Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!




Sunday, March 24, 2019

Week 12: 17662, bringing me to 120358 for the year!

Finally! I confess I've been somewhat underwhelmed with my own writing output this year. Yeah, I've been writing steadily, but I've been shooting for 10k words a week and missing that goal more than I hit it, so that by last week I was in the hole over 7,000 words for where I'd planned to be at this point.

Then, this week, I'd hit my 10k for the week by Wednesday and went on to finish 17662 words for the week. Whew! Even though I swore I wasn't going to work on other fiction projects until I finished Dragonseed, I had a very clear picture for the next Nobody Nowhere chapter so I knocked that out. I did four blog posts, which don't translate into writing I get to sell, but, if I'm going to have blogs, I should occasionally put some content up. And, most importantly, I finished two really challenging chapters of Dragonsgate. These are not chapters full of deep character introspection. There's a couple of giant infodumps and a big messy fight scene. I'll need to do a lot of rewriting to smooth it out. But, the important thing is that these chapters were kind of a hump I've been needing to get over. I've had the plot put together a lot of characters who had only the thinnest reasons to be together and this is the chapter where they all decide to kill each other. For the rest of the book, most of the characters go their own ways, and I don't have to write any more chapters with five or six person dialogues. Also, this was the last big fight scene for the 'away' team following the more science fictional plot. Most of the rest of the book will be about Hex and Burke and I won't have to do any info dumps to explain how things that happened a thousand years ago are important to the plot. I just get to ramp up tensions in the human/dragon war, have a big final battle, bring the survivors of the b-plot back into the a-plot, then type "the end."

Then... I'll just need to write it all over again, only better.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Does Science Fiction Have a Built in Political Bias?

This weekend, I'll be moderating a discussion at Fantisci, a science fiction convention in Raleigh, on the topic, "Does Science Fiction Have a Built in Political Bias?"

If you simply point to examples in the genre, there's an easy answer: No. Science fiction is broad and historically encompasses many points of view. Twenty years ago, before I broke into print and was still mastering my craft, I took part in workshops taught by two great writers of the genre, Harlan Ellison and Orson Scott Card. Harlan was a hard core liberal (at least in words, if not always in his actions toward women), while Card is well known for his conservative views. (Though, in truth, Card's political opinions are far more complex and nuanced than our current political labels allow for.)

But what makes me give the question of built in bias a second look is something I once read about the difference between liberals and conservatives that felt essentially right to me. The observation was that conservatives look at the past as a reservoir of virtues and wisdom. There's a reason Trump could campaign on the slogan Make America Great Again as a Republican. It's not that conservatives are blind to the sins of the past, but they also are quick to point to how society has already taken steps to correct those sins. For example, most conservatives would agree that slavery was abhorrent, but they'd also point out that our nation fought a very bloody and costly war that brought an end to the practice. For a conservative, the best way to ensure future happiness, security, and prosperity is to study what came before and hold onto proven values and systems that have served to bring humanity to its current peace and prosperity.

It's not that conservatives believe that today is perfect; Trump's slogan wasn't "Keep America Great." It's mainly a belief that conservatives already know from history the best practices that will carry us into the future. As a people, we should continue to rely on capitalism, the constitution, individual liberties as protected by guns and contracts, and religious values, especially regarding sexuality. The reason the world needs to be made great "again" is because we've deviated from such values, at least in the eyes of conservatives.

Curiously, liberals agree with conservatives on one fundamental premise: the world today isn't great. But, for liberals, it's not the values and practices of the past that can restore our world to greatness. They will never run on the slogan to make America great again because they can't say it was all that stellar in the past. Indeed, while liberals can find great individuals and great moments in the past, for the most part history isn't a reserve of wisdom and values to embrace, but a long list of injustices, prejudices, hypocrisies, and outright atrocities. What does it matter what Thomas Jefferson had to say on the questions of free speech or religious liberty? The man was a slave owner, and probably a rapist!

