Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Heinlein's Starship Troopers--As Relevant Today as 60 Years Ago (#SFWA Pro)

I have written here previously about science fiction as the most relevant genre
for the present-day world, the only one that comes close to capturing what it is like
to live in the first part of the 21st--and possibly final--century. So many mainstream
and literary writers have adopted sci-fi tropes that there is scarcely a divide anymore
between popular fiction and sci-fi. Margaret Atwood comes to mind, as well as Junot
Diaz, and many other "literary" writers. Well-known sf classics like On the Beach and
1984 have acquired a renewed relevance, but there are also many lesser-known works
from the previous century that resonate with aspects of our Brave New World, as it
was termed by Aldous Huxley in 1931.

For reasons of sanity, I cannot bear to read much current literature, and have begun
to return to my roots in the classic science fiction of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s. So far
what I’ve been reading is even better than I remember. I’ve begun with one of my
favorites, the man who could arguably be called the greatest of them all: Robert A.
Heinlein. Scientist, popularizer, visionary, and above all a consummate story-teller,
Heinlein was immensely influential not only on subsequent science fiction, but also in
mainstream literature and culture. For example, Heinlein invented the concept of
“waldos”--mechanical hands that could manipulate in places too dangerous for humans.
He was the first to popularize the idea of colonizing the moon, and perhaps the first
to suggest that this project might be done by private enterprise. His compulsively-
readable novel, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), was the first sci-fi novel to make
the NY Times best-seller list, and gave us the concept of water beds as well as the
Martian verb “to grok” (roughly, to understand deeply).

All of his novels--at least the earlier ones--are well worth reading. Next to Stranger in a
Strange Land, Heinlein’s best-known novel is Starship Troopers first published in 1959.
I recently re-read it with great pleasure and not a small amount of awe.
Starship Troopers is as relevant today as it was when Heinlein wrote it. As entertaining,
too. I especially recommend it to other writers as an example of gripping storytelling that
seems to break all the rules. With no traditional plot, with dozens of named characters,
many of them literally expendable, with many pages of technical details about the logistics
and hardware of military training, the novel nevertheless grabs the reader from the beginning
and doesn’t let go until the inevitable but still somewhat surprising end.

It is a first-person narrative told by a teenage boy who impulsively enlists in the
Terran Mobile Infantry, a branch of the armed services, which offer the only way a
member of society can become a full citizen. The story follows our hero from his first
day of boot camp through the early years of his role in combat. Although we do not know
much about the politics of the situation, it is clear that Earth is united in a deadly battle
with alien “Bugs,” and that our space-suited soldiers are perhaps all that stand between
our home planet and ultimate conquest by the aliens. The combat is not at all glorified;
it is described as terrifying, dirty, and necessary. To me the most remarkable aspect of
Starship Troopers is its solid depiction of life in the military as akin to living in a kind of
especially close family. The values of loyalty, camaraderie, dedication to a cause--the
good side, if you will, of tribalism--all are demonstrated in ways that let us, as readers,
feel them ourselves. Reading this book has helped me to understand why so many
people from such diverse backgrounds choose to become military “lifers.”

There are some anachronisms, and as with most science fiction of that era, Starship
Troopers depends on paternalistic, sexist stereotypes in its depiction of women. Unlike
many twentieth-century authors, however, Heinlein did portray women serving in many
roles, from rocket pilot to head of state, that were closed to them in the real-life world.

I understand that Starship Troopers was made into a movie, which I did not see and
have no desire to see. I want to continue to picture it in my imagination, as vivid as
when I read it. And I want to continue to ponder Heinlein’s authorial magic, as I did
when I frequently stopped reading to ask myself, over and over: How did he do that?

