Category Archives: Fiction

A boy and his telescope

Some time ago, there was a terrorized, traumatized early teenage boy. He lived in a small industrial town, in which he did not fit, and he was socially awkward on top of that. For seven years, he would be the prime target for every form of social mistreatment that the minds of teenagers could imagine. This would leave him with PTSD, to the point where it would be perilous to come up behind him or surprise him with even a pretend threat. The experience and aftermath rewired his brain, as PTSD does. Its effects would haunt him even as his hair thinned, then faded to silver and white.

Few of the boy’s peers shared any of his cerebral/nerdly interests, and none shared his interest in astronomy. The town’s river valley was not an ideal region for stargazing, but one takes what one can get. On his eleventh birthday, his parents got him a new Sears, Roebuck 60mm telescope. The literature billed it as a 350x (with Barlow lens), including an image erecting prism, spotter scope, solar projection screen, and right-angle lens. Three eyepieces, from about 35x to 175x.

The telescope opened up an amazing world, though it also introduced the boy to the concept of deceptive advertising. The Barlow lens, which was supposed to double the power, ate up too much light to be useful at night. The image erecting prism and right-angle lens, at least, worked as advertised. It was only a 175x altazimuth mount telescope, without an equatorial mount or other bells and whistles, but for him it was great. On any clear night, the boy would be out there getting a closer look at the Crab Nebula, Saturn’s moons, the Andromeda Galaxy, the gorgeous array of tiny electric sapphires known as the Pleiades, the surface of Mars, and many more.

A nearby observatory was always willing to help when he phoned them to ask where a planet was, since he lacked those resources himself in pre-Internet days. By the time he was ready to graduate and leave the hellhole forever, he could always identify the planets unassisted. Jupiter? If it’s brilliant white, brighter than any star, and isn’t at sunset or sunrise (if it is, maybe it’s Venus instead), that’s all it can be. Mars? Like Jupiter, not quite as brilliant, and distinctly reddish. Saturn? About like a very bright star, but doesn’t flicker like one, and yellowish. Even a binoculars would show its rings, like a little flying saucer, but the telescope showed them in full clarity.

Life happened; college, graduation, underemployment, marriage, life crises, moves, healing, bereavement, surgery, technological advances. In spite of the PTSD, he gained enough perspective not to dwell upon the horrors of the past. With help from his wife, he overcame much of his social awkwardness; group events would still be work rather than play for him, but the man-once-a-boy would at least walk away from most such events feeling he had not embarrassed himself. And through almost half-a-dozen moves, the man still had his old boyhood telescope.

The man had always taken good care of it. He still had the documentation from Sears, Roebuck. It lacked only one small bolt to hold in place the little lamp on the accessory platform. A trip to Ace hardware, some lens wipes, and it could be ready to go. But there was a problem: it was forty years out of date. He would never again use it, and deep down, the man knew this. He was of an age when excess things were becoming impediments, especially fragile things–however beloved–that he would never use and enjoy. If the man wanted a telescope, he would buy an excellent modern one for the price of four or five hours of his labor.

The telescope, an old friend from the bad days, needed to begin doing someone some good. The man advertised on Craigslist for a deserving family with a precocious child, but didn’t advertise in the free section even though the telescope would be free of charge. The free section was the haunt of people who would happily say anything to make a gain. Other than a couple of kind comments, the man received no responses.

Then it occurred to him to phone the nearby elementary school. It was a STEM school, in a state where public educational funding was parsimonious. Would they like a telescope in good working order? Why, yes; yes, they would!

The man gathered together all the telescope’s parts, checking to see what might be missing. He loaded them into his vehicle, and went to meet the elementary school’s vice principal. She was excited at what the telescope might mean to her young charges. She explained that it was a high mobility school, that they typically saw a child for two years at most due to short apartment leases. She asked whether he would mind assembling it, and as he put it together for the last time, the man assured her that even a couple of good educational years–like those he had enjoyed in early youth, before his parents had moved him to the small town where he had been given the telescope–could get a child through ten years of hell. He held back most of the worst parts, but told the vice-principal enough about how hell looked that she got a little misty.

