Category Archives: Tom Learns His Craft

Writing “Tech”: Science Fiction

Science fiction is my first love.  The very first book I ever bought for myself was Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and his Ultrasonic Cycloplane.  The first “serious” hardback I ever bought – in 5th grade – was Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel.  If I needed any other impetus to begin the affair, I don’t remember it.

A few days before writing this I got the notion to reread Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer.  I was sure I had a copy around the house – certain I’d bought one recently at a used book sale – alas, no go.  Ended up borrowing a copy from the local library, and read it overnight.  It’s probably been thirty years, at least, since I read it last.

When I finished, I looked at the original publication date: 1956.

If you’ve never read The Door Into Summer it’s well worth it, even if it’s a little dated in some ways.  The funny thing is that in others, we still haven’t quite got there.  The action of the story takes place in 1970 and 1971 – years I remember all too well – and 2000 and 2001, years also stored in my memory.   The protagonist, Daniel B. Davis, is a mechanical engineer and inventor who decides it’s his mission in life to create true labor-saving gadgets for the automated house.

I’m sure at least some of you have seen the “Roomba,” a robotic vacuum-cleaner.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the website:

http://store.irobot.com/home/index.jsp

Interesting that they call it “irobot,” eh?  You don’t get the reference, other than the movie with Will Smith?  So google “Isaac Asimov.”

I remember the first time I saw a Roomba the first thing that popped into my mind was “Wow!  Hired Girl!”  That was the name of the floor-cleaning robot that was Dan Davis’ first invention in The Door Into Summer.

Some of you may remember when computers took up whole rooms and were called “mainframes”; you may even remember that a lot of their commands and programming were stored on magnetic tape.  Heinlein, in designing his “future tech” mentions “tapes” and something he calls a “Thorssen memory tube.”  A “tape” in this context refers to what we, today, would call “software” and a “Thorssen memory tube” is pretty obviously a hard drive – or even a thumb drive.  For the rest of Hired Girl, Heinlein uses “off the shelf components”: “…a floor polisher used in army hospitals, a soft-drink dispenser, and those ‘hands’ they use in atomics plants to handle anything ‘hot.’”  Otherwise, “the whole thing could be built with standard parts ordered out of Sweet’s Catalogue…”

I googled “Sweet’s Catalogue.”  There really is such a thing, which began in 1906 with architectural materials and expanded to 38 volumes, including parts for mechanical and electrical engineering.

I mention this simply to show Heinlein’s intriguing attention to detail.  Yet the point is less the detail of existing “engineering art” but how Heinlein artfully weaves together “what is” to show “what may be” in just a few more steps.

There are several other ideas for inventions mentioned in The Door Into Summer that are noteworthy: Drafting Dan; dictation software; and the “hydraulic bed.”

We would call Drafting Dan by the name of AutoCAD and it wouldn’t be a typewriter-like machine as Heinlein describes it, but software you load onto your computer.  Nonetheless, the idea of automated design is the same.  It would be interesting to know if the software engineers who wrote the original code for AutoCAD were inspired by Drafting Dan, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were not.  Inspiration for that idea would be as simple as noticing that it’s pretty easy to make a straight line, or a series of straight lines, appear on a screen; now, hmm, let’s see, what if you could make a perpendicular to the line, and, ah, yeah, maybe some curves?  That’s really all there is to the basic idea, the 1% inspiration that Thomas Edison spoke about, and all those endless hours of writing and refining code belong to the 99% perspiration part.

Dictation software is alluded to by Heinlein, a “secretary” machine, so to speak.  I’ve used several versions of software of this sort and read or heard reviews by others.  Maybe it’s my Southern accent, y’all, or maybe they’s a few bugs to be worked out.  Nonetheless, the basic idea is there, and is more or less practical, even if to me the execution still leaves something to be worked out.