Some of my previous posts focusing on science fiction:

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse (#SFWA Pro)

I grew up in the fifties, when we learned in grade school to “duck and cover” (hide under our desks)  for protection from an atomic bomb blast. Not unsurprisingly I had frequent recurring nightmares about that very thing. In fact, I kind of expected it to happen, which may be why, once I discovered science fiction, I found myself drawn to post-apocalyptic literature. It was almost as if I were studying so I would know how to survive the collapse of civilization.
After I became a professional writer, I wrote a post-apocalyptic trilogy of my own, over a period of thirty years. (See "How I accidentally wrote a 300,000-word Trilogy".) I did a lot of thinking and a lot of research working on the main premise of the series: what would happen to our society if all modern technology suddenly and permanently disappeared? In my series, The Pandora’s Trilogy, this catastrophe is caused by a recombinant-DNA disaster that results in the disappearance of all petroleum and petroleum products. Most of us don’t think about how very dependent we are on fossil fuels for more than motivating our cars. A vast number of manufactured objects--including clothing, cosmetics, household objects, and  electronics, are made wholly or in part of oil or plastic or other petroleum derivatives.

In my trilogy many other terrible events, including widespread genetic mutations (due to the failure of containment systems on biological experiments) and mass extinctions and genetic diseases (due to the recombinant-DNA disaster) also plague the unlucky survivors of the original “Change.” It’s a kind of dark-ages life: primitive… brutish and short. The three main characters of my trilogy each work in different ways to try to make the present better and help create a future that is less desolate. Though many animals we know now are gone, evolved forms of some creatures, including camels, housecats, and elephants, are important actors in the story.

I realized after I had written the second of the three novels that my imagined apocalypse was in fact a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. No, I didn’t wish for the collapse of civilization, but I realized that if a disaster such as the one I created should occur, it would permanently eliminate the possibility of nuclear holocaust. The third novel in the series, written 35 years after the first two, even ends on a note of hope for the future. No, things can never be as they once were; but humanity and the remaining animals will be able to live in a recovering ecosystem with enlightened leadership, a reduced human population, and a visceral knowledge of the mistakes that had been made in the past and must never be made again.

The Pandora’s Trilogy is available on Kindle as an e-book “box set,” which offers all three novels and some bonus material. The three novels are available separately, as ebooks and paperbacks, on Amazon. All are free to read on #KU. You'll find links in the right-hand column of this blog.

I also offer links to several free excerpts from Pandora’s Promise, listed under "Pages." “Rushing River’s Story” follows the sentient elephants who inhabit the midwest of this country after the Change. For a taste of the Pandora’s world, read the prequel (“Pandora’s Prequel”). It is the length of a novella, and offers insights into two of the main characters from before the beginning of the first book.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

How Science Fiction Could Save the World (#SFWA Pro)

“We’ll be fine,” my Facebook friends say. “We survived W, we’ll survive this.”

But what if these friends are wrong? What if we don’t survive? What if it really is different this time?

I grew up in a science-literate household (my father was a paleontologist), and began reading science fiction in sixth grade. It has always been natural for me to react to major global and societal changes in terms of “what if,” extrapolating what might ensue from this or that event or trend. Today, as an adult science fiction writer, I can’t help looking at the current scene from a science-fictional what-if perspective.

The things that currently keep me awake nights are what seem to be too-likely consequences from the relentless destruction of our natural heritage, including coral reefs, a wide diversity of animals, and genetically diverse food crops;  or a precipitous global warming catastrophe, caused by the sudden collapse of the Greenland glaciers or the massive release of previously sequestered carbon in the permafrost; or, more dramatically, nuclear war, caused perhaps by careless talk from a national leader who does not understand either diplomacy or the devastating consequences of the detonation of nuclear weapons.   
The problem is that to avoid these horrible outcomes it is necessary to understand them, and for that a knowledge of science is essential. Unfortunately, most of our new leaders seem to lack any interest or knowledge of science, as well as the necessary imagination to read actual science. But perhaps they can be educated in a different way. Perhaps reading (and watching) good science fiction could help make a difference. Perhaps well-wrought stories with a scientific background might interest those who believe that science is all bunk or a left-wing conspiracy. Perhaps when science is explained dramatically in a plot point, some decision makers might be impelled to think twice:  “Maybe there is something to this after all. Maybe we should be careful about adding more carbon to the atmosphere.” Or, “I can see that if we continue to threaten to use nuclear weapons, we could end up destroying a lot more than our enemy’s cities.”