For a liberal, the best thing to do with the past is to either view it with suspicion or to outright erase it. To the extent that history is useful to liberals, it's mainly to provide a framework to explain the injustices they continue to see in the world today. Rather than viewing the past as a series of incremental improvements to the human condition, it's easy to craft a narrative as to how every seeming advance was actually a shift toward a new injustice. The Civil War might have freed blacks from slavery, but only by shifting them into poverty and powerlessness. Before, a slaveowner took your labor, but at least had to put a roof over your head. After, employers paid wages, but the system was designed to claw those wages back to leave a black citizen indebted, oppressed, and, increasingly, imprisoned. The total number of slaves a the time of the Civil War was roughly four million. The total number of prisoners plus people on probation and parole in the US today is roughly seven million, with a disproportionate number of those prisoners being black. Conservatives like to mock the liberal concept of being "woke." But, the liberal world view does seem built on an awareness of existing injustices that conservatives either deny or assume wouldn't exist if everyone simply adopted conservative values. Whatever structural disadvantages might confront a group of people, in the conservative mind any individual can overcome those disadvantages by adopting conservative ethics and values. In the liberal mind, the individual isn't to blame for poor outcomes, since the individual was born into a world designed to thwart their pursuit of happiness.

Thus, in general, a liberal would never promise to make America great again. Instead, they promise hope and change. The past is something to reject, the present is something to escape, and the future is the true home of liberty.

Before I go further, I will acknowledge that these are very broad definitions of conservatism and liberalism, and welcome criticism of these definitions. Any attempt to boil down two of the major political viewpoints of the modern world in under 1000 words is going to lack nuance. But, I felt like I needed to define my terms before plunging into grappling with the question that provides the title for this post.

Does science fiction have a built in political bias?

I think, given that science fiction is forward facing, it does have a built in bias, but not the bias you'd expect from a body of literature built around the assumption of scientific, technological, and cultural progress. Because of the dramatic demands of storytelling, the archetypical story places a protagonist at odds with his world. So, a common pattern in science fiction is to pit an individual against a corrupt and oppressive regime. The template for this, of course, is 1984. You also see it in Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, and in more modern dystopian future such as Hunger Games or the Handmaid's Tale. Often, these stories project a conservative, authoritarian threat that makes the story a dark warning against the slippery slope of right wing politics. On the surface, this makes the genre seem to be continually warning against conservatism, and thus inherently promoting liberalism. As someone who's experienced US politics for the last fifty years, 1984 surges in popularity anytime Republicans rise to power. I've heard Reagan, both Bushes, and Trump referred to as Big Brother more than once.

Which always leaves me wondering, have people making the comparison actually read the book? Orwell himself was a socialist, but 1984 is a very comprehensive argument against communism, most notably the Soviet's careful control of language and entertainment and history itself. Orwell's protagonist is doomed by an all powerful state, but the book does offer glimpses that the one hope of the future is to again embrace the values and practices of the past. The future is nothing but a boot on the face of man, forever. The past is where great literature and music reside, where religion offered hope and comfort, and where a person was free to think his own thoughts and control his own destiny. Brave New World explicitly contrasts the works of Shakespeare with the vapid, empty entertainment of the modern world, and Fahrenheit 451 goes even further in romanticizing the culture of the past, with people willing to be burned alive rather than surrendering their old books.

Even among science fiction writers hoping to promote liberal values, I can't help but notice this undercurrent that, ultimately, the past was better than the future. 

Of course, not all science fiction is dystopian. But, even in more hopeful futures like you find portrayed in Star Trek, conservative undertones sneak through. Interplanetary exploration isn't being conducted by unarmed ships in the Star Trek universe. There's a conservative's trust that that a military command structure is superior in dangerous situations to democratic decision making. Captain's might solicit advice, but they don't take votes. And diplomacy is a lot easier to conduct if you've got a heavily armed gunship in orbit around the planet you're negotiating with.

There are two counterarguments to the notion that science fiction has a built in political bias that I'd like to address. The first is the somewhat common complaint that modern science fiction publishers care more about diversity than quality.

I do think publishers are engaged in an active push to have more stories by authors who aren't straight white men. As a straight white man myself, this can feel like reverse discrimination. But, as a devoted reader who runs a classics book club at my local library, I'm pretty happy to see a more diverse range of authors hitting book stores. One of my criteria when I set up my First Monday Classics Book Club was that we wouldn't be studying recent books. I felt like a book needed to be at least fifty years old and still well regarded before it could rightfully be called a classic. When I'm selecting classics to be read in the coming year, I have plenty to choose from that were written by straight white male authors. It's not difficult to find classic books by straight white female authors. But when I start looking for black or Asian authors, or gay authors writing about gay characters, the cannon of "classic" literature starts getting slim. This isn't because white males were innately superior authors a century ago, but they were writing in a system where they would be published by other people who looked like them, critiqued by people who looked like them, and taught in colleges by people who looked like them. I'm hoping that organizers of classics book clubs fifty years from now won't face the same challenges in finding great books from diverse storytellers. I'm in no way arguing that straight white men shouldn't still write books. I certainly intend to. But to pretend that white men haven't benefited from past structural advantages in publishing is absurd. Also, just because modern publisher are trying to be more diverse, why assume that women or racial minorities are going to write from a liberal perspective? Ayn Rand wrote the book that many economic conservatives hold nearly as dear at the Bible.

