angels Don’t Play This HAARP and HAARP: The Ultimate Weapon of the Conspiracy. In my defense, I was nineteen years old at the time, and this was a few years before the episode of The X-Files, written by Vince Gilligan, in which a similar array causes Brian Cranston’s head to explode. (On the bright side, this means that we also have it to thank for Breaking Bad.) Almost two decades later, for my sins, I found myself trying to build a story around it, and I almost gave it up as unworkable. At one point, I definitely decided not to use it at all. The trouble was that not only did I fail to find anything better, but I wasn’t sure that I ever could. HAARP was just too perfect. Its famous antenna array looked a lot like the city of spires that witnesses described in the sky above Alaska—a phenomenon that probably has more to do with atmospheric turbulence, but which was hard to resist for purposes of this story. Even better, or worse, was the matter of location. The “silent city” is said to appear over Mount Fairweather when viewed from the southern tip of Willoughby Island, and given those coordinates and some basic facts about mirages, it’s easy to draw a line on the map that would indicate where the “real” city would be. And one of the towns within that narrow slice of land happens to be Gakona, where the HAARP facility is located.

Ultimately, I decided to use it in the story after all, and I’m still not sure that it wasn’t a mistake. I decided to deal with it using two narrative tricks, neither of which was altogether satisfying in itself. One was to present the “solution” to the mystery entirely through quotations from primary sources, which would serve as a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand to disguise how contrived it all was. I wound up using quotes from Fort’s New Lands as epigraphs for the novelette’s three sections, followed by three passages at the end from the Alaska Dispatch, Popular Science, and Wired, which bring the story up to the present day. (It’s a conceit that also requires me to drop the human story, which is a sacrifice that may not have been worth it.) My other strategy was to make the paranoid mindset an explicit theme of the story itself. This wasn’t exactly a stretch, given the connection to Fort, and I gave a speech on the subject to one of my characters, who argues that some degree of paranoia within the larger population is justified, because it occasionally turns out to be right. As far as such themes go, it isn’t bad, but it’s there entirely to make the closing connection with HAARP slightly more palatable. Both tactics, you’ll notice, are about ironizing the narrative. The use of quotations situates the puzzle’s resolution outside the main body of the story, so that crucial information is given to the reader, not the characters—which is the textbook definition of irony. Meanwhile, the material about paranoia is my way of anticipating or deflecting any criticism of the story’s more ludicrous elements. It’s very different from my usual approach, but I think that it sort of worked. The greater problem was combining it with a story about characters who were supposed to be basically realistic. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I dealt with that challenge, and why I’m still not completely satisfied with the result.

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2018 at 9:27 am

Hard science fiction, harder reading

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Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What story concept or premise do you wish wasn’t explored by the person that did something with it?”

If there’s one barrier lying between most readers and an appreciation of hard science fiction, it’s that its great ideas and visionary conceptions are so often channeled through mediocre writing. I’ve tried multiple times to read Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, for instance, which has a sensational premise—the first contact between humans and a race of intelligent microorganisms living on a neutron star with billions of times Earth’s gravity—but maddeningly pedestrian prose. Here’s a representative paragraph from early in the novel:

Jacqueline Carnot strode over to a long table in the data processing lab in the CCCP-NASA-ESA Deep Space Research Center at CalTech. A frown clouded her pretty face. The cut of her shoulder-length brown hair and her careful choice of tailored clothing stamped her at once as “European.”

I don’t mean to pick on Forward in particular, and I have huge affection for hard science fiction in general. Yet in many cases, whenever I pick up a new story, I get the sense that it would be just as satisfying to read a five-paragraph summary that dropped any pretense of drama and focused on its central big idea. (To be fair, I often feel the same way with mystery fiction, especially of the locked-room variety, which I also love.)

It isn’t hard to see why the narrative element is often lacking. Many of the masters of science fiction were scientists first and writers afterward, and the idea frequently takes precedence over the plot and characters—which might serve as a definition for hard science fiction as a whole. This may be why I’ve always felt a bit out of place in the pages of Analog, which has been kind enough to publish several of my own stories. I think of myself as a writer first, and the ideas in most of my stories are good but not especially great. They’re really there mostly to make the story possible, rather than the other way around. This isn’t an aesthetic judgment; it’s more a reflection of my own background, ability, and tastes, and while it results in the kinds of stories I personally like to read, it also limits me to a particular narrow range. I don’t necessarily have the temperament to write a story that encompasses the entire universe, and I take comfort in the fact that there are other writers more able and inclined to do so. But I imagine that even devoted fans of the genre have to admit that it’s rare to find a writer who can marry ambitious conceptions on the grandest scale with a style that carries you along for its own sake.