“What if?” is the starting point for many if not most science fiction stories. Reading science fiction might lead current non-readers to start thinking about the what-if’s implicit in their policy decisions. A few classic science fiction novels might be the spur we need. What if genetic manipulation led to a caste system on which social and work status are based? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World gives us one plausible scenario. What if the “free world” were taken over by a highly technologized dictatorship whose perverse use of language destroyed its meaning? See George Orwell’s 1984. What if the world population continued to grow exponentially without any mitigation from social or political policy? Read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, which also features Shalmaneser, an all-wise computer that foreshadows the Internet. What if there were a very sudden global warming catastrophe? John Barnes’ Mother of Storms shows us the horrifying, too-believable aftermath. What would human life be like six hundred years after a nuclear war? Walter M. Miller, Jr., describes it in his award-winning classic A Canticle for Leibowitz.

There are many more examples, including two of my own stories:  The Pandora’s Trilogy, which tells how civilization was destroyed as a consequence of a massive oil spill; while my novelette “The Ptorrigan Lode,” shows the devastating consequences of out-of-control corporate greed that values profit over human life and art. I would be more than happy to donate copies of my books to any decision-makers who would agree to read them, and I imagine the same is true for other science fiction writers and publishers. 
Do I think that my solution will really make a difference to the "brave" new world that will soon confront us? Not really. But it could, and I think it’s worth trying. If you agree, send your representatives reading lists or even books. And who knows? A good story is seductive, and a few good science fiction stories might actually change some minds. For more of my musings on the value of science fiction, see this earlier post.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

What to Include and Where to Put It

I’ve led hundreds of classes/workshops on writing techniques. Even for someone like me, who has published dozens of books, every opportunity to write is an opportunity to work on craft, and the more you do it the better you will get at it. Take Facebook. While much of what is posted there is just seat-of-the-pants reactive verbiage, many posts are carefully thought out mini-essays. I have several writer friends whose pieces I look forward to reading, not just as a way of catching up, but for the pleasure of the writing.

A few weeks ago I wrote such a small essay on Facebook because something meaningful had occurred, and I wanted to share it with my friends in a way that might help them feel what I had felt. I revised what I wrote several times, and when I had finished I realized I had put as much thought into the writing and rewriting as I would have into a magazine article or part of a book. The post was successful and acquired many dozens of likes, and the comments showed me that many people had grasped the point I was trying to make. But how did I do that? By combining several writing techniques. I believe the most important one, for the maximum impact of such a short piece of writing, was my choices of what to put in and what to leave out. 

A big part of choosing what to put in is to remember to keep it simple. I wrote about this technique--which I call Less is More-- in a previous post. I used another writing technique, Showing Not Telling, in this piece, as I try to do in all my writing. I looked at all the parts of this relatively simple story, then chose the order in which to tell them for what I felt was maximum impact. I tried more than one order, then decided to move from the general (what happened) to the very personal (how and why it affected me). You might try this with a short piece of your own writing, and see how changing the order of the parts affects the whole.

Here are the facts. My younger brother died of epilepsy sixteen years ago. My husband and I were in a restaurant when a young woman sitting across from us suffered a seizure. I wanted to reassure the girl’s mother that we were not freaked out, and to help if I could. My husband and I stayed until the girl could walk, then assisted the two women to their car.

