Plotting for Timelessness

You are a science fiction writer. Your finger is on the pulse of technology and society’s trends. Closing your eyes, you can see the world of tomorrow, and with your talent, you craft a great work of fiction set in this world you envision.

It takes time to craft a novel. Even after you’ve finished the first draft, there are successive rewrites, and publication woes, and printing and distributions lag times. When your readers finally get a hold of it, there’s a problem. The acceleration of technological advancement has overtaken your vision of the future. A good portion of the science fiction in your story has become reality, or worse, invalidated.

How do you avoid it? Plan for it. Deliberately.

Many of the classics have a timeless quality about them. There’s something about these works which sets them out of time’s reach so that they’re as fresh now as when they were first printed. While there’s no sure way to write something that will become a “classic,” there is a way to make sure your writing is timeless.

One way is to write your story as a period piece. This works with SF stories where the events don’t change history as we know it. Think “thwarted hidden agenda.” (Author Tim Powers is especially good at this.) Choose a setting either right now or some date in the past. State the date, the place, and incorporate real historic events – this helps build solid suspension of disbelief, and adds an air of authenticity. By its very nature, this type of story can’t become outdated. It exists in time, as history.

Another method is to use a break in reality. Create a future event, without a date, that resets expectations of what comes afterward. It could be a nuclear war, or plague, or maybe an alien invasion. It could also reset the year counter so that even the date is removed from reality. So if your story takes place a hundred years after this event, instead of being the year 2101, it could be year 100. That puts your story completely outside of time.

Of course, you could also set your story in a place entirely removed from our reality. This could be another world, or an alternate reality, or so far in the future or past that there’s not even a remote connection to the here and now. Remember the phrase: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

There are always stories that, by their very nature, need to be set in a specific point in the future. Even if time passes them by, the strength of the story itself pulls the reader past the fact that it’s outdated. Look at “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Personally, I don’t care that time has caught up with this classic. So don’t feel you have to try for timelessness in everything you write, but keep it in mind when you feel you’ve come up with your magnum opus.

Not many things suck as much as finishing that big, wonderful, complex story only to have something happen in reality to make what you’ve written completely implausible.

Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way.

Randomness is not what we think it is

I’m writing a series of realistic fantasy books and one of the characters is the god of chaos. Because of this character, I’ve been studying chaos theory in order to write the character with some intelligence, and I’ve been led to an amazing fact:

We all spring out of complete and total randomness.

Everything that is us and our world, and even our thoughts, are the product of complete and total randomness.

If you can wrap your head around this, you begin to understand that we have a general misconception of what “random” truely is. Apple Computers had to come to this conclusion, oddly, because when they first had a “random” setting on their early iPods people complained that it couldn’t possibly be random because it kept grouping songs together. They had to tweak their “random” algorithm to not be truly random so that it actually seemed random.

What we consider a rational, coherent universe is, at its very heart, complete and total random chaos … and yet, out of it springs order and, dare I say, meaning!

I find this utterly fascinating.

Evidence that Life Began Before Earth: Good Fuel for Science Fiction

Now, before you get too excited, there are plenty of arguments that this is wrong — but for the sake of Science Fiction let's suspend any disbelief and take this paper by Alexei Sharov and Richard Gordon at face value.

Here's the idea: if you apply Moore's Law to the demonstrated exponential rise in genetic complexity over time, it suggests that life as we know it formed roughly ten billion years ago. This is significant as the current estimated age of Earth is only 4.5 billion years.

Origin of Life (Graph borrowed from a MIT Technology Review)

This suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities. For one, in this scenario, Panspermia is a foregone conclusion. Life did not form on Earth

Sure this is not a new idea, but now Science Fiction as a genre has some numbers to play with. One of them is the possibility that in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, we're not the backwards baby intelligence in a galaxy teeming with far more advanced races. We could very well be the ipso facto advanced intelligent race.

How so?

Consider this: We've always assumed that it takes at least 4.5 billion years for an intelligent race to develop. Now there's evidence it might take as long as 10 billion years. Sure, we are leaving out a lot of factors, such as asteroid strikes and other mass extinction events – that you'd think would throw off the time table – but we’re not looking at that kind of physical history. We’re looking at the uniform rise in complexity of genetic material.

Information.

The assumption is that it somehow endures through these disasters and continues progress. After all, it somehow migrated through interstellar space through untold and unimaginable disasters – possibly the destruction and reformation of solar systems – to take root on this pretty little blue orb of ours.

And so, this theory argues, thus explains the Fermi Paradox: We’re not hearing from any other intelligent species because they’re either close to, or behind, our own sophistication. That’s why we’re not being invaded by bug-eyed-monsters, or grey hive space aliens, or multi-trunked Pachyderms from Alpha Centari. If anything, we’d be the invaders, a la James Cameron’s Avatar.