When it was assembled, and time to go, the man felt his own eyes watering. He laid a hand on the telescope’s white side, undented, unscratched, and cared for all these years. “See you later, old buddy. Teach the kids.”

It wasn’t the parting from a thing that made the man’s eyes moist. It was the memories the telescope had meant. It had been a rare thing of joy in a time with few joys.

He shook the vice-principal’s hand, thanked her for her time, accepted her polite thanks, looked one last time, and finally walked away from his old friend of the hardest times.

Sometimes, he thought, one has to give one’s old friend a chance to make some new friends.

The difficulties inherent in ‘semi-autobiographical’ writing work

I’d say that the majority of mss that come my way are semi-autobiographical fiction. I do not think that the authors realize the issues involved. The words ‘based on’ are the first signal. The second signal is when I get an hedgy answer to “is it fiction or non-fiction?”

Why is it such a frequent choice? Some of the following reasons may apply:

  • They want to write their own stories, or something akin to them, but with added fictitious events. Which raises the question: why add fiction, if the real story is interesting enough? The answer is that most of our real lives are more interesting to us, and to our loved ones, than to people who don’t know us (the paying customers).
  • It’s easier to use characters, places, situations and events they know; creating them is harder. Perhaps they were told ‘write what you know,’ and misunderstood what that meant.
  • They have a point they want to make, but do not want to do it in non-fiction, for whatever reason: privacy, liability, etc. That’s probably the most understandable reason, but it might be preferable to present it as non-fiction with some locations and participants changed.

Compare two sentences, and let me know which is easier to support:

  1. Everyone has a story, and if it feels good to write it, s/he should do so.
  2. Everyone’s story is equally marketable and fascinating to the audience, which is everyone.

Put less gently, we have a tremendous species tendency toward believing that our life stories are marketably interesting. And, perhaps, they are–to that small minority who are collectors of life stories. The other 314 million Americans need something beyond ‘but it’s my story.’ Absent that extra something, your audience was just pared down over 99%.

Long as people don’t mind that, they should continue the way they’re doing. But know: the first major storytelling divide is that between fiction and non-fiction. There is no true ‘semi-fiction.’ One asserts that the story is true, or does not.

In fiction, no one is asserting truth. The characters may be modified. The plot can change. Not only can we lie, it’s our job to lie in the most engrossing way possible. The reader accepts this, sets her bullshit detector on ‘plausible under the postulated circumstances,’ and takes a trip to a land of fancy.

In non-fiction, we invent nothing, unless we so specify and have a credible reason. What happened, happened. If we want to use pseudonyms, we indicate that we have done so. If we must reconstruct and approximate dialogue, not being ourselves eidetic, we admit this. We may leave out events as long as the choice does not slant the story away from fact, but we cannot make any up. There are no characters to create, simply participants to describe. The ending is as it occurred. We defy anyone to sue, for we assert that this is how it happened. The reader’s bullshit detector is set on ‘even a whiff will make me doubt every word.’

So what’s the matter? If it’s semi-autobiographical, why can’t we just label it fiction-with-winking? In fact, we must call it fiction. It is fiction. As the umpire said: they ain’t no close calls; they is either this or that. And from an editing standpoint, it’s fiction with a ball and chain attached. As editor, the shackle goes on my leg.

