Writing

Types of stories

All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. – Leo Tolstoy

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. – Joseph Campbell

Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth – Christopher Booker

Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and the Man-Who-Learns-Better – Robert Heinlein

And many, MANY more

Futurism vs fiction

In science fiction, the imagined world supports the story; in futurism, the story supports the imagined world.

It’s a simple but crucial difference, and one that too many casual followers of foresight work miss. If a futurist scenario reads like bad science fiction, it’s because it is bad science fiction, in the sense that it’s not offering the narrative arc that most good pieces of literature rely upon. And if the future presented in a science fiction story is weak futurism, that’s not a surprise either — as long as the future history helps to make the story compelling, it’s done its job.

Futurists and science fiction writers often “talk shop” when they get together — but fundamentally, their jobs are very, very different. – Jamais Cascio

The impossible and the improbable

Some good guidance on which technique to use depending on what you want to say:

It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction the improbable made possible; fantasy the impossible made probable. – Rod Serling

Designing for imagination

Some good thoughts about the future of books, reading, and the imagination:

Looked at against richer media, it’s kind of amazing that books still exist at all. They don’t move. They can’t carry a tune. They’re simply not capable of the kind of visual beauty that we can get elsewhere in the media ecosystem…

The thing about books, though, is that it’s not their primitive components that make them work. It’s the imagination of the reader, and that is an incredibly potent — and timeless — media tool. The power of a book comes from the act of reading it…

What do we want the act of imagination that we call “reading” to look like and feel like in the future?

A couple good examples included as well.

Russia’s sci-fi strategist

On the heels of thinking about design as politics comes an interesting mention of Vladimir Putin’s close advisor Vladislav Surkov, who also happens to be a novelist:

The Kremlin’s approach might be called “non-linear war,” a term used in a short story written by one of Putin’s closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, which was published under his pseudonym, Nathan Dubovitsky, just a few days before the annexation of Crimea. Surkov is credited with inventing the system of “managed democracy” that has dominated Russia in the 21st century, and his new portfolio focuses on foreign policy. This time, he sets his new story in a dystopian future, after the “fifth world war.”

Surkov studied theater direction at the Moscow Institute of Culture before moving into advertising, PR, and finally politics. One of his stated goals is to establish a national ideology for modern Russia:

If we in Russia do not create our own discourse, our own public philosophy, our national ideology that would be acceptable for the majority of our citizens (at least for the majority, and preferably for all), then they are simply not going to talk to us and reckon with us.

But he has still found the time to write essays, rock lyrics, and even novels:

In his spare time Surkov writes essays on conceptual art and lyrics for rock groups. He’s an aficionado of gangsta rap: there’s a picture of Tupac on his desk, next to the picture of Putin. And he is the alleged author of a bestselling novel, Almost Zero.

And like any true artist, he also has a rival and sworn enemy, the poet and novelist Eduard Limonov, who takes a different approach:

Eduard Limonov and Vladislav Surkov hate each other. But in many ways they are very similar because both are convinced that western democracy is a complete sham – and both are trying to create political alternatives to what they see as the second wave of stagnation that took over Russia in the 1990s.

The most interesting thing about this to me is how Surkov’s “art” seems to influence his work and vice versa. His writing has been scoured for clues about Russia’s plans with mixed success–but the fact that any such writing exists is statement enough. Can you imagine Valerie Jarrett or Karl Rove publishing political fiction while advising the president? The writing shapes cultural acceptance of the policies to come, and is simultaneously a way to prototype and imagine more future ideas. Another example of design–through fiction–changing culture.

Science fiction + science fact

Michael Abrash, head of Valve Software’s augmented reality efforts, talks about why he’s joining Oculus. It’s interesting how he focuses on the imagined experience from the books as much as the technology, which meanwhile proceeds along its own path. Blending the two is a powerful combination.

Sometime in 1993 or 1994, I read Snow Crash, and for the first time thought something like the Metaverse might be possible in my lifetime. Around the same time, I saw the first leaked alpha version of Doom…

Fast-forward fourteen years…

Then two things happen at about the same time. On one path, Palmer develops his first VR prototype, John and Palmer Luckey connect, Oculus forms and its Kickstarter is wildly successful, DK1 ships, and John becomes Oculus CTO. Meanwhile, I read Ready Player One, strongly recommend it to several members of the AR group, and we come to the conclusion that VR is potentially more interesting than we thought, and far more tractable than AR.

The Winston Primer

I’ve been rereading The Diamond Age and understanding a lot more about the “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” which plays a major role. So it was awesome to see that some Pixar veterans have started to create something very similar for the iPad…right down to the ractors:

Speech engineers interpret the data daily, and alert writers to fresh answers. In one Fireside Chat Winston asks, “What is your favorite ball?” The staff came up with all the ball types they could think of, but in testing the app several kids replied “gumball.” Since that was not in the lineup, the writers concocted a quip to respond to “gumball” and added it to the database…

So far, more than 3,000 lines have been recorded. The ToyTalk team expects to add fresh material to the app every week. And there’s also a full-time voice actor on staff to record the dialogue.

The rise of everyday writing

Something easily forgotten but remarkable when noticed–we write more as a society today than ever before. An excerpt from Clive Thompson’s new book:

Every day, we collectively produce millions of books’ worth of writing. Globally we send 154.6 billion emails, more than 400 million tweets, and over 1 million blog posts and around 2 million blog comments on WordPress. On Facebook, we post about 16 billion words. Altogether, we compose some 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media — the equivalent of 36 million books.* (The entire US Library of Congress, by comparison, holds around 23 million books.)

And what makes this explosion truly remarkable is what came before: comparatively little. Before the Internet, most people rarely wrote for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college.

The first paragraph

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be. That’s why writing a book of short stories is much more difficult than writing a novel. Every time you write a short story, you have to begin all over again. – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

No small ideas

This is why I love SF. I love to read it; I love to write it. The SF writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities. It’s not just ‘What if’ – it’s ‘My God; what if’ – in frenzy and hysteria. The Martians are always coming.