What is Science Fiction?

I’m coming around on science fiction.

I don’t mean as a fan–I was, and remain, a rather casual follower of the genre, the kind who can’t begin to name any current authors but enjoys the material if it happens my way. And yes, I like Star Trek.

What I mean is I’m coming around on the name. For a long time I maintained that most science fiction should be called something else, because it isn’t about science.

For example, Jurassic Park, (the book, I mean) is about gene splicing and chaos theory, which sounds all nicely sciency, but the author clearly didn’t understand what chaos theory is. And don’t get me started on that otherwise wonderful movie, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which is has a plot entirely dependent on an object making noise in a vacuum.

In these types of stories, the writers don’t start out with scientific knowledge and work creatively from there, they start with the story they want to tell and add bits and pieces of science for seasoning, as long as it doesn’t ruin their story. And that’s not what science is about.

I’m not being a pedant. This has nothing to do with insisting on accuracy for its own sake. I like a lot of these stories. But I want fiction based rigorously in science. I want to read it and I want to write it, and I get really irritated by the general assumption that we’re supposed to leave our brains behind if we want to enjoy ourselves culturally.

And it’s always bothered me that I can’t call fiction rooted in science “science fiction” because that term is already taken by fantasies about robots and spaceships. As someone who cares about language, I just find it irritating not to be able to call a spade a spade.

For years, I’ve wanted to rename most of what is normally called science fiction “techno-fantasy,” and reassign “science fiction” to where I think it belongs.

But nobody asked me.

But now I’m starting to come around. After all, given my interests and background, I tend to see science from the inside, a thing I can do, or at least identify with doing. But most people don’t experience science that way–and never have.

For most people (and don’t get me wrong, this “most” includes lots of brilliant and well-educated people, you don’t have to be into science to be smart), science isn’t what we do, it’s what they do, and we have to deal with the consequences somehow.

How do we figure out how to think about those consequences? We write and read science fiction.

Cultures think slowly, much of the time. Individuals might mull something over and come to a conclusion in minutes or days, but get millions of us together, and we need decades or generations to think things through. Unfortunately for us, science often moves blindingly fast. Society needs a way to get a head start. Science fiction provides that head start.

For example, it is only just now that scientists are beginning to be able to edit the human genome. Only a few decades ago, nobody knew what the structure of DNA was, let alone how to alter it. Only 15 years ago, the human genome hadn’t been fully sequenced yet! And yet we’ve been telling each other stories about what happens when we make or alter life for a long time, now. From Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, we’ve had a lot of experience with this topic. Now, when we’re finally starting to address genetic engineering legally and politically, we’re already culturally well appraised of the potential pitfalls to look out for.

For science fiction in this sense to be useful, it doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate, it simply needs to address the issues that science brings up.

We don’t need to know what happens to an irradiated body, how it happens, or, really, what radiation is, to know that exposure to radiation is dangerous. Grade Z horror flicks about 50-foot-tall preying mantises express societal anxiety about nuclear power just as well as a sober story about acute radiation sickness and the elevated risk of leukemia and other cancers, maybe better.

It’s ok that objects can’t really make noise in space; Leonard Nimoy didn’t set out to make a movie about physics, he set out to make a movie about biodiversity conservation and he succeeded. The point of Star Trek IV, aside from entertainment (and it is entertaining) is that we should not push any species to extinction because we might end up needing it later. And that is absolutely correct.

Fiction is, in some sense, like dreaming, and a dream doesn’t need to be realistic in order to be psychologically important.

So these stories about futuristic technology and aliens have a place, and science fiction is indeed the appropriate name for them–because they are our collective dream of what science means.

But I still see value in those other stories, the ones about science as I see it, from the inside. In fact, I see at least three distinct values.

Science Fiction Plays “What If”

In my Author’s note to my first book, To Give a Rose, I pointed out that there are things the fossil record can’t tell us (color, behavior), yet we can’t form a full picture of the past without these details. Since we know giraffes, say, can’t be literally colorless (as in clear, like a glass shrimp), guessing about the color, even if we guess wrong, gives us a more accurate understanding of an extinct species, like the Juma giraffe. The job of the novelist, I said, is to “color in the giraffes. So, scientifically accurate fiction has a place in both science education and in the creative speculation scientists sometimes use to help plan their research.

Besides my own book, an excellent example of this sort of writing is the Earth Children Series, by Jean M. Auel. Although the series includes gets somewhat bogged down in places by strangely voyeuristic sex, and has a few other interesting flaws, the author manages to bring to life Ice Age Europe in impressively lifelike detail. I was particularly struck by a passage in the fourth book, Plains of Passage, about mammoths using their tusks to open up drinking holes in river ice in the winter, and how the availability of water year-round dramatically altered the ecosystem. I don’t know if mammoths really did that, but it’s a fascinating idea.

Science Fiction Gives Us Stories About Scientists

Scientists are people too, of course, but since their minds and hearts are wrapped up in issues most people know nothing about, it can be hard to really get at what makes them tick. And some of them tick in ways that make great stories.