  • What if the events are very personal to the author? S/he may veto changes to the events, even if they make bad fiction, because they may be the reason s/he sat down to write.
  • What if it would make a better story for this character to do something unadmirable? Sorry, that’s his or her daughter: “No way would my daughter do that!” In fact, in fiction, it isn’t his or her daughter. It’s a fictional character in an untrue story, and for good story development, we have to be able to make her do whatever we want.
  • What if the author reaches very personal events where s/he very obviously breaks the fourth wall, and is clearly venting from the soul? How do I tell the author that this is unsuitable narrative and needs to be removed? “But I hurt BAD! I need to say this!” What will happen when I advise the author that this is amateurish and a turnoff, and that we are forgetting the ‘fiction’ part?
  • How am I going to tell the author anything about his or her protag? If adverse, that will come as a personal insult. It shouldn’t, in fiction; it’s okay to size up any character any way we want. But with semi-autobiographical, the little boundaries stymie such frank editorial assessments.
  • If we need the story spiced up, how’s an editor supposed to tell that to the semi-autobiographer? “‘Your’ life isn’t that exciting. Could we arrange for ‘you’ to empty a pistol into ‘someone?'” What kind of response will that likely elicit?

It is not that semi-autobiographical storytelling is an automatic nyet. It is not that it cannot be good. It is not that I don’t ever want to see or read or edit any again. I understand the motivations.

I also understand that I can’t talk anyone out of it. You’ve already written it, or already plan to write it. Thus, please take it with a smile and simple realism when I acknowledge that you will therefore ignore any suggestion from me that you change this course. If a person wants to write something, and has his or her mind made up about what it will be, the person will tune out everything but encouragement and approval. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I simply mention that I anticipate it, based upon experience, and that this is why I get so much semi-autobiographical fiction, and why my view of it begins with a certain skepticism about the prospects.

On to the helpful part. If a non-fiction presentation is unpalatable to you, and you want to write semi-autobiographical fiction anyway, but without the blinders that say “everyone wants to pay to read everyone’s story and that includes mine,” what ought you to do?

  • Classify it as fiction, without qualifiers, and resolve that no character or event is more sacred than the goal of quality storytelling.
  • Depersonalize the ‘you’ in the story, and ‘your’ loved ones, enough that we can speak of them as professionals, editor and author, without you taking offense. If I can tell you that your protagonist needs serious counseling, or belongs behind bars, and that won’t hurt your feelings, you have succeeded.
  • Do as much outright character invention as you can. This is fiction, so you may do this, and are encouraged to do it well. ‘Write what you know’ refers to regions, professions, hobbies, languages, and other esoterica where you can ring authentic without effort. It doesn’t mean to limit yourself to people whose actions you can predict because you know them. But show the reader that you can invent compelling characters, and show the editor that we may alter them if we can think of a better way.

Do those things, conscientiously, and you maximize our ability to turn your brainchild into something you can be proud to have authored.

Notes from the aliens’ survey, 4/13/2012

The sleek  “Tlai survey frigate ran under full stealth in Earth’s orbit.  It had arrived there two days prior, on a mission from Homeworld to investigate alien intelligences, civilizations and potential friends–or threats.  Ethnographer ‘Plaf, senior researcher, had directed the pilot to orbit for two full days while his staff gathered data.  It was the “Tlai way to be sincere, thorough, and intensely curious.  ‘Plaf had spent much of its day absorbing a great many fascinating departmental reports in preparation for the initial sharing of thoughts.

‘Plaf opened the meeting, then bade its staff present early research data in each’s specialty field.  Linguistics presented the shocking and dismaying report that Earth’s sentient species communicated in thousands of languages, which would take long enough to catalogue–far longer to understand, but they could decipher most of what was said or written in the nine or ten most widely spoken.  Fair progress.  Xenobiology had identified one sentient and several semi-sentient species, each with several racial variants.  Evidently racial variants weighed heavily on the minds of ‘Umaniti, as one widely-spoken language collectively called the sentient species.

“Very good, Xenobiologist li’Wal,” said ‘Plaf.  “Now let us examine a simple situation under close magnification, and see where the data lead us.  What issue do you feel would profit us to study?”

Li’Wal worked its keyboard.  Pictures popped onto the screen.  “Ethnographer, fellow researchers, here are two ‘Umaniti at the center of a large controversy on Landmass D.  One, the one on the left with the lighter flesh, is in the middle of their normal lifespan.  Unlike us, but like some other species, this species has genders:  one which bears young and one which seeds them; both are necessary for procreation, and in this case, both are of the seeding gender.  The one on the right with darker flesh is a youth.  There seems no doubt that the lighter-fleshed one slew the youth with a kinetic energy launcher.”

