NGC_4414_(NASA-med)Science fiction has never been my favorite genre. Not that I didn’t get a kick out of reading or watching fanciful space travel stuff and freaking out over invading aliens when I was a kid, but my main rap against it was that it didn’t try hard enough to be real. By definition, all fiction is unreal, but for me a novel or movie works best when it comes close enough to recognizable real life to allow for the willing suspension of disbelief. I’m not denying that the Star Wars and Star Trek movies are fun to watch and sometimes even insightful about the human condition. But if space travel is ever to be real, we must seriously question if and how these things can be done. We can’t build spaceships on current models that can accelerate to “warp light speed.” Never will we venture way out yonder to find human-like creatures populating galaxy after galaxy, speaking perfect English. When it comes to the “war” part of Star Wars, we will probably never develop an arsenal fearsome enough to make whole worlds explode at the push of a button. Special effects don’t add up to reality.

Lately, however, the genre has been expanding with the growing popularity of what we might call scientific science fiction. Movies like Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) push the edges of what is theoretically possible in space travel. The ordinary mind boggles at the concepts of theoretical physics and engineering feats that must be mastered to make these space forays possible. By “ordinary mind” I mean one like my own, lacking in scientific skills but greatly respectful of science. Yet our long-term survival as a species may depend on coming to grips with it all.

Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, Contact, posited the idea of wormholes as a means of feasible space travel. A wormhole, if real, might enable us to defy the limitations imposed on us by relativity and gravity. These blips in time and space might allow for deep-space travel that could be completed within reasonable timeframes. One of Sagan’s scientific pursuits throughout his career was the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The scientist-heroine of his story, Eleanor Arroway, receives the signal from space that Sagan dreamed of finding himself. It’s a repeating message composed of prime numbers, presumed to be the universal language of mathematics. The message, once fully decoded, reveals a blueprint for building a spaceship that can make use of a wormhole. Plenty of Earthlings are skeptical of the discovery. Who’s to say these aliens aren’t evil and diabolical, intent on luring us to our doom? Sagan’s theory was that a highly technical society capable of sending such a message must have passed some threshold of survival. The aliens had evidently developed nuclear and every other form of energy without destroying themselves in the process. That could only mean that they had learned, somehow, to live peaceably among themselves. They sensed that we were on the precipice, flirting with self-destruction, so they reached out.

Interstellar borrows the wormhole concept. According to side notes in the Kindle version of the movie, these ideas were developed by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. “Based on warped space-time,” Dr. Thorne says, “the most exotic events in the universe suddenly becoming accessible to humans.” By contrast, The Martian seems tantalizingly close to present-day reality. We have already sent numerous unmanned probes to the red planet, and manned missions are on the drawing board. A proposed one-way trip is drawing plenty of applicants, despite the prospect of never returning home. NASA has a working prototype of the Mars Launcher Habitat used in the movie. The buried Pathfinder lander that figures in the story is an actual spacecraft built by NASA in the 1990s. One of the launches shown in the movie is actual footage of the Mars Science Laboratory launch.

The Martian isn’t about a one-way trip. On the contrary, its travelers hope to return to Earth to be welcomed back and lauded by their fellow citizens. The astronauts aboard the Hermes spacecraft mourn a crew member, Mark Watney, whom they had to leave behind after a catastrophic explosion apparently killed him. When they are informed that against all odds, he survived the incident, they return to rescue him, adding over 500 days to their mission.

The Martian is about adventure and exploration, however perilous. Interstellar, by contrast, is about desperation. The opening scenes show Earth in peril, with the crops dying, the air polluted, and water in short supply. It’s all too easy to believe this is an accurate snapshot of earth in coming decades. The need to escape this hellhole is urgent. Schools in these end days are training more farmers than engineers, but agriculture is still failing. They’re also teaching hopelessness, denying kids not only a future but rewriting history to deny that men ever walked on the moon.

A young girl, Murphy, feels haunted by a ghost in her bedroom. Her father, Cooper, an engineer who is also a pilot, shares her feeling that this apparition, whatever it is, has the answers. By taking a scientific rather than a mystical view of it, they discover a message leading to a facility where NASA scientists are working on the problem of human survival. There are all sorts of theories, problems, and equations that must be worked out. Gravity anomalies have been detected for the past 50 years, they say, but can an anomaly actually defy gravity? A possible wormhole has been detected near Saturn, a disturbance in space-time that might allow escape to another galaxy. Whoever is sending these messages must live in five dimensions, with a different conception of time than humans have. Can those of us limited to three dimensions ever understand them? Will humans ever be able to see into a black hole and uncover its mysteries? A space station has been built, based partly on the current International Space Station, but dependent on gravitational anomalies and a “mishmash of technologies.” A stash of fertilized eggs on board represents the only glimmer of hope.