The second argument that I regard as somewhat more valid is that science fiction has a somewhat negative view of capitalism. (Or, if you're a liberal, a chillingly accurate vision of capitalism.) In Soylent Green, consumers literally become the consumed. If you're the head of a corporation in a work of science fiction, you can trust that you are either evil or, at best, hopelessly naïve in the belief that you are doing any good at all in the world. Again and again in science fiction, a rich elite live on the backs of a poor underclass that are slaves in all but name. Corporations that run spaceships always program their robots to serve the good of the corporation rather than the safety of the crew. And there's no point in looking to politics for salvation, since the corporation owns the politicians, writes the laws, and appoints the judges. Honestly, I'm trying to think of a science fiction work where a corporation cares about its costumers and workers and operates its business to the highest possible ethical standards and am coming up completely short. Ironically, two hero CEO, Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, are explicit lawbreakers who use their wealth to bypass political structures that would stand in the way of what they want to accomplish. They are written as heroes while engaging in open criminality, and we root for them because they are smarter and better more effective than, say, a cop or a teacher or a reporter who tried to improve the world.

The notion that workers are being exploited by greedy corporate masters is one of the foundational arguments for socialism, and it's just about the only economic system science fiction seems to imagine. The idea that modern corporate capitalism has lifted more people from poverty than any other social innovation in history seems not to have a home in fiction at all.

But maybe that's not so much a conservative or liberal bias as it is a product of the fact that art is made by artists. Most artists, myself included, function in a world where we feel like we craft a good product, then find that very few people choose to purchase this product. It's difficult to revere capitalism when you watch the masses spend their money on crap. It's challenging to spend years riting what you consider the next War and Peace and watch it vanish into obscurity while 50 Shades of Grey dominates (pun intended) best seller lists and gets turned into movies. It's not science fiction that has an anti-corporate bias, but all art, including motion pictures with hundred million dollar budgets produced and distributed by, yep, corporations.

I'd like to wrap up on a unifying note. No matter what world view authors and consumers bring to science fiction, whether they find their conservative gun-loving values reinforced by gun-toting heroes, or whether their liberal sensibilities are delighted by a growing rainbow of diverse characters fighting they system for the right to be who they wish to be, I think we can all agree that giant robots, alien pets, and rocket boots are awesome. As long as we still get a thrill from these things, science fiction will be just fine.

Monday, March 18, 2019

How Much Science Do You Need to Know to Write Science Fiction? Part Two: The Hard Stuff!

Science fiction has its subgenres, and one of the most respected subgenres is "hard science fiction." The term arose during the 50s as a way of dividing stories based on "hard" science like orbital mechanics from stories relying on "soft" sciences like sociology. (Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 would be soft science fiction. The world he portrays has a few technological innovations like fireproof houses and full wall televisions, but the plot of the story is built mostly around a societal change as reading gets branded as a dangerous activity... which, in fairness, it can be). The term also became a sort of filter to divide the wheat from the chaff in the genre. Science fiction had been popularized in pulp magazine and B-movies and any reasonable critic of the genre couldn't help but notice that a lot of tales labeled as science fiction were written by people who really didn't know much about science.

It's perhaps unfair to bring comic books into this, but the Golden Age Wonder Woman once fought invaders from Mars by riding a kangaroo into space. Don't panic, that last sentence isn't evidence that I've suffered a stroke while writing this paragraph. Space kangaroos happened. In fairness, they were very large kangaroos, and they could jump from asteroid to asteroid in outer space and... okay, look, let's not waste time thinking too much about this. At least the writers were aware that there were asteroids in outer space. Kangaroos in space were the sort of imaginative elements that could make science fiction exciting, but also made it difficult to take the stories seriously. Some science fiction authors wanted their stories as educational and explanatory, and hoped that readers might come away from their work knowing a little more about the way the world worked than they did before they read the story. Stories about space kangaroos muddied the waters and made it difficult for the general public to tell which of the fanciful notions being discussed in science fiction were plausible and which were mere fantasy.

