Living Safely in a Science Fiction Novel

SaturnI grew up reading science fiction, inspired by my father’s love of the genre and my own burning fascination with other planets. I couldn’t wait for commercial space travel (Hello 2001 A Space Oydessy), convenient time travel (even if it required a DeLorean), and, yes, Jetson style flying cars. The future looked good!

ETAs I aged and my tastes matured, I wandered into the darker corners of the speculative fiction world. First contact stories ranged from the benign E.T. to the terrifying Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Artificial intelligence helped the human race  (I, Robot) or destroyed it (Terminator movies.)

An odd thing occurred to me this morning. If you live long enough (and I have) you are going to eventually end up living in a science fiction novel. You just don’t get to choose which one.

Ah, it could have been cloning (Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.) Or we could have spontaneously developed telepathy (More Than Human.) It could have been an ecological disaster. (Actually, it still might be.)  There were so many options.

Which one did we get?

The global pandemic one. Sheeesh. It would not have been my first choice.

last shipThe nice thing about novels is all the boring stuff happens fast or behind the scenes. Most time is taken up by people doing something about the situation. There is a nice story arc, and whether all ends well, or a few key heroes survive, or we all get wiped out  — something happens.

The problem with living through the real-life version is that it is incredibly slow and confusing and no one has much faith anything is changing. It’s not nearly as exciting to live in a time of crisis as one would think.

But here we are, each writing our own story every day.  It’s no action-packed thriller, that’s for sure, and we have to face the fact that months may get condensed into a single sentence.

“She ate a disgusting number of cookies for dinner each night.”

But there will be an end, because the only thing we can count on is change, even when it is slow and we don’t see it coming.

Get ready for the next book in the series. The possibilities are endless.

safely insong new day(Yes, the title of this post was inspired by “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” and I recommend the novel. It will give you something new to do while you eat those cookies for dinner. You might also want to check out this year’s Nebula-award-winning best novel “A Song for a New Day,” about a culture designed to survive an onslaught of new viruses. It was written just before covid-19 hit.)

 

And that’s the way it was, June 15, 1984

I would be an excellent liar. Not of the small, occasional-lie type, but of the grand, that-story-is-so-amazing-she-couldn’t-possibly-have-made-it-up type. After all, intricate plots and multi-faceted characters are my strength as a writer, and if you wanted to turn a small country’s propaganda machine over to me, I know I could do you proud.

That is why I almost never lie. Falsehoods scare me. And, in the way of those who abhor people who flaunt the very faults they work so hard to control, I hate liars. I am particularity outraged by grandiose, habitual liars who create a make-believe world and foist it on others as truth. How dare they?

You probably already know what I think of our president, so I won’t go there.

Yet, there are two areas where lies and reality do blur for me. One is one right here in my blogs. The other is in my books.

I write my blogs under my own name and in first person, as though I am presenting you with hard facts. And I often am. But I view my posts as a creative endeavor, too, and I allow myself a little poetic license to make a point. Particulars can be omitted, events can be exaggerated, and timing can be altered to provide a narrative that is more succinct and entertaining. I want you start the post, I want you to finish it, and I want you to understand what I am trying to say. So reality gets a little air brushing. I figure that you are fine with it.

I write my books as fiction, and they mostly are. Like many writers, though, I have used my own experiences to craft parts of my stories. The Zeitman family looks a lot like my own, at least on the surface, and some odd details, like the family’s favorite meal of eggplant parmesan, were lifted directly out of my own life. I mean, why bother making up another entree?

I’m now finishing my first rewrite of book six (and last) in the Zeitman family stories, and am having to revisit some of the events I borrowed from my own life and then bent and shaped to meet the needs of my novels. I’m discovering something interesting. My own real memories have become shaded by the altered version that I’ve told so many times in my books. Yikes.

So here is the truth.

June 15, 1984 at 4:17 a.m. I gave birth to my first child.

