Maps in a Mirror, page 46
How, tell me please, could I possibly have told this story without making you, the reader, believe absolutely in the hero’s deaths? You have to experience some shadow of the suffering in order to understand the impossibility of his confession. If you find the story unbearable, remember that there have been far more deaths than this, and more terrible ones as well, in the same struggle in the real world.
A footnote: In the late seventies, I set this story in a United States ruled by a Soviet government. In this I was not seriously predicting something I believed likely to happen. But I was trying to place the story of a totalitarian state within the United States if only to bring home the idea to American readers, who, outside of the experience of American blacks in many a Southern town, are ignorant of the suffering and terror of totalitarianism. Once the decision to set the story here was made, I had two choices: to show an America ruled by a homegrown demagogue, or to show an America ruled by an foreign conqueror. I rejected the former, in part because at that time it had lately become a cliché of American literateurs to pretend that the only danger to the U.S. was from conservative extremists. I preferred to show America ruled by the most cruel and efficient totalitarian system ever to exist on the face of the Earth: the Stalinist version of the Communist Party.
The events of 1989 in eastern Europe do not change this; it was the very unwillingness of Gorbachev to play Stalin that led to the unshackling of the captive nations. Had he been willing to resort to the machine gun and the tank, as his predecessors did, there would be no more Solidarity, no second Prague Spring, no holes in the Berlin Wall, no bullet-riddled body of Ceausescu, no Hungarian border open to Austria. Or would there? Gorbachev was the man who brought Russia over that moral cusp—but I think it would have had to come eventually, with him or someone else. “A Thousand Deaths” is a true story, and I used the Soviets in it because they are the most recent world power to prove that it is true.
“CLAP HANDS AND SING”
Once, back in the mid-1970s, I had a conversation with a young woman I had once thought myself to be in love with. “I had such a crush on you before you went on your mission,” she said. “And the poems you wrote me while you were gone . . . I thought something would come of it when you got home. But when you returned from Brazil, I waited and waited and you never even called.”
“I thought of calling,” I said. “Often.”
“But you never did. And on the rebound from you I fell in love with someone else.”
Here’s the funny thing:.I never guessed how she felt. One reason I never called her was because I thought she might think I was weird to try to convert a friendship to something more. Thus do adolescents manage to work at cross-purposes often enough to make romantic tragedies possible.
In the years since, I have found a much deeper love and stronger commitment than anything I ever imagined in those days. But when I was exploring the idea of time travel, and thought of an ironic story in which two people, unknown to each other, both journey back in time to have a perfect night together, my mind naturally turned to that moment of impotent frustration when I realized that this young lady and I, had I but acted a bit differently, might have ended up together. Since it’s much easier to use real events than to make up phony ones, I stole from my own life to find, I hoped, that sense of bittersweet memory that is the stuff of movie romances.
Cyberpunk was all the rage, and I was driving home from ArmadilloCon, the science fiction convention held in Austin, the see of the bishop of cyberpunk, Bruce Sterling. I had long had an ambivalent feeling toward cyberpunk. Bruce Sterling’s ideas about science fiction fascinated me greatly, if only because he was the one person I could hear talking about science fiction in terms that weren’t either warmed-over James Blish and Damon Knight or stolen from the mouldering corpse of Modernism that still stinks to high heaven in the English departments of American universities. In short, Sterling actually had Ideas instead of Echoes.
At the same time, I could not help but be a bit disgusted at what was being done in the name of cyberpunk. William Gibson, though quite talented, seemed to be writing the same story over and over again. Furthermore, it was the same self-serving story that was being churned out in every creative writing course in America and published in every little literary magazine at least once an issue: the suffering artist who is alienated from his society and is struggling to find out a reason to live. My answer is easy enough: An artist who is alienated from his society has no reason to live—as an artist, anyway. You can only live as an artist when you’re firmly connected to the community to whom you offer your art.
But the worst thing about cyberpunk was the shallowness of those who imitated it. Splash some drugs onto brain-and-microchip interface, mix it up with some vague sixties-style counterculture, and then use really self-conscious, affected language, and you’ve got cyberpunk. Never mind that the actual stories being told were generally clichés that were every bit as stupid and derivative as the worst of the stuff Bruce Sterling had initially rebelled against. Even if the underlying stories had been highly original, stylistic imitation and affectation are crimes enough to make a literary movement worthy of the death sentence.
So, being the perverse and obnoxious child that I am, I challenged myself: Is the derivativeness of cyberpunk the source or a symptom of its emptiness? Is it possible to write a good story that uses all the clichés of cyberpunk? The brain-microchip interface, the faked-up slang, the drugs, the counterculture . . . Could I, a good Mormon boy who watched the sixties through the wrong end of the binoculars, write a convincing story in that mode—and also tell a tale that would satisfy me as good fiction?