Both movies have a lot to say about human emotions, which both help and hinder the fight for survival. “We must begin to think as a species, not as individuals,” declares the physicist who sends Cooper on his outer space mission, lying to him in the process. He believes he’s sending Cooper to colonize another planet, never to return. He can’t allow his true opinion of the mission to be known, because Cooper’s instincts as a parent would never allow him to undertake it if he believed it meant leaving his children and all the children of earth behind to starve. During the mission, one of Cooper’s colleagues risks everything by advocating colonization of a planet that is obviously an inferior choice. She’s in search of the man who explored it previously, who might still be alive, although it seems unlikely. Maybe, she declares, her love for him is a powerful force beyond human understanding, one she shouldn’t be expected to resist.

The Martian is more optimistic about present-day humanity than Interstellar. When Mark Watney is rescued and brought back to Earth, he lectures astronauts in training about the perilous life they have chosen. The fear and possibility of death will be close and constant, since outer space is cold and stark and does not cooperate with humanity. Only if they solve all the problems that come their way will they get to go home. That’s how Watney finally gets home—by solving one practical problem after another, against terrible odds, aided by a sense of humor. He knows his food rations won’t last long enough, so he must grow his own potatoes. “Luckily, I’m a botanist.” When this crop is destroyed in an unexpected mishap, he needs to create a source of water to prepare more soil. He knows water can be created by lighting up hydrogen, a prohibitively dangerous process but the only one available. So is digging up a radioactive energy source that was buried on a previous mission and remains deadly. At every step, he says he must “science the shit out of this.” A hundred different hazards could kill him, including the boring disco music collection that the commander of the mission left behind.

When the problems seem insurmountable, and death seems all but certain, Mark passes on a message to his parents: if he perishes, he did it for something big and beautiful. He didn’t do it because it was a choice between exploring new worlds and dying out as a species, as in Interstellar. He did it for curiosity, a love of learning, and the spirit of exploration, human traits that are probably just as essential to survival as food, water, and oxygen.

How Not To Write Best Sellers

February 26, 2016

thNobody needs to be told by now that self-publishing and marketing novels is no picnic. We all knew that from the start. Some of us have been at it for more than a decade now, and it hasn’t gotten much easier. True, there is far more acceptance for our efforts than there was at first, and that’s a great development. The drawback to that, of course, is that there’s also far more competition.

The trouble with enduring truisms like “it’s no picnic” and “it never gets easier” is that there are some indie authors who are making it look easy. Although it’s still like winning the lottery, there are a handful among us who’ve mastered the art of the self-published best-seller.

How do they do it? It’s not that they have more time than the rest of us, because many are encumbered with jobs and families like “ordinary” people. It helps if the jobs are flexible and the families are understanding, but that isn’t always the case. Some of these self-sustaining authors are generous enough to explain their methods on KindleBoards and other sites. What they do requires writing fast, and writing a lot of books, often in a series. These hot-shots seem to have enough physical stamina to stay up all night if they have to in order to meet some self-imposed goal, possibly one book every two months. I’d have to guess that they’re decades younger than I am, as well as much more into currently hot genres like zombies, sci-fi, apocalyptic, and historical romance. If they’re particularly lucky or prescient, they hit on a winning formula the first time, something involving characters or a fantasy world so compelling that it only needs to be tweaked slightly in order to churn out numerous sequels. They build up a fan base that is enthusiastic enough to forgive a lack of arduous editing. That is not to suggest that just because these books are done fast means they aren’t good. If they weren’t serving a need for readers, they wouldn’t sell.

Even those authors who are making real money with their ventures are not easily satisfied. I come across plenty on the Boards who complain that they “only” sell a hundred or so a month, a result which sounds mighty good to me. In fact, selling 1,000 a year would be a pretty good result for self-publishing. It would enable most authors to cover the investment they made in advertising and printing, with maybe coffee money left over. The problem for the truly ambitious is that it’s not a living. The real measure of success among the aspiring big sellers is to be able to quit their day jobs. Or better yet, attract the notice of one of those traditional publishers who have proven themselves perfectly capable of swooping in to reap the benefits of an indie author’s preliminary hard work.

How do you pursue goals like this if your writing style doesn’t lend itself to speed? You probably can’t. I’ve always preferred mainstream fiction to genre fiction, and I like it to be “literary.” My favorite novels take their time unfolding, and emphasize character development over action. That’s what I try to emulate. I was greeted with incredulity on the Boards when I said I had taken three to four years to write each of my novels. They have numerous characters and complex plots that hopefully fall into place for a reader patient enough to stick with them. I’m still not good enough at writing to do it fast. I make outlines, but don’t stick to them. I run my stories piecemeal through a tough critique group. Even after I have a whole product, I reread it relentlessly and put it through several rounds of editing from outside critics.

