Black Dragon now at The Edge of Propinquity

Title says it all. My short story Black Dragon is now up at The Edge of Propinquity, edited by Jennifer Brozek.
Link here

Below: Jennifer (right) and Carol Ryles at Worldcon.

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why you should read military SF

A discussion of a Worldcon panel ‘Military SF revisited’ with panel members Toni Weisskopf (Baen’s editor of military SF), Howard Tayler (Hugo nominee and cartoonist of military SF) and Jean Johnson (novelist)

What is it with the military in Science Fiction?

I’m not talking solely of the subgenre military SF, a market well and truly cornered by Baen’s, but the fact that the military has a place in a lot of SF. In fact, point me to an SF novel that doesn’t involve military, militia or police.

I think the reason may be this:

In order to mount large operations, and space flight and space colonisation are prime examples of large operations, you need to have an organisation with tight discipline and fairly authoritarian decision-making processes. A military-style organisation is supremely suited to fill that spot.
They could be mercenary armies or merchant forces, but it is likely they will all function to a fairly rigid command structure. The military provides logistics, rescue and defense and simply people to do things.

Hence, military SF.

This was a very well-attended and emotional panel. It was the last panel of the day. The room was packed. I mean emotional in that it engaged a wide range of emotions. There were many panels I enjoyed and found useful, but this was the one where I felt most ‘right’.

Toni started by asking the audience who had served in the military (many hands went up), or who had a family member who had. I fall in the latter category. My father was an air traffic controller in the air force for seven years. He’d taken a civilian job by the time I was old enough to remember, but military life was still fresh for him. If I remember anything about my youth, it’s his stories of life in the barracks. Mostly, they’re stories of discipline, of consequences. This is precisely what I like about the military. The discipline is harsh, but the consequences of not following protocol and orders are clear and straightforward. In fact, I believe that every parent-to-be should hear or read these stories so they can understand the sequence order, disobedience, consequence.

Today, perhaps thankfully, the military is a long way from the lives of a lot of people. Most countries have abolished compulsory conscription. On the other hand, governments make decisions that require military involvement. In other words: someone’s got to do the dirty work. People go out and serve in whatever locality the government decrees, most often in third world countries these days, and find themselves in hostile territory once they return home. Their former civilian friends have seen the brutal images on tv; they never agreed with the government sending troops anyway, and why can’t we all get along and be happy. Who needs the military anyway?

One of the functions military SF can fulfil is to bridge that gap, by making soldiers’ lives real through fiction.

And ‘real’ is neither good nor bad.

Military SF as subgenre is about the military, with military applications and problems, but not the glorifying of killing (Toni called this military porn). Military SF can involve an army representing a government, a private force or mercenaries. Characters often face crises of command. The military doesn’t have to be portrayed as either good or bad (there are examples of both within military SF). Most often, the military just is, a part of life, necessary. Sadly, perhaps, but necessary.

It is important that the writer knows the military, and has access to readers in the military. The everyday situation of soldiers is important, a life which is often monotonous and involves a lot of waiting.

For me personally, this panel put a lot of pieces into place. I had previously been hesitant to call my upcoming novella Charlotte’s Army military SF. It does involve a character in the military, but being a doctor, she’s on the outside. The story neither glorifies nor vilifies the armed forces, and involves a serious breach of command.

Military SF further allows us to look at the military aside from the political baggage that it comes with in the real world. Whereas a novel about a present-day military situation always draws questions about whether or not the conflict is justified, stupid, racist, or whatever, in SF, the adversaries aren’t real, and military processes and attitudes take centre-stage. Hidden in the pages of military SF are gems about human behaviour, about social structure, and about human reactions in extreme situations.

For all the reasons above, you could do worse than pick up a military SF novel.

P.S. Howard Tayler is an incredibly fun person, aside from his amazing boots (does anyone have a picture of his boots?). While most nominations for graphic novel involved an entire team of writers and artists, Howard does Schlock Mercenary all by himself. I haven’t read graphic novels, but meeting him makes me think I should check them out.

write what you know

Notes from a Worldcon panel led by Kaaron Warren with Jack Dann and Kim Stanley Robinson. This post is based on my own interpretation of the information. Feel free to comment below if you wish to correct anything.

Write what you know is one of the things workshop leaders and more experienced writers say to new writers in workshops, and that statement is the cause of much lamenting amongst those aspiring writers, because, really, what do we know? We’re boring wannabes with boring, suburban lives coloured by our western culture. We’re McDonalds and Desperate Housewives or Four Corners, New Scientist or The Financial Australian, and everything in between, but we’re not special, not interesting. Writing what we know would result in much same-ness, much bland-ness, much white-and-middle-class-ness because to be fair, what do most of us really know about other cultures, about crime and violence, about life in the 16th century, or, for that matter, about space travel?