To tell a story about a scientist, or a group of scientists, it may be necessary to explain science to the reader, at least up to a point. For example, Barbara Kingsolver’s character, in Flight Behavior, Ovid Byron, studies butterflies. He gets excited by butterflies, saddened by butterflies, inspired by butterflies…he connects with other people mostly by talking about butterflies, directly or indirectly. He’s also a really neat character. You can see why the protagonist has a crush on him. Even if the book covered science for no other reason (it does, in fact, have many other reasons), learning a bit about monarch butterflies would be worth it in order to understand Ovid Byron.

Another great example is Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. The protagonist is a 19th century woman who independently develops her own theory of evolution by natural selection while studying moss population dynamics and generally living her life. Unfortunately, Darwin and Wallace publish before she does, so she never goes public. As far as I know, she is entirely fictional, but she’s quite plausible. There may have been such a woman. But the interesting part is that the development of her theory is intimately bound up with her understanding of her personal life. To understand her human story (which is amazing), the reader has to also understand and care about both botany and evolutionary theory. And the writer has to present both correctly or the integrity of the character–and the importance of the human stories of real scientists–would be undermined.

Science Fiction Synchronizes Our Dreams to the World

Finally, there is a way in which the realism of our stories very much matters–because certain details have implications about the rest of the world. For example, in The Lion King, the boss hyena is female. That is correct, in that among actual spotted hyenas, females are much more aggressive than males and outrank them socially. The movie is also correct in portraying female lions as doing a greater share of the hunting, while the males are principally concerned with the political issue of who gets to be the pride’s male. There is, of course, much in that movie that isn’t accurate and doesn’t have to be, and the sex roles of other species isn’t directly relevant to human gender politics anyway. But imagine if the boss hyena had been male–that could have sent the message that patriarchy is so natural that even hyenas do it and that isn’t true.

If we tell stories that take as their basis inaccurate assumptions, we will fail to process the real world through our collective dreaming. The existence of climate change, the biological unreality of race (yes, we differ, but the biological differences don’t fit neatly into distinct races), the similarity of humans to other animals, and the existence of intersex and gender divergent individuals are all scientifically demonstrable truths that have clear bearing on how we think about ourselves and our world and how we make major ethical and political choices–and they are all facts thoroughly ignored or contradicted in the majority on mainstream fiction.

It is one thing to use free fantasy to process through our feelings about the world–the 50-foot-tall preying mantises as a stand-in for the dangerous of nuclear radiation. It is another thing to use fiction to reinforce misapprehensions and stereotypes, such that we expend our emotional energy worrying about problems that don’t exist and ignore the problems that do.

It is possible to acknowledge certain things as true intellectually, while ignoring them emotionally. We do it all the time. For example, many of us accept that humans evolved from apes, that we share common ancestry with living apes, and that we share with many animals most of the characteristics that make us human–and yet, many of us think and speak and act as though there were a categorical difference between humans and animals anyway.

What stories might we tell, if we start from the scientifically defensible premise that humans are not alone on this planet in our love and our anger and our grief? That our species has, in every sense of the word, relatives?

I’d like to read a book like that. I’d like to write one, and I did, in fact. I do wish we had the language, as writers, to talk about such stories as a distinct art, and how to write them and why.

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Would You Mind if I Made You Immortal?

In the play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, (a Shakespearean comedy converted to a modern musical) one character asks another, in song:

Would you mind if I made you immortal?/I naturally ask your permission/I wouldn’t want to make you immortal/unless you agreed to this condition.

By “make you immortal” he means he wants to write a song or a poem or some such about her. The condition is, of course, that she accept his courtship. The character is a jerk.

I don’t think I have the capacity to make anyone immortal through my writing (though I always hope!) and I would not use my writing as a means to manipulate anyone, but I have had occasion recently to ask for permission to write about someone. It was an odd experience.

Virtually all novels contain a disclaimer about how “any resemblance to actual persons or places is strictly coincidental,” but everyone knows that’s not exactly true; fiction writers put people they know in their books. From listening to interviews with established authors, it sounds as though readers routinely over-estimate the practice (apparently, once your books get really popular, everyone you’ve ever met promptly decides your book is about them. It isn’t), but authors do sometimes draw inspiration from real people.

I’ve written before about how I do character development. In my case, a real person often serves as a model, but I allow the fictional person to develop freely so that by the end of the process, there is little to no recognizable similarity to the real person (except by coincidence).

And yet I can still feel the similarity–something of my feeling for the two remains the same. Occasionally I will meet with a friend and be startled by his (not yet her) similarity to somebody I’ve written. Of course, the friend is the model, but it still startles and delights me, as though my fantasy world has gotten that much more real.

This past week I had that experience, but with a scary twist. I’d been working on a sequence in which the character dies (rather horribly–being a character of mine is not necessarily a fun thing), and I learned that my real friend had only recently recovered from a very serious illness. Had I somehow caused that?

