A Science Fiction Writer’s Lament

Last night, I watched an episode of the new television show, Intelligence. It’s an upgrade on The Six-Million Dollar Man show from the 1970s—the government invests in a bunch of tech to make human beings into something more than human. Y’know, stuff sf writers have been writing for decades.

I like Intelligence, primarily because I like the star, Josh Holloway. Every episode, something dumb jars me out of the story, but I climb back in. Usually, it’s plot related. Last night, I had my standard plot-related jar, but then I had a second one as well.

You see, Holloway’s character, Gabriel Vaughn, has a computer chip embedded in his head that allows him to access the entire information grid at the flick of a thought. Cyberpunk on mainstream TV, thirty years after William Gibson introduced us to many of the same themes in Neuromancer. To say I’m familiar with man as computer link is a bit of an understatement.

But, what Intelligence does, is beautifully illustrate how Gabriel “sees” the world. Gabriel walks through a frozen 3-D (seeming) image, and peers at the information it provides. Supposedly, he’s doing this at the speed of thought. But that wouldn’t be visually interesting for the viewers, so everything slows down. (The BBC’s Sherlock series does the same thing to illustrate how Sherlock Holmes sees the world differently from the rest of us poor dumb folk.)

As Gabriel walked around in his brain last night, I realized—and not for the first time—that the series I’m currently writing is walking on a knife’s edge.

I’m spending most of the year writing a four-book arc in my Retrieval Artist series. Starting in December, WMG Publishing will publish a book in the arc every two months. I’m writing as fast as my little fingers can move, and am constantly doubting why the hell I decided to do this. (I did because I can’t seem to get my mind on anything else until this project ends.)

The Retrieval Artist series, for those of you who haven’t read it, are set on the Moon. Initially, I envisioned the books as science fiction mystery stories, but they’re much more than that. I’m building an entire universe. Each book (or arc) focuses on a different mystery/genre trope. Apparently, this arc (which I call the Anniversary Day Saga) is The Winds of War done in sf terms.

The books have nifty aliens and lots of world-building. The series has long ago moved to places other than the Moon (although the City of Armstrong remains the series’ base). The books also have characters who communicate by links installed in their brains—after they reach a certain age, of course. (One side novella, The Possession of Paavo Deshin, originally published in Analog, explores what happens when the links are installed early.)

I’ve always imagined link communication to work at the speed of thought, with different levels of linkage—from instant communication that can be audio, text, or visual or all three. I also have the characters working their way through holographic imagery, if need be.

There’s a lot of computer stuff in the books, cutting edge things (beyond cutting edge, actually) when I proposed the first book, The Disappeared, back in the previous century. Much of that cutting edge has vanished in the rear-view mirror, so I spend some time now explaining why characters hundreds of years in our future do things the way we might be able to do them next year (without advancing the tech).

It’s a dance, one I’m very conscious of. It’s minor for the readers, if I tell the story right, but boy, am I sensitive to it as a writer. I’m struggling every day.

And things like Intelligence do not help. They make me paranoid—not in the “everyone’s watching” way—but in the “gee, if Hollywood is doing it, it must be old” way.

I titled this column “The Science Fiction Writer’s Lament” because I’m aware that every sf writer has this fear at one point or another in every single project. I know the feeling’s not new, and I struggle to remind myself of that.

So imagine my happy surprise just a few minutes ago when I went online to doublecheck the publication dates of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and found this quote from a blog post on williamgibsonbooks.com dated January 17, 2003:

“Blade Runner came out while I was still writing Neuromancer. I was about a third of the way into the manuscript. When I saw (the first twenty minutes of) Blade Runner, I figured my unfinished first novel was sunk, done for.”

Yet he slogged through, and changed sf literature forever.

That’s what these doubts are. They’re part of the slogging. Because writing isn’t the inverse of reading. When we read, we immerse ourselves in a world and hurtle through that world as fast as we can.

When we write, we immerse ourselves in the world, and write it down, thinking and constructing and developing.

Or to use a different analogy: You can walk through a large building in a few hours, but you can’t build it in the same amount of time. (Dammit!) At some point, there’s slogging and doubt and worry.

Every writer has a lament to their slog, and so does every genre. SF’s lament always runs along that thin line between making something accessible to a modern audience and not writing a world that’s strange enough.

So, after I finish this column, I’ll head back to my slog. I’ve finished two novels of the four, and am in the middle of the third (with bits and pieces written on the last one). My computer is covered with post-it notes, my brain is littered with ideas, and I really wish I had access to the information grid at the speed of thought.

Of course, if I did, I’d probably be looking at holographic cat blogs right now rather than writing.

Because just thinking those words “holographic cat blog” would call one up—at the speed of thought. Oh, joy. Just one more aspect of the science fiction future to look forward to.