Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Being Garrulous (again) with Benjamin X. Wretlind
(Part 1)

For those few of you who read Chewing the Cud in the Myriad Spheres, the previous conversation between Benjamin X. Wretlind and myself, here is another exciting installment! Due to its lack of brevity (which is chiefly my fault) we have decided to break it into two parts. Enjoy!

BXW: So I was reading over your latest blog post, Inventing a Universe, and a thought popped into my head: during the writing of Sketches from the Spanish Mustang I spent a great deal of time getting into the characters' heads, walking the paths they might take, looking at the town through their eyes.  Likewise, with the novel I intend to start this summer, Driving the Spike, I have already started the process by walking some railroad tracks where an accident occurred 108 years ago.   The idea, of course, is to see the world through the eyes of my characters.  However, with Science Fiction, especially with imagined worlds (or parallel universes like you discuss), how do you see the world though your character's eyes?

MKR: What I like to keep in mind is that people are people, whether they lived ten thousand years ago or ten thousand years from now. If I were a Clovis hunter following herds of mammoth across the Great Plains I think that, despite the vastly different way of life, my fellow hunters and I would sit around the campfire at night and shoot the breeze just as I do with my friends today. The technology would be different, our clothes, our language, our way of perceiving the universe would all be different but we would still be human beings. A heart not unlike mine would beat in the breast of my Clovis twin. I would want food, shelter, love, companionship. In the two hundred thousand years our species has wandered this Earth that has not changed and there is no reason to believe it will change in the near future.

Now, I have never taken down a mammoth with a spear. But I can imagine it. As a writer, imagination is key to understanding other people, people who eventually become "characters." Would it help if I could go back in time and see how a hunting party surrounded and felled a mammoth, where they jabbed their spears, how many of them it took? Of course. But I can't, so if I were to write a mammoth-hunting scene my imagination would fill in the blanks that the archaeological record has left behind. So it is with science fiction. When we write about the future we are not writing from a blank slate. We have all of human history to draw on to understand how human beings will react in different situations. For example, we know that we tend to be suspicious and aggressive when encountering intelligent beings not like ourselves (from history, we have the sad lesson of the Europeans' encounter with the indigenous Americans. In my fiction, look at the treatment of the Squamata in Sergeant Riley's Account and Sullivan's War: Book II.) Another example from history that I draw on is the simple fact that people generally want to be free of oppression. The entire Sullivan's War series is about this and how many times throughout history has a power structure has fallen due to the discontent of the oppressed? Here where I live in the Southwest, Hohokam civilization collapsed around 1400 CE and there are Pima legends that indicate that the people rose up against the powerful.

So writing science fiction is simply writing about people. I cannot see alien worlds or travel through hyperspace in a ship but my brain is capable of understanding what they might be like. My imagination can fill in the gaps left after taking the entire shared experience of human culture into account. I see their worlds because their eyes are like mine. I share their hopes and desires because those are common to all human beings across history. And my invented universe is not that different from our own, when you really examine it. There are real-life parallels to many of the things I write about.

Now, what I find interesting is that in Castles you described experiences unfamiliar to you despite the fact that those experiences are real for all too many young women across the country, across the world. For me, that is as remarkable a feat as bringing to life an alien landscape. We've talked about this before, but would you care to talk a bit about Maggie's story?

BXW: As I've mentioned before, I believe Maggie spoke through me in a way that's really hard to describe without coming off sounding--how should I put it?--bat-shit crazy.  The fact I squirrel away information that comes to me via media may have enabled my subconscious to postulate how a woman might view a certain situation more so than a man who is trying to force the character into action.  For example, I had a lot of trouble near the middle of the story related to Maggie's view of abuse at the hand of her boyfriend because that's just not something I'd ever experienced.  Somehow after a few months or years, though--and after dealing with abusive people as a manager--Maggie spoke up.

Getting into a character's head is important to me, and that's one reason I like to interact with their supposed environment if I can, and if I can't, then to spend an inordinate amount of time researching that environment. However, in A Difficult Mirror, a dark fantasy epic novel to be released (hopefully) next winter, I couldn't walk around the environment since it didn't exist.  Not that I couldn't take clues from other stories, but that the environment just didn't exist.  (That's a bit vague, I know, but the novel isn't out yet.)