Of course not, but there is a magic to fiction, a fluidity between the real and the imaginal, that should inspire caution.

Also last week, I realized that a whole sequence of fictional events would fall into place nicely if I made another character of mine the granddaughter of two real people I know. These grandparents will not appear as characters in the story, but the name of one of them will be mentioned.

I asked permission, of course. They said yes.

I need permission to use someone’s name, and I suspect my friends saw that as the bigger, more important ask, but to me the idea of importing real people into fiction is the more audacious act. I am, in a sense, predicting the future of their family–the number of children their daughter will have, the kind of person their great-grandson will be. How dare I?

Do I actually believe my writing matters in that way? Do I actually believe that I am putting real people into my story, as opposed to simply making fictional people who resemble real ones and, in one case, shares a real person’s name?

I’m not sure. The thing is, the fictional world seems entirely real to me. I can hear my characters talking. I can see them doing things. I can walk around in their world in my mind, the same way I can re-experience my own memory. This sense of reality is how I can write. I cannot be sure that sense is an illusion.

Fiction is like dream, an alternate realm with its own strange reality, a separate world that bleeds into and out of ours in interesting and not entirely knowable ways. I am not sure what it means to invite a real person into my dream.

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Lost Stories, Part II

I’m doing a series on stories I started but never finished. In most cases there are good reasons why I didn’t finish them, but these lost stories also hide some gems of potential, some things I’d like to share–and it’s an interesting lens through which to see my development as a writer. In many cases, you can see the seeds of things I have published embedded in these stories that didn’t make it.

The Meso-American Project

This story never had even a working title, so far as I can remember, which is odd given how seriously I pursued it–I did a great deal of research, wrote copious notes and partial drafts on scenes and narration, and spent several years developing characters. I fully intended to complete the story and publish it. I was 12 to 15 years old.

The premise of the book was that there was once a technologically advanced culture in the Americas that eventually destroyed itself, leaving only hints of its existence in the folklore of those societies that came afterwards, such as the Maya. My story was set a generation or more before that destruction. Its protagonist was the “historical” basis of the god variously called Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs or Kukulkan by the Maya.

If this premise sounds familiar, there is good reason–it’s not original. The idea that Meso-American culture hides hints of some wondrous past keeps turning up. I suspect that the ultimate root of the trope is racist, reflecting the assumption that the people of the Americas couldn’t possibly develop monumental architecture, writing, astronomy, and mathematics on their own. But I was ignorant of such considerations as a preteen.

I was aware of several versions of the trope, but was specifically inspired by the TV series, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, which is worth a whole discussion in its own right. I do not think that my story would have had enough recognizable similarity to the series to cause legal problems–as I said, the premise is a common one, and I used none of the series’ characters, settings, or plot elements. My story was set thousands of years earlier. But the historical fact of the matter is that’s where I got the idea.

Curiously, although my intention was to base my story on actual historical and anthropological material (which is why I read up on Meso-American culture and history), I also treated Cities of Gold as if it were an accurate historical resource. I’m not sure why I did that–I knew the series was fiction, and I never assumed it was well-researched. Maybe I just had no practice thinking logically yet.

In any case,according to my reading, Quetzelcoatl (his Aztec name), was, according to legend, a divine king who gave his people many of their cultural practices (including the recipe for guacamole). Eventually, his downfall was engineered by a rival divine figure, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzelcoatl abandoned his kingdom, sailing away on a boat made of snakes. Before he left, he promised to return when his people needed him. Please don’t quote any of this, as I haven’t read anything on the subject in 30 years.

In my story, Feathered Serpent (a common translation of the name Quetzelcoatl), was an entirely human person who was born with birth defects that made him look vaguely feathered. The people of his culture take this as a sign that he is an incarnate god. Although in this society the new monarch is elected by the nobles, not appointed by the previous monarchy (think how the succession of the Pope works), this funny-looking boy is declared the heir to the throne because of his supposed divine status.

The boy grows up insisting that he is not divine, but few believe him. He is orphaned as a baby and raised largely by palace servants, so he is chronically lonely. He’s also brilliant, with rather startling gifts in science, engineering, and public speaking. He’s somewhat melancholy, but an unquestionably good person. From childhood, his best friends are a commoner girl who calls him on his self-pity and self-involvement, and his science tutor, Oeli, who is not that much older than he is (I forget the girl’s name). Both treat him as an ordinary person, which he very much needs.

He grows up to be a fantastic monarch, and also invents a lot of useful things, working in partnership with Oeli–all scientific stuff, though, no guacamole.

Eventually, the two of them invent a nuclear reactor. Shortly thereafter, Feathered Serpent realizes that his discovery could also be used to make a nuclear bomb. Full of remorse, and terrified that he might next invent something even worse, he destroys his research notes and goes into exile, sailing away alone on a boat.

After he leaves, a political rival attempts to discredit him, arguing that Feathered Serpent must have left because he raped his own daughter. The daughter, by then a young woman, denies this and she and Oeli, with difficulty, launch a successful political campaign to save Feathered Serpent’s reputation. The End.