Michael Crichton

That’s even true of authors who have proven themselves to be capable writers in other contexts. I’ve always found Asimov’s nonfiction more engaging than his stories—although at his best, as in “The Last Question,” he can be stunning. And I don’t think I’ve ever been as let down by a novel as by Carl Sagan’s Contact. Sagan was a peerless essayist and popularizer, and the scope of the story is as big as it gets, but Gregory Benford’s original review in the New York Times accurately sums up its faults:

Unfortunately, the reader will reach the novel’s enjoyable last third only if drawn by strong curiosity and buffered by tolerance for many first-novelist vices. Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajoles us into finding this person interesting.

For what it’s worth, the movie version solves a lot of these problems, mostly by focusing on Jodie Foster’s Ellie at the expense of the others, and at its best, it offers the sense of awe that the novel only sporadically delivers—and which I’m hoping to see again in Chris Nolan’s Interstellar.

In fact, while it might sound strange to say it, I often find myself wishing that many of the great ideas in science fiction had been tackled by the likes of Michael Crichton. No one will ever hold Crichton up as a paragon of style, and it’s true that many of his most famous novels repurpose ideas that had been developed earlier by other writers, but at his peak, he was a superb craftsman who knew how to keep the pages turning. (Crichton was also a writer first: he published many paperback thrillers while still in medical school, and if he stuck largely to science fiction after The Andromeda Strain, it was mostly because he was so good at it.) Near the end, as I’ve said before, he was seduced by his own tools, like many of the characters in his cautionary tales, and began to put dubious messages before story, or even his own spectacular ability with facts. Even at his worst, though, he retained a relentless focus on capturing and attaining a wide popular audience, and that kind of professional, even mercenary approach is one that more writers in the genre could stand to imitate. Science fiction has countless visionaries, but what we really need are more brilliant hacks.

“An iris seemed to open on his past…”

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"Such an escape was no longer possible..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 35. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Motivation is a tricky thing. I’ve long believed that character is best expressed through action, and that a series of clear objectives, linked to a compelling plot, will tell you more about a protagonist than the most detailed account of his life before the story began. And these objectives don’t need to be major ones. To slightly mangle one of my favorite observations from Kurt Vonnegut, if a character just wants a drink of water, I’m automatically more interested in him than if I’m told that he had an unhappy childhood. My favorite example of misapplied backstory is the novel Contact, in which Carl Sagan, a man of uncanny brilliance, attempts to engage us with his characters in a way that is sadly miscalculated. We’re told that these characters are fascinating, usually through a long biographical digression, but they aren’t given anything interesting to do within the story itself—which is astonishing, given the narrative stakes involved. As no less than Gregory Benford noted in his review in the New York Times:

Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajols us into finding this person interesting.

These “expository lumps” are such a hallmark of bad fiction that I’ve basically excluded anything like them from my own work, sometimes to a fault. Readers of my early drafts often comment that they’d like more background on the characters, and they can’t all be wrong. As a result, I’ve gingerly experimented with introducing more backstory, usually in the form of a flashback at a point in the novel where it won’t break the narrative momentum. Backstory, I’ve found, isn’t the enemy: the problem is its tendency to draw the story off into tangents, when most novels really ought to proceed along an uninterrupted narrative line. But there are times when some additional motivation, rooted in a character’s past, can enrich the story and give actions in the present greater resonance. The test is whether what happened then enhances our understanding and appreciation of what is happening now. If the answer is no, it can safely be cut; if yes, it can be retained, but only in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

"An iris seemed to open on his past..."

The most significant piece of backstory in The Icon Thief is the death of Ilya Severin’s parents. This was an element that I added fairly late in the process, after I’d already written the first draft, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. I introduced this detail because Ilya’s desire for retribution, in the original draft, was vivid but somewhat abstract: he’d been betrayed by those he trusted, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d value revenge over simple self-preservation. It was while reading another thriller—I think it was Trevanian’s uneven but often excellent Shibumi—that I reflected that a more personal violation might make his behavior more credible. The trouble with killing his parents is that it’s a somewhat familiar trope, which is why I tend to underplay it in the sequels, and once I’d introduced it, I was stuck with it for what turned out to be two more novels. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could just be ignored, and it occasionally caused problems for the stories I wanted to tell, in which Ilya had to appear to come to terms with the men he hated.

Still, I think it works fairly well when introduced here, in Chapters 33 and 35 of The Icon Thief. Among other things, it allows Sharkovsky, by revealing the secret, to briefly gain the upper hand over Ilya, who can sometimes seem preternaturally imperturbable. And by deepening Ilya’s motivation, it makes the rest of the novel more believable. At the end of the chapter, Ilya escapes from the courthouse, in an action scene that is probably my favorite in the entire book—it was a lot of fun to work out the various beats, from Ilya discovering that the meeting is under surveillance to eluding the security guards to fleeing through the construction site next door, only to end up across the street from police headquarters. (The moment when he checks to make sure that the bag at the exchange doesn’t have a tracking device is directly inspired by a similar device in No Country For Old Men.) But it was important for me to establish that Ilya, having escaped, couldn’t simply decide to leave town. The backstory I provide here allows me to keep Ilya around, and on that level, it’s a good thing. But it certainly made my life more complicated…

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

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