Writing science, writing fiction (I)

Synopsis: Whether writing a good novel or a killer scientific article, the process is much the same: What scientists can learn from science fiction authors…

Many years ago, back in 1990, I attended my first Science Fiction Worldcon, called “ConFiction“, in The Hague. An interesting feature that year was the “Dutch Treat”. One could sign up with a group of about 10 people and invite a science fiction writer for lunch and talk with them in that small circle. To me, these “treats” were the highlights of that particular meeting. I did as many of them as I could and have fond memories of speaking with John Brunner, Harry Harrison (a Guest of Honor, accompanied by his charming wife, Joan), Fred Pohl, Brian Aldiss, and Bob Shaw (I think that’s all of them, but I am writing this from memory, so I may have forgotten one). Of course, these conversations spanned many topics and I was not the only participant, but at some point or another I managed to pose the same question to each of them, namely: how do you write a story (be it a short story or a novel in multiple parts). Do you just start, do you write some parts first and only continue when you’re completely done with revising them, or something else entirely?

Writing a novel

Basically, all of them gave similar answers and what interested me in particular was that the process of writing that they described matched rather closely the process by which I write my scientific articles (in a very real sense, those are stories, too). To  paraphrase John 1:1, “In the Beginning there was Nothing and Nothing Happened”. Well, at least nothing is happening visibly. What is going on at this stage is that an idea for a story has started percolating inside the writer’s mind. He (I did not manage to get into lunches with any female writers, although I got signatures from several, such as Anne McCaffrey) may not even be thinking about the story consciously, but deep down in the murky recesses of his brain things are shaping up. Then the moment comes to start writing, the Dreaded First Sentence (DFS). Sometimes that comes easy. More often it seems to be a stumbling block of Himalayan proportions. In extreme cases, the DFS can lead to a severe case of writer’s block. The solution is actually quite easy: write something, anything, doesn’t matter how bad. We’ll deal with this later in the revision stage and you’ll see that it will be much easier then. Once a first sentence is on paper (or, nowadays, on your computer screen, in 1990 most people still used pen/typewriter and paper…), things start going easier. In case anybody wonders, the DFS is, indeed the very first sentence of the story. Nobody starts in the middle of a story. (This is not to say that the start of a story cannot be in the middle -or even at the end- of the narrative, but that is a different thing). Sounds self-evident when we’re talking about writing a story, but nevertheless many scientists actually start writing with their methods or even discussion, instead of the introduction. Needless to say, this makes for bad story-telling.

Once the writer’s block vanquished, a first draft of the complete story or novel is written pretty rapidly. The writer doesn’t get mired into detail too much, that’s for later (“detail” being grammar, flow, repetitive words/expressions, and such, not story details, those are important from the very beginning). When finished, the draft is pushed aside for a while. This may be a few days or even weeks or months, depending on the individual writer. Scientists, of course, don’t always have the luxury to let things lie around for so long… The next step is revising. Followed by revising. And revising yet again. Most revising is actually cutting. Too many writers think that it’s the number of words that count, the more the better. In fact, it’s usually a case of less is more. Shortening a story or scientific article, often makes it easier to read and diminishes the probability that a reader gets bored and lays down the work. Once all the revising and polishing is done, the piece is usually laid to rest for a while again, followed by some more revising. At the latest, this is the point where that Dreaded First Sentence finally gets beaten into its ultimate shape. And then, only when the writer is now completely satisfied, the completed work is submitted to a publisher (or, for professional writers, an agent first and then a publisher) for evaluation.

Next post: Writing a scientific article. Stay tuned!

Favorite science fiction classics (I)

Below I briefly describe some of my favorite science fiction novels, in no particular order, together with some of the reasons why I love these books.

Soon to come: how the experience of science fiction writers can help us write better scientific articles, so stay tuned.

This is the story of Lazarus Long, who by chance of genetics (and selection for longevity)  basically is immortal and at the start of the story is about 2000 years old (and the ancestor of a large part of the human population of the inhabited galaxy). The book can be read on different levels and if read as just an adventure story, provides ample diversion and amusement. On a deeper level, the book has more to offer. Once the more liberal mores of the Sixties allowed it, Heinlein started exploring the bases and boundaries of our traditional morals. Where Stranger in a Strange Land addressed religion and even cannibalism, this book is about love, not skirting touchy issues like incest. The book contains many challenging ideas. Let me give just one example from the many that fill this book to the brim. At one point the main character gets cloned, but with an original twist: his clones are female because they got two copies of his X chromosome. When his clones fall in love with Lazarus, we are faced with serious moral questions. As always, Heinlein doesn’t fail to challenge the reader. As a hard-core libertarian, it should be no surprise that Heinlein’s ideas of what is permissible between consenting adults diverge rather drastically from those of most people. But agree with him or not, he does make one think, which is what a good book should do. It made me reflect a lot about the concept of sin and what is right or wrong. My personal conclusion was that sin is when you harm somebody else and this harm could have been avoided by your (in)action. Time Enough for Love provides food for thought, much thought, almost enough for a lifetime.

Although Schmitz is perhaps best known for his short stories, I personally love his writing most because of two novels. The Demon Breed (1968) is a true space adventure and, although skillfully written, not a high flyer. The earlier The Witches of Karres, however, is a completely different caliber. I remember reading it for the first time and I still wish that it would be possible to read it for the first time again! It’s unadulterated space opera, but not an ordinary one. It’s a crazy book, but fun crazy. From the main character’s home planet (“Nikkeldepain”) to the invaders from another universe (“Worm Weather”), to the magic beings (” vatches”) governed by mysterious klatha energy, this book is big fun from beginning to the end. Sure, it’s not grounded in any real science, which usually for me is a big no-no, but if you are having as much fun as this book provides, who cares?

I read this book shortly after it came out and it was one of the first LeGuin novels that I read (the first one having been City of Illusions). It is part of the Hainish Cycle, a number of novels that are set in the same universe. The novel plays on a cold world, named Gethen. In a poetic way and a style that was completely new and fresh, Le Guin describes the world and its climate and, more importantly, its inhabitants. Although never confirmed with certainty, it appears that the Gethenians are the result of a genetic experiment to create a human race adapted to the severe climatic conditions of Gethen. Besides some obvious metabolic modifications, the most important difference between Gethenians and the rest of humanity is that they are sequential hermaphrodites: most of the time they are neuter and not interested in sex, but once every month they become sexually receptive and in a complex interaction with their sexual partner differentiate into either a male or a female form. They have no predisposition to being male or female and the same individual can be the father of one child and the mother of another. Being androgynous most of the time obviously has implications for a society that is much less focused on sex than ours. Le Guin was not the first to describe a society made up of human hermaphrodites (Theodore Sturgeon‘s 1960 Venus Plus X may have been the first), but this novel is deeper and more poetic than anything that came before. Again a novel that makes you think: by describing an alien, albeit human, society, Le Guin stimulates us to reflect on our own society, and its morals, conventions, and idiosyncrasies.

 

Postscript: All of the above works were written in the sixties and seventies of the last century. That does not mean that I don’t like contemporary science fiction. On the contrary, I think that some of the stuff produced nowadays far surpasses anything written before, even in the Golden Age. But the above books I read in my formative years and they have stayed with me my whole life. Several of them have influenced my life in a very real ways. Not because I wanted to emulate anything in these books, but because they made me think and showed me that many things that I took for granted were, perhaps, not as self-evident as I thought. In a future post, or more likely several posts, I’ll discuss some contemporary novels and writers that I particularly like.