Ok, the plot is a little thin and, in places, unbelievable. I never put very much effort into it, being much more interested in character development and world-building. I ultimately abandoned the project because I got distracted by other parts of my life. But, even in retrospect, there are aspects of the project that I see as genuinely good.

Looking back, I’m pleased by how different from our world my setting was. I set out to create a fictional society that could believably belong to the American, not the European cultural lineage–I don’t think I ever understood pre-Columbian America well enough to succeed, but at least I was approaching that part of the project with an open mind. The juxtaposition of advanced scientific knowledge with the assumption that a funny-looking kid should be made emperor because he’s obviously a god–that wasn’t sloppiness on my part. It was a deliberate exploration of the idea that different societies develop in different ways. Frankly, I think that’s pretty good for a 12-year-old.

Feathered Serpent was the first character I put together by allowing him to grow through inspiration from multiple layers of existing characters–that’s still the primary technique I use today, although now my inspirations are usually real people (the finished character doesn’t resemble the model except by coincidence). He was deep, multifaceted, and relate-able, as were several of the other characters, notably Oeli. I still believe that, given a stronger plot, these characters could have carried a successful novel.

And they may yet do so. I have not intentionally “mined” characters from my creative past, but once developed, these people tend to find their own way back into print. Most haven’t been published yet, but they are on their way.

The Meso-American project was the first appearance of many patterns that have recurred in my fiction.

  • My rather abortive attempt at research reflected a feeling that fiction ought to be based closely on fact–except for those places where the author takes leave of reality deliberately. I still have that conviction, which is why I spent almost ten years researching my first novel, To Give a Rose.
  • Feathered Serpent and Oeli are both extraordinarily intelligent people and they are also both particularly gifted in science. Obviously, I like writing about science–To Give a Rose is deeply rooted in science, as are a lot of my other projects (although the Meso-American project wasn’t). But just as much, I like writing about scientists. I also like writing about geniuses. Not all geniuses are scientists, and not all scientists are geniuses, but I’ve always been fascinated by, drawn to, both groups. I like writing about geniuses, scientists, or genius scientists. To Give a Rose follows that pattern, as does The School with No Name, as does my novel-in-progress, Ecological Memory. I never noticed this pattern until recently, but looking back, the Meso-American project started it.
  • Oeli enters the story specifically as a science teacher, although his friendship with Feathered Serpent quickly becomes one of equals. School with No Name and the novel in progress, Ecological Memory, also have relationships with science teachers at their centers. I like teachers, both personally (most of my friends are teachers, and some were even once my teachers) and creatively. Other people write about lovers or parents or best friends, but I tend to write about teachers and students. That kind of relationship is very fertile ground for me.
  • The whole story was set in a society that I made up. So is almost everything I’ve written since, to one degree or another. I don’t like writing about the “normal” world, although until recently I wasn’t aware of that preference.
  • I envisioned the book as the first of a series of inter-related novels and short stories, a form of organization I’m not sure I’d actually encountered at that point (though of course I’ve found other authors using it since–I wasn’t the first one to get the idea). The idea of placing multiple novels and short stories in the same world but not uniting them with a continuing plot or shared group of characters, still fascinates me. Ecological Memory may end up following this pattern.

The Meso-American project was the most fully-developed story that I never finished, a novel-length work for which I did all the pre-writing, as well as first drafts for most of the major scenes. Nothing else I’ve ever done was that long and got so far. The main reasons that it didn’t progress to a complete first draft were 1) that my notes and partial drafts were all hand-written and my hand-writing was illegible at the time and 2) my mind was fairly disorganized at that point in my life and not really up to writing down scenes in the order of their appearance.

Adolescence is a beast, ya know?


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Lost Stories, Part 1

I’ve had a lot of ideas for stories over the years, going back to my childhood when I first started thinking about becoming a writer. Most of those ideas never progressed to a completed story, and usually there was a good reason why they didn’t. But there were also good reasons why I started the projects in the first place—good ideas, interesting characters, and clues as to how I was developing as a writer.

And so, I’d like to share some of these almost-stories with you, beginning here, with my first attempt at real fiction.

Little Shop of Horrors with Rats

I rewrote Little Shop of Horrors as if it occurred in a community of genetically engineered, intelligent rats. Why I did so is rather a long story, and I’m not going to get into that now, except to say that I had Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, an excellent children’s novel, in mind. That my characters were rats, not humans, was entirely incidental to the story, except that it gave me a convenient excuse to set the story in a culture I made up, instead of actual 1960’s America, which I knew virtually nothing about.

I was ten.

For those who haven’t seen it, Little Shop of Horrors is about the staff of a florist shop, inexplicably trying to do business in a very bad, very poor neighborhood, coping with the sudden appearance of a rapidly growing carnivorous plant that can speak, sing, and generally take advantage of the fallible humans around it. The movie is a musical, based on a musical play, which was in turn based on a non-musical, grade B horror movie.

