Genre

Five Facts About One Nation Under God

Part Two of the “Behind the Scenes” peeks at my work. This installment is the 2004 dystopian future novel, One Nation Under God.

Fact #1 – People Do Judge Books by Their Covers

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, of course. After all, the purpose of having an attractive cover is so that people make the judgement to pick the thing up and look at it. But in this case, a lot of people judge it by not only the cover, but the title, too.

This cover should scare the hell out of anyone.

In my last blog, I mentioned an outrageous incident that occurred at the California State Fair some years ago. Here’s a less outrageous one. A guy sees the book and gives me two thumbs up and says something like, “One nation under god… right on, man!”

I gave a slight smile and said, “It doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “Right on, man.”

Look at that cover. It’s meant to offend the shit out of people. Replacing the stars with crosses? That’s absolutely not okay, folks. But evidently, some people disagree.

Fact #2 – I Had to Change a Character’s Name

In the first draft of the book, President Christopher’s wife’s name was Laura. But then this dude who was running for the office in 2000 somehow “won” the election, and wouldn’t you know it, his wife’s name was Laura.

I didn’t model this character after Laura Bush, but this bonehead:

“Dr.” Laura – hypocritical conservative busybody.

I knew, though, that readers might make the Bush association, so I changed her name to Sarah. No, not because of Sarah Palin. At that time, I thankfully had no idea who that airhead was.

Fact #3 – It’s Clearly Not as Prescient as I’d Hoped

I’ve been asked frequently how I “predicted” some of the things in the book that eventually came to pass in the real world. My answer to that is that I didn’t “predict” anything. I just saw the writing that had been on the wall for a while, and just projected what would happen if the Prez and Congress went ultra-conservative and uber-religious. I mean, more than they were at the time.

However, there’s one thing I did not see coming whatsoever:

I just wasn’t that much of a doomsayer.

Social media wasn’t even on my radar when I was writing the book. Would it have changed the story? Well… no. Because of certain plot points, I wouldn’t have had the protagonist actually using social media, but minor characters would have, and it would have been nice to have included them, if only for more accurate setting.

Any book that’s set in the future invariably will either over- or underestimate how much technology will advance. We don’t have flying cars, yet, after all. But we have the interwebs. Sci-Fi writers of the 50s would probably be surprised by both facts. So I suppose that, even though I didn’t see social media on the near horizon, I’m still in okay company.

Fact #4 – The Book Came to Me Fully Formed

No, it didn’t come to me in a dream, but it might as well have. I was living in Utah at the time (essentially a theocracy) and was sitting at my temp job when the idea just sprang into my brain. Not just the ideas for the characters and general thrust of the story, but also the formatting, a sort of 21st Century epistolary novel, with diary entries, email exchanges, newspaper clippings, web pages, etc. I just knew this was how it needed to be told.

Ironically, it was this form that prevented me from getting agent representation. I kept being told, “Epistolary books are a tough sell.”

Because people don’t buy epistolary novels. Nor do they get made into movies.

Fact #5 – The Book is Actually a Scrapbook… and a Handbook

The format of the book is meant to reflect the scrapbook that the teenage protagonist put together, a chronological telling of her family’s story. This is why many of the aspects of the story are not examined in much detail – they are things only of passing interest to her.

But I also meant for the novel to be a sort of handbook, a very loose primer on many different unconventional ideas, many of which are near and dear to my heart. Just a few of them are: alternative communitiesalternative religionalternative educationalternative relationships, and so on.

a.k.a. Ten Years of Utter Weirdness

Educating while entertaining. That’s always been my goal.

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Why I Don’t Write Science Fiction

My first major in college was astronomy, believe it or not. If you’re happy that I’m a writer, you can thank calculus. My poor relationship with higher math wasn’t the only reason for the change of majors, though. The truth is, I’ve always loved science and found it beautiful, but I really never wanted to be an actual scientist.

In truth, I just wanted to look at heavenly bodies.

Most of the books I read as a teen and through my twenties were science fiction, and the more a story relied on actual science, the more I seemed to like it. So, one would imagine that, when I started writing, that’s what I’d do.

My only science fiction efforts were in high school, in the form of short stories that were published in our school’s monthly “newspaper.” And wow, were they terrible. Seriously. Just awful. And not even “real” science fiction, as the science involved was pretty vague, to put it mildly.

