On July 16, I attended my 45-year Lincoln Northeast High School reunion. One hundred and ten former classmates came—not bad, this late in the day, for a class of around 600. Some were scattered too far across the country to make it, others had dropped off the radar and couldn’t be reached, and sadly a few—probably more than I know about—are no longer with us. I’ve attended every reunion since our 20th, but this is the first time I’ve gone without my wife, Cheryl, who passed away last November.
A nostalgic thread seems to connect us all to high school. We all had varying high school experiences, some good, some not so good. But even for those who thrived in high school, I doubt that it was the best, the happiest time in their lives—at least I hope not, considering they’ve been collecting life experiences for 45 years since graduation. But high school was the beginning of our adulthood—or at least our transition to adulthood—and I believe that is why we feel a special connection.
Friends and experiences we shared in high school keep drawing us back every five to 10 years to catch up and to see how much we’ve grown—and how much the world has changed around us—as we’ve followed our life’s journeys.
Here are a few things that come to mind as I think about the time that has passed since high school:
My son Sean, who will turn 21 on August 31, is a child of technology. He had his first computer when he was four—it was one of our old ones after we bought new equipment. We got our first laptop when Sean was in the third grade, and he taught me how to use it; it seems that his teacher had one, so he knew all about laptops. And throughout middle school and high school Sean did his homework on a laptop.
Today Sean has two laptops—a bigger, badder one especially built for gaming, and a standard laptop to do other things on. And he is using his smart phone, in addition to texting and going online, to catch Pokemon. We got into a discussion recently on the changes he will see over the next 45 years. He couldn’t conceive of what kind of changes there might be. What else could possibly be invented? Surely, we have reached the pinnacle of our technological capability.
I told him that our minds are too rooted in the present to conceive of what marvels the future has in store. Even science fiction writers, whose business it is to speculate about the future, missed predicting two things that define our current culture—the digital revolution and cell phones. But whatever technological advancements may come over the next 45 years will be seriously cool. Sean will see them, and I’d like to see them, too, because they will be, as I have said, seriously cool.
Unfortunately, my best chance of seeing that brave new world rests on the discovery, before my ultimate deterioration, of how to transfer our minds into robot bodies. I know this was the topic of a The Big Bang Theory episode, but the idea has been kicking around for decades. But I inherited longevity genes from my parents, so I have a good chance of surviving until such a discovery is made—unless something happens to me or I get an incurable disease.
Oh well, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Occasionally I’ve heard science fiction writers complain that in order to create a future world or alternate reality they have to sacrifice characterization; to create a world and to create characters would take too long, be too wordy, and might bore the readers.
That is crap. It’s an excuse used by 1) lazy writers who don’t want to bother with characterization, and 2) inexperienced writers who haven’t yet learned to “show, don’t tell.”
Ray Bradbury created an unfamiliar world populated with well-defined characters in Fahrenheit 451, as did Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, as have many other science fiction and fantasy writers.
You don’t need to waste lots of words describing your futuristic world; a few well-chosen words will do. In one of his stories, Robert A. Heinlein has doors that operate like camera shutters; they open automatically when someone approaches them and close after the character has passed through. To communicate this concept to his readers, as his character approaches a door, Heinlein writes three words: “The door dilated.”
Similarly, don’t waste words describing your characters; show them in action. The best way to engage your readers is to create characters who are like them, characters who want the same things and who react emotionally in the same ways. This establishes an emotional bond between your characters and your readers.
To create a dystopian world, find something that may be slightly wrong in our contemporary society and exaggerate it so that it is has caused your future society to be seriously out of whack. For example, Ray Bradbury took censorship to the next level in Fahrenheit 451 when he envisioned a future in which firemen seek out illegal collections of books and burn them.
So you have characters to whom your readers can relate, and you have a society in which something is broken. Now combine the two.
Remember that, although the characters have an emotional tie to contemporary readers, their thoughts and actions must be consistent with the society in which they live. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, at the front of the characters’ minds all the time is the knowledge that possessing a book is a serious crime. They know also that speeding 100 miles per hour down the freeway and trying to hit anything that moves is a good, and accepted, form of recreation.
That’s it in a nutshell. Writing a solid dystopian story is as easy as writing a contemporary story if you follow these three guidelines:
The article originally appeared on BEAUTY IN RUINS on April 12, 2012
Ray Bradbury once said that there are three great adventures: being born, living, and dying. Last night Bradbury embarked on that last great adventure when he died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 91.
Bradbury not only had a profound influence on my writing style, but his book The Martian Chronicles inspired me to start writing in the first place. We exchanged a few letters in the 80s and early 90s, and I found him to be an approachable and generous man.
The first time I wrote him, I sent him a copy of the college thesis I’d written about him and his early work: Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. In less than a week I received a note of thanks along with galleys for a new book of criticism of his work another author was publishing.
