atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#4191: SF musing

Thought more about Ender's Game so there'll be spoilers in here. It also led me to think about some of the elements of my SF universe, and realize how things have to work out.

The first story I ever wrote in this universe--I started writing when I was twelve--was an unendurable mishmash, exactly as you'd expect from something written by a 12-year-old. There's a whole lot of bad that you have to write before you can write the good stuff. The story was written in pencil in spiral-bound notebooks, and the first several pages have (as I recall) perished. This is not entirely a bad thing.

It was a story about a college-age kid who goes off to fight a war against aliens, and who advances rapidly through the ranks to command a battle group, and who then finishes the war by bombing the aliens' homeworld into a glassy sphere. I managed to cram a lot of nonsense into the thing (see above, "inexperienced") and it really was pretty bad. It got better as it went, as I learned how to write natural-sounding dialogue and so on. Still, from the get-go people told me I had a talent for writing, which encouraged me to continue, and through the years I spend endless hours on refining my craft.

I still want to rewrite that first story, though. The most recent rewrite that I started lo these many years ago (perhaps as much as a decade) hits all the right notes, but it's just not time for the thing to be written...and I have a feeling that if I do ever manage to write something that approximates the inchoate image of the story that's in my head, it's going to be my magnum opus.

In Ender's Game, the climactic battle with the Formic results in their world's biosphere being destroyed, and every one of them killed. Genocide, total and near-instant. There is this scene where the Big Gun is diving into the Formic homeworld's atmosphere, drone fighters swirling around it and acting like shields, clearing a path through the Formic swarm, so the ship can get a clear shot at the planet. And as I lay in bed that night, suddenly I saw the Formic defense as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save their species from destruction, and I was horrified.

The thing that makes a story into a tragedy is the inevitability of the events that transpire in it. One race of aliens in my universe has a catchphrase, "It cannot be otherwise," that encapsulates the essence of a proper tragedy. You can't avoid the outcome.

In Ender's Game there is simply no way to avoid that ending. The entire training program Ender is in is designed around winning a conflict, and winning it so decisively that there will be no further conflicts. The human war effort is predicated on the fear that the Formic want to invade, and that they'll come back in force to do so, destroying the human race in the process. There is terrible time pressure, so no one is given an opportunity to think. Even when Ender hesitates because the Formic are not acting like aggressors, he dismisses the impulse to stop and think because he thinks he's playing a wargame, and doesn't realize that a purely defensive enemy is possible. Had Ender known they were fighting real battles, the rules under which he evaluated the relative merits of his strategies would have been different, and they would have included the possibility that the Formic were not going to attack Earth again.

After the fact, of course--when he knows it wasn't just a simulation--then he realizes that in the fifty years that had passed since the Formic first came to Earth, not once had any battle with them ever started because Formic attacked humans. Humans were always the aggressors.

That first story of mine was written several years before Ender's Game was first published. Seeing the movie led me to think about that sequence where the main character ends up destroying the alien homeworld. Like a lot of my stories it's written in first person, and I realized that there isn't any good way to write that sequence in first person, not if you don't want the reader to decide that he's either delusional or evil--not when he's made a conscious decision to take the action he's taking, with full knowledge of (and intent to cause) the consequences of such action.

The rewrite of that story turns it into an autobiography of sorts, a reconstruction of the man's life from his personal logs partly written by him and partly by someone else (ghost-written, as it were). It's supposed to be both his story, and the story of the war itself (which lasts decades) and it must include the final battle.

I am, however, not hampered by the aliens. They're the clear aggressors in that war--but from their own viewpoint they are merely engaging in a preemptive war for dominance, having concluded that there isn't enough room in the galaxy for both them and humans to exist on equal footing.

I don't--or, rather, try not to--write tragedy.

The other night, I realized that I can take this sequence and turn it into a report by a board of inquiry. That nicely places the action at a remove from the character's narrative, because instead of me having to write "I did X and this is why," I can cast it in the context of "We have examined the information surrounding the events of X and we've found that the proximate causes are Y and Z, and we recommend AA and AB." Or whatever.

But what always happens to me when I start thinking about the bad guys? Their motivations and so on? They stop being bad guys. They become complex characters but they stop doing bad things, and the conflict becomes nebulous and inchoate.

...until and unless you place them at odds with the good guys in such a way that conflict is inevitable. And then you're right back at "tragedy".

All of which brings me to my present rewrite project. The main character of the flashback is vain, self-centered, egotistical, supercilious, arrogant, and manipulative. These qualities help her save a lot when her civilization collapses around her...but the collapse happens because of those qualities, because she ends up manipulating and using the wrong guy, the kind of guy who wants revenge when he realizes what she's done to him. (And when he tries to get revenge in a devilishly simple fashion, he makes a mistake of epic proportions.)

* * *

And it just occurred to me that if I spent half as much time writing as I do writing about writing, I'd probably have a dozen books ready for print. *sigh* But you can't write a good story without thinking about it, and I think best when I'm rattling the keys. That's the way of things, I suppose.

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