Okay, calling it “real” science fiction is a poor choice of words. Sci-Fi can be broken down into lots of categories, of course, but the two biggies are “hard” and “soft.” (Kinda like porn… but not.) The difference between the two is that “hard” science fiction is that very sort I mentioned, where the science is accurate and a crucial facet of the story. “Soft” science fiction would be where the science is basically just given a nod, whether accurate or not, and often just incidental to the story.

At any rate, when I finally found my voice and started writing novel-length stories, I didn’t go for science fiction. I’ve done fantasy. I’ve done “social science fiction,” in the form of a dystopian future story, but that’s not the same. And I’m currently in the middle of a superhero memoir trilogy.

See previous caption.

Now, the Dynamistress books actually do say “science fiction” on the covers. It’s not accurate, of course. Stories about super-powered individuals technically qualify as fantasy. But because I indulged myself and really got detailed with the science behind Dyna’s abilities, I labeled it science fiction. (Besides, most people think of fantasy as being along the lines of Tolkein and such.)

The question remains, though, if I love hard science fiction so much, not to mention science itself, why don’t I write it? And I have to admit that the answer is that I feel intimidated by the very idea. And there’s the fact that I don’t even have any solid ideas for such a story. I have a notes file with a few concepts I’d want to include in a Sci-Fi tale – some of which did make their way into the Dynamistress books – but nothing more than that.

Truth is, I’ve always had a particular gripe about hard science fiction. In my experience, the more focus there is on the science, the less memorable the characters are. Arthur C. Clarke was good at incorporating hard science. But the most memorable character he ever came up with was made of silicon, wires, and plastic.

Previous captions do not apply.

One of the most brilliant series of books I’ve read, science-wise, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Red MarsGreen MarsBlue Mars. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read that incorporated so many fields of science so thoroughly or so well. But again… his characters don’t stand out in memory. Robert A. Heinlein, on the other hand, created plenty of memorable characters, but the science content of his stories was never close to being equal to Clarke or Robinson.

Heinlein, though, has certainly been the writer whose work most affected my own story-telling. So if I ever write a “real” science fiction novel, I think it’s safe to say that it’ll have memorable characters. Whether that happens or not… just wait and see.

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WTF is Speculative Fiction?

I describe myself as a “speculative fiction novelist.” Says so in the header of my website and on the banner that adorns my table when I do appearances, so it must be true. But evidently, it confuses people. So much so that I’m sometimes referred to in press as a fantasy writer or a science fiction author. Neither is quite accurate, though not exactly wrong, either.

This should be on everyone’s car, since we’ve all been there.

So what is speculative fiction? I can’t say it any better than Wikipedia: “Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history…”

So far, I’ve hit three of those groups: fantasy, dystopian, and superhero. And actually, my superhero series, The Many Deaths of Dynamistress, could also qualify as alternate history. I suppose in another ten years, my dystopian future book will also qualify as alternative history.

Some of you may have noticed that it says Science Fiction on the spine of the first Dynamistress book and on the back above the bar code. That’s because those codes (called BISAC codes) are pre-set by the Book Industry Study Group. They don’t have a listing for Speculative Fiction. And when Reckoning was nearly ready for publication, they also did not have one for Superheroes (though they do now, probably due to the email I sent them). So I had to choose between Fantasy and Science Fiction. I chose the latter because there’s a good bit of solid science in it, even though it obviously can’t give the results I chose. It’s really Science Fantasy, I suppose. But that’s not an official category, either.

Such is the ongoing quandary of the Spec-Fic writer. We often cross genres and have to pick one to use as a label. That’s why so many of us latch onto the Speculative Fiction label. It fits better, taking into account the mixing of these similar genres.

Not that kind of… oh, never mind.

So why do I write this stuff? Probably because it’s what I grew up reading. I’ve loved comic books ever since I was little. When I was thirteen, I discovered science fiction. A few years later, fantasy. For a long time, that was pretty much all I read, so it only stands to reason that I’d want to write it, too.

My first writing professor in college complained that my short stories, while serious, had a strong element of “popular” fiction in them. He apparently considered this to be a bit of a flaw. That’s okay, because I considered him to be a bit of an idiot.

It’s entirely possible to write “popular” or “genre” fiction that goes beyond the common expectations, to be “serious,” to make people think. And that’s something my table banner also says: “Fiction that makes you think.”

I like challenging peoples’ norms, pushing them outside their comfort zones. And Spec-Fic seems to contain the ideal set of genres in which to do this effectively, while also being entertaining.

And that’s why I love it.

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