Here is the post, broken into five segments for commentary:

1) Yesterday at lunch my husband and I were getting ready to pay when we became aware that a woman at the next table was having an epileptic seizure, while her mother held her and kept her from slipping out of her chair. The seizure went on for quite a long time. I asked if there were anything I could do, and the mother shook her head no, but my husband and I decided to wait and see if we could help.2) As the young woman began to come out of it, the waitress and the owner of the restaurant packed up their mostly uneaten food, and my husband and I helped the mother gather her things into her purse. Then, when the daughter could walk, slowly, I took one arm and her mother took the other, and we helped her out to the car. I leaned into the car seat and talked to the daughter while her mother talked to my husband, then ran to the bathroom.3) I was wearing my usual bandanna, and the young woman asked me if I had cancer. I said no, I just have bad hair so I shaved my head. I took off the bandanna and showed her. She ran her fingers over my fuzzy scalp and laughed.4) They eventually left, with many thanks. My husband told me the mother had said her daughter was forty-five (she looked twenty years younger, but had probably never been out in the sun much). So this has been going on a long time. I can't even imagine what a nightmare that poor woman's life is. I'm sure she lies awake at night wondering what will become of her daughter if she predeceases her.5) I began crying when I saw the seizure, and the mother thanked me for "praying" for her daughter. All I could think about was my brother, who died sixteen years ago this coming Monday, of epilepsy.

In segment 1) I introduce the scene very simply, setting out the facts--where we were and the basics of what was happening. I could have gone into more detail about the restaurant or the seizure itself, but chose not to. I felt that the detail about the mother holding the girl to prevent her from slipping out of her chair told all the reader needed to know about the nature of a seizure.

In segment 2) I tell the rest of the basic narrative. I could have described how shaky and pale the girl was; how she and her mother had abandoned their food to deal with the emergency, and so on; but I chose instead to SHOW the girl needing the help of two people to walk to the car, and to SHOW the kindness of the restaurant workers in gathering up the food for them.

In segment 3) I show the girl as she comes out of the seizure-induced fog, and her childlike demeanor as she asks about my bandanna, then runs her fingers over my head. I did not need to say that the epilepsy had apparently stunted her intellectually, or that she probably could not function well on her own.

4) Now I segue to the personal implications of the incident, and my thoughts and empathy for the mother and her daughter. I also come to the real point of the essay, about how tragic this entire situation is for these two women and how their plight touched me.

5) In the last two sentences I show why the incident meant so much to me, personally. I could have started off--as I did above--with the news that my brother had died of epilepsy, but I believe it makes the piece much more powerful to save it for the end.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why I want this book review to be my epitaph. (#SFWAPro)

My main aim in writing this blog is to reach other writers and would-be writers with hints and tips and reassurance I have collected in my many years as a pro writer. Though I do talk here about my own work, most of the time it's with the aim of  demonstrating something I have learned about the craft of writing.

Today, however, I just want to  share  the great news that my new book, Pandora's Promise, recently received a glowing review from Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I can't exaggerate how much this means to me. I've been a science fiction fan since grade school, when I began reading novels from the public library in Flagstaff, AZ, where my family spent a few summers. I also began around that time to read the great sf magazines, including Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and Astounding, which later morphed into Analog. The names of the writers and editors of the stories I read were as familiar to me as those of my family and friends. I had always wanted to be a writer, and I couldn't think of anything better, more perfect, than being a writer of science fiction. I can still clearly remember many of those early stories, and the excitement I always felt whenever I started reading a new one.

In the roughly sixty years since grade school, I did become a professional writer and editor. My main success was in the fields of fitness and health, but in the mid 1980's I published my first adult science fiction novel, Pandora's Genes. Though it didn't become a runaway hit, it sold well and received the accolade "Best New Science Fiction" of 1986, awarded by Romance Times, which I had previously never heard of. I loved that novel. It meant everything to me just to have published it and to have finally qualified for one of the main goals in my life: to become a pro member of Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). I published the sequel the following year, and then my imprint folded. Thirty years later I went back to the world I had created and wrote a third book, completing the trilogy (see How I accidentally wrote a 300,000 word trilogy).