About a month earlier (not the night before), I had a strange experience while falling asleep. I felt and kind of heard what appeared to be my baby’s thoughts. It lasted a few seconds. It was very odd. I have never experienced anything like it again. I have no way of knowing whether it was real or imagined.

I did make my first presentation to the president of my company the day I went into labor, and he did make an uncomfortable joke about how having sex sets off childbirth. He was right, sexual arousal releases oxytocin, a hormone that does a lot of things, including induce labor. I knew what he was talking about at the time he said it, but was willing to bet that most of the men in the room did not, even though of course they laughed like they did.

There was no gathering in the break room after the presentation, and no horrible joke told about how a busload of children of color going off a bridge “was a start”. That joke was told by a geologist at another function some months later. I was every bit as stunned and horrified as my character, and made the same attempt at an objection that she did. I got the same reaction. Everyone acted like I’d farted loudly and looked away and said nothing. This was 1984.

Thirty-three years ago I experienced one of the most significant days in my life. Yet the events of it now blend into the day Lola Zeitman gave birth to Zane. I feel like I have lost something of my own, and telling you the truth is my way of trying to regain it.

I also have a better understanding of why lies scare me and why I work so hard to avoid them. Our memories are tied to the truth. The liar, and those who hear the lie, find their recollections begin to blur, and after awhile, there is no true memory. What a horrible thing to lose.

Unless, of course, there are tapes. I used to think that the idea of having videotapes of anything and everything was the very definition of an Orwellian nightmare. Now, I wonder if a recording of an event isn’t the only way to preserve it, unshaded by forgetfulness and wishful thinking and pride.

Maybe the universe is keeping a video of my whole life; the good and bad and the embarrassing and the exhilarating. Wouldn’t that be nice? Maybe I could get to watch those tapes some day, and relive each moment the way it really happened.

I like the idea. Lordy, I hope there are tapes.

(For more segments about June days from long ago, see That’s the Way It Was June 10, 1947, June 18, 1972, June 28, 1888, and June 30, 1940.)

Worry about those you love and write about what you know

I’m not telepathic, but sometimes I pretend that I am.

For me, it’s more than an entertaining daydream. The main hero of the novel I am finishing is a telepath, and the more I see the world through her eyes, the better I can tell her story.

Some days, I’m ready to improve the world with my psychic skills. If I could just know what my congressman’s aide was really thinking, could I convince him to recommend supporting this legislation to his boss? And then it might pass in the House by one vote? And then, and then, the course of the entire world might change?

Other days, I sink into banal curiosity. Hmmm. That man looks interesting. I wonder what he’s thinking.

But more often than not, me-the-pretend-telepath pretty much acts like me, which is a person who tends to worry about all sorts of things. The crux of the problem is that I’ve always had a what-if sort of mind. What if the engines on your boat quit? What if the subway isn’t running? What if the wind blows that thing over? I make up scenarios the way some people flirt, or snack, or scratch themselves. It’s just what I do.

The result is that I tend to be better prepared than most, and if you’re traveling with me you might appreciate that. The downside, as you might guess, is that I can be a pain in the ass.

Every so often someone attempts to correct my personality by telling me to relax.This is an important aside to those of you who have friends or family like me. “Relax” and “calm down” are not useful instructions to give to a worrier. In fact, they are probably not useful to anyone.

Last week, someone surprised me by finding the perfect thing to say instead.

It was April and I was visiting Boston. I had ignored weather reports of possible snow because, well, for once I was trying not to be that person who brings the down parka because of a 40 per cent chance. So I had on leaky tennis shoes with soaked cotton socks, a coat with a broken zipper, and no other cold weather or rain gear. It was pelting wet sleet and the temperature was dropping  as the sun set. Yes, I had succeeded at not over-preparing for the situation.

