Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joe Haldeman

The cyborg on the page

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Locutus of Borg

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.

Schema for Joyce's Ulysses

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.

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August 25, 2016 at 8:56 am

The nebular hypothesis

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The envelope for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette

A few weeks ago, I had just boarded my flight to Disney World and was about to switch off my phone when I saw that I had received a new email, the body of which read in its entirety: “We were wondering if you would be willing to present the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in Chicago.” That was literally all it said, and it isn’t out of any false modesty when I say that I wondered at first if it might have been a mistake. My apprehensions only grew when I quickly sent back a reply before the airplane took off, but received no acknowledgment or confirmation until I showed up at the conference on Thursday. (In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried: as the date of an event like this approaches, everyone involved in planning it is unbelievably busy.) Upon my arrival, I found that they were serious, which is how I ended up listening nervously from the wings of the stage as John Hodgman introduced me to the audience on Saturday night. I managed to read off the nominees without, I hope, mispronouncing their names, and I opened the envelope to reveal that the award had gone to Sarah Pinsker—whom I’d met for the first time earlier that week—for her excellent story “Our Lady of the Open Road.” After all my anticipation, it went by in a flash, to the point where I didn’t even register until now that I had the chance to briefly hold the Nebula Award itself, of which I can only remember that it is, indeed, very heavy.

It was a wonderful ceremony, and I’m only slightly kidding when I state that my presence was a big part of the evening’s success, not because of who I was or what I did, but because of why I was there. I only joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in March, but the fact that I’m a recent member explains why they reached out to me: they were making a deliberate attempt to bring new faces into the ceremony, and I certainly qualified on that front. It was a small gesture, but also a revealing one. The fact that all of the major awards that evening went to women—including Naomi Novik, who was seated at my table with her husband Charles, who played a surprisingly pivotal role in my entry into science fiction over a decade ago—is notable as well. Whether consciously or otherwise, in the aftermath of a rough period for the Hugos, the Nebulas have positioned themselves as an alternative expression of the values that speculative fiction represents. The picture it paints is more encouraging, and also more accurate, at least if the authors, editors, and fans I met over the weekend were any indication. It was a diverse, vibrant group, and I kept coming back to the same realization, which I tried to bring up at one of the panels I attended. Encouraging diversity of all kinds, in fiction as in so much else, is a matter of enlightened self-interest: it’s what allows the genre as a whole to grow and develop. It elevates everyone’s game.

Sarah Pinsker and Alec Nevala-Lee

And this also applies to the ideas that we explore. At a panel I moderated on the legacy of John W. Campbell, Stanley Schmidt, who edited Analog for longer than even Campbell himself, raised an issue that seems worth repeating: there’s a place in science fiction for both extrapolation and innovation, and the outer fringes are a legitimate part of the genre. We were discussing this in the context of Campbell’s interest in such oddball subjects as psychic powers, dowsing, antigravity devices, and the Hieronymus Machine, but I think there’s an even larger point to be made. Campbell was unusually receptive to the unknown and the unorthodox, but only when directed along strictly limited lines: there were huge regions of the possible that he had no interest in featuring in the pages of Astounding. Real innovation can only take place when a multiplicity of perspectives is represented, which necessarily requires a healthy range of markets and forms of distribution, along with writers of diverse backgrounds. Campbell’s vision of science fiction, even at its weirdest, was ultimately built around an assumption that all problems could be approached as subsets of engineering. This is an attitude that has had a tangible impact on real societal debates—as in, for instance, the attractive idea that climate change can be addressed through purely technological means, as if the social and political factors involved were too complicated to confront.

This is an incomplete way of viewing the world, and it emerges in part from the influence of Campbellian science fiction, as much as I love many of the stories that it produced. And the more of it I read, the more convinced I become that the genre’s greatest strength isn’t in anticipating technological advances, but in serving as a laboratory for social thought experiments: extrapolating trends or tendencies that already exist, sometimes to the point of absurdity, in order to force us to think more clearly about the reality in which we live. The only way to do this effectively is to multiply the voices that can make themselves heard, and to value authors who can approach the enduring themes of science fiction in ways that never would have occurred to Campbell or his writers. And small things can make a big difference. My biggest revelation of the weekend came from Joe Haldeman, who revealed that he had submitted the first part of The Forever War shortly before Campbell died, and that a four-page rejection letter, never mailed, was posthumously found in the editor’s files. A short time later, Campbell’s successor, Ben Bova, accepted the story, which made Haldeman famous. If he had begun writing a few years earlier, or if Campbell had lived a little longer, the entire arc of his career would have been different. It reminded me that so much of what shapes us is out of our control: I’ve felt this in my own life, and the history of science fiction is filled with similar stories that have gone untold. Every last gesture counts, and even a nebula can evolve into something more.

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