I self-published the resulting book, Pandora's Promise, last year, and received nearly thirty very positive reviews on Amazon. Imagine my delight and surprise when last week I discovered by accident that Analog had published a review of the book in December, by long-time reviewer Don Sakers. Here it is. This review is truly the culmination of what I have worked for all these years as a writer. And I seriously want the last two lines to serve as my epitaph.These lines affirm that my book is good, that I am a good writer, and most importantly that I am a good writer of science fiction. 
Pandora’s Promise
Kathryn Lance
         Genre: Post-apocalyptic, SF Romance
Here’s one that will appeal to those who like post-apocalyptic fiction, and also readers of romances. Pandora’s Promise is the concluding book in the Pandora Trilogy (following Pandora’s Genes, 2011, and Pandora’s Children, 2011).A century ago, a recombinant-DNA disaster wiped out all oil-based technology and caused the fall of civilization. Mutations abounded, and a mutagenic plague has seemingly doomed humanity to extinction.The two previous books followed the adventures of Evvy, a young geneticist on the track of a cure for the plague. Along with her soul mate Zach, a soldier-poet, Evvy moves through a world of nightmares and wonders in search of the final solution that will revitalize humankind.In Pandora’s Promise, the two are separated but both working toward the same goal. They encounter strange politics, odd religions, and a host of intelligent animals (including the Dream Tasters, a delightful society of empathic elephants). The love triangle begun in the earlier books gets settled, and all the loose ends wrap up as Evvy and Zach come together to find the enigmatic Eye. And I’m not going to tell you what happens next.Kathryn Lance paints beautiful word-pictures and has a fantastic sense for emotional truth. This is one trilogy that starts good and gets better with each book; Pandora’s Promise is the best.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The most important rule for writing science fiction #SFWApro

In an earlier post I talked about ways in which science fiction is different from other literary genres.  Today I want to show why it is the most versatile of all writing categories.

All other genres of literature, except for science fiction, must follow certain rules: mainstream fiction must conform to reality as we know it, even if that reality is presented from the point of view of a madman (Pale Fire).  Romance fiction must feature, among other things, a romance (Wuthering Heights); and mystery fiction must have a mystery to drive the plot (Farewell, My Lovely). With science fiction, things are not so cut-and-dried. In fact, there is only one real rule that sf writers ignore at their peril.

The most important rule for writing science fiction is that a sci-fi story must be self-consistent. You can write a story that takes place in the present, past, or future. You can write a mystery or a romance or both, within that sci-fi world. You can write an alternate history--what would have happened if Germany had won WWII? You can write an adventure that takes place on another planet or in another galaxy. In good science fiction, almost anything goes, as long as it is explained within the parameters of science as we currently understand it, or the science of another universe or dimension. As long as this rule is observed, sci fi writers have virtually unlimited freedom in what to write about. For example:

It may be science fiction, but it can take the form of a mystery, a romance, or a spy story. For example, in my science fiction series The Pandora's Trilogy, the driving motivation is a romantic triangle involving two men and a woman. The most common form of marriage in the Pandora's world (our present world about 100 years from now, after a genetic disaster destroyed all technology) is between two or more men and a woman (for the good reason that, due to a genetically transmitted disease women are vanishingly scarce in this world). 

You can explore any topics that interest you, as long as they fit the basic scientific premise of your work. For example, my future world has several empathic animals that can communicate more or less telepathically. I knew from previous research that some elephant scientists speak of elephants "as if they could read thoughts;" and there is a great deal of evidence that some animals including household pets possess seemingly supernormal abilities--finding their way home from a great distance, or sensing the approach of an earthquake or other disaster. I simply posited that in the world of my books these creatures had developed their latent abilities as a result of the genetic disaster.

You can express political or sociological points in a relatable way. Such famous dystopian novels as 1984, Brave New World, and Stand on Zanzibar seem to have eerily predicted the last part of the twentieth century. The authors had closely observed the society around them and extrapolated trends to create their science fictional worlds. One of the things that most concerns me in our present world is the massive, accelerating extinction of animal species. 

