Space Opera With a Twist

Month: February 2015

Ramblings on Heavy Handed Preaching

It seems to me that these days, more and more science-fiction writers are using storytelling to openly advance a particular political, social or economic viewpoint, be it from whatever part of the spectrum. Granted, humans bathe in socio-political conflicts, no more so than in the last few decades, and any future society will no doubt also experience similar struggles between competing views; thus they are an integral part of the story. What strikes me however, is that in the last few years, a lot of authors have become very brazen in advancing their own particular views, to the point of becoming tedious. Science-fiction is supposed to entertain, to fire up the imagination and to create wonder.

When did science-fiction turn into a polemical discourse? When did it become a means to advance one side or the other’s prejudices or positions in our present day cultural wars? Did I miss a memo from the SFWA (for the record, I’m not a member. I’m with Groucho Marx on the subject). Granted, many of the classical masters of SF, among them Heinlein, Asimov and others, also injected their socio-political views into their stories, but it seems to me they were more subtle and weaved them more or less seamlessly into their tales. Nowadays, the crassness of the political discourse seems to taint what is supposed to be escapism by either hectoring the reader or presenting heavy handed plots that supplant artistic merit with political correctness of one stripe or another. As a consumer of science fiction, I avoid those novels, whatever the author’s political leanings. I want to be entertained. If I feel the urge for a sermon, there are plenty of websites and blogs that will gladly tell me why everything I believe in is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I don’t have to pay for that privilege.

However, presenting a future society with its own socio-political context is a vital part of the story. Using that context to advance a present day narrative on the other hand, is inane. And therein is the difficulty for a writer. We cannot escape the present or who we are, and this will inevitably bleed through in our writings. The trick therefore, is to resist the temptation for heavy-handed moralism or puritanical correctness. That’s not necessarily easy. Who doesn’t want to use the bully pulpit we’re afforded as authors to rail at crass corporatism or an out-of-control welfare society? Problem is, our readers have their own world views, and they might just get very annoyed that we’re denigrating their beliefs or promoting beliefs they find abhorrent. Fair enough, you might say. You can’t please everyone, and that’s true, as far as it goes. But back to the basic premise that science-fiction is supposed to entertain and create wonder. Getting someone’s blood pressure up through gratuitous lecturing is kind of antithetical to that ideal. If one needs to use the story to pass along a message or a comment on society, better to do it gently and let the reader make the discovery.

So what’s a writer to do? His world building has to include the socio-political dimension, and this has to be built on all the experiments we humans have conducted in terms of organising ourselves over the centuries. Subtly weaving that dimension into a story isn’t as easy as it may sound, and I’m as guilty of heavy-handedness (in my early drafts) as the next author. Every story needs a villain and a hero, and sometimes that villain or hero will reflect our own prejudices. The trick is to make those characters believable without laying it on too thick. Both an environmentalist and a corporate CEO can be the bad guy, but they’re the villains because of character flaws, not necessarily because of what they are, though they may use their affiliations to advance personal agendas. The same is true of the good guys. It gets intolerably tedious when a right-wing author portrays all environmentalists as evil and all corporate CEOs as saviours of humanity. It gets equally tedious when left-wing authors do the reverse.

It gets even more tedious when stock characters are used to advance a political or social narrative. For example, inserting a _____ character (fill in the blank with whatever you want) simply to conform to politically correct diversity quotas or to demonise people with whom one disagrees, goes beyond inane. A well-developed protagonist or antagonist who is also ______ makes whatever that is irrelevant. Human character isn’t black and white – it’s grey. Believable characters are neither all good nor all evil, and no social or political discourse holds the absolute truth.   A character is likeable or dislikeable by what he does, not what he is.

I guess what I’m saying is if it’s germane to the story, it needs to be weaved in subtly, and not with a twenty pound sledgehammer. If it’s not germane to the story, then who cares. I’ve not created a love life for Dunmoore, because it’s not germane – she’s a ship captain and has no time for romantic entanglements. I’ve not explored her political views, because they’re not germane – she’s a ship captain and has no time for politicians of whatever stripe. Equally, while I need to add a bit of texture to the wider canvas against which the story unfolds, I need to take care that I don’t create caricatures that reflect my own prejudices. If political corruption or corporate malfeasance is germane to the story, I’ll include it. I haven’t always been successful, but they say that acknowledging a problem is the first step to correcting it.

