Writing science, writing fiction (I)

Synopsis: Whether writing a good novel or a killer scientific article, the process is much the same: What scientists can learn from science fiction authors…

Many years ago, back in 1990, I attended my first Science Fiction Worldcon, called “ConFiction“, in The Hague. An interesting feature that year was the “Dutch Treat”. One could sign up with a group of about 10 people and invite a science fiction writer for lunch and talk with them in that small circle. To me, these “treats” were the highlights of that particular meeting. I did as many of them as I could and have fond memories of speaking with John Brunner, Harry Harrison (a Guest of Honor, accompanied by his charming wife, Joan), Fred Pohl, Brian Aldiss, and Bob Shaw (I think that’s all of them, but I am writing this from memory, so I may have forgotten one). Of course, these conversations spanned many topics and I was not the only participant, but at some point or another I managed to pose the same question to each of them, namely: how do you write a story (be it a short story or a novel in multiple parts). Do you just start, do you write some parts first and only continue when you’re completely done with revising them, or something else entirely?

Writing a novel

Basically, all of them gave similar answers and what interested me in particular was that the process of writing that they described matched rather closely the process by which I write my scientific articles (in a very real sense, those are stories, too). To  paraphrase John 1:1, “In the Beginning there was Nothing and Nothing Happened”. Well, at least nothing is happening visibly. What is going on at this stage is that an idea for a story has started percolating inside the writer’s mind. He (I did not manage to get into lunches with any female writers, although I got signatures from several, such as Anne McCaffrey) may not even be thinking about the story consciously, but deep down in the murky recesses of his brain things are shaping up. Then the moment comes to start writing, the Dreaded First Sentence (DFS). Sometimes that comes easy. More often it seems to be a stumbling block of Himalayan proportions. In extreme cases, the DFS can lead to a severe case of writer’s block. The solution is actually quite easy: write something, anything, doesn’t matter how bad. We’ll deal with this later in the revision stage and you’ll see that it will be much easier then. Once a first sentence is on paper (or, nowadays, on your computer screen, in 1990 most people still used pen/typewriter and paper…), things start going easier. In case anybody wonders, the DFS is, indeed the very first sentence of the story. Nobody starts in the middle of a story. (This is not to say that the start of a story cannot be in the middle -or even at the end- of the narrative, but that is a different thing). Sounds self-evident when we’re talking about writing a story, but nevertheless many scientists actually start writing with their methods or even discussion, instead of the introduction. Needless to say, this makes for bad story-telling.

Once the writer’s block vanquished, a first draft of the complete story or novel is written pretty rapidly. The writer doesn’t get mired into detail too much, that’s for later (“detail” being grammar, flow, repetitive words/expressions, and such, not story details, those are important from the very beginning). When finished, the draft is pushed aside for a while. This may be a few days or even weeks or months, depending on the individual writer. Scientists, of course, don’t always have the luxury to let things lie around for so long… The next step is revising. Followed by revising. And revising yet again. Most revising is actually cutting. Too many writers think that it’s the number of words that count, the more the better. In fact, it’s usually a case of less is more. Shortening a story or scientific article, often makes it easier to read and diminishes the probability that a reader gets bored and lays down the work. Once all the revising and polishing is done, the piece is usually laid to rest for a while again, followed by some more revising. At the latest, this is the point where that Dreaded First Sentence finally gets beaten into its ultimate shape. And then, only when the writer is now completely satisfied, the completed work is submitted to a publisher (or, for professional writers, an agent first and then a publisher) for evaluation.

Next post: Writing a scientific article. Stay tuned!

Close to Critical, 50 years later

One of the earliest science fiction novels that I ever read was Close to Critical by Hal Clement. I read it in the late 60s, while in high school, in a Dutch translation from our local library. Years later and now a student at Nijmegen University, I found a copy in a used book store and re-read the book. I clearly remember how both times I was blown away by the strange world that was being described and the obvious attention to scientific detail. This was pure “sense of wonder” reminiscent of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Again years later, I had the privilege of meeting Hal Clement, whose real name was Harry Stubbs, at the 1990 Science Fiction WorldCon in The Hague. Clement/Stubbs turned out to be a kind elderly gentleman and was, as far as I know, the only one who came to his book signing session accompanied by his wife, an equally kind lady. Unfortunately, none of his books were offered for sale by any of the book sellers at the convention, so very few fans came up to him to ask him to sign a book. Luckily, I found a very old, used copy of one of his novels (albeit in German), which he graciously signed for me.

For those among you who are not familiar with Close to Critical, here’s a short synopsis. As in many of Clement’s novels, the main “character” of the novel is actually the place of action, a planet called Tenebra. It’s hot and heavy, with a very dense atmosphere. Because of the thick atmosphere, the surface is rather dark to human eyes and conditions are directly around the critical temperature of water (a pressure of over 200 atmospheres and a temperature of 374° Celsius) and the resulting frequent changes of water from the liquid phase to the vapor phase plays an important role in the narrative. Despite these extreme conditions, the planet teems with life and one of the species has developed intelligence. By means of a robot, with some irony being named Fagin, humans living on board a space ship in orbit around Tenebra are in contact with one of the indigenous tribes. The story then evolves around two children, one human, the other a member of yet another alien species, who crash on Tenebra aboard a bathyscaphe and the efforts of humans and Tenebrians to save them.

Because of my fond memories of this novel, I recently decided to re-read it, as I often do with books that I really like. Many of them turn out to be still quite readable, if one is willing to overlook anachronisms such as scientists using a slide-rule (I still have one myself, which shows my age, I fear…) to calculate an orbit for their spaceships or using punch cards to program their computers (I used those myself only once and had trouble finding a card reader, making me feel a bit younger than the slide-rule…). For example, Jack Vance‘s Planet of Adventure, which I also recently re-read, has withstood the test of time quite well, I think (perhaps I’ll write more about that book in a future post). Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Close to Critical. Yes, it still is an easy read. A quick one, too: this was written in a time when a science fiction novel was supposed to count about 150 pages, not the trilogies counting thousands of pages that are the norm today. The description of Tenebra and its conditions still is impressive in its detail and, as far as I can see, scientific correctness. Apart from that, however, this novel has aged too much. The story is overly simple and reads more like a juvenile novel than anything an adult might want to read (and I write this as someone who still enjoys reading the occasional juvenile…) Worse, the characters are flat and exchangeable. Fagin’s tribe consists of 10 individuals, but apart from their leader, Nick, they only differ in their names. Early on in the story, two of the tribe’s members (that’s a whopping 20%) are killed by another tribe, but nobody seems to pay more attention than the occasional mention of the fact.

In short, the story suffers from the fact that, all too obviously, it’s just a coat rack used to describe the planet, the real subject of the novel. So why, given the above, do I still recommend reading this book? Well, exactly because of the detailed descriptions of Tenebra. Clement is not for nothing famous for designing extreme worlds. Writers like Vance excel in describing weird cultures, but their worlds are basically all copies of Earth. With Clement you immediately know that you’re not in Kansas any more. Curious about the crucial difference between a milky and a clear rain drop (both many meters in diameter)? Read Close to Critical and find out, because if ever you find yourself in a place with 200 atmospheres pressure and a temperature of 374° Celsius, it may mean the difference between life and death!