“Why would he slay a youth? Is this their norm?” asked Military Scientist Khaul.

“It is frowned upon everywhere, and prohibited in most places on the planet,” answered Judician ‘Faur.  “There is great controversy on Landmass D whether the violence was allowable.”

“Why would they consider it allowable?” asked ‘Plaf.

“It’s odd, Ethnographer,” said ‘Faur.  “There is no consensus.  A discredited fringe, all naturally of light flesh, evidently believes that persons of light flesh should justly do random violence to persons of dark flesh.  The majority of all flesh tones reject this view.  The fringe at the other end of the spectrum sees this as yet another act of war based on flesh tone, lighter versus darker, and is outraged that the killer will likely face no punishment.”

“Is it the reverse on Landmass B, where the majority are of dark flesh? Do those of lighter flesh feel the same where they are in the minority?”

“It seems so, but the historical circumstances differ,” offered Historian Xul. “South of the immense central desert on Landmass B, ‘Umaniti of dark flesh were once the sole residents.  Those of lighter flesh, mainly from Landmass A, arrived and subjugated Landmass B, carrying off many in forced labor.  No one on any of these landmasses has forgotten this captivity with the passage of time, though the practice is nearly extinct and has been for at least a hundred revolutions of the planet.  I have learned that those of dark flesh on Landmass D descend mainly from these captives.  They remain somewhat marginalized, and many resent this greatly, but not all.  A ‘Umaniti of dark flesh actually leads the most populous nation on Landmass D, though in reality he seems in between flesh tones.  However, he identifies himself as dark-fleshed, and most ‘Umaniti concur.”

Ethnographer ‘Plaf looked thoughtfully at the images.  “It makes one wonder why this leader does not correct the conditions.  Why is that, in your view, Politician Lr’uff?”

“His ‘Umaniti chose him as leader, Ethnographer, through a process that makes zero sense to me.  He has limited power.  He and his young-bearer evidently said what the population desired most to hear, in order to attain this office.  As nearly as I can see, his function is to accept credit for all that goes well, and blame for all that goes wrong.  Neither seems justified, but that is my read of their sentiment studying his predecessors.  Some have led during great scandal, some have barely bothered to do the job.  Some have spent more time in the procreational act with the young-bearing gender, one recently to great public embarrassment, especially for his mate.  Speaking of which, young-bearers are almost globally disadvantaged and deprived of power; in some factions they must cover their entire forms in sacks and have few privileges save to bear young upon command and do menial tasks.  A few of the leaders in Landmass D’s history seem to have been noble according to our values, which somewhat intersect with those of ‘Umaniti.   Most seem to have sought power primarily because ‘Umaniti value power over other ‘Umaniti.”

“Very well.  Back on the subject. Faur, please summarize the contending views regarding this slaying, and we shall see what they suggest to us.”

“Certainly, Ethnographer.  In the region where the event occurred, and in some other regions, the law allows anyone to slay another if he or she feels in fear of loss of life.  Many feel that this instance pushes the issue of slaying to an ethical breaking point accented by flesh tone, that the youth was killed simply for being in an area inhabited by light-fleshed ‘Umaniti, and his killer will now escape penalty for a death that did not need to be.  It is on nearly everyone’s speech apparatus in Landmass D, and dominates all media.  One source even made a breathless report that the killer, who is confined by the authorities awaiting the judicial process, spent money at the confinement center’s store.”

“How much did he spend?” asked ‘Plaf, bemused.  “Enough to purchase what, for example?”

“About enough to fully fuel two common fossil-fueled passenger vehicles, which would allow each to operate for 1/4 of a planetary rotation before running out.  An amount that would buy a high-quality meal for two ‘Umaniti at a dining establishment.”

