Archive for December, 2016

TT: What to Do With Immortality

December 8, 2016

JANE: So, this time we’re going to discuss the third and final of your sub-categories of “immortals among us” stories, those in which the immortals use the experience garnered through their longer lives to deal with the challenges that come up in the course of the novel.

I’d love to pick the first example.

ALAN: Be my guest!

Immortal Tales

Immortal Tales

JANE: My choice is This Immortal by Roger Zelazny.  In it we meet Conrad, who, when he realized he was living a lot longer than he should without apparently aging beyond his thirties, decided to continually reinvent himself.  However, he’s far from a passive observer.  He’s been a revolutionary, and explorer, and many other things.

In addition to writing a compelling narrative focused on Conrad’s current problem (having to guide a problematic alien visitor to Earth), Zelazny also deals with the question of why an immortal would choose to hide his immortality, even if there is no overt fear of or prejudice against immortals.

ALAN: Yes, that’s always an issue. And of course it gets harder and harder to hide as our bureaucracies get more efficient and technology becomes more intrusive.

JANE: Hiding immortals is what natural disasters are for or wars…  Ooh, that would make for a dark, dark story.  Let’s get back to Conrad, before I think too much about that.

Although Conrad has tried to maintain relationships, in most cases friendship mutates into envy and fear as his friends age and he does not.  A good example of the reactions Conrad’s immortality triggers occurs early in the novel.  Conrad slips when idly chatting talking with his wife, Cassandra, mentioning things he couldn’t have known or done unless he is much older than he appears.  Cassandra is startled, then shocked, and, although they don’t have a fight over his hiding his age, they do become estranged.

This Immortal provides an excellent exploration of how, although a long life may give the immortal more experience and skills, these are gained at a very stiff price.

ALAN: This reminds me of a series of novels and short stories by Gene Doucette. The stories are published under the generic title Immortal. Not surprisingly, the books tell of the adventures of an immortal man.

The stories are set firmly in the twenty-first century. The immortal narrator is involved in a fairly routine bit of melodramatic blood and thunder over which, of course, he eventually triumphs. However because he’s been alive for such a long time, he can’t help but draw parallels between what he’s going through now and things that have happened to him in the past. This not only fills in his backstory to a certain extent, it also adds a degree of verisimilitude and a touch of humour that makes the stories quite appealing.

JANE: This does sound interesting.  Tell me more!

ALAN: So, for example, we learn that the first-person narrator was born some time during the early stone age when people were barely human and language consisted mostly of grunts. He thinks his name might have been Urrr, but he doesn’t really remember. For reasons that remain mysterious to him, he stopped growing older when he reached maturity and he has drifted through the ages ever since…

Urrr, who has recently taken to calling himself Adam because the joke appeals to him, is a complex character who reminds me a little bit of Conrad – he is cynical and witty, a keen observer of society as it changes around him, and he’s probably an alcoholic as well. He has spent most of the last umpty-ump thousand years drunk. This gives him an interesting perspective on life and the living of it.

JANE: We could go on listing titles and authors, but a few weeks ago, I mentioned a novel that effectively uses all three of the immortality tropes.  This is Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (published in 1967).  In Lord of Light, immortality has been achieved for a select few by the use of a technology that permits the essential “soul” of a person to be moved to a new body.  This, in combination with the ability to create custom bodies, has created an elite caste who have assumed the identities of various deities of the Hindu pantheon.

Not everyone in the immortal community is happy with how the technology is being used.  Among the most active of these rebels is Sam.  Sam keeps rebelling and keeps losing.  The novel is designed around a series of flashbacks as he meditates on his past attempts and what he learned from them.

By designing the novel this way, Roger provided a tremendously detailed look at his fictional planet’s history without forcing the reader to plod through it.  He also avoids one of the major problems I have with this sort of novel.

ALAN: What problem is that?

JANE: Well, at the risk of being extraordinarily catty, my problem with many of the books I’ve read in which immortals are characters is that there is no real sense of how they experience time.

Would being immortal make a person feel differently about day to day events?  Certainly that’s the mindset that underlies those books in which the immortals are plagued with ennui and become increasingly decadent.  Sometimes the decadence takes the form of mind-numbing drugs.  Sometimes the decadence takes the form of more and more extreme experiences – especially those involving sex and intimate violence.