My first inclination when I heard of Bradbury’s passing was to take time off and read some of his stories in honor of his memory. But I immediately realized that the best memorial to a man who got physically sick if he didn’t write at least two pages every day would be to write. So as soon as I post this, I’ll go back to work on my novel. I’ll read some of his stories later.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jacob Wonderbar has one of the coolest log-lines I’ve ever seen: “Space travel is all fun and games until someone breaks the universe.”
That sentence sets the tone of this zany novel for young people, ages 9 and up. Jacob – general troublemaker and the terror of substitute teachers – and his friends, Dexter and Sarah, buy a spaceship from a disgruntled alien for a corn dog and set off for adventures in outer space.
In trying to prevent their spaceship from crashing, they fire a missile that causes a chain reaction of explosions across the universe (which Jacob dubs “the spilled milky way”), which blocks the path to Earth. Miraculously, no one is injured, no inhabited worlds destroyed, but in the words of two cosmic police officers the kids just caused a “big mess.” Unfortunately, that mess will prevent them from returning home for one or two thousand years (according to a construction worker when they try to head home), and there is no detour around the chaos.
The novel contains a pirate, a planet that smells like burp breath and has a day one minute long, a planet populated by scientists, a planet populated by substitute teachers, and a king of the universe.
Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent whose blog is an excellent resource for readers, writers, and anyone remotely interested in the publishing industry. I’ve been looking forward to reading Jacob Wonderbar ever since Nathan blogged that he’d sold it. I like the book, kids in the tween and early teen years will like it, and adults who are fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which I am) will like it.
For those of you who prefer to curl up with a good book rather than a cold, emotionless digital reading device, my novel In Human Form is now available as a trade paperback for $14.95. The ebook, however, is regularly priced at $2.99 (but is specially priced at $.99 through May 31, 2011; enter coupon code BN99Y). The excellent cover for In Human Form, like the excellent and creepy cover for The Moaning Rocks, was designed by Joleene Naylor, who also has written several novels.
This is In Human Form in a nutshell:
Wendy Konicka survives a mysterious fire that destroys her home and kills her father. When she awakens three days later, her memory is gone. She doesn’t even remember that she is an android and that the man known in the community as her father was her creator. And the few around her who have learned her secret keep it from her, misleading her to think she is human – which puts Wendy and the people she has grown close to in danger from ruthless conspiracy theorist Earl Vaughn.
For those of you who prefer a physical book, rather than digital, The Moaning Rocks and other stories is now available as a trade paperback. At $12.95 it’s a bit more expensive than the eBook because a paper book has significant manufacturing expenses compared to a digital book, which doesn’t. Remember, the eBook is still at a special introductory price of $0.99 until May 31, 2011, at which time it will revert to its regular price of $2.99. To get the special price enter coupon code SH37D.
The Moaning Rocks and other stories contains 13 short stories and 1 novelette ranging from the commonplace to the bizarre. This collection showcases a wide range of my storytelling including contemporary, science fiction, and horror. Following each story is the my commentary on how it came to be written.
From the back cover of the paperback edition:
…and 10 other stories.
Some of the stories have been previously published, and others appear for the first time in this collection.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As a young boy, Ray Bradbury was fascinated with the planet Mars. Many kids – and even many adults – in the early 20th Century were fascinated with Mars. It was our nearest neighbor, coming as close as 35 million miles of Earth. It had green patches that could be vegetation, it had white polar caps (ice?) that appeared to shrink and grow with the seasons, and some astronomers claimed to see lines (straight lines, indicating that they were made by intelligent beings) which they called canals. What a wealth of imagination for young boys – and science fiction writers.
During the 1940s, Bradbury expressed his fascination with Mars in a series of stories, several of which he later collected into The Martian Chronicles (1950). But The Martian Chronicles is more than a collection of related stories. It is an allegory depicting the settlement of a world, obviously paralleling the settlement of the New World by the Europeans, conquering the Native Americans and taming the western wilderness. The novel also depicts the decline of human settlement on Mars. To help this collection of stories work as a novel with a unified theme, Bradbury wrote a number of bridge passages to ease the transition between stories.
I won’t say too much about the plot. For those of you who haven’t read it, I don’t want to give anything away. I wouldn’t call The Martian Chronicles science fiction. Even at the time Bradbury wrote these stories, scientists were pretty much in agreement that the Martian environment was too harsh to support human life. Bradbury never cared much about the science, which is probably why some hard core science fiction readers don’t care for him. He has always been more interested in showing what kind of trouble we can get into if we don’t use technology responsibly. According to Bradbury:
“It is all too easy for an emotionalist to go astray in the eyes of the scientific, and surely my work could never serve as a handbook for mathematicians. Somehow, though, I am compensated by allowing myself to believe that while the scientific expert can tell you the exact size, location, pulse, musculature and color of the heart, we emotionalists can find and touch it quicker.”*
So if you can get past the fudging over the science and enjoy the fantasy/allegorical aspect of The Martian Chronicles, this book has lots to say and is a must read.
*From The Ray Bradbury Companion by William F. Nolan (Detroit: Gale Research, 1975), p. 70.