Enter Kim Stanley Robinson.

It may come as a surprise to people who have read his Mars books, as it certainly was to me, that he holds a degree in English. I personally would have pegged him for a geologist, but there you go. Not a scientist at all. He says that if you write what you know, you have very little to say beyond an autobiography which in most cases wouldn’t be very interesting. Apparently Isaac Asimov was an agoraphobic who spent most of his days in his apartment. Did either IA or KSR write what they knew? Most certainly not.

Instead, they wrote what what they could find out.

Ah, research. Google, the library. Get every detail. Bury yourself in years of factual research, because, as Jack Dann reminded the audience tongue-in-cheek, the unspoken ‘rule’ is that only 10% of facts end up making it into the book. Writers are meant to have this vast store of factual knowledge about their subject that somehow gets stored in books full of notes.

Hold the phone.

Well, the books of notes may happen. But sometimes they do not. You may be writing about an obscure, or even less obscure, part of history about which there may not be all that much information, or about which the information you find is so exactly what you need to complete the story that you may not need to go any further. Of course, you usually end up becoming interested in the subject, and read more than required anyway, but that aside.

Kim Stanley Robinson said that for his Galileo book, he could find only 20 or so texts directly relevant to the subject. Some were in Italian only. For his Mars books, he obviously delved deep into everything we knew about the planet, a lot of which is based on various re-hashings of the same data, and about planetary atmospheres in general, but obviously no one knows the fine detail of going to Mars.

Neither does pure information convey a sense of reality, of a ‘feel’ for the place or the characters, which, as Jack Dann said, is vital for writing a story that engages the reader. All three writers agreed that it’s often more about the experience than about the facts.

Kaaron said that she lived in Fiji for a number of years and uses the experiences of daily life in Suva in her writing, not always in obvious ways.

Kim Stanley Robinson spent a few months in Antarctica to feel the sense of isolation. Experiences like this, while seemingly irrelevant to your subject matter, can prove very valuable. While you can find out the facts through books and online, there is a wealth of information for the writer in the small details of daily life that requires at the very least contact with someone who has experienced a particular environment. The small details make all the difference. He cited an example of an image of pine needles melting into the snow, which he used in one of his Mars books. The needles are warmed slightly by the sun and the process of deterioration and therefore sink deeper into the snow, creating little holes. If he hadn’t travelled to cold climates he would never have known this type of detail. It’s irrelevant in the general plot, but this type of detail makes a story real for the reader.

Jack Dann admitted to being not half as interesting.

But that’s OK.

Although Kim Stanley Robinson did a lot of research about the period, much of the actual information on Galileo he could find is in the book. He needed information on character, which is only found in a few lines in letters (apparently, Galileo was an arsehole). It is hard to come by this sort of information about real people, and it makes you realise that even historians have put their own interpretation on their writing. Everyone is coloured by the culture and time in which he or she lives. The line between fact and fiction becomes very thin. There are in fact people who believe we have already been to Mars.

But to get back to the subject, the trick is not to necessarily know a lot more than what is in the book, but to create the feel that the characters do. Don’t be timid to approach real-life researchers on a subject. Researchers love talking about their work. Often, the problem is not getting information from them, but getting them to shut up.

Read available books. Read what’s available online. Speak to experts if necessary, and let them check the results if you can. Most of all, try to get a ‘feel’ for your character and the setting by finding out as much detail about daily living conditions as you can, or by looking at similar settings.

Jack Dann pointed out the importance of being concise and clear in your use of language. If you don’t know the right word for a term, find out. Make sure the narrator sounds knowledgeable. This has more to do with writing technique than with the actual knowledge.

Kaaron Warren needed to write something about men on an oil rig, so she joined a chat group for them to become familiar with the vernacular.

Kim Stanley Robinson agreed, but also stated that it’s impossible to know everything. Readers will forgive you for this, as long as you don’t point at possible flaws, and gloss over trivial things that aren’t clear nor very important to the plot.

Overall, the mantra ‘write what you know’ probably does more harm than good. Kim Stanley Robinson even went as far as stating that it came from people like Hemmingway and Kerouac who had no imagination therefore they felt they needed to have experienced everything themselves (his words, not mine). Everyone, barring aliens who read this blog, is human, everyone knows human emotions. A story, a book, a trilogy is made up primarily of human emotions. This is what we know, and this is the main area in which a writer can stuff up. The facts you can find out.

Thanks Stan. You’re a legend.

Picture: Kim Stanley Robinson signing books. I got my copy of Red Mars signed by him (insert fangirl squee). I was enormously impressed by him, by his non-assuming manner and his interesting contributions to a number of panels I attended.