In fairness, science fiction in the pulp era had more room to expand into the vague, gray areas of the slightly plausible. In 1920, life on Mars hadn't been ruled out, and telescopes were still fuzzy enough that features of the Martian terrain could maybe, possibly, be seen as structures built by ancient civilizations. Beneath the opaque clouds of Venus, why shouldn't there be rain forests? It was known that electricity could make the limbs of a corpse move. Why couldn't you electrify a living brain and become a superthinker? Physics in that era seemed to be in a state of constant churn, with new particles and rays being discovered every year. Why weren't tank mounted deathrays just around the corner? New elements were still being found. Why couldn't the next one be a miracle element, with the power to do just about anything the author imagined? Need an invulnerable hero? Element X! Need fuel for your jet belt? Element X!

Eventually, all this speculation came to dominate the genre. It knocked loose any feeble hold on respectability the genre may have gained from authors like Jules Vernes and H G Wells. The majority of people writing for pulp magazines were, obviously, pulp writers. Actual scientists could find real work. Pulp writers had a business model built around cranking out entertainment as fast as humanly possible. Tentacled aliens menacing Earth women sold magazines just as well (and probably better) than more serious examinations of what actual spacefarers might look like and what they might want.

The label "hard" applied to science fiction indicated a serious attempt by the author to strike out the sillier aspects of the genre and write about technologies and scientific principals that could stand up to scrutiny. A story I regard as a primary example of this genre is "The Cold Equations," by Tom Goodwin. In this story, a spaceship with medical supplies has been dispatched to a frontier planet desperately in need of them. A girl stows away aboard the ship to travel to the planet to be reunited with her brother. Alas, when she's discovered, the pilot explains that her added weight will doom the mission. The ship carries precisely enough fuel to land the ship with the expected cargo, and the addition of her weight will cause the ship to crash, dooming the colonists. To save the mission, the girl leaps from the airlock to perish in interplanetary space. We say of doing things that are easy, "it ain't rocket science." This story is literally rocket science. Which isn't to argue that it's a perfect story. The idea that interplanetary ships wouldn't have been engineered with enough margin of error to account for the relatively modest weight of a single girl is a bit hard to swallow, as is the idea that nothing else on the ship could have been jettisoned to save the mission. But, as the title hints, the heart of this story wasn't the girl or the pilot. It was the equations.

More recently, The Martian by Andy Weir takes pains to make a story of survival on Mars scientifically plausible. There are critics of the work who can point out gaps in the science, but that doesn't detract from the fact that the novel works in large part because the underlying science feels well researched and well thought out.

The important word in that last sentence for any would be writer is "feels." Ultimately, if your goal is to educate people on scientific principals with 100% accuracy, you should be writing textbooks. What a good author is aiming for is drama. People are presented with difficult challenges, and they overcome these challenges, or the challenges defeat them. If the challenges or the solutions involve real scientific concepts and technologies that can be extrapolated from known scientific principles, this can give the drama an extra layer of weight. The reader feels like, "this can really happen!" And, by explaining a real scientific concept or plausible technology, the author can possibly inspire inquisitive readers to delve into the subjects more deeply.

There are hundreds of objections that can be raised to the science in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.  That doesn't undercut the fact that the books (and subsequent movies) have inspired people to learn more about dinosaurs and genetics. The book also had some interesting bits of biology drawn from the real world, such as the fact that there are species where members can change sex based on environmental conditions. The fact that Crichton explains genetic engineering even with big gaps and inaccuracies makes the book feel plausible. A reader can imagine this actually coming true.

There's an art to meshing the right explanation with the big thing you want to do in a book. Dinosaurs=DNA was a good fit. If Crichton had said that the dinosaurs were being plucked from the past via wormholes, this would have been harder to swallow, but still vaguely believable. We can't actually create wormholes to study, but pretty much all physicists agree that wormholes must exist in our reality, and any tunnel through space is also a tunnel through time. A time travel explanation would feel more speculative, but most readers would probably shrug and move on to the good bits about dinosaurs devouring people.

If Crichton had said that the dinosaurs had been discovered still surviving on an island in the Pacific, and compared their rediscovery to that of the coelacanth, plausibility would have been stretched further. In 1920, maybe an island could still be hidden. It's a big ocean, and ships and airplanes might plausibly have missed something. But by the time the book was written we had photographs of the globe from space. An island big enough to hold dinosaurs would have been spotted. It's not completely impossible if it was a very limited number of smaller dinosaur species, but still feels pretty lame.