However, I’ve never really believed that’s how immortals would experience life.

ALAN: Michael Moorcock seems to be thinking along those lines in the novels that make up the Dancers at the End of Time sequence. Certainly, his immortals exhibit all these traits.

JANE: I think what the “decadent bored immortal” interpretation misses is that – unless they are hugely different than humans in some way (a category into which I’m going to toss both vampires and elves), they would still experience life day by day.

Neil Gaiman captures this very well in the section of Sandman where Dream confronts the man who has held him captive for many years.

When Dream’s captor tries to excuse his action by pointing out that Dream is immortal, and so it wasn’t as if he actually robbed him of anything significant, Dream retorts that immortal or not, he still had to live through each day.  It’s a very powerful scene.

ALAN: The more I hear about Sandman, the more I wish I could read it as a prose narrative…

JANE: It is a prose narrative, just that the prose is enhanced with pictures.  You watch television and movies, don’t you?  But going back to our topic…

One of the elements in my novel Changer is the Lustrum Review.  For those of you who don’t want to go look up the word, a lustrum is five years.  One of the book’s editors questioned whether immortals would hold a convention every five years, wasn’t that too often?

I held to my position, pointing out that the Lustrum Review is as much a social occasion as a business event, and I felt that every five years was hardly often enough to have a chance to meet up with like-minded friends or to keep up with what one’s community was doing.

I suspect that in the past, before travel was both easy and affordable, the athanor might have had more regional meetings, but…  Ah, but I get off track.  My point is, I think immortals – and especially immortals who must live among a larger, shorter-lived community – would be very aware of the passage of time, and very eager to make the most of what they have.

ALAN: I suspect you may well be right. Clearly, therefore, if we want to learn the secret of immortality, all we need to do is identify and attend meetings of like-minded people that are held at regular intervals at various places. World Science Fiction Conventions, for example…

I’m sure that both of us could keep listing titles of books in which an immortal has the edge because of experience gained in a longer than human lifespan.  But I wonder what our readers might suggest.  I’m sure that there must be some that we have missed out on.


Writing Short to Write Epic

December 7, 2016

Last week I finished writing a short story.  Already, I can see potential for other stories in the same setting, built around the same central character.  The same thing happened with the last short story I wrote.  I suspect this is because no matter what element (a cool image, an interesting phrase, a “what if” thought, a provocative character) I begin with, in the end, what I write is character-driven.  Often I find myself wondering what those characters may do next.

A Few Fixups

A Few Fixups

Often when I talk with new writers (in which term I include not only newly-published writers, but also writers who are writing, but have yet to sell anything), it seems that their vision has jumped far beyond the “mere” short story.  They speak of epics, usually of at least three volumes, although nine are not uncommon.  Since many of these people have not yet written a prose narrative of any length (although often they have reams of notes, world-building concepts, and character biographies), I find myself boggled.

Back in the days of yore (roughly the late-1980’s) when I was moving from simply writing for my own amusement to trying to sell what I was writing, the common advice for new writers was as follows: Write short fiction.  Send it out.  When you start selling, you’ll be in a better position to find an agent or publisher for that novel-length work you have in mind, because you’ll have proven you can write professional prose.

About ten years ago, the markets for short fiction – which had been thinning even when I began trying to publish – began to flat-out vanish or, in cases like Fantasy and Science Fiction, publish less frequently.  Even today, as on-line-only publications like Lightspeed and Clarke’s World are beginning to fill in the void, finding a publisher for a short story is much, much harder.

Does this mean that writing a bunch of short stories that might not find a market is a bad idea?  Honestly, I don’t think so.  Short stories are a good way to hone one’s prose.  They teach you about narrative hooks – something that novels need throughout their length, not just at the start.  They teach you about economical characterization, which is valuable for making even minor characters jump off the page.  They teach you about pacing, about the necessary balance between plot, setting, and characterization.

Moreover, when I have encountered many of those would-be epic writers some years later, they are at precisely the same point, in part because the task they’ve set themselves is so enormous.  Hold on to that thought…  I’ll come back to it in just a bit.

However, first I want to deal with the protest I can hear forming.  Yes.  There are writers out there who seem to have jumped directly to writing novels without having written shorter work.  Often, if you look behind the scenes, “novel only” writers will have actually done some sort of apprenticeship at shorter lengths.

