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Howard Hendrix Advice

But What Will the Neighbors Think?:
Writing Science Fiction and Other Strange Business

by Howard V. Hendrix

(Biographical note: Dr. Hendrix has a Ph.D. in English Literature and is the author of several SF novels (Lightpaths, Standing Wave, Better Angels, & Empty Cities of the Full Moon). He is not only shelved next to, but also favorably compared to Robert Heinlein [lucky dog! :-)], both in style and Libertarian philosophy. His web page is at http://www.howardvhendrix.com. This article is presented here with his permission and is the text of a talk he gave in April 2001 to the Valley Independent Publishers group.)

I begin with a quote from my forthcoming novel, Empty Cities of the Full Moon. The scene is a crafts fair one of the novel's characters, Tomoko Fukuda, has wandered into. She approaches a booth where an artist is at work. The artist has positioned a floating holographic interview with himself next to the sign for his booth, which he hopes will keep the passers-by from asking him any stupid questions that might interrupt his work:

The booth's proprietor, a long-haired, thickly-bearded, fiery-eyed individual, both a glassblower and metalsmith, would have served admirably as model for Bluebeard in an historical illustration. He was featured in a trideo interview floating in space near the sign, which caught Tomoko's attention. "I became an artist because putting up a cross in my backyard and nailing myself to it every morning would annoy the neighbors." Despite herself, Tomoko smiled at the craftsman's recorded words.

I suppose I was not in an Easter mood when I wrote the somewhat facetious lines above, but I think they do have some relevance as we approach Easter 2001. Any artist comparing him or herself to a world savior like Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed would likely be comparing small things with great, and in the case of a science fiction writer like me this might seem even more outlandish.

Perhaps, however, it may not seem so outlandish to think of that Calvary scene of crucifixion in terms appropriate to an artist. Poor Jesus, another wrongful victim of the death penalty, up there dying on the cross, looks out over the crowds watching this execution and, the Bible tells us, he says, "Forgive them, Father -- they know not what they do." Looking out over the crowd, though, did he wonder if they understood what he was trying to do? Did they "get" his life and work? Might Jesus just as easily have said "Forgive them, Father -- they know not what I do"? They don't get it?

That is the artist's moment.

So even a science fiction writer -- someone who's primary task is supposedly to entertain -- may be forgiven for taking at least somewhat seriously the idea of "science fiction writer as prophet." No, not with an "-f-i-t" and not in the literal sense of predicting twenty years ahead of time some new technology like geostationary satellites or the actual name of the first man to set foot on the moon (science fiction writers' speculations that have actually "come true" -- Arthur C. Clarke for the former and Robert Heinlein for the latter).

Despite such happy chances, I must assert that prediction is a sideline -- not the main business of either the science fiction writer or the prophet. If their spheres of work intersect at all, it's in the realm of warning, for when they are serious both say to their audience, "If this goes on, then woe unto you and your children and your children's children." As a writer who is struggling to pull off serious literature in a popular form, my favorite prophetic hobby-horses are social injustice, the abuse of power that hides itself under the mask of religion, death of individual consciousness in a media-saturated world, but most especially the human shortsightedness and selfishness that underlies overpopulation and environmental destruction. An example of almost all of these can be found in a passage (p. 146- 149) of my second novel. Standing Wave which came out in 1998 (READ PASSAGE).

An even more overtly politicized "reminiscence," specifically in regard to Fresno, can be found on pages 162-163 of that same book. Obviously I think art and politics do meet, and that writers who claim to be "apolitical" are just tacitly supporting the status quo -- whether consciously or not. I'm no less political today, though I am a less polemical writer than I was when I wrote Lightpaths ten years ago or Standing Wave four and a half years ago or even than when I wrote Better Angels almost three years ago. As I've gotten older I've gotten sneakier -- or as literary critics would have it, "more subtle."