The musical play is a work of genius, at once an important modern morality play and a silly wink at its own silly premise. The musical movie is a much simpler beast, essentially a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, but still fun to watch. For reasons unknown and probably unknowable, I was obsessed with that movie for a good couple of years and decided to write what I now know is properly called fan fiction.

My story had essentially the same plot as the movie, all the same main characters, and even the same musical structure—while I wrote new songs, each one corresponded to a song in the movie. I added a few extra scenes, removed some minor scenes, and removed the “Greek chorus” girl group entirely (it seemed superfluous to me at the time. Now I know better). I made very few deliberate changes, but quite a lot of accidental ones. In my version, there is no drug addiction, no domestic violence (the Dentist is merely a vaguely no-good boyfriend), no deep ethical questions, no sexual posturing, no ethnic stereotypes, and no complex emotional wounds. All of the above is in the movie, but it had gone right over my head.

I was ten.

The most interesting deliberate change that I made was to the character of Audrey, the female lead (the plant is named Audrey Two, and has a male persona). In all the official versions, she is a bimbo. She is also much more than a bimbo, and there are reasons why she acts the way she does, but her complexity also went right over my head. All I saw back then was “bimbo,” and I didn’t want to write about someone like that. My Audrey was a wholly original character—playfully feminine, with a touchingly unquenchable faith in her fantasies of a better future, but intelligent, practical, and self-possessed as well.

The one verse I remember from all the songs I wrote (the lyrics are written down somewhere, though the tunes are not) is hers, from my counterpart to the movie’s “Skid Row.”

I love tomato sandwiches, tomato stews

My favorite show’s the tomato news

But the tomato crop just brings blues

‘cause I’m living in a rat hole.

Living in a rat hole.

In other words, she can’t afford to buy the fresh tomatoes she loves because she’s living in animalistic squalor. And yes, she’s actually a rat, but she knows all the awful things people say about rats aren’t true—except in her case she’s worried that maybe they are. It’s a pretty complex line.

The most important change I made was actually accidental.

In the movie, Seymour, the male protagonist, ultimately kills the plant by electrocuting it with a handy broken wire. That is, he takes advantage of rather fantastic luck, but his is still a deliberate and determined act. He embodies the archetype of the dragon-killer, the hero. In my story, there is no electric wire—my setting precluded it for various reasons. So, I had Seymour kill the plant by accidentally setting a fire while trying to get away.

My Seymour is not therefor a hero. He’s just lucky. He came into possession of the plant in the first place through luck, and got rid of it the same way. He never actually commits a deliberate act that changes his fate, even though he tries to, and wants to.

At the time I wrote the story, I was largely interested in the plant. I can’t explain why. I had little respect for, or interest in the human characters, except as foils for the being I saw as the star of the show. But the story I conceived works as a story about humans (or hyperintelligent rats), and as such, it has a very different message than the movie it was based on.

As I said, the movie is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. A poor and not very intelligent boy comes into possession of a magical plant and thereby accesses all sorts of wonderful blessings, but also a terrible danger. He then kills the plant, severs his access to the magic, and lives happily ever after with what he has left. It’s a story of luck, but also of triumph.

But my Seymour never triumphs. He and Audrey live in a world moved by forces that are simply bigger than they are. They begin powerless and, as blessings and curses alike roll over them and change their lives radically, they remain powerless. And they find love and meaning anyway. In each other, they find a little oasis of caring in a world that fundamentally doesn’t care.

That’s pretty deep, for a ten-year-old.

I wrote about three quarters of my story, then put off writing the scene where Seymour and Audrey declare their love for each other. I was uncomfortable with that scene, and put it off, then put it off again, until finally I lost the momentum of the story and got interested in something else instead. Had I completed it, I think it would have been around 12,000 words, or about twenty typed pages. As I recall, it definitely had its childish elements, and of course it was heavily dependent on other people’s creative work, but it had its original components, too, and some of them had real promise.

I wish I’d finished it.

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Printing the Unprintable. Or Not.

“Go to the unprintable,” Agustin said. “And unprint thyself.”

This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books, For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. The line exemplifies not one but two of the remarkable things Hemingway does with language in that novel.

The less obvious one is the use of thee and its related pronouns. Most people don’t know what these vintage grammatical features are for anymore—I’ve seen them used wrongly in print—but Hemingway clearly did know, and his use of them is the clearest hint of the most linguistically brilliant aspect of the book; he uses English to write in Spanish.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in Spain, among people who either do not know English at all, or who are bilingual and thinking mostly in Spanish. And yet the book was written for potentially monolingual English-speakers. Hemingway therefore wrote in English, but in such a way as to give a flavor of Spanish. He does it in the expected way, by salting the pages with a few Spanish words and phrases, and he does it in the brilliant way, by using English cognates of Spanish words and a slightly altered phrase structure to approximate the vocabulary and patterns of the other language. The result is an earthy elegance of speech English usually doesn’t have.