The idea of the “hydraulic bed” is mentioned briefly in The Door Into Summer and somewhat more extensively in what is arguably Heinlein’s most famous work, Stranger In a Strange Land.  This might be one of those urban legends, but I heard that Heinlein held the patent for a hydraulic bed – we know them as “water beds.”

One point I must make before continuing.  I don’t want to leave the impression that accurate prediction is a requisite of hard science fiction.  What we think of as “hard science” today may or may not still be around in another hundred years – or it may be considered as laughably antiquated as the notion that the world is flat and borne through the Cosmos on the back of a giant turtle.  My favorite hope and cherished dream in this direction is that contemporary science will be proven wrong about the possibility of superluminal travel, despite the almost-universal chorus of “IMPOSSIBLE” from the last three generations of physicists.

Accurate prediction could be considered in a different sense, however.  What if one interprets the phrase as meaning accurate in the sense that it can be used to predict social behavior in some sense or another, in response to some fictional invention or discovery?

In another Heinlein book, Space Cadet, Heinlein goes to considerable lengths to describe Hohmann orbits, their uses in space travel, and some of the various methods to achieve them.  Accurate, yes, but what’s the point?  Isn’t this a little much?

Maybe.  Here’s a question for you: do you know why they’re called “Hohmann” orbits?  As one might guess, a mathematician named Walther Hohmann described them in his book titled The Accessibility of Celestial Bodies – which was written in 1925.  The technical definition of a Hohmann orbit is, according to Wikipedia (see “Hohmann Transfer Orbit”), “an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes in the same plane.”  In effect, it’s the most fuel-efficient means for a reaction-driven space vessel to travel from one planet’s orbit to another.  Therefore reaction driven space vessels are likely to use them – have done so, in fact.

Heinlein wrote that, for a passage in Space Cadets, he spent two weeks with his wife Virginia, reputedly a much better mathematician than the Master himself, working calculations and graphs to be sure that the astrogation particulars he described would actually work in real life.  Well, at least, would if such vessels existed.

Now of course we know that such vessels exist; the Apollo Program put astronauts on the Moon and NASA, along with other space agencies, has sent dozens of probes to Mars and the outer planets, using either Hohmann orbits or other astrogational techniques pioneered by Hohmann.

Note again the date of Hohmann’s work: 1925.

It’s worth noting here that the Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, began his pioneering work in astronautics – including the need for and descriptions of such esoteric as space suits and air locks – prior to 1900.

The important point to grasp is that Heinlein is describing human behavior – i.e., how space ship crews will get from one planet to another – using scientific discoveries that were, at the time he wrote, about thirty years old.  The only “fictional” aspect of his work was the space ship itself.

But maybe the real piece de resistance of accurate technical detail – as accurate as it may be possible to get in fiction — is an obscure story by the great Dr. Werner von Braun, titled Project Mars: A Technical Tale.  This book is half science-fiction story and half technical manual and anyone who knows anything about the early history of the Apollo program and what Dr. von Braun tried to do – establish a permanent manned space station in orbit to serve as a way station not only for the Lunar flight but as a stepping stone to the other planets – will see at once that it was first outlined in this book.  Essentially, the technology of Dr. von Braun’s book, in a form only slightly more developed, took us to the Moon and back.

Here’s the kicker: Project Mars: A Technical Tale was not published when it was originally written, but the Author’s Preface was written sometime in 1950.

I remember people reacting to the entire notion of space flight and astronauts as if it were something new, something part of the post-World-War-II Jet Age – but the basic ideas of space flight were in development a full half-century before the first Moon landing, and science fiction writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were exploring them in fiction and making them real to a generation of new dreamers, who went on to be the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built the Space Shuttle and sent Pioneer, Voyager and Viking, among others, on their way.

This leads me to my point: “hard” science fiction in the sense of “technically accurate” is not merely the stuff that dreams are made of, but brings one to the very edge of the reality of dreams.  That question demands a corollary inquiry: if the fiction were not technically accurate, would it be as effective?

Here we may intrude upon matters of taste.  In purely historical fiction my answer to that question would be “No” and I believe I could defend it pretty well.  In fact I’m working on a post to that effect.