Maybe "prophet" is too grandiloquent a term for this; maybe "canary in a coal mine" is better. Some of you may recall why coal miners used to carry canaries with them down into the mines. The birds were more sensitive to the presence of colorless and odorless poisonous gases than were the miners themselves. If the birds started to act strangely, it was a strong sign to the miners that they should not continue along in the same direction -- "If this goes on. . . ."

Why anyone would want to be a human version of a coalmine canary escapes me, even as I am one. Let's face it, there's not much profit in being a prophet who speaks uncomfortable and unpopular truths to a world full of people who want to be comfortable and popular. As Buckminster Fuller once put it, "You can either make money, or make sense." As a science fiction writer odds are not only that you won't make much money, you won't even get respect. "Oh? What do you write? Science fiction? I never touch that stuff." In the halls of the literary establishment, from creative writing programs to the New York Times Book Review, science fiction is perceived as a formulaic, bastardized, ghetto subliterary form -- all too often rightly. The voting for most of the awards is more rigged than an election in Iraq or even Florida. Even your fellow writers can be a distressing lot, too many of them self-serving narcissistic careerists, incarnations of the premise that success as a writer is directly proportional to failure as a human being, or as I put it in one of my novels, "People are like rubberband airplanes -- the more twisted they are, the further they fly."

So why do it? Because in my forthcoming novel. Empty Cities of the Full Moon, it lets me do this :

Time and again Simon tried to make them see the pandemic process the way he himself still thinks of it: an unexpectedly shape-shifted protein, shifting in turn the shape of brain enzymes into conformity with its own warped and warping form, setting off a brain chain-reaction, a "seeding" of the sparking cloudforest inside the skull, until brainstorms whip and twist through the trees, bend the stems and trunks, knock down the lianas of that forest, a great electrochemical storm plaguing one mind after another, roaring silently among them, until the insanity explodes into the world, again and again, all the paths roads streets alleys hallways of human settlement running with blood, glittering with shattered glass, homes and high rises and skyscrapers burning, exploding, toppling, pipes bursting, transformers raining sparks, powerlines going down, bridges collapsing, rivers choking on corpses, boats and ships slipping under the waves, aircraft and spacecraft falling from the sky as madness sweeps the world. . .

Or this (from p. 338-339 of Lightpaths):

The van of angels surrounded him completely then and Roger had a final vision. It seemed he saw every mind in all the universes, each decision shedding photons but also generating a minuscule black hole, a subnano-singularity. On the other side of each of those tiny black holes, a nearly parallel universe branched off. The road not taken here was taken there. As he watched, Roger saw that the total number of universes in the cosmos was essentially infinite, but with this peculiarity: from within any given universe, only that particular universe was "real" -- all the infinitude of others was at best only "virtual". This appeared to be true for each and every one of the universes -- but not, he noticed, for each and every inhabitant of all the universes. Larkin's sister here/brother there angelic pair flickered through his head once again. Parallel lines could meet in the space of mind, and mind in fact seemed to be nothing less than these meetings, the membranous infinity of portals and gateways between universes, the entire plenum of universes, the compassionate void conserving possibility and information the way the universe he'd been born into conserved matter and energy. He seemed to stand inside a great spherical golden tree, boundless in its rooting and branching but also rooted and branching in him, truly center everywhere/circumference nowhere, a tree of light aswarm with the activity of bees, fireflies, flashes of moving light, a vast Arc of information and Hive of possibility, enormous plenum ArcHive, flashing infinite of Mind Thinking --

Or this (from Empty Cities again):

Then they are all, with him, falling back down infinity's rainbow, back through the many universes of the plenum this single universe has touched. Trillia sees all the rusts and vines and weeds of abandonment stripped away. She looks again at the crowded and complexified world of prepandemic civilization, its glowing towers, monoliths, ziggurats, and monuments to itself, the roar of its airways and seaways and highways, the buzz and whir of all its communications -- and then sees in turn all that world unbuilding itself, not in the decay and delapidation of collapse and ruin but in the running backwards of all the original making and constructing, backward and backward, unbuilding and unbuilding, shrinking and contracting, the fabric of shelter shifting from concrete and plastic, to brick and stone, to wood and wattle, to hide and cave. Machines of quantum and code disappearing into machines of combustion and steel, into machines of iron and steam, into animal muscle rolling wheels and pulling plows and grinding grain, into human muscle wielding metal and clay, wood and stone, antler and bone. Tamed animals and grains escaping again into their wild ancestral forms, humans chasing after them, until those who chase cease to be human --