Thee, thou, thy, and thine are used by Hemingway to stand in for the Spanish informal singular pronouns. In Spanish, which set of pronouns you use signals the kind of relationship you have with the other person. You use the informal set when speaking to friends, children, or people of lower social status than yourself. You use the formal set in professional contexts, to speak to strangers, or to address people of higher status. It’s a distinction we English-speakers can no longer make–but we could until recently.

Thee, thou, and thy and thine were the informal, singular pronouns of English.

(The English and Spanish pronoun systems are not identical; Spanish has the formal/informal distinction in both singular and plural, except in Mexico, where the formal plural is missing, whereas English only had it in the singular)

The other reason I like the quote I opened with is, of course, the lovely ridiculousness of “unprint thyself.” We know what Agustin is really saying. I’m not going to print it, either, not today.

In 1940, when For Whom the Bell Tolls was originally published, the F-word and its variously four-lettered colleagues may literally have been unprintable. Certainly, rendering them literally on the page would have made the novel a very different book, for a very much smaller audience. How do you write about characters cursing when you are not free to use the words yourself?

Hemingway’s solution isn’t the only one available. You can simply pretend that people like your characters don’t curse, writing as if in a parallel and PG universe. Or, you can use narration to refer to what you can’t quote, as Robert Louis Stevenson did in Treasure Island. Rendered in such a style, our Hemingway quote becomes “Go away,” Agustin said, with a cheerfully filthy oath.

Hemingway actually uses Stevenson’s solution, too, in some places. In other passages he uses printable synonyms, such as befoul, besmirch, or muck, but by inserting words like unprintable or obscenity in their grammatically correct places (“Go and obscenity thyself”) he achieves something at once clear, elegant, and humorous.

Of course, were he writing today, Hemingway would have had no obvious reason not to simply print the unprintable. The book could have been filled with four-letter words of Saxon derivation standing in for the wealth of intricate crudeness that apparently exists in Spanish. Why not?

Except that the book would then have felt heavy and blunt to read. Those words are unpleasant–that is the whole point. When a curse word ceases to be unpleasant, it ceases to be a curse word and is replaced by something else. Granted, sometimes unpleasant words are useful, necessary, even, to capture the ugly unpleasantness of a character or a situation. Some stories should feel gritty and harsh.

But must they all?

For Whom the Bell Tolls is about a grandly tragic situation, a place and time where many people were trying very hard to do the right thing and yet did awful things, while awful things were done to them. It’s entirely understandable that these characters use foul language quite often.

And yet the story is often lovely, full of the scent of a pine forest, the dedication of the idealistic, and the clean silence of falling snow. That lyric loveliness sharpens the tragedy. Crudeness, crudely printed, would have dulled it, rendered it cynical and ugly.

There is an argument to be made for not cursing, even if we can.

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Let’s Write About Sex. Or Not

Last time I talked about Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel, a book whose dedication to scientifically accurate detail was very much an inspiration for my writing. But the elephant (or, if you prefer, the panicked pachyderm) in the room with that book is its sequels, which are full of sex.

Lurid, graphic sex, with much throbbing manhood. Kind of difficult, for a series one might otherwise recommend to older children.

A few months ago, I was discussing these books with my sister, who called them “smut” and said that the sex scenes dehumanize the characters. She may be right. In fact, as I’ve developed as a reader (and as a writer), I’ve come to dislike Auel’s sex scenes to the point that I actually skip them. I’d never thought about why before, but my sister is right–they do seem like an invasion of the characters’ privacy.

But do all literary depictions of sex dehumanize?

My sister might say yes, but I do not have the same negative reactions to most sex scenes in novels—and, on the few occasions I’ve read actual smut, pornographic writing intended primarily to titillate, I haven’t reacted negatively, either. I’m not sure that pornography itself is actually a good thing, but it doesn’t produce the odd sense of invasion.

On reflection, I believe that Auel’s sex writing fails because it is smut, and yet is embedded within a novel, thus forcing the same characters into two mutually exclusive literary styles–the strength of good fiction lies in the emotional realism of its characters, while the whole point of porn is often its lack of emotional realism. Christian Grey would be a horrible boyfriend in real life, but his fans enjoy pretending otherwise.

Jean M. Auel makes her characters deeply and humanly real, and then dehumanizes them by putting them in sex scenes where nobody needs to communicate or ever does anything awkward or wrong, and everybody always has Earth-shattering, simultaneous orgasms. And it’s painful to see characters I’ve come to care about being used in that way.

It is possible to write about sex in an emotionally realistic way that serves character development, theme advancement, and plot—that follows, in other words, the same rules that apply to all other kinds of scenes in good fiction writing. And just as all other scenes should be engaging and evocative, so should these.

Non-smut sex writing, in other words, should still be hot.

