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.