One thing was certain—I couldn’t imitate anybody else’s story. It was the language, the style that I was imitating. So I had to violate my own custom and start, not with the story, but with the voice. With a monologue. The first two paragraphs of Dogwalker were the first two I wrote, pretty much as they stand now. The plot came only after I had the voice and the character of the narrator pretty well established.
I got the thing done soon after returning home, and sent it off to Gardner Dozois at Asimov’s. I expected the story to get bounced. I had a mental picture of Gardner staggering out into the hall at Davis Publications, gagging and choking, holding out the manuscript as if it were a bag of burning dog dung. “Look at this. Card is trying to write cyberpunk now.” Instead, Gardner sent me a contract. It rather spoiled my plans—I expected to use the story as my entry at Sycamore Hill that summer, but since it had sold I couldn’t do that. The result was that I ended up writing my novella “Pageant Wagon” during that workshop, so it wasn’t a total loss.
In the meantime, however, Gardner never published “Dogwalker.” He held it two-and-a-half years before I finally sent a note pointing out that our contract had expired and if they didn’t have immediate plans to publish it, I wanted it back to sell it elsewhere. At that point they seemed to have suddenly remembered that they had it, and it was scheduled and published barely in time to be included in this book.
In a way, though, Gardner did me a favor—perhaps on purpose. By holding the story so long, he had seen to it that “Dogwalker” appeared in print after the spate of cyberpunk imitations was over. The story was not so clearly pegged as derivative. And though it was clearly not like a “typical Card story” on its surface, it could more easily be received as my work than as pale-imitation Gibson. Thus was I spared the fate of appearing as pathetic as, say, Barbra Streisand singing disco with the BeeGees.
“BUT WE TRY NOT TO ACT LIKE IT”
For a short time, Kristine’s and my favorite restaurant in Salt Lake City was the Savoy, a purportedly English restaurant that nevertheless had wonderful food. We brought friends, we went alone—we did everything we could to make that restaurant succeed. Furthermore it was always crowded. And six months later, it was out of business.
It happens over and over. TV shows I like are doomed to cancellation. Authors
That’s what gave rise to this story. Unfortunately, I never let the story rise above its origin. I have learned since then that I shouldn’t write a story from a single idea, but rather should wait for a second, unrelated idea, so that out of their confluence can come something truly alive. The result is that this story bears the curse of most of science fiction—it is idea-driven rather than character-driven, which means that it is ultimately forgettable. That doesn’t mean it’s valueless—I hope it’s kind of fun to read it once. But you’ll certainly not be rewarded for reading it again. You already received everything it had to offer on the first reading.
“I PUT MY BLUE GENES ON”
Jim Baen wrote an editorial in Galaxy magazine in which he called on science fiction writers to stop writing the same old “futures” and take a look at what science was doing now. Where, for example, were the stories extrapolating on current research in recombinant DNA?
I was still working at The Ensign magazine then, and Jay and Lane and I took this as a personal challenge. Naturally, in the tradition of young sci-fi writers, I mechanically took the idea of gene-splicing (I’d been reading Scientific American like a good boy, so I could fake it up pretty well), carried it to an extreme, and served it up in a stereotypical plot about two nations in a life-and-death struggle—only one of the nations doesn’t realize that the other one was wiped out long ago and that its struggle is now against the very world they have destroyed. As a let’s-stop-messing-up-the-world polemic, I think the story still holds up pretty well. As an artful story, it’s definitely a work of my youth. Recombining DNA has been treated far better since then, both in my own stories (Wyrms, Speaker for the Dead) and in the works of writers who’ve done the subject more justice. (I think particularly of the magnificent work Octavia Butler has done with Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago.) If you want proof that I was but an adolescent playing at fiction-writing, you have only to look at the title, a bad pun on a fun-but-dumb popular song that was, I believe, written as the theme music for a jeans ad.
I notice now, however, that some later interests of mine were already cropping up in “I Put My Blue Genes On.” For one thing, I actually put Brazilians in space. I was not the first to do it, but it was the beginning of my deliberate effort to try to get American sci-fi writers to realize that the future probably does not belong to America. Science fiction of the pre–World War I era always seemed to put Englishmen and Frenchmen into space; now, in this post-imperialist world, we think of that as a rather quaint idea. I firmly believe that in fifty years the idea of Americans leading the world anywhere will be just as anachronistic, and only those of us who put Brazilians, Thais, Chinese, and Mexicans into space will look at all prescient.