My book, To Give a Rose, does include sex scenes. I suppose they’re quite tame by general standards. Only in one scene is it even possible to tell what position the characters are using, but I’m not entirely comfortable writing about sex, so even admitting to the existence of this scene feels very risqué to me (and my mother has read that scene—Ack!). I wrote the scenes, despite feeling a little uncomfortable, because I wanted to use the portrayal of sex to say something about life outside of humanity.

As humans, we segregate different types of experience. Not only do we confine certain activities to certain designated circumstances, but to varying degrees we ignore the existence of these activities while we are in other circumstances. For example, not only would you not take a crap in the middle of the dining room, you wouldn’t even talk about feces at dinner (or, even if you would, you know it’s frowned upon). We divide our experience so thoroughly and so rigorously, that when a child or animal ignores the boundary it can seem almost miraculous, in a gross sort of way. Almost as if there is a physical law against, say, sex in the middle of a dirt road at noon.

To watch a pair of dogs flout that law is almost as odd as seeing them levitate.

My foot-ape characters lack this mental segregation, and in this way they are animals. For them, sex is an ordinary activity, no different from anything else they do. They do not hide it (unless they fear someone else might interfere), nor do they call attention to it. Each moment simply contains what it contains, and in that sense they experience life more directly than we do.

I wrote about their sex lives deliberately in order to evoke that directness—no decorous fading to black, no fascinated focus on throbbing detail, just a moment that happens to feel erotic to some of the people experiencing it.

My second book will have no sex at all, for the simple reason that the main characters (who are human) are not sexually active during the story. Or, at least the male protagonist is not—he’s monogamous, and his partner is elsewhere. The female protagonist might hook up with someone at some point, but if she does it’s irrelevant to the plot, so there’s no mention of it.

But I’m also working on a novella about that male protagonist and his wife. And they do have sex “on camera,” so to speak. Except that, in contrast to Rose, here I do “fade to black.” The scene proceeds only to the point where it is clear they are going to have sex—we see kissing, even some undressing, and at least once some naked cuddling afterwards, but the actual hanky-panky is out of view. Why?

At first I thought it was because I modeled this man on real people whose sex lives I don’t want to know about—but the same thing is true of two of the foot-apes who get sexy scenes in Rose. Using my sister’s comment as food for thought, I’ve realized that the real reason is that, were I to show these humans actually coupling, the result would be smut.

There was a reason for the sex in Rose. For the reader to watch Semana and Sevin copulate supports and furthers the themes and objectives of the book. Andy and Ale (her name is pronounced “Ally;” it’s short for Alejandra) bear no such burden because they are human and most readers already know how humans have sex, more or less. I include their initiation of sex in the novella because I want to establish that these people are flirty and passionate with each other despite their advanced age and their well-established marriage. I also wanted to show how sex can function in a marriage as a medium of communication and expression. None of that requires knowing what Andy’s favorite position is, or who puts whose body-parts where and when.

I’ve read books with sex scenes as graphic and intimate as Auel’s that didn’t seem disrespectful of the characters. But in every case I can think of, the sex served a purpose that would not be served as well by anything less. For example, in The Lightening Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie, there is a quite graphic scene between the protagonist, Laura, and her boyfriend. The way she communicates what she wants, how she responds to him, and how she feels and thinks during the sex act all show the reader something important about the relationship and about her. Had Magendie chosen to fade the scene to black after it became clear sex was immanent, we wouldn’t have seen any of that. The scene is uncomfortable to read, not because the characters are dehumanized, but because of their terrible and flawed humanity. Magendie was right to reveal them so. The sex scene works.

To take a sex scene further than what serves the story is bad craft for a writer, since a major part of the discipline of writing is to remove anything from a draft that does not actually serve a purpose. In this sense, sex writing is no different than any other kind of writing—unless the sex itself is the point of the piece. And then you have smut.


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Thoughts on Clan of the Cave Bear

Yesterday, I overheard two strangers talking in a parking lot.

“….there’s this group of Neanderthals, and they take in a young Cro-Magnon girl, and….”

And right away I knew what they were talking about. Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel. Half my adolescence was wrapped up in that book and its sequels.

It’s a good book for an adolescent, and because it’s fiction about an extinct group of hominids, my book, To Give a Rose, is inevitably compared to it—a comparison I find both flattering and a little irritating, given that the two books also have important differences. And I’ve been meaning to talk about my old friend—this book about Neanderthals—for a while.

Maybe that overheard conversation in the parking lot was my signal that it’s time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what genre Rose might belong to, what group of readers might like it, and where those readers might be. I hadn’t thought about any of that while I was writing, which is probably better from a creative perspective, but I find I need to switch gears, now, and figure these things out. Rose isn’t a genre book—it’s not sci-fi, romance, mystery, or anything like that, nor does it fit squarely into any of the more respectable literary categories, like historical fiction or women’s literature. It’s not quite normal (neither am I).

But, again, like me, it’s not altogether without kin.

There is a small but growing body of fiction rooted firmly in the life sciences. Some of it is speculative, as Rose is, while some is not. All of it might logically be called science fiction or science literature, except that both names have already been taken by quite different beasts. As far as I know, the group has no name, and I have been finding its members quite by accident.