I did tell you this was April, right? Oh, and we were about to embark on a pub crawl. We were carrying stuffed animals we had just bought at the science museum because they were on sale and now mine was getting soaked, but that was a minor problem. I was cold and wet and miserable most of all because this never happens to me. I’m the one you can count on to pull three collapsible umbrellas out of my purse to help everyone else. I have had very little practice at being the doofus who thought everything was going to be fine, and I learned that it isn’t a role I enjoy.

So I went and stood under a one foot overhang and tried not to cry. Then, someone in my party walked up and did something magic. He said –

“What one thing can I do to help you?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“Okay I’ll pick one. Take either my hat or my scarf.”

“No, I can’t do that. You brought them both, you should have them.”

He ignored me and put his hat on my head. Normally that would have been annoying but, you know, the hat was really warm and dry in the inside.

“Okay, just the hat.”

The hat worked pretty well. A little comfort can sometimes make a big difference and I calmed down without anybody telling me to. Go figure. We had a great time visiting bars and drinking beer and hearing stories about Samuel Adams that may or may not have been partially true and the next day the sun came out and all was well. I’ve noticed that tends to happen.

I got two things out of the experience. One was a better sense of what to say the next time I’m with someone who needs to get a grip. “What one thing could I do to make it better?” is a brilliant question.

The other? I’m better off being me. I turns out that preparing for the scenarios I imagine doesn’t bring me down or keep me from enjoying myself. It’s my own way of flowing through life. Like any other personality trait, there is such a thing as too much. But in my case, there is also too little. I’m fine like I am.

Ditto for my ongoing concern about those I love. I don’t get to drive them crazy, but I do get to love them in my own way.

When I got home, I wrote the following scene in my book. My protagonist Lola is boarding a flight to Antarctica, fleeing all sorts of evil and mayhem. But when she gets a few minutes, she worries about the others in her family, and she uses her telepathy to check in on them. It’s what I would do if I was a telepath.

They had been warned that the flight would be long, cold and uncomfortable, and had been given ear plugs for the noise and medication that would calm their stomachs and make them drowsy. Alex and Maurice took their pills without hesitation, but Lola held off. She hadn’t had an awake minute to herself in days, and she just wanted to savor the solitude brought on by the engine noise as she checked in on the rest of the family.

She squirmed in the thick parka and uncomfortable jump seat buckle, but finally managed to settle in well enough to relax. She found her two daughters and friend Vanida sipping rum drinks on a beach in Brazil. What? Where? And wasn’t it kind of early in the day for rum drinks? Well, at least they were safe. But what were they doing there? She got that they were part of a plan to rescue Zane and Nell and Yuden. Not a plan, the plan, the one that Maurice and Alex were not telling her about and which was going to happen tonight. Tonight?

That meant she better leave this alone. She tiptoed back into her own mind and let her consciousness settle back into the rough vibrations of the ride.

What about Xuha? Was he okay? Eggs. She smelled eggs. Xuha had ordered a late room service breakfast and at this moment he was delighted with the sunny side up concoction into which he was dipping his toast. Okay. What about Zane? He was being served food as well, by a friendly older man who was, oh my, the co-pilot of the private aircraft which Zane had boarded a few hours ago which would ultimately take him to New York.

And why was he going to New York? On a private jet? He wasn’t thinking about that right now. She felt her son recline into the plush, roomy seat and sip his very hot, very tasty coffee, which he was enjoying a great deal.

Lola sighed and reach a heavily gloved hand into the knapsack her hosts had given her. She took a sip of her water and found one of the energy bars they’d provided for the trip. She tore the wrapper open and chewed the sawdust-like contents, wishing she had eggs and hot coffee. Maybe even coffee and rum. Reluctantly she took one of the airsickness tablets and swallowed it. With any luck she wouldn’t wake up for another thousand miles.

(For a companion post see Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know. For more excerpts from my new novel visit Am I sure I’m Sherrie?, Point of View, and The Amazing Things I Get to Do.)