Finally, Crichton could have just abandoned any pretense at a scientific explanation. The dinosaurs came into our world by the power of magic. The park organizers hired a coven of witches to chant over a cauldron and summon the creatures through the mists of time. Pretty much no one would have taken this seriously. It just doesn't feel right.

On the other hand, the coven of witches summoning vampires into the world, or raising an army of zombies doesn't feel off to most people. But, vampires are a mystical problem, so a mystical source for the problem works. Dinosaurs are found in museums. People with PhDs write about them in respectable journals. They aren't figments of imagination, so to write about them plausibly requires that the author demonstrate some authority on the underlying facts.

How do you get this authority? The hard way. Do some damned research. But, the important thing to understand is that the best science fiction isn't researched after you get the idea for a story. Instead, if you want to write science fiction, especially hard science fiction, you need to be learning this stuff years before you start typing. The libraries of the world are full of books explaining the various disciplines of science in language that laymen can grasp. In my novel Dragonforge, I talk a lot about the genetic hoops the sky-dragons have had to jump through in order to survive as a species while starting from a very small pool of breeding individuals. I didn't come up with this idea then go back and research it. I instead took inspiration from things I'd already read about actual real world attempts to save species from extinction after the number of members of that species has dwindled into the hundreds, or even the dozens.

For another example, when I was deciding how big my dragons should be and still be able to fly, I didn't just make up a number, nor did I have to sit down and work out a lot of math to figure out the surface area of the wings versus the total weight of the body. I didn't dig into the fine tuning of lung capacity or the type of jaws they'd need in order to have the most efficient diets to support a high calorie lifestyle of flight. Instead, things I'd read years before gave me good guidance for dragon wings because I knew just how big pterosaurs had gotten. I didn't need to do my math to make dragon flight plausible. I can just point to the fossil record as proof that huge animals can, in fact, get into the air.

If you want to write hard science fiction, my best advice is to never stop researching. Constantly map your ignorance, then strive to correct it. Pick something that already interests you then chase down all the ideas that spin of from it. My own interests began with a strong curiosity about evolution. Once you start studying evolution, you start learning about geology, and start thinking in very long time spans. Understanding the origins of life leads you to reading about the origins of our planet, and the formation of stars, and the role the moon has likely played in making Earth habitable. Evolution also led me into mysteries of the human body. Why aren't we as hairy as most of our fellow primates? Why are our arms and jaws so much weaker? There's also aspects of human behavior that look suspiciously similar to chimp behavior, which gives me a different perspective on some human customs and cultures, and made me want to read up on differences among human societies to see what behaviors are truly universal. A lot of the things I learn wind up making their way into what I write.

In the end, there's no half-assing it. If you want to write "hard" science fiction, you need to stay curious and continue studying. You need to have the capacity to feel excitement when you catch glimpses of things you don't know about, and stay hungry to chase down every new bit of information you can. Then, when you do write science fiction, don't write with the goal of showing off your mastery of the subject, but instead write the story you want to write with the confidence that you've done your homework. Each novel is a test, and readers will give a pass/fail grade on whether they stayed connected and engaged with your world. Getting the science right will help you pass that test. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Week Eleven: Finally past 100,000!

Week eleven was my lowest word count of the year. Between SC Comicon last week and NC Comicon this weekend, the bookends of two big cons shifted my creative energies away from writing fiction and toward the business and promotional side of my job. Last weekend I sold out of several titles and was low on others, and with a lot of cons coming up in the next few months I spent a good chunk of Monday figuring out my inventory needs and placing orders for books. Then, this weekend, I wound up selling out of more stuff and this morning had to put in an order for even more books. (It's been a freakishly good two weeks for short story collections and superhero novels.) Also, in between cons, I wound up creating a lot of new mini-signage to place around the books, laminated book covers to stand in for sold out titles, and order forms for people still interested in buying a sold out title. And this weekend I've really been admiring some signs on a table across the aisle, so there's even more sign design in my near future.

The good news is that I'm not simply spinning my wheels. I've learned from some great self published book sellers at cons over the years, and now sell far more books than the typical author at the events I go to. Cons are a lot of work, but they do generate an increasingly large chunk of my revenue. This is balanced by a big investment in time in effort, but I'm still convinced that actually selling my books directly has made me a better writer overall. Figuring out how to pitch my books has helped me figure out what's important about my books, and when my enthusiasm for a book gets picked up by a buyer, it's a pretty great moment.

