Friday, November 21, 2014

How to Write Literary Fiction in 3 Easy Steps!

How does one write a work of literary fiction? What is literary fiction? Literary fiction is much like regular fiction except for one key distinction, it’s better, much better, and important. If it were a drink it would be a fine Vermouth with sweet, nutty undertones. Thankfully there is a formula; a strict procedure anyone can follow to elevate their work to literary status!

Step One: It is essential that you don’t start writing too early. Firstly there are forms to fill out, lots of forms. Earnest Hemingway was famous for his adoration of paperwork. Once notarized, color-coded, burned, trasmutated, re-notarized, digitized and emailed you are ready to move on to Step Two.

It is essential in Step Two that you continue to resist the urge to write; it is still too early in the process! The first step in Step Two is a virginal (gluten free) sacrifice to the current editor of The New Yorker. Once The Formidable One has been satiated it is time to adopt the proper attire: a faded tweed jacket, carefully splotched with ink and coffee for charming effect. Next there are the affectations befitting of a literary writer; adopt a smoking habit, shaky slender hands, a twinge of alcoholism, haunted smoky blue eyes, and most crucially an insatiable yearning for parental approval. At this point you should look the part, smell the part and feel the part (so empty…). You are now ready for Step Three; Step Three is the final step in the process where you put everything together!

Step Three: write an acclaimed work of literature.   

The distinction between genre and literary fiction is really a question of degrees. Genre fiction in the modern sense is a loose collection of concepts and tropes that we have come to accept as defining elements of a genre. The various designations of literary or genre fiction effect my experience of a work in so far as it colors my expectations of it before reading. However I often find that these expectations melt away as I actually experience the work. Genre fiction is a category that is created by our expectations; in a sci-fi novel for example you would expect prominent science fiction elements and maybe even plot points, based solely on the genre. Conversely literary fiction is defined by either its lack of expected elements, or the reconfiguration of those elements. Commonly when genre elements are appropriated within literary fiction, they take on a more ambiguous role. Little Big by John Crowley is an excellent example of a more subdued approach to genre mixing. Little Big has all the elements of a fairytale subtly layered in amongst a sprawling narrative framework that takes on a variety of other subjects. The fantasy is so subtle at times in the story it could be completely overlooked.

Ultimately the designation of a work as literary is an artifice of categorization, a box designed posthumously for writing that does not fit cleanly into other pre-existing categories. Perhaps in times past the Genre Fiction box was seen as too confining for some writers that sought to create more substantive works. However in recent times the already blurry distinctions between genre fiction and fiction in general have become even harder to discern. As all the little boxes fade away, ideally we will be left with one big box for the only category that really matters, great stories.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Aquatic Uncle in Class Response

Water versus land symbolizes the divide that separates generations. The physiological attributes that differentiate the land creatures from their primordial relatives represent their respective outlooks and attitudes toward change in the worlds they live in. The Uncle character’s scaly, sharp exterior mirrors his disposition and his antiquated attitudes towards the lifestyle choices of his younger relatives. While his wariness of land confines him there is an undeniable wisdom that underlies his point of view. He is a fully formed creature perfectly adapted to his old world. This confidence is what draws the protagonist’s would-be fiancĂ©.

I immediately identified with the dynamics of the family gathering as they were presented in the story. Both parties could communicate, however there were subtle but essential differences in their use of language. The Uncle spoke in rambling, often confusing idioms and said things that might strike a land dweller as offensive. It is clear that while they share many familial similarities their respective reference points are completely different. As a result the Uncle feels unsettled by the change and the young ones feel disconnected. The Uncle's initial bitterness and general gruffness towards his family a reflection of this feeling.

The nature of the characters and setting would be well suited to animation. The fantastical designs of the land and sea creatures and contrast between their worlds would be great design fodder. If it were adapted, more exposition would be necessary and the protagonist character’s relationships and personality would have to be expanded upon. Much of the short story is spent getting the readers oriented in the world. If it were adapted a more conventional plot would have to be constructed around the existing elements of the story. Many of the conflicts are already present however they need to be expanded into full-fledged arcs.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Wrestling with the Apocalypse, Exploring Octavia Butler's Alternative Perspective

We tacitly accept many ideas in sci-fi as permanent trappings of the genre: Starry-eyed futurism, techno-fetishism that serves as both the main source of conflict and mankind’s salvation. When you consider the elements of classical science fiction these ideas come with the territory, they are the Coke and fries that come with the meal of mainstream science fiction. Even the grittiest science fiction ventures to the existence of humankind in a far future. Based on our species’ nuclear and environmental track record I posit any story set more than five years in the future is a bit over presumptuous. It is in this frame of mind that I approached Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler.