So what’s your reward, if wealth and fame seem out of reach because you’re just too slow? It can only be the personal satisfaction of doing the best work you’re capable of, no matter how long it takes.

pile_of_booksI’ve been at this self-publishing game since 2003, when I published a novel I’d been working on for at least a decade. It’s been fun and rewarding, but not what I’d call lucrative. Luckily, I never expected money or fame. In fact, I didn’t think it was in the cards for anyone who chose self-publishing. Maybe it wasn’t, back then. But now there are enough success stories popping up every day to get any writer salivating.

I don’t begrudge anyone their success; quite the opposite. I just wonder how they do it. Some are hitting the jackpot by writing a lot of books, preferably in a series, and doing it fairly fast so as not to keep the fans waiting. I have yet to figure out how to write fast. To get it right takes me endless drafting and rewriting, followed by critiquing and editing, followed by more rewriting. And that doesn’t even include the final touches of line editing and formatting, which are best done by professionals who don’t come cheap.

In order to make anything close to a decent living in digital self-publishing (defined as the magic figure that might tempt an author to quit his day job), it seems necessary to publish a new book no less frequently than once every six months. A shorter interval between books would be even better, especially if it appears advisable to offer one or more for free in order to market the others.

So how do these hot-shot authors get so prolific? It can’t be just because they have more time than I do. I couldn’t pull off the same feat even if I wrote every day, all day. Could it have something to do with genre? Perhaps sci-fi and fantasy lend themselves more easily to rapid writing than the complicated plots and character development that my chicklit-style novels require. There’s undoubtedly a knack to keeping plots simple and improvising on proven formulas. That is not to cast doubt on the quality of such rapid-fire books. As long as they’re attracting readers, their authors are doing something right.

SorceressFantasy and science fiction are riding high these days in both books and movies. These genres seem to be outselling most others by a fair amount, and leaving mainstream works totally in the dust. Even though escapism is all the rage, I’ve never really gone for it much since outgrowing Grimm’s fairy tales and Disney cartoons. I get how tempting it is to take a break from real-world problems, but if I’m going to immerse myself in an alternate world, I prefer it to be recognizable. I guess my daily habit of perusing The Washington Post keeps me too grounded in reality. Most of the inspiration for my own writing comes from the news and my own experiences in workplaces and social settings.

So how can I embrace the unrealism that seems to give others so much pleasure … and incidentally, sells a lot of books and movies? Unfortunately, vampires and werewolves leave me cold, despite being proven gold mines and the quickest way for self-published authors to get through the traditional gates. I’d like my magic to be light and fun, not ghoulish.

Witness Pictures, the independent film company that has produced three book trailers for me, is currently churning out a fantasy web series called “Freelancers.” It claims to have a little bit of everything in the fantasy line: “a timeless realm full of magic and monsters, wizards, warriors, dungeons and dragons.” Yet it maintains some of the real-world familiarity I prefer by presenting its characters as flawed personalities who may have extraordinary talents but still need to pay their bills and get along in the workaday world.

The heroines that populate my novels don’t have much in common with the character played by young actress Caitlin Geier: “a fiery, rapier-wielding cat burglar, on the run from … well, just about everyone after stealing a mysterious artifact from a powerful sorcerer.” Compare that to my cast of office workers, aspiring journalists, sports groupies, and college students. But who knows: maybe one day I’ll figure out a way to throw a few wizards, sorceresses, and assorted monsters into my mixes. Expanding my horizons could be fun.

 

As part of an ongoing effort to relive my youth during the wild and wonderful sixties, I recently downloaded Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land to Kindle. I tried to rekindle, so to speak, the excitement that groundbreaking novel once aroused among many of my peers. Back then it seemed to tap into our youthful need to believe that a total transformation of society was possible.

Heinlein’s book wasn’t the easy read by the light of the lava lamp that I thought I remembered. I was surprised at how messy and complicated it was. Apparently, I never made a serious effort to comprehend it the first time. I owned a paperback copy which passed back and forth rather secretly between friends, as if it were a subversive document. I must have skipped the heavy themes and focused on the cool parts. A religion based on free love spoke to the wannabe hippie in me. The mantra “Thou art God” was a more empowering philosophy than any known religion offered.

How well has the book aged? I still think the mantra is good. The recognition of every other human being as divine would be a fine development for mankind. Other than that, the book let me down as a cultural document and a guide for living. The hero, Valentine Michael Smith, a human born on Mars and brought back to earth, doesn’t make a believable Messiah. His teachings are inaccessible to ordinary humans. To follow him, they had to transform themselves into Martians.

Smith resembles Jesus Christ in obvious ways. They both die at the hands of people who feel threatened by them. Their murderers are forgiven on the spot since they “know not what they do.”  But Smith’s followers don’t grieve, and that is what’s inhuman about them. Christians can’t help grieving for their Messiah. They need to believe that he rose again, or isn’t really dead, or will return. Smith will never return in the flesh, but his followers take it in unearthly stride. That’s what keeps the book in the realm of science fiction. Heinlein was a master of that genre. But I wonder: did he intend this book to be more?