With the caveat, of course, that the more time and effort I put into selling my books, the less time and effort I spend on, you know, writing them. So, this week, 4757 words, bringing me to 102,696 for the year. More than a fifth of the way there! And, while I have a lot of cons still to go over the next several weeks, NC Comicon is my last three day con for a while, which should help me get back on track.

Forward!

Monday, March 11, 2019

Week 10: 9098 Words

I'd hoped to get in a little writing Friday and Saturday of last week to get me over the 10k mark for week 10. Friday we were driving to Greenville for the SC Comicon. I'd planned to write on my laptop for a few hours while my wife drove, but we were driving through rain and started hitting construction zones and I decided to take over driving, not because I'm in any way a better driver than Cheryl, but I just felt guilty about having her be stressed by bad driving conditions while we were heading to one of my events. Anyway, the drive took two hours more than we planned, then load in took a while since we had a hard time finding the loading dock at the convention center. Then, during load it, the light drizzle shifted to pouring rain. I was having to drape boxes in with trash bags and other makeshift umbrellas to make sure no rain snuck through gaps and ruined books. So, my back up plan to write when we got back to the hotel was shot by not getting to the room until nearly 10pm.

But, gripe gripe gripe… wow! What an amazing weekend! I would do a dozen rainy drives and crappy load ins in order to have another con like SC Comicon. It was my biggest total revenue from a two day con ever. I got within $100 of what I did last year at Raleigh Supercon and that was a three day show. At Supercon, I didn't have any hardback available. Now I have both dragon collections in hardcover, plus Bad Wizard, and There is No Wheel, and the revenue boost from selling those at a higher price point really made a difference. Thank you, South Carolina public school system, for producing readers with a taste for fine books!

The next con I do (this weekend, Oak City Comicon) I'll print order forms and make some laminated covers to stand in for sold out titles. At SC Comicon I sold out of Nobody Gets the Girl, Burn Baby Burn, and paperback There is No Wheel. Sadly, a box with more copies of Nobody and Wheel was sitting on my porch back home, delivered after we'd left town. Oh well.

Anyway, by the time I finished Saturday at the con I was completely brain dead, and couldn't sneak in the last 1000 words I needed to get to my goal for the week.

Still, 9098 brings me to just over 98,000 words for the year. I'm on track for my total word count goal for the year. Continuing to pile words into Dragonsgate. Chomping at the bit to crank out the rest of Nobody Nowhere. Doing a lot of second guessing on Squire and Smash. I'm excited about both projects, but wondering if I should spend any more time on them this year. A growing folder full of notes and excerpt for The Stuff. Right now, if I had to predict the three books I'll actually finish this year, I'd say Dragonsgate, Nowhere, and the Stuff.

Now, off to finish the current chapter of Dragonsgate!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Week 9: 7738 words

Meh. Missed 10k for the week. I'll again blame good weather. Yesterday I did a 55 mile bike ride yesterday for my 55th birthday, and felt like I couldn't pass up good weather earlier in the week for rides to make sure I was ready for it. In the summer, a 55 mile ride is usually no big deal. I mean, any ride over 30 miles eventually turns into a slog, but, though it doesn't seem obvious, it's a lot easier to ride in 90 degree heat than in 50 degree mildness. When it's hot, I'm usually just in a tank top and shorts and sweat evaporates off my quickly, keeping me cool and comfortable. In 50 degree weather, riding at a modest 10 miles an hour creates a wind chill effect that makes it feel much colder, so you have to bundle up. But, bundling up means you're trapping sweat next to your skin, no matter how much your clothes claim they wick sweat. So, the further you ride, the damper you get. Part of training for a winter wide isn't boosting your lung capacity or keeping your leg muscles toned. It's training yourself to put up with being both cold and hot at the same time. You're core is hot because of the exercise, but your skin is cold because it's wet. When I got home last night and started peeling off clothes, it looked like I'd fallen into a swimming pool.

This week, no rides! Plenty of butt in chair time, though, alas/yay, next weekend I'll be at the SC Comicon, so I really need to hit my goals by Thursday night. Still, counting today, that's just 2k words a day, a relatively achievable goal.

Friday, March 1, 2019

How Much Science Do You Need to Know to Write Science Fiction? Part One: Science!