Butler’s perspective as a woman science fiction writer [gasp] of African decent [double gasp] decimates the dull assumptions of an entire genre. She creates a world that is completely unique, bizarre and believable in equal measure. The sharp and resilient protagonist Lilith embodies her fresh contribution to sci-fi characterization. Lilith’s womanhood plays an important part in her struggles with an ambiguous alien sexuality. She is forced to reassess the meaning of her genetic heritage and her intrinsic concepts of motherhood.

 In Lilith’s Brood if not for some fortuitous (and weirdly erotic) alien intervention, our species would have vanished completely from the universe without so much as a whimper. Much has been made of Octavia Butler’s self-proclaimed pessimism, but this is just the shell of a complex and nuanced point of view. Butler seems to be operating from the assumption that humanity’s self-destruction is a foregone conclusion. And not just in the Cormack McCarthy sense, where after the apocalypse some grizzled men scurry around and engage in stern melodrama. Butler’s vision is complete annihilation; gone, dead, the humans are no more. Though she certainly does not posses the same glowing regard for mankind’s ability to triumph over all odds as many of her contemporaries, her apocalypse is not without the occasional hopeful glimmers.

By starting the story after humanity’s alien-assisted resurrection Butler attempts to shed some light on humankind’s Promethean tendencies. She seems to share the point of view her Oankali alien race. The Oankali essentially view the Human race as a room full of violent, highly intelligent toddlers who should not be left alone under any circumstances. But is there anything our species can do to avoid certain annihilation? Conventional science fiction would purpose the standard raft of ideas: Spaceships, war, wormholes, bigger spaceships, mind-expanding drugs, Robots! Butler takes a differing standpoint. It is clear she does not believe that Humanity can transcend its genetic dead man’s switch unassisted. In Lilith’s Brood the answer to Humanity’s salvation is though a process of dispassionate genetic manipulation. The Oankali can take even the worst aspects of our species’ biology and by combining it with their own genetic material, transform into strengths. Butler is probably not advocating for genetic manipulation as a solution to all mankind’s ills, rather she is purposing that the problems our species faces are much deeper than we would like to think. Perhaps too deep for us to escape from. Is the divisive, hierarchical nature of mankind encoded on a cellular level? An impossible question to be sure, but maybe the key to our salvation lies in a different direction.

The prospect of any one individual in our species bringing about the destruction of our entire race seems ridiculous, even the most dangerous among us subject to human limitations. However when we think stop thinking of individuals and start thinking about groups the scenario becomes frighteningly plausible. Though details are scarce in Butler’s vision it is implied that a nuclear attack by an extremist group is what finally renders the world uninhabitable. Perhaps then the message should be to keep a more critical eye to those who vie for ultimate power over others. While we wait for our grotesque-yet-sexy alien overlords to breed away our malignant natures, some gentle, massive restructuring of civilization wouldn’t hurt. We might consider allowing for more diverse perspectives like Butler's to permeate our societies. A more diverse sampling of viewpoints would shift the balance of power in the favor of a species made up of individuals, over divisionary factions made of ideas.      

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Snow Crash and Assorted Ramblings on Virtual Reality

Slip a calculator into one of your jumpsuit pockets and grab a plank it’s time for Snow Crash! Neal Stevenson’s 1992 novel is one part earnest, philosophical techno thriller and two parts schlocky nineties action movie and comedic satire.

In the world of Snow Crash the Federal Government has been thoroughly decentralized. It now delegates the vast majority of its former duties and territories to corporations and their spiritual brethren in various criminal organizations. But this grungy, anarchic world is really only the embellishment to the real reality of the story. The Metaverse (or what modern folk today might know as “The Internet”) is the more functional of the two realties. It is a virtual cyberspace where for an elite group of hackers anything is possible. Many of the characters we meet in Snow Crash prefer to live here, including the main character, who goes by the cringe inducing pseudonym Hiro Protagonist. Hiro is a master hacker and an original architect of the Metaverse back in the primordial times of about a decade prior. Because of his elevated status Hiro has the power to bend this reality to his will.

Aspects of Stevenson’s cyber-reality reflect the current state of the Internet; he anticipated the importance of the Internet in day-to-day social interactions, and he seemed to be aware of the potential implications of interconnected surveillance technology, interestingly, he also describes software very similar to Google Earth. Even at its most hokey (virtual reality public transport system?) the Metaverse idea is nothing less than entertaining. With some hindsight the main problem with the Metaverse is Stevenson’s complete adherence to virtual reality as the future user experience of the Internet.