Of course, maybe I’m wrong about the specific prediction I’m making. But there’s another reason to open up science fiction to other cultures, and that is that science fiction is the one lasting American contribution to prose literature. In every other area, we’re derivative to the—well, not to the core, because in those areas we have no core. Nobody in other countries aspires to write Westerns, and nobody in Russia or Germany or Japan looks to Updike or Bellow to teach them how to write “serious” fiction. They already have literary traditions older and better than our so-called best. But in science fiction, they all look to us. They want to write science fiction, too, because those who read it in every nation see it as the fiction of possibility, the fiction of strangeness. It’s the one genre now that allows the writer to do satire that isn’t recognized as satire, to do metaphysical fiction that isn’t seen as philosophical or religious proselytizing. In short, it is the freest, most open literature in the world today, and it is the one literature that foreign writers are learning first and foremost from Americans.
Why, then, do science fiction writers persist in imagining only American futures? Our audience is much broader than these shores. And there are countries where our words are taken far more seriously than they are here. If we actually aspire to change the world with our fiction—and I can’t think of any other reason for ever setting pen to paper—then we ought to be talking to the world. And one sure way to let the world know we are talking to them is to put them—citizens of other countries, children of other cultures—into our futures. To do otherwise is to slap them in the face and say, “I have seen the future, and you aren’t there.” Well, I have seen the future, and they are there—in great numbers, with great power. I want my voice to have been one of the voices they listened to on their way up to be king of the hill. And, in “I Put My Blue Genes On,” I took my first step along that road.
“IN THE DOGHOUSE” (with Jay A. Parry)
What if the aliens don’t come to us in alien form? What if they come in a form we already recognize, that we already think we understand? Jay Parry and I toyed with the idea of telling this story differently—with the aliens coming in the form of an oppressed minority. American Indians or blacks, we thought. But the problems at the time seemed insurmountable—particularly the political problems. It’s a very tricky business, for a white writer to try to express the black point of view without being politically incorrect. It seemed to me then that there were things that black writers could say about and on behalf of blacks that white writers couldn’t, not without the message being taken wrong. In the years since then, I’ve learned that a writer of any race or sex or religion or nation can write about any other race or sex or religion or nation; he only needs to:
Do enough research that he doesn’t make an ass of himself.
Tell the truth as he sees it without pandering or condescending to any group.
Have a thick enough skin to accept the fact that he’ll be impaled with a thousand darts no matter how well he does at 1 and 2.
Being timid, Jay and I worked out the plot using animals that have been as firmly pegged in our human prejudices as any human group. Faithful, beloved dogs. Man’s best friend. All the same possibilities were there—the White Man’s Burden, the condescending affection (some of my best friends are dogs), and, above all, the rigid determination to keep them in their place.
In my review column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I wrote a diatribe deploring the 1980s trend of trying to turn sci-fi authors’ private worlds into generic brand name universes where other writers can romp. It began with Star Trek, and it was not part of anybody’s grand design. There were these Star Trek fans, you see, who got impatient with Paramount’s neglect of their heroes and began to write their own stories about the crew of the starship Enterprise. (In a way this was singularly appropriate: The original series was written and performed like somebody’s garage production anyway, so why not continue the tradition?) Legend has it that Paramount at first intended to sue, until it dawned on them that there might be money in publishing never-filmed stories about Kirk, Spock, and the other crew members of Wagon Train among the Cheap Interplanetary Sets. They were right, to the tune of many readers and many dollars. A new industry was born: Science fiction written in somebody else’s poorly imagined but passionately studied universe.
I suppose it was inevitable that publishers who weren’t getting any of those Star Trek bucks would try to turn other successful imagined futures into equally lucrative backdrops where one writer’s work would be as good as any others’. There ensued in the late 1980s a spate of novels set “in the world of——,” in which journeyman writers who often didn’t have a clue about the inner truth that led the Old Pro to create his or her world tried to set their own stories in it. The result was stories that nobody was proud of and nobody cared about.
So I laid down the law in my column: Writers should not waste their time or talent trying to tell stories in someone else’s universe. Furthermore, established writers should not cooperate in the wasting of younger writers’ talent by allowing their worlds to be franchised.
As soon as that column hit print, Martin Harry Greenberg mentioned to me that he was preparing a festschrift anthology commemorating Isaac Asimov’s fiftieth year in publishing, a book called Foundation’s Friends. And for this one anthology, Dr. Asimov was allowing the participants to set stories within his own closely-held fictional universes, using his own established characters. We could actually write robot stories using the three laws and positronic brains and Susan Calvin. We could actually write Foundation stories using Hari Seldon and Trantor and Terminus and the Mule.
Suddenly I was sixteen years old again and I remembered the one story I wanted so badly to read, the one that Asimov had never written—the story of how the Second Foundation actually got started in the library at Trantor.
Did I forget that I had just gotten through banning the franchising of universes for all time? No. I simply have a perverse streak in me that says that whenever somebody lays down a law, that law is meant to be broken—even when I was the lawgiver. So I wrote “The Originist” as both a tribute to and, perhaps, a sidelight on Asimov’s masterwork.
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