David Weber is a good example.  Even today his “short” stories are rarely under novella length.  However, how many of you know that, long before Weber started writing novels, he produced a lot of writing at a shorter length?  He wrote huge amounts of non-fiction for the publicity firm he ran (initially in collaboration with his mother).  Later he wrote for game design.  Both of these taught him how to write vivid prose.

Even though the markets for selling it have decreased, short fiction need not be “wasted” writing.  Many of the early SF/F novels were actually expansions or collections of shorter works featuring the same characters and settings.  These collections have been saddled with the term “fixups,” as if the collection was an afterthought.  In some cases it may have been, in others –as in my own example – the writer may have been thinking from the beginning about how those shorter stories would eventually provide the elements in a more complex tale.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction makes an impassioned argument in favor of the fixup, noting that as a form it may be the best way for an author to produce work of epic scope.  Their example is from Heinlein, but another good example is James Blish’s Cities in Flight.  Much classic sword and sorcery, including Howard’s tales of Conan the Barbarian and Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, were fixups.

Ironically, as print fiction seems to have forgotten this model, television and movies both have adopted it as a means of building a complex story arc and providing the viewers with both the satisfaction of a complete episode and the sense that a larger tale is unfolding.

Another alternative is writing a novelette or novella that could later be expanded into a novel.  Roger Zelazny did this with several works, including Damnation Alley and The Dream Master (based on the story “He Who Shapes).  I’m sure many of you could offer examples from other authors’ works.

So, here’s a thought for all you would-be writers of epics.  Maybe the best way to your goal would be to try being writers of short fiction.  You’ll achieve your epic scope in small stages, with the added bonus of producing readable tales long before the doorstop book would ever be completed.

FF: Espionage, Tall Ships, Ninjas!

December 2, 2016

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine).

Ziggy Reads

Ziggy Reads

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.  Full story, but ends with a set-up for a sequel.

The Golden Ball and Other Stories by Agatha Christie. Audiobook.   Agatha Christie had more range than people realized.  These tales are very much in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse.  Collection also included some of the short stories from her fantasy/horror collection The Hound of Death.

N or M by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  Tommy and Tuppence have been told they’re too middle aged to be of use in this “new” war, but then a peculiar problem arises and they may be just the people to deal with it.

In Progress:

Wildwood by Colin Meloy.  Younger YA or middle grade adventure.

The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brien.  Audiobook.  I’ve read the whole series, but it’s been a long time.  I don’t remember much about this one specifically, but I do recall it was a particular favorite.


Continuing Naruto re-read with issue 33 and following.  Also, as Christmas draws closer, looking through a lot of crafts books.

TT: Technological Immortality

December 1, 2016

JANE: So, Alan, last time you pointed out that one of the difficulties with the SF variant of the Gilgamesh Gambit is that in many cases the science is so futuristic that it might as well be magic.

I agree.  A good example of that is the evolution toward a bodiless state that humans apparently achieve in Clifford Simak’s City.  If I recall correctly, Simak never explains exactly how this happens.  He’s more interested in exploring what would happen on Earth after most of the humans have left.

Reviewing Options for Immortality

Reviewing Options for Immortality

ALAN: I’d never thought of that as an aspect of immortality, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I think you are quite right.

JANE: Although the technology isn’t always spelled out, I think Larry Niven did an excellent job in exploring some of the consequences of technologically extended longevity in his “Known Space” stories.  The stories collected in  The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, for example, look at what might happen if organ transplant technology permitted people to live as long as there was a supply of new parts.

Lucas Garner, who provides a touchstone in several of Niven’s “Known Space” stories, is so old that – despite various technological advances that keep him alive, he needs a “float chair” to get around because he’s reached a point where the cells in his spinal cord can’t regenerate anymore.  Yet Garner remains full of curiosity – far from the dulled ennui that is so often the default position of technological immortals.

ALAN: Sometimes when the technology is spelled out in detail it can have quite a feeling of plausibility. James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels (1956 – 1962) have protagonists who are essentially immortal. The cities that they live in travel around the universe looking for work. Vast expanses of time are consumed in doing this. But because all the viewpoint characters are immortal, the continuity of the narrative is preserved (along with their lives, of course!) Blish lays the groundwork for this very convincingly.