You brought up something I'm curious about. I've mentioned to you before that I was never a huge fan of science fiction; that distinction fell to my brother. I was the fantasy type, the one who believed in dragons and wizards and spells, oh my!  However, some historic science fiction I've read has held a sort of special place in my heart simply because of the impact on our present.  I am, of course, talking about the work of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, or Arthur C. Clarke.  Even Philip K. Dick. Their imaginations of technological advances helped pave the way for our present.  Writers like Ray Bradbury or George Orwell, on the other hand, wrote people into the future--much like you describe--and did so without the need to characterize or build up technology that didn't exist.

How do you view technology in your stories? How do you imagine worlds without borders or limitations, and do you hope to one day create something that would inspire some future geneticist or engineer?

MKR: Technology. Well, let me first point out that I am not technologically-minded at all. I am endlessly fascinated by it but if I had to actually try to describe how an intricate piece of software or hardware operated, I'd probably be trying to do it with sticks and a length of string. So, the technology in my stories isn't particularly original. I'll readily admit that. I rely on many tried and true tropes of the genre: hyperspace travel, energy weapons, fold-up tablet computers, three-dimensional displays. Now, since the Sullivan's War story line is supposed to take place about five hundred years in the future, this may seem like pretty low-tech stuff. I actually have a reason for this that will eventually reveal itself as I continue to explore this universe. I will just say that just because a technological advance is made doesn't mean it will be readily accepted.

I suppose I am comfortable with a certain level of technology, a level that has already been explored by many science fiction writers and is accepted and liked by a great many science fiction readers. Again, my own ignorance about technology prevents me from currently writing anything like cyberpunk. I just don't have the background to do it justice. So I really don't see my science fiction as the type that will inspire future engineers. Rather, I see my work as inspiring (if, in fact, it inspires anyone at all) future humanitarians, future philosophers. Remember, science fiction is about exploring how humans respond to fantastical situations as much as it is about inventing and describing cool technology. This is one of the reasons I consider 2001: A Space Odyssey to be my favorite book. Clarke had the scientific knowledge to make the technology one hundred percent plausible but the story is, essentially, about humanity. I mean, it begins with the dawn of consciousness, with the evolution (via external means in his story) of creatures that would one day become human beings! Because of his invented world of the near future, his characters--Dave Bowman in particular--are able to have experiences that no other humans have before experienced. How it affects them is just as fascinating as how future technology, such as the HAL 9000 computer, might work (or not work). How does the realization that an alien intelligence has visited our solar system affect them?

I often think about what would happen if we were to wake up one day and have undeniable proof that we were not alone in the universe. What effect would it have on world religions? I mean, in the 16th century Copernicus developed a heliocentric model of the solar system and while no one with any sense would deny the truth of this model today, there are many who still have a very geocentric, or Earth-centric, view of reality: that we, human beings, are at the center of God's divine plan, that, in fact, we are created in God's image and are his chosen species. Remember, it was only two thousand years ago that not only were humans God's chosen species on the planet, but a very specific group inhabiting the Levant were his chosen race. I speak from a Judeo-Christian perspective, of course, because it is the tradition that has most shaped the Western world. Now, this type of thinking has been used to justify and explain our dominance on this planet. But what if another, intellectually superior species managed to cross the vast distances between star systems and arrive at ours? God wouldn't seem to favor us so strongly then, would he?

I do believe in a creator. To believe in a specific god requires more faith than I have, though. I must trust that the creator, whatever it may be, gave me the ability--via evolution--to observe the world empirically for a reason. We are a species that is meant to question the world around us, not invent angels and devils to which to ascribe the mysteries of the universe. To return to my main point, this is my focus when I write science fiction. I hope to inspire future dreamers, people who will look at our world and see it for what it really is but also see what it can be if we throw off the shackles of tribe, of clan, of race, of nation, even of species. I know that to date my work hasn't explored this as fully as I would like but I am working toward it and my next project, Chrysopteron, will fully explore these ideas.

Read Part 2 here!

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