At one point in the third novel in the series, Pandora's Promise, Zach, one of the three viewpoint characters, proposes enlisting the empathic elephants in a military scheme to restore civilization. Another character, Jonna, replies that the elephants would not cooperate, because  "I do understand, and so do the elephants, that human civilization has meant nothing but misery for the animals of this earth.” “It is true that humans caused the Change,” Zach said. “But perhaps it has benefited the elephants, enabling them to develop advanced intelligence and to enter into other creatures’ minds.” Again Jonna was silent, and when she answered she sounded amused. “Why do you believe that the elephants did not possess those abilities all along, even before the Change?” 

Because it is FICTION, you can explore topics that might get lost in a nonfiction piece. Instead of writing an article about the terrible suffering of "trained" elephants in circuses and zoos, I can simply SHOW that suffering from the point of view of the elephants. (See [Rushing River]'s Story, from Pandora's Promise.) Thus a point that might be skipped or glossed over by a reader of nonfiction will be made viscerally, once the reader has become interested in the elephants as characters in a novel.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

How Reviews Can Improve Your Writing

Some writers claim that they never look at reviews. Others, like me, read them obsessively, whether they are professional reviews in a magazine, reader reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, or even feedback from friends and acquaintances on Facebook or in emails.

I don’t know if this is true for all or even most writers, but my writing is very much tied in with my ego. When a book I have written (or helped to write) is praised, I feel validated. When it is panned, I feel personally judged. I can’t NOT take reviews seriously, and I continue to ask for them and to read them. I have come to believe from years of leading writing groups that we can grow as writers by understanding how our work is received by the outside world.

For example, once when I was leading a fiction writing group at NYU, I gave the group a section from a story in progress. I was stunned that four of the six group members thought my main character was a self-centered, immature twit, when I’d pictured him in my mind as a free spirit who marched to a different drummer. I swallowed my anger and hurt, thanked everyone for the feedback, and after the group meeting gave it some thought. I eventually realized that those who didn’t like the character had been right, which brought to mind a maxim from my old friend, the late novelist Richard Brickner: “When three people tell you you’re drunk, lie down.” I ultimately abandoned that project, but I had learned a bit about creating character along the way, and I do believe that no writing is ever wasted, whether it sees print or not.

Those of us writing in the brave new world of indy (independent) self-publishing are fortunate that we have the opportunity to take reader feedback to a new level, and make changes in work that has already been published. My current consuming project is my Pandora’s Trilogy, which consists of two books traditionally published in the 1980’s, and Pandora’s Promise, the third book in the series. The first two were digitized several years ago, while the third was finished and published online a few months ago, with a more recent paperback version now available.

While I was deeply involved with finishing the book I re-read some negative reviews of the first two books, which had otherwise received glowing notices. A few readers had been deeply offended by the behavior of one of the three main characters, and I could see now that his behavior was beyond the pale when seen in the light of a 21st century sensibility. I could not go back and change books that had been published thirty years prior, but what I could and did do was change my originally-conceived ending so that the character was punished in a way that guaranteed he would never achieve the goals that meant the most to him. I considered, and tried writing, some scenes in which he was killed, but none of them worked so well as the solution I had come up with.

The bottom line:
  • Keep in mind that it is after all YOUR book
  • Appreciate good reviews
  • Don’t automatically dismiss bad reviews
  • If more than one reader has similar objections to a character or a section of your book, consider revising it even after it’s been published. It’s easy enough and not expensive to make the changes that will make your book the best it can be.

I’d like to end by quoting a new review of Pandora’s Promise by someone I do not know personally He not only enjoyed the book, he GOT the story, and by extension, he GOT me. This is the sort of feedback authors dream of, and that makes all the work worthwhile  

Just finished reading the Pandora books and enjoyed them very much. I enjoyed your take on football with the Pros; very inventive. However, I think the Dream Taster section is absolutely brilliant!! That section deserves some sort of award on its own. Thank you for writing it.