JANE: You recommended these books a while back and I read them and found them surprisingly fresh.  For those of our readers who haven’t had the pleasure, can you explain more?

ALAN: Certainly. The background to the story arc is described in the first novel in the series (They Shall Have Stars) which is made up of two separately published novellas together with some linking material. The original novellas were “Bridge” and “At Death’s End”.

“Bridge” tells of the building of a bridge made of Ice IV on the surface of Jupiter. The measurements taken by the project lead to a mechanism that can manipulate gravity (nicknamed the “spindizzy”), which is eventually used to power the flying cities. “At Death’s End” concerns some pharmaceutical research which culminates in the discovery of “anti-agathic” drugs that prevent aging. The novel goes into great detail about both projects – I seem to recall that the narrative even includes some mathematical equations!

JANE: Another neat thing about these books is that by combining the concepts of spindizzy technology and anti-agathic drugs, Blish was able to write some first class sense of wonder SF, rather than becoming bogged down with problems like overpopulation, unemployment, lack of resources, and all the rest that can really cripple stories where the community, rather than a few individuals, are effectively immortal.

ALAN: Modern scientific opinion suggests that structures in the cells known as telomeres might be involved in the aging process. Perhaps drugs that modify the telomere structure could greatly extend a person’s lifespan? Charles Sheffield used this idea in two novels: Aftermath (1998) and Starfire (1999).

On the surface, the novels are actually disaster stories – Alpha Centauri has exploded in a nova, and the resulting electromagnetic pulse destroys all advanced electronics on Earth. The books tell of the efforts involved in recovering from that crisis. However a major plot thread involves several protagonists who have been undergoing advanced medical treatment for cancer. The treatment requires varying doses of special drugs based on careful monitoring of their telomeres. Not only are their cancers now in remission, their bodies also seem to be rejuvenating themselves as well! Maybe immortality is just around the corner.

When the disaster strikes, the equipment they have been using for monitoring their telomeres stops working. They urgently need to find an alternative…

JANE: What I find interesting about this is the double whammy.  These people don’t only get a remission from cancer, they get immortality.  Is this an immortality they plan to share or are they only in it for themselves?

ALAN: The treatment is so new and experimental that the question hasn’t been examined yet. Selfishly, though perfectly understandably, the few people who have received the treatment are more concerned with their own survival than they are with anything else.

JANE: Hmm…  I prefer my SF with more focus on implications.

Another form of technological immortality is immortality by cyborg.  Interestingly, the two examples that spring to mind for me combined this with putting the human/computer hybrid into a spaceship.  Clifford Simak did this in Shakespeare’s Planet where the ship is handled by not one but three human brains.

Anne McCaffery built a series around the concept with her The Ship Who Sang. The sequels, co-written with a variety of collaborators, expanded the concept beyond spaceships.

ALAN: She considered this to be her best work, the book she was most proud of. I heard her read from it on a couple of occasions. She always chose to read the scene set at the funeral service for the ship’s mortal, human companion. She read it beautifully, though invariably it moved her to tears. And I must confess that I had a little lump in my throat as well as I listened to her. The story packs a very emotional punch.

Closely related to the idea of a cyborg, is the concept of “immortality by upload.”  I first came across it in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 novel The City and the Stars where the minds of the inhabitants of the far future city of Diaspar are stored as patterns of information in the city’s Central Computer from where they can be transferred into cloned bodies.

JANE: And it’s been done repeatedly since.  I’m sure our readers could supply more current titles.

Whether the immortality is achieved by brain transplant, partial body replacement, or upload the question arises as to how much of the physical body can be removed while still leaving the subject human.  In this way, SF adds to the age-old debate as to whether the mind, the “spirit,” or the body is at the core of what makes us what we are.

One of the things that’s interesting about stories that feature immortal characters is that ones like those in the  “Cities in Flight” sequence that tackle the idea of entire communities of immortals are comparatively rare.  More common are those wherein there is a smaller community of immortals living  side-by-side with those who age more “normally.”  Often the immortals choose to keep their long lives a secret.

ALAN: Quite right.  And these kinds of stories define my third category: those stories in which the immortals use the experience garnered through their longer lives to deal with the challenges that come up in the course of the novel.

JANE: Let’s extend the lifespan of this topic and deal with this point next time!