Monday, September 24, 2012


Most of my writing is nonfiction, but I've experimented at odd intervals with fiction, too.  The latest interval has actually met with a little success and might well turn into something really cool, not to mention remunerative.  But before we get to that, let's review:

Late in high school, I read the Worst Star Trek Pulp Novel Ever and decided I could write something better.  I succeeded, barely: I produced a novella about a human who becomes accidentally entangled in an interstellar organized crime network.  It wasn't completely original, and it was often cheesy, but it was better than that pulp novel, and helped me to realize that I could write this kind of stuff, when I put my mind to it.  A seminar in my senior year also helped me to look critically at my own work and to try out other forms of fiction.

In my second year of undergrad, I took an advanced fiction-writing course from a professor who asked that we learn by imitating techniques modeled by famous novelists.  The exercises could have been excruciating if he hadn't also given us some freedom to continue to seek our own writing voices in the process.  The results, for me, were some interesting short stories, little thought-experiments, some of them derivative -- there's one that reveals, in retrospect, how many of Piers Anthony's fantasy novels I'd read up to that point -- but again, each was a chance to break new ground.

During my twenties and early thirties, I kept coming back to short story-crafting, writing more originally, but still struggling to find the writing voice I'd been looking for since high school, with mixed results.  (It should come as no surprise that this period overlapped with some particularly difficult stages of development in my doctoral dissertation.  Writer's block can be contagious that way.)  I showed a story or two to friends; I entered a public library's all-night story-writing contest; but I was still looking for that One Really Good Idea.  Maybe that's especially important for those who write and hope to publish science fiction -- there's so much, and so many good ideas (and more than a few bad ones!) already out there, that the finding of one's voice is inextricably bound to the discovery of a distinctive feature that nobody else (to one's knowledge) has yet developed.

That brings us to the recent past.  In trying to "write what I know," I had been kicking around ideas about an artificial intelligence (or "A.I.") as a narrator, ever since I had first encountered narrative transmission models in the field of literary criticism.  Without going into exhaustive detail, some critics have suggested that reading is a communication process that happens not just between author, text, and reader, but between imagined folks within the text itself: the "implied author" as s/he is represented in the text, the narrator who relates the story, the narratee to whom the story is told, and the "implied reader" for whom the text is intended (the model can get much more complicated, though we don't need to go into that here.  But I know a guy who wrote a dissertation about this stuff.)  For example, in the case of this blog, a real author with flesh-and-blood fingers is typing it, and a few (presumably) fleshy readers are reading it, but within the blog itself, one could posit that there's a Me as I present myself in here, and a You, an "ideal" reader, that will get and appreciate everything I have to say.

What I had begun to wonder about was the prospect of an AI as an implied author and/or narrator: how a computer would present itself and relate a story to an audience, who that audience would be, etc.  This led to a story about an archival computer from Earth, recounting the manner in which Earth was attacked and incorporated into a vast empire called the Magistracy.  Other stories followed, and ideas for more pop up all the time.  This unfolding universe is at least as much a philosophical thought-experiment as that of others whose work I've enjoyed; Ursula Le Guin, for example, draws on her father's work in anthropology when she writes sociologically rich stories about the worlds of the Ekumen, while Robert Sawyer has speculated that so much of "sci-fi" is philosophical in nature that it could be just as accurately called "phi-fi."  Well, welcome to "A.I.-fi."  Certainly fleshy creatures, humans included, are involved in this batch of stories, but the accounts themselves belong to machines who live among them, pilot their ships, etc.  Part of the fun of creating and writing these characters lies in imagining how differently they might see their world(s), and what they make of ours.  And of course a fair amount of my background in ancient-imperial ideology and biblical theology comes through, too.

The Magistracy stories completed so far received some very positive feedback from my sister, a (recovering) English Major now well-versed in the publishing world, and from one Karen Elliott Lowe as well.  Finally, with fear and trembling, it was time to submit a few for publication.  Last week, a small Canadian publisher wrote to congratulate me on the upcoming publication of one of my stories in their very short story collection (contest entries were limited to 750 words.  You try it.  It's fun and frustrating by turns) this coming December, with second-round contest results TBA.  And I'm still waiting to hear back from Asimov's, one of the premier SF magazines, about what they think of another, much longer story.  But hooray for external, blind-review validation, and here's hoping for more to come!

I'll keep you posted.


  1. Wow, that's awesome! Congratulations on having your short story accepted. I submitted a short story to a fiction contest this summer but didn't get anywhere with it, which made me sad. I also have a Good Idea in my head and have for several years, but most of it is still in my head and not on the page/document. Making the time to put it down is hard, as is the constant insecurity that I will be the only one who thinks it is good. Also, seeing as the author I most love in terms of fiction is George Eliot--whom no one really writes like anymore--I have my work cut out for me. I hope to see a link soon so I can read your story, and I like the sound of the genres of phi-fi and ai-fi. Write on, cousin!

  2. Thanks for your congrats and thoughts, Jenny! As you may have intuited, my first short story contest entry didn't result in any awards, and it was an embarrassingly small field, though the format was interesting and the entrants' package was frankly miles better than the "free gift" I received so far from this recent contest in which I have advanced. ...I am sure you will not be the only one who thinks your stuff is good; and re: Eliot, my universe is so much about ideology and rhetoric that I have to work hard to make its characters accessible (more on that in a later post), but those very characteristics help to set it apart. Maybe the world needs another Eliotesque writer. ...Not sure what the rules are about posting my story, but I'll check, as it would be good to get an example put up here.

    1. No, the publisher would rather I did not post that story here until the contest is over and the book has come out. I'm going to assume the same would apply to the story I submitted to Asimov's. What I'll do then is to decide on a story to post here -- either another that I've already written, or a new one, perhaps even a sequel to the one being published this fall -- so that y'all have something to read between now and publication. :)

  3. "Recovering," eh?? I think the right term would actually switch the roles--I am attempting to recover my Englishness, not recover from it, as it were.

    Seconded on the Big Idea concept--voice/style, check, but until someone decides the world really DOES need a female Donald Miller, I'm stumping around for Big Ideas...