But science fiction might, arguably, be different.  The reason for that might be contained in Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that science, sufficiently advanced with respect to the percipient, is indistinguishable from magic.  I would argue that “sufficiently advanced” doesn’t necessarily mean the difference between 1900 and 2000.  In the 1930s my grandfather was an electrician for Georgia Power Company.  He told me that one of his favorite things was to string a power line from the main feeder up some little hollow to a farm house where they still used horses to draw plows.  When he installed electricity and a light fixture the last thing he’d do would be to turn on the light, and leave the farm family staring at the brilliant bulb as darkness fell outside.  Just a simple little thing like that, something we today take as a given of our existence, and yet so short a time ago it was, if not magic, then magical.

But that illustrates the principle upon which Clarke’s maxim works, and some of its subtlety.  If my grandfather, an electrician, appeared at the very least as a sorcerer’s apprentice to these families, then how might a contemporary, say the quantum physicist Neils Bohr – or the mathematician Walter Hohmann – appear to my grandfather?

Ray Bradbury is arguably one of the great science fiction story tellers, and it was enough for him that rockets existed, that you could fly through space in them, and go to strange places like the Mars of his The Martian Chronicles.  He could probably have cared less about the technical details.

It could be, then, that art, sufficiently advanced, like science, can appear magical.  Since there’s evidently a place for each let’s leave it at that.

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On the “Rules” of Writing: “Know Your Audience” and “Conflict”

On the “Rules” of Writing: “Know Your Audience” and “Conflict”.

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On the “Rules” of Writing: “Know Your Audience” and “Conflict”

When I began writing this post it was about the elements of a good aviation story, and in the middle of that I had some insight into one of the things one sees put forward as one of the “rules” of successful commercial writing, usually rendered as “know your audience.”  As it progressed I found I was also thinking about “conflict” and how it is usually (i.e., conventionally) approached.

I’m going to keep this in the theme I originally wrote about, i.e., the aviation story.  I know a little bit about aviation, so this comes under the heading of the “rule” regarding “write about what you know.”  (I’ve always wondered just exactly how that was supposed to apply to science fiction, but that’s another post, maybe.)

What, exactly, is conflict in the dramatic sense?  Most of us have an instinctive feeling for this.  As kids we know when trouble is brewing on the playground between two rivals.  Maybe that’s as good a source as any.  And of course there’s the best known conflict of all: “good” versus “evil.”  In time of war the propaganda battle between the two sides revolves around efforts to cast the opposite side as “evil.”  Oddly, it seems that one’s own side is good mostly by contrast.  Most people have a pretty good idea of what constitutes “evil” – but by contrast very few people can say what they mean by “good.”  “Us, not them” is an interesting definition of good vs. evil; reminds me that for most small tribes, the name of the tribe usually is the name for “people”; that is to say, “us, not them.”  In his excellent and informative study of the factors motivating killing in combat, Col. Dave Grossman, PhD, identifies dehumanization (“WE are people; THEY are NOT”) as one of the enabling factors.

Sorry, I’m a philosopher at heart.  But perhaps, dear reader, you might pause and reflect upon this simplistic notion of conflict.  Granted that it’s a venerable storytelling device; going back as far, or farther, than the origin of the Hero Tale; but I might submit that to be the point.  The Hero overcomes some obstacle, and that victorious struggle enables the tribe to survive.  In other words, WE have triumphed; THEY have NOT.  I don’t object to this as a literary device, I simply urge a little more sophistication and awareness upon us as writers.

A conflict in a story might be nothing more than a problem, seemingly insurmountable, that the protagonists must solve in order to attain their desires.  Nevil Shute, in his novel The Far Country, uses this device.  In The Far Country Jennifer Morton, visiting relatives in Australia, falls in love with the émigré Carl Zlinter.  Their problem, in one sense, is simple economics; Carl was a doctor in the German Army during World War II, but cannot be one in Australia unless he wants to redo his medical training, which is expensive.  Jennifer, the daughter of an English doctor, loves Carl and Australia after being exposed to both, but refuses to marry Carl because he is a very good doctor, and if she marries him before he can manage to get back in practice, he will never be able to do so.  This generates the conflict between them, and it is well and gently and elegantly done.

