I have a few scifi short stories lined up for release, and here's the first one — Second Sight, a story about unintended consequences.
BORROWING SOMEONE ELSE’S PERCEPTIONS FOR A POPULAR DEVICE CAN ONLY MEAN COMMERCIAL SUCCESS. RIGHT?
Samar Dix, the inventor of the popular DixOcular replacement eyes with their numerous enhancements, has run out of ideas and needs another hit. Engaging a visionary painter to create the first in a series of Artist models promises to yield an entirely new way of looking at his world.
But looking through another’s eyes isn’t quite as simple as he thinks, and no amount of tweaking will yield entirely predictable, or safe, results.
Every story needs its own world and, if you're writing fantasy or scifi, that world has to be built.
I started Structures of Earth not quite two years ago, then put it on pause to write the Chained Adept series first (see background). At the time, I had a vivid image of the river town where the action was happening — the capital city for the country in which the story is set, rather the way London functions for England.
But where was that country, and what place in what world did it occupy?
One thing I learned from The Chained Adept — it's fun (and not too hard) to build a world map for a series and much better to do it at the start rather than to try and retrofit one after most of the story is done. That way, the “real world” constraints can ground the story and drive some of the plot logistics issues.
The world of The Affinities of Magic is a new world, and it needs its own maps. I took Fractal Terrains 3 out for a spin last night and started seeding the world settings until I found one I liked.
Here's what that globe looks like if you unroll it, with a pointer showing where my temperate northern hemisphere initial city is located. (I haven't designated any national/imperial boundaries yet.)
One thing is already clear — there will be large differences between the cultures on the inner sea and those with access by water to the rest of the world. That inner sea may be 4200 miles wide, but it's still a restricted body of water, warm equatorial water, and the ecosystem in and around it will be unique.
See? That's something I didn't know before I generated this map. Hadn't even thought about it.
Writers of fantasy and science fiction books have special needs. Not only do we have characters to create from scratch, like every novelist, but we have entire worlds to build — not just the verisimilitude of the historical past, but entire planets, spacecraft, or fantastic realms. Our desks are littered with bad sketches of landscapes, terrible character portraits, and far too many scraps of idiosyncratic cosmogenesis.
You know who else has these problems? Dungeon masters.
The world of Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent games created a need for game masters, those referees who control the world of their game for their players, to make maps, create character cards, and so forth. Not surprisingly, there's an ecosystem of software to support this.
A couple of months ago, I invested in most of the software modules from ProFantasy and started playing around. I needed to design a complete secondary world for a new series, The Chained Adept, and it wasn't going to be modeled on Earth at the geology level (although I planned to keep the flora & fauna so that the readers wouldn't need to master an entire ecosystem of vocabulary).
I started by designing a planet, using Fractal Terrains 3. By providing a handful of parameters and tinkering with the results, you can create an infinite number of alien planets.
In addition to the novels I'm currently working on, I'm making a practice of producing more short stories and submitting them to various magazine and anthology markets. Rather than just search for random topics, I've decided to write as many of them as possible for ultimate inclusion in a single collection, called There's a Sword for That.
As you can see from the progress meters on the right, there are four stories so far. This is a science fiction collection, not fantasy, somewhat unexpectedly for stories with swords in them. So far, they've included children, sessile tentacular creatures, intelligent multi-purpose devices, and a famous historical kris (not all at once, of course).
There's a frame to this collection — the Curious Arms weapon shop, tucked away on a space station. All the covers will show the weapon shop and one of the weapons (the cover for the collection will include a rosette of all the weapons).
As each story completes the submission process and becomes available again, it will be published by Perkunas Press, and eventually the entire collection will be available as a book, too. That's more than a year away for some of the stories, but at least a few should be available this year. Since I like to get the covers done sooner rather than later, you can at least get a preview of what they'll look like.
The Fantasy and Science Fiction genres are distinct in several ways, but there is a certain degree of overlap as well. Both of them specialize not in things as they are but in things as they might be. They may differ in where the emphasis of the story goes — SF is notorious for typically making “the idea” and its consequences the point of the story, not necessarily the characters — but in this post I want to concentrate on what they have in common.
I’ve read SF&F all my life, and the two genres are cross-fertilized for me now. I like my SF best when it has moral characters as well as ideas, and I like my Fantasy best when its magical or supernatural elements are treated consistently, as though they were science.
It’s a truism in an SF story that you can change just one thing arbitrarily (time travel works, men live for centuries instead of decades, there are sapient aliens we can meet) and, if you can do an adequate handwave in the direction of scientific plausibility, the reader will accept it, as long as the notional basis is scientific (rational). For example, there may be religion in SF societies, and there may be powerful beings who seem to be indistinguishable from gods, but you can’t have real gods (supernatural entities) as agents in SF (though you can have a belief in them). That’s because god(s) may or may not exist, but science has nothing to say on the subject. That’s why they are literally “supernatural”, not “natural”.
What you must do in SF, however, is deal with the change consistently, e.g., if men live for centuries, there will be social and economic consequences. The story can be about those consequences, or they can be a background to the story, but they must be consistent, and a very great part of the pleasure of reading SF is the exploration of the consequences of such an idea.