But beyond that lies the really intriguing questions:

  • Where, exactly, did life begin roughly 10 billion years ago?
  • Was it localized, as in a star that existed, and then perished, and the material reformed to become our current star and set of planets?
  • Is it spread through our entire galaxy, which means it permeates space and seeds all other hospitable environments such as Earth?
  • Are there other, wholly other alien forms of DNA-like substances which formed in a different time and frame, and that seeds other sections of the galaxy?

The premise leads to endless conjecture – which is fuel for good Science Fiction – but more importantly it gives a more solid jumping off point, as – despite the inconclusive and tenuous evidence – it’s really the best we have right now. It’s something, other than nothing. Because before this paper came out, that what there was: nothing. Wide open nothing.

This gives us something to test. Now, if we do finally find conclusive samples of life beyond planet Earth, we can see if it fits this model.

That’s what science is about.

And that is the best fuel for good Science Fiction.

Sources:

Coffee Strength

As a writer, I obsess over various things that accompany my writing process, and one of them is coffee. Strong, bold, keeps-me-awake coffee.

strong coffee

Regarding strengths, I’ve experimented a lot with how much coffee to use per cup of water, and have come to a startling conclusion: there is no such thing as coffee that is too strong.

Many people I have known through the years drink their coffee so weak you can see through it. They don’t like strong coffee because to them, they equate stronger coffee to increased bitterness. To make up for lack of flavor, they add powdered creamer and lots of sugar.

That’s very sad. They have no idea what the real taste of coffee is like.

Case in point: an ex in-law of mine used to complain about how strong a coffee I used to make, and that’s after I would make it weaker than I’d like it because I knew she didn’t like it that strong. It turned into a quandary. We both didn’t like it, because to her it was still too strong, and for me it was not strong enough.

Then one day she had a cup of the brew I made for myself and said, “Wow, that’s really strong. The weird thing is I like it.” She went on about how surprised she was, that she never likes strong coffee. She wanted to know what I did to it.

That was years ago, and only now am I learning what is going on. Coffee cannot be too strong. If you think it’s too strong, it’s not strong enough.

What I’ve found through my experiments is that coffee’s flavor changes radically with strength. Make it weak, you get a feeble coffee flavor and little bitterness. Make it somewhat strong, and you get more flavor but much more bitterness. Keep adding coffee, and then the flavor starts catching up to the bitterness until at some point it actually passes it, and the bitterness is just a little note mixed in with all that wonderful coffee flavor.

So if you think it’s too strong because it’s too bitter, you have to add MORE coffee. You can’t make it too strong because at some point the water becomes saturated and can’t hold any more. And that, my friends, is when the coffee tastes the best.

Adding more coffee beyond that will not change the flavor, but it will waste coffee. Heaven forbid you waste precious coffee!

When the coffee manufacturers say use 2 tablespoons of ground coffee per cup, they mean 6 ounce cups, not 8 ounce cups. It really is a good rule of thumb, but I’ve found about 2½ tablespoons works best for me. Any more than that and you’ve started wasting the coffee.

A lot of this depends, of course, on how you’re making the coffee. I’m basing this on using a French Press using a medium grind from a burr grinder. I put in pure water at the proper temperature and let it steep for about 5 minutes. I might add a bit of sweetener depending on the type of coffee.

But I’ll tell you this, I taste the coffee. And I love it.

(By the way, if you like the mug I used in the illustration, if you click on it you can buy it from Cafe Press.)

I Erased This Novel

Travels by Jerry J. DavisThat’s right. I erased it. Spent years working on it, writing three drafts of it out on paper, mind you, PAPER, and then finally got to the point where I typed it into a word processor.

As I typed the manuscript into the word processor, I threw the page I’d just finished into the trash. When the trash-filled to overflowing, I threw it out. Then I’d fill it up again.

Garbage trucks came and went. Page by page, my original manuscript migrated to an anonymous landfill.

Then, one fateful afternoon, I finished typing. Done, I thought. Completed. Mission accomplished.

I knew that what I needed to do was back it up the files immediately. I put a lot of work into it, a lot of sweat and blood. The files must be protected! So, I proceeded to inexpertly do this “backup thing” and somehow in the process … I erased it.

The novel was gone. All I had left were the few pages of the last chapter, none of which at that point I had actually used. The novel, in essence, had vanished, like the soul of a loved one who’d just succumbed to eternal slumber.

I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe I’d just erased my freaking novel.

I spent about a week mourning it, and then I sat down at the word processor and thought … well, I know this story frontward and backward by now … why don’t I just type it out again? And that’s what I did. I typed it all out, from memory, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out a lot better. This time around there was no fussing and fighting with the prose, no tight wedging of things in, no forcing this or that character to do some unnatural thing for the sake of the plot. Why? Because I knew the plot already, I knew from page one EXACTLY what had to be laid out, and when. I knew the characters like they were family. I could see how they’d interact naturally and was able to realistically portray their growth through the course of the story.

Now, I wouldn’t wish this on any writer. It was agony. But in the end, it was worth it, and you know how they say things always happen for a reason.

The novel got picked up by Time-Warner and came out in print in August of 2001. I truly believe that if I had not erased the novel, and then rewritten it from scratch, it never would have sold.