In essence it’s Romeo and Juliet, but without the bloodthirsty Capulets and the equally sanguine Montagues.  The conflict in that play is simply that which lies in a name.

Conflict, then, is as simple as what the protagonists want, and the obstacles existing to the attainment of that desire.  The action of the story is overcoming the obstacles.  One problem with the G vs. E conflict is that we’ve seen it so very, very, very often that for “good” to triumph in any credible manner, the poor beaten-up hero has to endure trials that would bring Superman to his knees.  Think of any of the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” movies and you’ll see what I mean.  If it strains credulity, then it also strains that “willing suspension of disbelief” that we as writers strive so hard to attain.

This is, however, a good segue into the “Know Your Audience” element.

As I have heard over and over and over and ad-nauseam over again from all sorts of writing coaches, publishers, editors and agents, a writer who hopes to be published has to know the audience he or she is targeting.  But push most of them to answer the simple, logical question, “Well, how do I do that?” and you get some such answer as “picture the person you want to read your book.”  OK, and I’m willing to admit I’m dense and maybe even a little literal-minded, but I don’t see that as anything other than a rephrasing of “know your audience.”

Perhaps we could just admit that this “rule” is more something that has crept in from the marketing department of the major publishers – you know, the ones who would rather you do their work for them, so that your book will fit their marketing research – rather than anything that has something concrete to do with actually telling a story.  It’s a hoary aphorism in marketing to define your “target market” and tailor your advertising accordingly.  Please don’t tell me I’m the only one to see the rather suspicious similarity to the “rule” requiring a writer to “know your audience.”

Look at it this way.  There’s another aspect to “know your audience” which I have never – and I mean not ever, not once in forty-odd years – heard anyone mention: its fine to know your audience, but a good story is a good story is a crossover story that transcends genre and target markets.  What about J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series?  They might be targeted for the Young Adult market, but it was the cross-market appeal that made them runaway best sellers.  A good and well-told story will eventually find an audience.

Look at it this way: whether expressed as “target marketing” or “know your audience,” the principle translates into expectations of behavior based on assessments of a sample population whose completeness we cannot know, not with any certainty.  Recall how many publishers turned down J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before Scholastic picked it up; this was a good story well told; so my suspicion is that turning down the story was based on it not fitting any of the marketing research done at the time.  “Know your audience” is an aphorism for making some rule-of-thumb assumptions that sometimes work extraordinarily well and sometimes fall flat as a cow patty.

That being said, maybe we could think of the relationship between “genre” and “know your audience.”  Genres exist in the first place because a significant number of people – which is, ahem, nothing more than the sample population listed above – like that genre.  “Romance” novels are a great example, if only because as a genre label “romance” is almost useless nowadays without a qualifier, such as “paranormal romance” or “historical romance.”  How these sub-genres emerged in their own right involved the discovery that significant numbers of readers liked stories written in that vein, which only goes to prove my point.

Since all I know about the romance genre is what I’ve learned from my significant other, I’m going to look at the audience that might read an aviation story.

In one sense you can think of aviation stories as techno-thrillers, and I’ve read novels that were pretty much that.  Dale Brown’s Flight of the Old Dog is one such, and almost any military aviation novel with any pretense to accuracy and realism written since 1984, when Tom Clancy essentially defined the techno-thriller genre with The Hunt for Red October, has to adhere to those standards.  Being military or ex-military gives one a real edge in that sort of writing – unless, like Clancy, you’ve studied the subject for years.