The problem with this form of interaction and the Metaverse writ large is obviously one of practicality. Why go through all that trouble with a 3d avatar when a few clicks or swipes will suffice in so-called flatland? Stevenson’s term for the kind of 2d interfaces that are currently the norm (and perhaps a clever nod to Edwin A. Abbott's novel), that remain essentially unchanged in premise since the nineties. With hindsight it’s clear that Stevenson underestimated the power of a clean and powerful GUI. So far immersive virtual reality is largely the stuff of videogame power fantasies and insubstantial tech demos. The Internet landscape as it has emerged is far more scattered and far more subtly tinged with sinister corporate and government influence than Stevenson could have imagined in 1992.

The innate complications involved in simulating a compelling all-encompassing reality are what doomed projects with Metaverse-esc aspirations like Second Life and PlayStation Home. It could be argued that the closest analog we currently have to the reality of the Metaverse is Facebook. Whether/how Facebook’s core functionality would work in an immersive virtual reality is debatable but the company’s recent acquisition of Oculus VR is an interesting wrinkle. For the immediate future there is still plenty of virtual reality to be had, albeit operating in a more limited capacity.

The Metaverse closely resembles the modern MMO videogame format. These games can be staggeringly intricate but their limited scope and utility allows them to empower the player within a more limited construct of the virtual world. Eve Online is a fascinating example of  an extraordinarily sophisticated reality on a colossal scale. So colossal in fact that, it’s economy is worth more in real currency than some many modestly-sized nations. With the emergence of new virtual reality technology and real-time rendering techniques that are quickly approaching what Stevenson describes in Snow Crash it is not out of the question that we could some day experience a reality as believable as the Metaverse. The last hurdle is whether the general public is willing to strap something like a headset on their face for multiple hours a day. Considering how fast smartphones and tablets have caught on it's certainly not out of the question, nor is it that large of a jump functionally speaking.

The final question then emerges if virtual reality does catch on who will be using it? Snow Crash does a great job in answering this question on many levels. The world of Snow Crash is a clearly delineated technocracy. The lower classes jack into the Metaverse through public terminals and are given glitchy low-resolution avatars. While middle-class males like Hiro and corporate entities comprise the upper strata of the Metaverse. What emerges is a system that leads to systematic discrimination against the techno-illiterate, ostensibly the poor and the elderly. The entire purpose of creating an immersive cyber-reality is to create a place for complete ideological and creative sovereignty. It should be a place where the individual is free from the constraints of society and the natural universe. Cyber-reality becomes dangerous when it begins to parallel real reality too closely and in doing so replicates the systemic limitations. Perhaps a cyber-reality that is completely uninhibited is impossible until we solve the problems in our immediate reality. 

*Edit: In a strange coincidence I just stumbled upon this Verge article today by Adi Robertson that touches on a lot of the same points as my post; she gives a great general overview of where VR tech is at now and where it could potentially end up. Here is a excerpt on the potential future of VR:

"...some of the most exciting possibilities involve blending the physical world with VR. Sharing experiences will become more intense, and online research takes on a whole new meaning. And then there's the entire field of augmented reality, where virtual and physical elements combine. If we figure out how to actually get there, the possibilities are endless."

Monday, October 27, 2014

What's a Ubik?

Ubik by Philip K. Dick is, at least on the surface, a bit of a puzzling ordeal. Part futuristic hyper-capitalist dystopia, part rambling psychic fever dream. One of the most intriguing ideas amid Philip K. Dick’s usual torrent of inventiveness is how cryogenic freezing is used throughout the story. In the world of Ubik, man has cured death, sort of; actually it’s more of a treatment. By freezing a body immediately after “death” and placing it in a process known colloquially as Cold Pac one may stall the final symptoms of death for many years. Cold Pac preserves the body in a kind of half-life where the dead communicate with the living and retain a kind of artificial consciousness. Like life, half-life is also limited; every minute a person in half-life connects with the living world to communicate they edge closer to their final permanent death. This technology has some major implications both for the characters in the story and society as a whole.