Since my characters tend to have a lot of influence on where the story goes, I’ve discovered this week that contrary to my preconceptions, some of the folks in the second Dunmoore book whom I’d made the mistake of seeing in a black and white, one dimensional light are turning out to be more subtle. If it takes me in a direction that clashes with my own prejudices, then so be it: the story must flow, whether I necessarily agree with my characters or not.

The first draft of Dunmoore Book 2 is now half written, which means the set-up for the main event is over, and I now have to contemplate how things will unfold in Acts III and IV. Because I don’t want my antagonists and their causes to be one-dimensional cut outs, I’m struggling to inject that subtlety while at the same time restraining my own biases. My characters are their own people, and I have to let them do their thing in a universe where human societies come in varying shades of grey.

I’ll leave the heavy handed moralising or the stories written to advance a particular narrative to others. I just want to create entertaining adventures. If that makes my books ‘light-weight’ in comparison, then so be it: I write what I like to read and keep my ‘heavy-weight’ reading to the non-fiction aisles.

Back to the important stuff: figuring out what Dunmoore is going to do next. She always manages to surprise me and that‘s what makes her an excellent frigate captain.

Decisions, Decisions

It happens all the time: I reach a point in the story where the narrative could go in more than one direction, like a writer’s version of those Gamebooks that became popular in the 1970s (never could figure out why – I remember picking one up and tiring of it very quickly). If I choose one direction, events unfold in one way, if I choose another, they unfold in another way. The story will eventually get to where I want it to go and the main events I need to flesh out to make it get there will occur no matter what, but very seldom will one choice appear to be clearly better than another right away. As a result I often find myself paralyzed until I can make up my mind, and this from someone trained from a young age to be decisive! I know I said in my previous post that my characters are often in charge, but they just want to get their jobs done and will take the quickest path to the conclusion – which doesn’t necessarily jive with what the readers may wish to experience, hence paralysis.

What I’ve decided to experiment with is defining the scenes I know have to be part of the story, not in any particular order (because that’s my decision paralysis problem), and write a few of them, dialogue and all, without directly connecting them to what I’ve already written. This is a departure from my usual practice of writing the book sequentially, chapter after chapter. No doubt stitching the scenes together will add some re-work, but it means that I’m still writing while my subconscious fights it out with my characters to decide what happens next.

Faced with a fork in the road this week, instead of following Yogi Berra’s advice to take it, I wrote one of the key scenes that I figure will happen later in Act II, a discussion between Dunmoore and the main antagonist that reveals some key information. It’s by no means the culminating face-off between them, but one of the crucial events that build the crescendo.  Lo and behold, by the time I had most of the dialogue on screen, the immediate direction I needed to take became very clear. There is still considerable work to be done between where the story now sits and that particular scene, but looking to the future seems to have triggered the decision for the present while at the same time filling that paralysis period with useful progress.

Now if I could just figure out a way to put off life (chores, errands, my day job, etc) to the future and give myself more waking hours for writing, I might increase my chances of finishing the first draft by April. Between the arctic cold and long days battling mindless bureaucracy, I end up wanting to spend most of my week nights reading or watching Netflix, rather than putting in another few hours in front of the computer screen. But fear not, Book 2 is coming out this summer – it’s called using your weekends to write instead of goofing off like normal, sane folks.

High Tech and Small Bits

If you’ve read my books, you’ll know that I don’t write hard sci-fi. I’d rather write about people than technology, which is just as well since, as one reviewer on Amazon noted, I’m no scientist, but I do know military people. In writing the second Dunmoore however, I’ve been spending more and more time doing research to make sure that I don’t make even the tiny little bits of hard science I need to put in for the story’s sake look totally out to lunch. It’s interesting for its own sake, needless to say, when you’re a guy who gets as easily sucked into a wikivortex as I do. It doesn’t do wonders, however, for getting the story down, but I still managed to pound out over 5,000 words last weekend, thanks to the arctic cold keeping me inside. The fact that I got so much done in the space of two days is surprising since progress of late has been in small, sometimes paragraph sized bits. At the end of a week, the paragraphs do add up, but it’s a symptom of my knowing what I’d like the story to be, versus what my characters end up making me write, because I’ve discovered over the last two months that I’ve often been fighting them for creative control. And where I force my vision onto the story without their approval, it’s had a tendency to go off the rails.