Fantasy is a broader category. It accepts that those areas where it differs from quotidian reality may not be capable of rational explanation. Hence you can have supernatural entities (gods, elves, demons) as well as beings that might or might not be supernatural (vampires, werewolves, dragons).
Eric S. Raymond offers an excellent article on the forms of the Science Fiction genre, and why it matters.
First, I want to be clear on what I think a genre is. It’s two things: one is a set of expectations a reader has about the kind of experience an instance of the genre will deliver, the other is a set of genre-specific codes and expressive techniques that the genre writer uses in the expectation that readers will receive them as the author intended. Like all codes and languages, the purpose of genres is to make communication easier by allowing both parties to assume a repertoire of common referents. Genre art fails when the production of the writer fails to match the genre referents and constraints as known by the reader.
This analysis generalizes Samuel Delany’s observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too. The same is true of other genres, in different ways.
One of SF’s central impulses is to extend the perimeter of the rationally knowable, sweeping in not merely unknown places and times and aliens accessible to science but also motifs and images that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. The evolution of SF can be charted as a steady widening of that perimeter – to other planets, beyond the solar system, to other times and alternate histories, then to technology-of-magic and possibilities even more estranged from the world of immediate experience.
Having advanced this definition of SF, I’m now going to make a temporary concession to people who consider it too narrow by relabeling what it covers “classical SF”, or cSF. Those with a little historical awareness of the field will recognize that the classical period began in 1939 with Robert Heinlein’s first publication under John W. Campbell, the then-new editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.
Almost anyone with any exposure to SF will recognize that much but not all of what is popularly labeled SF is cSF. The question I will address in the remainder of this essay is: why should we consider cSF normative? What grounds do we have for regarding a work that claims to be SF but is not cSF to be defective SF?
One reason is historical. Previous attempts to abandon the deep norms of cSF while preserving its stage furniture and surface tropes have not aged well. The “New Wave” of the late 1960s and early 1970s was spent by the early 1980s. Later insurgencies within the field, notably the cyberpunks of the late 1980s and early 1990s, retained cSF’s assumption of rational knowability (and all that followed from it) even while trying to radically transform the genre in other ways.
The reason beneath that history is reader response. SF doesn’t exist in a vacuum; people who want fantasies or Westerns or romances know how to find them, and in general the kind of person who can be attracted by the way SF is packaged (spaceships and other high technology on covers, etc.) wants rational knowability and wants to play the kind of game with the author that is characteristic of cSF, even if he or she is not very introspective about that desire and not very good at the game yet.
This is why SF readers – even inexperienced ones – often experience violation of the deep norms of cSF as a kind of dishonesty or malicious subversion. They can tell they’re being cheated of something even if they don’t know quite what. Forty years ago this feeling was often articulated against the New Wave by complaining that its works were “depressing” – which was true, and remains true of a lot of defective SF and anti-SF today, but doesn’t get at the actual root of the problem.
I find that long-form works like novels seem to match well with the sorts of stories I like to tell — multiple characters, various sub-plots, threads to be woven together. I wouldn’t dare try to keep two novels going in draft simultaneously. It would be like listening to two engrossing conversations at once, and impossible to keep track of.
But sometimes you just want a break. For me, that means writing short stories. Any shorts I write for my ongoing series will probably go straight to publication, but I’m also beginning to produce stand-alone short stories. Since the current series are in the fantasy genre, I’m doing the shorts mostly as science fiction, just for a little variety. Some are truly stand-alone (Second Sight), but others (Buntel Mayit, Monsters) are intended for a story collection called There’s a Sword for That, all of the stories for which will involve some sort of edged weapon. (Since swords are usually associated with fantasy, I thought it would be a challenge to produce science-fiction sword stories instead. That involves a wee bit more than just declaring, say, dragons to be aliens and getting on with it.)
You won’t see these stories for a while, since each one is going through the magazine submission process, and that takes quite a bit of elapsed time (more than a year, maybe two). But I expect to put a dozen or more stories out this year, and I entertain myself prior to publication with getting their covers done as I write them, so that there won’t be anything left to do after they come back unbought or their rights expire, if bought. At least I get to put the covers and blurbs up that way. And if I keep this up every year, there will soon be a regular stream of submissions coming back for publication — I’m just filling the pipeline this year to reap in the future.
Paring it down
Aiming for a certain size in a short story is not something I can control. They’re as long as they need to be, seems to me, and each one is different. Monsters, the latest story destined for the sword collection, surprised me by being only three pages long (1000 words), just two scenes, what they call “flash fiction”. My beta reader wanted to know what happens next, and perhaps you could spin a long story or novella out of it, or it could be the start of a longer character-based novel — sure, I could see that.
But sometimes a molehill is just a molehill, not a mountain. If the characters come back and start explaining their life story to me, well, maybe there will be a followup. Meanwhile, I like the unanswered questions that spin off from the brief encounter. Gives it a concentrated flavor, like a wound-up spring.