Cold Pac, like everything in the coin-operated world of Ubik, including doors, and all manner of mundane household appliances, comes at a price. Cold Pac is not a technology that is available for everyone. Only the reasonably wealthy can afford to be preserved in half-life and even amongst the wealthy patrons there are multiple tiers of service. It is not a stretch to draw comparisons between Cold Pac and current life extending technologies. Despite their helpfulness most of these current technologies remain unavailable to the vast majority of the world’s population. If a cure for death did exist in the modern world Dick’s assumptions on the availability of that technology is probably not that far off.

While many implications of Cold Pac are potentially wonderful, or at the very least convenient, it’s worth questioning why anyone would want it at all. Cold Pac could be seen as a harmful invasion into the natural grieving process. After all the technique is only prolonging the inevitable, and the half-life recipients aren’t exactly living in bliss, as we witness later in the story. The process invites in a whole rabble of tricky philosophical implications. There is the basic question of whether science should be meddling with the balance of life and death in the first place (sure, why not?), or more specifically whether mortality should be left to the control of market forces (no, that’s probably bad). The practitioners of the practice perhaps started out as purely scientists, but necessity has transformed them to part pitchmen, part morticians, part theologians. All in all the half-lifers are getting a bit of a raw deal. The whole setup seems to benefit the living first and foremost (although one could say the same about all post-death arrangements including funerals).

But these ideas only begin to scratch the surface of Ubik’s weirdly compelling mix of concepts; the omnipresent advertising for Ubik products throughout the novel becomes a kind of metaphorical shape shifting God. Multiple semi-serious references are made to reincarnation at the end of Cold Pac by the half-lifers. Ubik is perhaps not one of Philip K. Dick’s most seminal works but it is awash in the kind of digressive, paranoid wisdom that cements his place as the philosopher king of modern science fiction.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Alfred Bester the Accidental Father of Cyberpunk

Between the foreboding depictions of new technology haplessly entangled with mankind and the omnipresence of sinister corporations Cyberpunk seems like a genre devised especially for the Internet age. The mere mention of the term conjures up visions of a foot chase through the neon rain slicked streets of future Los Angles, or the frantic Zen warrior Neo jamming an AC cable into his cerebellum. But what if I told you the birth of cyberpunk was happening at the same time... as the jitterbug? You might be skeptical, and so was I until I read The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester.

(Some mild spoilers to follow)

Bester’s preposterously grizzled, lowlife anti-hero is about as Cyberpunk as it gets. We are introduced to Gulliver Foyle as the lone survivor of an interstellar shipwreck. After enduring six months in the wreck the lowly crewman’s only notable trait seems to be his penchant for self-preservation. When a passing ship ignores his obvious calls for help Gully vows revenge. The means by which he actuates his revenge cements him as one of the nastiest characters in science fiction. Foyle’s sick determination for revenge unleashes his brutal potential; his transformation from a simple brute to a brilliant cybernetic enhanced killing machine is surprisingly poignant. Bester’s unflinching depiction of multiple flavors of violence is intense, even by modern standards. It’s hard not to see the echoes of Gully Foyle in later archetypical cyberpunk heroes; he’s part Henry Dorsett, part Motoko Kusanagi, and a little bit Kwisatz Haderach.

Bester isn’t immune to the occasional bout of the anachronistic sniffles and his grasp of science is flaky at (most) times, however he delivers on the things that count, namely characters and world building. While reading The Stars My Destination I was consistently surprised at how contemporary the work felt. The world he creates is packed with prescient social commentary and technologies. From a rampant corporate oligarchy to a poor, technologically deprived underclass it’s hard not to see parallels to issues that could be ripped from today’s headlines.  All this and I haven’t even mentioned Jaunting, a central mechanic to the story whose social and technological ramifications are a topic worth discussing in and of itself. For the uninitiated, Jaunting is a form of personal teleportation that one may practice by willpower alone. The economic ramifications of the near complete removal of the need for personal transportation have resulted in a major restructuring of society on every level. Interestingly, this restructuring includes some unforeseen consequences including the fortification of woman of the upper classes in Jaunt Proof ™ rooms. Leading to a new Victorian age of culturally mandated sexual repression.

Bester’s also experiments with his writing in some radical ways. Psychedelic onomatopoeia abounds and the style of writing undergoes changes in parallel to our hero's accumulating intelligence. Bester uses language to viscerally immerse the reader in Foyle’s state of consciousness. Bester should be owed a great debt for taking the first strides on the fringe of a sub-genre that didn’t come into its own culturally, until after his death.  Whether or not Bester knew it at the time, the importance of his endeavor had far reaching effects. Many of the elements of Cyberpunk have been appropriated into the mainstream and are now inexorably linked to modern science fiction.