I’ve never confessed this, but I’m as far ahead now as I was a few weeks ago in terms of word count, because I tried to force the narrative instead of letting it unfold. As a result, I’ve had to go back to the beginning and try again, but I like the results much better. The downside of letting it evolve to the end game in this way is that I have to stop frequently and think, hence the small bits. My overarching ideas still guide the tale, and in that respect, I’m a bit like the Fates of classical mythology for my characters, but they seem to have a certain amount of free will since they often do things I hadn’t planned on. Sounds strange, no? I discover things I didn’t know about the people I’m bringing to life just as my fingers hit the keyboard, and not before. When I think back at the various times I’ve had writer’s block, I can trace most of them back to my forcing the story instead of letting it evolve and end up either writing myself into a corner or writing prose so dull it even puts me to sleep.

So as I write the second Dunmoore, I’ve set myself the task of doing something else when I’m blocked, something useful while my characters plot their next move. They’ll let me know when they’re ready. In my previous post, I was mentioning how much I was using dialogue, and that’s one of the side effects of my characters taking control.

One of the things is writing these blog entries, and adding to my World Building page, but another is planning, plotting and writing the next book. After all, the plan, once the draft is undergoing the first of many reviews, is to start on a new novel instead of staying idle, and I have been testing out an idea. I’ll say no more at this point, but while it’s set in my familiar universe, it’s not military sci-fi as such. It’ll be space opera though I’m not sure it’s a sub-genre that’s been attempted. I’ve got the plot, at least one familiar character from Death Comes but Once, and the main protagonists, as well as the first six test pages written out. I’m still hoping to have the first draft of Dunmoore Book 2 completed by Easter, but if it isn’t, there’s no point in my pushing things. It never seems to end well when I fight the Commonwealth Navy, and in that, I have something in common with our old foe Brakal. Why am I not working on Dunmoore Book 3 instead? Because I still can’t predict how Book 2 is going to end, and that ending will heavily influence Book 3.

Thoughts and Origins

I’m about a third done writing Dunmoore Book 2, and it’s going along fairly well although strangely enough, the dialogue parts seem to be easier to write than the descriptive parts, and I think it has a bit to do with my current reading.  Late last year, I picked up the early works of a series I avidly read as a teenager, and which, now that I think of it, was what got me into reading science-fiction in the first place.  As you can imagine, they’re light and easy, and that’s fine because I can’t get into more demanding stuff after spending hours in front of a computer being creative.  I just now realized that they rely heavily on dialogue to advance the story.

That got me thinking about what has influenced my writing.  It began with the Bob Morane books, which started off as conventional adventure stories but quickly began adding elements of speculative fiction and then outright science fiction, and yes, I read them in French – speaking several languages was one of the benefits of growing up in a military family.  I then discovered Jules Verne in my high school library and tore through those on dark and cold winter nights, not yet realizing that good old Jules was one of the founding fathers of hard science-fiction.  A lot of his writing was strangly prescient.  Growing up the son of a soldier, it was natural that I’d gravitate to things military, and I discovered Starship Troopers when I was 15.  That proved to be the trigger for my immersion in military sci-fi and a life long love for the genre: Drake’s Slammers, Pournelle’s Falkenberg, and many others.  I think Pournelle was the most influential for me at the time.

I joined the Army at 17 and over the ensuing years, spent a lot of time reading military non-fiction for professional reasons, and military fiction for fun.  I discovered WEB Griffin’s Brotherhood of War series, and was pleased to see the follies and foibles of my own Army reflected in his stories.  I was also introduced to historical fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars, starting with CS Forester’s Hornblower, Dudley Pope’s Ramage, Alexander Kent’s Bolitho, Richard Woodman’s Nathaniel Drinkwater and Patrick O’Brien’s excellent Aubrey and Maturin stories.  Not content to remain at sea, I also devoured George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe.   Many other historical and contemporary naval and military adventure series passed through my hands over the years, but these were the most influential, so you can see where my inspiration for Siobhan Dunmoore and her Navy came from.  It’s a bit strange for a former soldier to be writing about a future navy, but of my two books published to date, Dunmoore’s story received the most critical acclaim (and the most sales!), and one of the principles of war is to reinforce success.  I have many Dunmoore story ideas rattling around in my brain, including a couple of adventures set before No Honor in Death so there should be no dearth of material, and I seem to recall that publishing stories in no particular chronological order was not uncommon among many of my favourite authors.  At some point in the future, I might look at some earlier groundpounder stories that sit in my unpublished archives, but that’s for another discussion.

Back to Dunmoore Book 2.  I wish I could figure out a title that works for me, but it’ll either come as I stare at the ceiling during another bout of insomnia, or in a mad last minute rush before the publication date.  Writing good dialogue is a lot easier.