I have occasionally and successfully written what is known as "literary fiction." Generally, however, I stick with my own quirky brand of science fiction, because for all its constraints it allows me considerable freedom, most importantly the freedom to be the unlucky, unschmoozing, non-brownnosing person I am and not have to play the connection game, which I'm no good at anyway. I have followed a rather lonely and stubborn path to achieve what small success I have. For anyone who wants to "break in" as a science fiction writer, I wouldn't recommend my path to you. I can, though, give you a general four-point overview of what I think are key milestones in the writing life, so here they are:

1) Find your voice. The best way to do this is to read a lot and write a lot -- particularly in the type of writing you want to engage in yourself. Creative writing programs and summer writing workshops can be helpful in this regard (including those like the Clarion Workshops, specifically aimed at would-be science fiction writers) but they are no substitute for vision, persistence, and familiarity with the type of writing you want to do. When I was younger I generally avoided involvement with such programs and workshops, for both literary and science fiction, largely out of a fear that such "professionalizing" courses would conform the way I write to their models, not my own (a fear that may or may not be unfounded). It is undeniable that such programs and workshops are good places to get sometimes very valuable feedback -- and even make connections, if you're not so idealistic, foolish, and naive (as I have been) as to think that the importance of your work should be self-evident.

2) Find your agent/editor. Luck and connections are far too important in this one. As I said, I am not very good at the business of connections and, if there's a gene for luck, no one in my family was ever born with it. The road of persistence, vision, and familiarity with your craft will eventually work here too, but it's a high, hard road. Essentially what you're hoping to find here is the first important reader after yourself -- an agent or editor who thinks your work has enough merit and potential that she or he will go to bat for it.

3) Find your audience. This one is particularly tough, because many authors stop thinking about audience after they please their first audience (agent or editor, sometimes merely themselves) . Many of us don't think about the fact that the hypothetical reader or audience we as writers have in our heads simply does not match the world of actual physical readers "out there". It's probably a good thing to just write what you write and not spend too much time second guessing what your actual reading audience might want -- but if you're being published by some transnational corporate media behemoth (as I am, my publisher Ace Books being part of Berkley Publishing Group, which is in turn part of Penguin Putnam, which is in turn part of Pearson media, et cetera, et cetera), remember that ultimately these folks are in it not for love but for money. If my novels don't keep selling, my publisher will let them go out of print and will not want to buy any more books from me. So far this hasn't happened, but I know it could and I realize that it happens to other authors all the time. Even independent and small press publishers (who often do have more love than money to their equations and have often published my work in the past, bless 'em) -- even they must watch the bottom line in the end, so it's probably a good idea for a writer to be aware of who the audience might actually be, without letting that awareness dominate one's writing process.

While you're in the process of finding voice, finding editor, finding audience, however, 4) Don't lose yourself. In your writing, strive always to be authentic to who you are. This is much more difficult than it sounds. In 1997, several months before my first novel appeared, I was talking with a veteran science fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. I said to Harlan, "Look, all I want from this business is to be able to keep my integrity." Harlan looked at me and said, "Integrity? Just try to keep your sanity!"

I guess that's why, in my novel Better Angels, I have a character say, "Are you willing to risk madness to reach truth?" Or why I also have this passage:

Jiro sat bolt upright. He knew that he was dead, but his mouth still worked. "!begursprocketbombonanacatl?" he mouthed. He was trying to say how, if you try to throw your arms around the world, they'll nail you to a cross and say it was a workplace accident because you were employed as a carpenter.

See your visions, and persist in them -- no matter what the neighbors think. Thank you.

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