Later this year, I've agreed to teach a workshop called "How Much Science Do You Need to Know to Write Science Fiction?" The class isn't until July, but it's never too early to start fleshing out the ideas I'll be covering.

I intend to cover some common strategies authors use when writing science fiction. The genre covers a lot of ground and can refer to stories built around very specific and mostly accurate science fiction facts to outright fantasies that are sprinkled with "science" jargon. Utterly debunked pseudoscience like telekinesis or precognition still gets treated as plausible. There's also a lot of faith that some science facts we are currently quite sure of will one day be overturned. No one is going to mock you for writing science fiction where faster than light travel is taken as a fact. It's respectable to pretend that we will one day travel to alien words where we can safely breathe the air. And, at least on screen, having humans and aliens interbreed is no big deal.

The sheer scope of science fiction means I should probably start my workshop by first defining the term. What is science fiction? I think there's a more important question that creates some of the problems with defining the genre. What is science?

It doesn't take a lot of research to realize that the definition of science means one thing in a dictionary and another in general usage.

Going to the old Miriam Webster, science has a topline definition of, "knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding." This speaks to the authoritative weight of science, but feels a bit broad. For instance, I probably have more knowledge of English Literature than the average person. Or, in another area where I have some quantitative data, there was a headline popping up on news sites not long ago about how most US citizens would fail a US Citizenship test. Fewer than 50% could name the three branches of government or explain the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. I took the sample citizenship test used for this survey online and scored 100%. I wouldn't describe myself as an expert, but think my knowledge of basic American civics would in no way be described as "ignorance and misunderstanding." Yet, I also think that very few people would call extensive knowledge of civics or literature or comic books (where I'm also pretty well educated) "scientific" knowledge.

Digging deeper into the dictionary, we arrive at this definition: "knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method." The scientific method isn't explained within the definition, and a lot of the definitions of this term online are somewhat wordy, so my condensed version is that the scientific method is a way of testing factual claims about the physical world that involves careful observation, the formulation of an explanation for these observations, the repeated testing of that explanation, and the willingness to toss out or modify explanations that are contradicted by new observations.

The transformative power of the scientific method when it comes to understanding the world around is profound. Before this was adopted as a standard of knowledge, the world was mostly comprehended via myth, superstition, and dogma. Dogma is knowledge handed down by an unquestionable authority. A king or a priest would declare something to be true and, for anyone subject to their authority, it had to be treated as true. In most of Europe for over a thousand years it was true that man had been created by God, that kings ruled via divine will, and that the Earth was stationary with the sun, moon, and stars moving around it. Men were mortal and women experienced pain in childbirth due to punishment for the sins of the first man and woman. People who had fits or suffered from mental illnesses were plagued by demons.

And, whatever it's connection to mental illness may be, the ultimate appeal to authority was to claim that you got your information firsthand from God. This was such a successful tactic that it shaped human history with far more reach and far more force than any king or empire of kings could match.

Of course, even before the scientific method arose, dogma had competition: Reason. The Greeks gave the world a method of deciding truth via argument, with premise after premise leading to inevitable conclusions. Reality was an extension of the mind, since the mind was ultimately the only tool we had for knowing the world. If the world existed primarily in our thoughts, it must be possible to arrive at truth purely by thinking about it, and reason provided an excellent canvas on which men could paint the image of reality. Unfortunately, a beautiful as a reality of pure reason might seem, time and again it led men to believe in things that had no  true underpinning in the real world. As it happens, reality is under no obligation to be reasonable.

The important difference between knowledge handed down as dogma, or built upon a foundation of pure reason, and knowledge arrived at via the scientific method, is that dogma and reason have no need to put their "facts" built upon any sort of evidence. Who told you the facts, or the beautiful logic behind the facts, was more important than the facts being, you know, factual.

Science as understood by popular culture looks very much like a list of facts handed down by authorities. And, of course, science does have authorities. But, when Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection people didn't accept it because he was an expert. They paid attention because he had evidence. His evidence was documented in meticulous, even tedious detail, and was available for anyone to study for themselves. His theory wasn't presented with the hope that no one would challenge his evidence or conclusions. Instead, it was put forward into an scientific culture where every aspect of his theory and his evidence would be examined. People who found his ideas suspect were free to do their best to refute both his premises and his conclusions.