In no particular order, here are those I am currently aware of:

There are debatable titles, too–2002: A Space Odyssey, for its introductory section on human evolution; A Wild Life, which is about sasquatches, among other things; My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who runs away to live in the woods; or Kira, a Golden Eagle, which is simply about an eagle…the list goes on, and we could argue about which might be included and which not and why.

My point is that my book is not alone. If I have time and energy, I’ll post about each of the others, by way of tribute and by way of supporting my fellow authors.

But I’m starting with Clan of the Cave Bear.

After all that, it turns out that my review of Cave Bear has to be somewhat mixed. I’m ok with that, as the book’s reputation has already been made. I won’t hurt it any with some mild and respectful criticism.

The story starts with an orphaned girl of our own species who is adopted by a group of Neanderthals, he Clan, as they call themselves. They raise her, and the conflicts and commonality between her type of humanity and theirs drive the plot (which I won’t give away). The descriptions of their world are rich and detailed, as are the descriptions of the Clan way of life—tool-making, cooking, hunting, medicine, parts of the book read almost like a manual. It’s hard to accept that the author has never actually been to Ice Age Europe. That the book was researched in incredible depth cannot be doubted.

In one scene they use a particular plant, elecampane, to treat some of the symptoms of tuberculosis. I’ve used the same plant to treat myself for both bronchitis and pneumonia. It works.

Obviously, some of Auel’s vision is guesswork. There are no living Neanderthals left to consult, among other challenges. Some of Auel’s guesses are appealing but doubtful, but some seem startlingly prescient. She writes about the two types of human hybridizing. At one point a Clan member, who is a gifted psychic, comments that such hybrids are the Clan’s “only children,” meaning that they would survive after his people went extinct. That some modern humans are, in fact, hybrids was a radical and dubious idea when Clan of the Cave Bear was published, but genetic analysis has since proven it beyond doubt.

The Neanderthal fraction is never large, but it is largest in Southern Europeans. As an Italian-American myself, I am proud to say I am part Clan.

That Neanderthals were human, simply a different kind of human, is the most important part of Jean M. Auel’s vision. Even if the specifics of her guesses about how their minds worked are wrong, she is not wrong about their overall humanity—there is some debate, but many researchers have designated Neanderthals Homo sapiens neandertalis, while we are Homo sapiens sapiens. That is, we’re actually members of the same species, just different subspecies. Taxonomy aside, Neanderthals existed as a group for a lot longer than we have so far, and their brains were larger than ours are. While they left behind much simpler tools and very little art, the remains of their cultural sites suggest some kind of religion. They cared for their ill and disabled members and they buried their dead with ceremony—and with flowers.

The idea of the stupid, grunting cave man is wrong, based on incomplete and outdated evidence and on the assumption, now known to be incorrect, that since Neanderthals had more prominent jaws and lower foreheads than we do, that they must be the “missing link.” They’re not. We didn’t evolve from them, our peoples both evolved from a common ancestor. But the old idea is persistent. Jean M. Auel offers a different, more accurate vision.

She champions the idea that there is more than one way to be intelligent, more than one way to be human.

So, why did I say that my review can’t be all-glowing? It’s because, frankly, Jean M. Auel is better at creating worlds and characters than at writing about them. Great books get better with each subsequent reading—hers get worse.

On the first go-through, especially if you’re an adolescent, what jumps out is the fullness and complexity of the world, the believability and relatability of the characters. You can almost smell the Pleistocene. You put the book down for a moment and expect to see a woolly mammoth walk by. It’s the sort of book you want to go back to, read again so you can re-experience that world.

But when you do, especially if you’ve become a writer in the meantime, you start to notice problems.

The same phrases get recycled over and over, and some of those phrases are hokey—a mammoth hunt invariably features “panicked pachyderms,” for example. There are weird lapses in language, such as when an apprentice medicine woman refers to sex as “a man putting his organ in the place where babies come from.” This girl is being trained to treat tuberculosis, among other ailments, but doesn’t know a word for “vagina”? And characters don’t always react to events in believable ways, as when one is raped repeatedly for months on end and never develops any sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Eventually, these lapses and others start to get distracting.

Some of these problems aren’t as obvious in this first book in the series (in the sequels there are more opportunities for the panicking of pachyderms), but they do seem to be endemic to Auel’s writing style.

But where she’s good, in world-building and in making characters from a very different world three-dimensional and relatable, there’s no one better.

When people suggest that Rose is like Cave Bear, my reflexive response is generally NO. Australopithecus afarensis was a very different species, Pliocene Africa was a very different place, my themes are totally different and I, as an author, am fully capable of using the word vagina where appropriate.

But in creating a plausible and vivid vision of a vanished world (honestly, all that alliteration is accidental), I can only hope I did as well as Jean M. Auel. She set the bar. And it was her work I had in mind when I decided what I wanted to do.

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