But let’s consider aviation stories that are concerned a little less with the gadgets and a little more with the people involved.  Essentially, any flying story set between 1914 and 1954 could qualify.  Nonetheless when I write an aviation story, I’d be well advised of two things that concern my potential audience: first, anyone with any aviation background whatsoever is going to be hypercritical of the technical aspects of what I write, and second, the overwhelming majority of the population isn’t going to have a clue to what I’m talking about in a technical sense.  Writing to either audience in this case means the same thing: write accurately and knowledgeably and incorporate technical details into the course of the story, informing without necessarily teaching, just like in hard science fiction.  Almost invariably when pilots talk about aviation fiction, its quality is judged less by story than technical content.  Contrarily, non-pilots will be more interested in the story, but also want technical content that “puts them in the cockpit” without bogging the story down.  So there’s a constant tension between the two that the aviation fiction writer must be aware of – and this is part of “knowing your audience.”

Aviation stories are about pilots flying airplanes that take those pilots to the very limit of what those pilots can bring to the airplane in terms of skill, knowledge and courage.  In an aviation story, quite often, the only conflict is within the pilot himself.  In a movie, we might see the beads of sweat on the pilot’s face, or his face contorted with fear, or the grunts of effort as he strives to haul back on the stick – but the challenge for the writer as storyteller in this genre probably goes back further than the Epic of Gilgamesh: whether a man strives within himself to bring out the will that means victory or survival, or strives with another, the challenge for the writer is to show a victory that does not seem foreordained, i.e.,  a mere decision by the storyteller that the Hero Shall Prevail.  We live in an uncertain world.  I once had a flight instructor who told me he’d rather be lucky than skilful, since luck can save you when skill will not; but in a story this comes under the category of “coincidence” which tends to appear suspicious in the eyes of our readers unless done (ahem) with skill.

Then there’s another problem: for those of us who are already in aviation, “love” is almost invariably a part of the process.  Sometimes that love goes so far back that one might wonder if there’s something genetic about it.  My parents, for example, argued about whether or not my first word was “airplane” or “light” – but both agreed that at the time I spoke my first word I was pointing my chubby little baby finger at an airplane’s running lights in the night sky.

I am not alone in this, by the way, but as a writer it brings up another problem: you can talk to those who share your love, and achieve comprehension among them in a few dozen words of matters of surprising technical complexity.  But what about people who know nothing about aviation?

I’ll give you an example.  I’ve worked as a tour guide in at least three different museums in the course of my life.  Two were aviation museums.  It is unusual, but not unknown, for adults to look at an airplane and say something on the order of: “Now…that long thing coming out of the thing in the middle…ah…is that the wing?”

It’s extraordinarily difficult for me to realize it’s possible not to know something so wholly fundamental and elementary.  But therein lies a caution on writing the aviation story:  even someone who has wings in their heart begins without any other knowledge.  I have seen the knowledge of that love dawn in a child’s eyes, looking at a particular airplane, and I have told their parents, be careful, because airplanes are like malaria, the disease might go into remission but it never, ever leaves you.  And I have seen people who look at an airplane, from something as beautiful as a Supermarine Spitfire or as historically significant as a Douglas DC-3, and scratch their heads, and visibly if nonverbally wonder what the hell the fuss is all about.

Someone at that level of ignorance is probably not going to be your audience, but you can never know that.  But this goes back to the tension raised by level of detail in your story.  In an aviation story, “level of detail” might be directly proportional to the level of the reader’s own knowledge.  The experienced fighter pilot, reading my account of a fictional air battle, might scoff at me for the detail I leave out, where the average reader who just likes airplanes would be thrilled.  So a happy medium may not be available, but therein lies the tension of the question for the writer.

So my conclusion is relatively simple.  In knowing your audience, be very careful to distinguish between the “genre” aspect and the “marketing” aspect of the term.  If you write within a genre you’ve defined your audience, but it may be that that is only the first step.  As illustrated above, each genre has its own audience at varying levels of sophistication, which in itself may raise difficulties for the writer.  As writers we are better able to solve those problems if we know about them.

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