This is still the heart of good science. Every claim gets examined, all evidence is publicly available. Sometimes, theories are so firmly established that they seem like dogma. I've had arguments with people who think that the theory of evolution is just an alternative religion, taken as faith and impervious to evidence that refutes it. In reality, elements of evolution are modified continuously as new evidence gets uncovered. Many alternatives to natural selection have been proposed, and all come up short when tested by the real world. The Soviets rejected natural selection for an evolutionary theory known a Lysenkoism and based their agriculture around it. This bad evolutionary theory wound up contributing to famines that killed tens of millions.

At least Lysenkoism was put to a brutal, real world test, and eventually rejected. The current popular competing "theory" of "intelligent design" fails as science because it makes no predictions that can be tested. You couldn't build an agricultural program around it, because it has no theory about how organisms change other than that some higher intelligence tweaks things from time to time. When this designer makes changes, why he makes changes, how he makes changes, where he makes changes... unknown. Unknowable. And thus--even if it was absolutely true--completely useless as a tool for understanding life.

In contrast, natural selection makes predictions about what will happen to bacteria exposed to antibiotics. It gives us ideas of how insects might respond if we keep using the same pesticides on crops year after year. It makes large scale predictions about how flora and fauna will change over time as their environment changes. Importantly, if these predictions turned out to be wrong, scientists would change their theories. Even if the predictions were confirmed, if new theory came along that made better predictions, the old theory would be abandoned or modified. Dogma, authority, and beautiful arguments all get ground to dust beneath the wheels of actual, repeatable, verifiable observations.

Don't believe this? Every advance in science starts with an admission that the best previous explanation wasn't quite right. There would be no science at all without scientists ability to utter the words, "We were wrong." If a politician or priest says, "We were wrong," it's normally with a great deal of embarrassment. When scientists say, "We were wrong," it's often in a tone of celebration and awe. Newton's laws of gravity reigned until they were replaced by Einstein's theories. A "tree of life" derived from the study of bones reigned until it was redrawn by genetic evidence. There was a time people reported spotting a planet closer to the sun that Mercury, known as Vulcan. Multiple lines of evidence "proved" its existence. Then, thanks to Einstein's equations explaining Mercury's orbit better than Newton's had, the Vulcan required by the old physics vanished.

While you won't find this in any dictionary, I think that the best, short, definition of science is this: Science is the intellectual knife we use to carve reality free from the thicket of the unreal. Science isn't the only tool in mankind's toolbox when it comes to understanding the world. Art, religion, emotion and pure animal instinct all have roles to play in defining who we are as humans. But science explains our existence in both galactic scales and microscopic scales. It explains our ancient and recent past and hints at possible and probable futures. It helps us understand where we came from, who we are, and who we might hope to be.

Still, sometimes the other tools in the toolbox we use to describe the world are better at describing the human experience than pure science. As a novelist, I think there are truths both grand and subtle that are better examined in works of fiction, things that no telescope or microscope will help us understand. Science fiction is where the tools of science and the tools of art come together to create something wondrous.

Fairy tales have enduring power, existing in every culture in the world, and so beloved by children that it's possible that we've somehow evolved to need these stories to comprehend the world. Fairy tales explain morals and ethics and human character all why evoking a sense of wonder and magic.

Now take these fairy tales and, instead of building upon a foundation of magic, reimagine them on the foundation of wondrous reality. As a child, this to me always seemed like the true appeal of science fiction. I knew that stories of fairy kingdoms and gingerbread men and flying carpets were pure myth. But stories of spaceships and intelligent robots and distant planets--these things could plausibly exist. For me, it was an important distinction. It was entertaining to read about things that could never be. But to read about things that might be true, or that might one day become true, was more than entertaining. It was thrilling; it was inspirational. I still get that reaction from good science fiction, a feeling that I'm catching a glimpse of a something that's a perfect blend of imagination and fact. And while I'm capable of enjoying stories that are works of pure fantasy, I still experience a degree of awe when I find myself immersed in good science fiction.

So, how much science fiction do you need to know to write science fiction? All of it! Well, quite a bit of it. Okay, some. At least a little. Hardly any at all, if you're brazen or bold enough. I believe the better you understand science, the better you'll write science fiction, but, more importantly, the better you understand fiction, the better you'll write science fiction. Sometimes, you'll need to trade away good science in order to grab the prize of a good story. But, even when you're bending science to your will, you can do so in a way that is respectful to the underlying truth. Explaining how to do this is going to take some time. I'll be expanding on this topic in future posts in this series. Stay tuned.