“Why did this matter to anyone? Who imagined it would?” snorted ‘Plaf.  “Does not Landmass D have any other concerns of greater import than how much a confinee spent on what one assumes were petty comforts? Has Landmass D remedied all other social ills?”

“Far from it,” responded Lr’uff.  “This nation is deeply fragmented with great political hatred.  It has borrowed excessively.  Every sector of wealth believes that every other sector should pay to solve the problem, in one way or another.  It is involved in wars against two…abstract nouns.”

‘Plaf turned to Linguist Glrol.  “How would one wage war upon an abstract noun, Linguist?”

“My colleague is speaking semi-literally, but ‘Umaniti seem to take the matter almost literally.  They are at war with ‘controlled substances’–anyone associated with these substances, save legalized businesses that mass-produce the substances–and with ‘terror,’ by which they mean selected groups who launch terror attacks.  Li’wal may correct me if I err, but it seems to me that ‘Umaniti wage war against abstract nouns by means of faction-sanctioned terror attacks, which is ironic when we consider the hypocrisy.  One’s own faction’s terror attacks are a war against terror, thus not truly terror attacks.  Landmass D has no monopoly on this attitude–it seems nearly universal.  I defer to ‘Qorc’s greater consideration of that matter.”

“Philosopher ‘Qorc.  How much of ‘Umaniti’s logic is this self-serving and situational?” asked ‘Plaf.

“Much of it, Ethnographer, but by no means all.  Stripped of fancy paint and decoration, the dominant logic of ‘Umaniti seems to be that what helps one’s own faction is acceptable, and what thwarts one’s own faction is anathema.  There is limited evidence that any of this species’ leaders believe their philosophies, to go by their actions.  Theologies that ban all slaying, then condone slaying or invent excuses for it when they deem it advantageous.  A pro-young-bearer philosophy, espousing greater freedom for young-bearers, casts out any young-bearer who exercises freedom in a way this philosophy dislikes.  Several theologies that promote love, peace and tolerance fly into rages when two young-bearers, or two seed-bearers, mime the procreational act for physical or emotional pleasure–thus showing no love, peace or tolerance.”

Ethnographer ‘Plaf shut the display off.  “Our research now has valid questions to explore.  Doubtless more will arise, but let us keep our sensory apparati trained on them with greater interest:

1) How will we ever treat with ‘Umaniti, if their only ethic is to win for their faction, and an act has one value if done by them, and another if done unto them? Lr’uff’s data indicate that they jettison agreements as soon as they see advantage in doing so, and have done so since urbanization.  Can there be agreements with ‘Umaniti, as we understand them?

2) While ‘Umaniti may technically be sentient, are they of rather low-grade sentience next to other species we have discovered? Is this obsession with polarizing events, to the detriment of issues with farther-reaching consequences, a universal trait, or not? What of their selective ethics and hypocrisies?  They are intelligent enough to take seriously, but are they intelligent enough to let loose on the galaxy? Should we interdict them from interplanetary travel while we have the power to do so, as we were prepared to do yesterday when a lunatic faction launched a rocket that happily fell apart before we had to face a hasty decision?

3) I would like to know how this species has refrained from self-extinction.  Khaul’s reports indicate that various ‘Umaniti factions stockpile enough destructive radiological, biological and chemical weaponry to reduce ‘Umaniti to an even more primitive state than it exists in now.  If this sense of priorities proves typical, then why has not some emotional maniac begun a chain of destruction and reprisal that would ruin this world for thousands of revolutions around the star?”

4) My reading of your reports indicates that ‘Umaniti are obsessed with procreational acts, roles and even the sight of an uncovered ‘Umaniti form, to which we have alluded earlier.  Why? Why can they just not perform their acts as they like, in whatever harmless form, without obsessing about how anyone else does so? Or can they, and we simply have not yet discerned it?

We know little.  We have vast ignorance to repair.  We can as yet conclude nothing, merely suppose.  Before we recommend ‘Umaniti be confined to its world by armed force, let us obtain firmer bases in knowledge.”

The department heads  arose, made gestures of respect and returned to their studies.