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How To Write: What SF Writers Want

January 19th, 2022

You can have anything you want. But what do you want?

Some of the appeal of SF comes from its association with the old idea of the Magic Wish. Any number of fairy tales deal with a hero (humble woodcutter, poor fisherman, disinherited princess) who gets into a situation where he or she is free to ask for any wish at all, with assurance that the wish will be granted. Reading such a tale, the reader inevitably wonders, “What would I wish for?” It’s pleasant to fantasize about having such great power; and thinking about this also provides an interesting projective psychological test.

Some SF stories hinge on the traditional Magic Wish situation — the appearance of a machine (= magic object) or an alien (= magic being) who will grant the main character’s wishes. But more often, the story takes place after the wish has been made . . . by whom? By the author.

What I mean here is that, in writing a book, an SF writer is in a position of being able to get any Magic Wish desired. If you want time travel in your book . . . no problem. If you want flying, telepathy, size-change, etc., then you, as SF writer, can have it — not in the real world, of course, but in the artificial, written world into which you project your thoughts.

To make my point quite clear, let me recall a conversation I once had with a friend in Lynchburg. “Wouldn’t it be great,” my friend was saying, “if there were a machine that could bring into existence any universe you wanted, with any kinds of special powers. A machine that could call up your favorite universe, and then send you there.” “There is such a machine,” I answered. “It’s called a typewriter.”

Okay. So the point I want to start from here is the notion that, in creating a novelistic work, the writer is basically in a position of being able to have any wish whatsoever granted.

What kinds of things do we, as SF writers, tend to wish for? What sorts of possibilities seem so attractive to us that we are willing to spend the months necessary to bring them into the pseudoreality of a polished book? What kinds of needs underlie the wishes we make?

In discussing this, my basic assumption is that the driving force behind our SF wishes is a desire to find a situation wherein one might happy . . . whatever “happy” might mean for any particular writer.

There are, of course, a variety of very ordinary ways to wish for happiness: wealth, sexual attractiveness, political power, athletic prowess, sophistication, etc. I’m not going to be too interested in these types of wishes here — because such wishes are not peculiar to the artform of SF. Any number of standard paperback wish-fulfillments deal with characters whom the author has wished into such lower-chakra delights.

No, the kind of wishes I want to think about here are the weird ones — wishes that have essentially no chance of coming true — wishes that are really worth asking for.

I can think of four major categories of SF wishes, each with several subcategories:

(1) Travel.
(1.1) Space travel. (1.2) Time travel. (1.3) Changing size scale. (1.4) Travel to other universes

(2) Psychic powers.
(2.1) Telepathy. (2.2) Telekinesis.

(3) Self-change.
(3.1) Immortality. (3.2) Intelligence increase. (3.3) Shape shifting.

(4) Aliens.
(4.1) Robots. (4.2) Saucer aliens.

Let’s look at these notions one at a time.

(1) Travel.

Your position relative to the universe can perhaps be specified in terms of four basic parameters: (1.1) space-location, (1.2) time-location, (1.3) your size, and (1.4) which universe you’re actually in. Our powers to alter these parameters are very limited. Although it is possible to change space-location, this is hard and slow work. We travel in time, but only in one direction, and only at one fixed speed. In the course of a lifetime, our size changes, but only to a small extent. And jumping back and forth among parallel universes is a power no one even pretends to have. Let’s say a bit about the ways in which science fiction undertakes to alter each of these four stubborn parameters.

(1.1) Space travel. Faster-than-light drives, matter transmission, and teleportation are all devices designed to annihilate the obdurate distances of space. One might almost say that these kind of hyper-jumping devices turn space into time. You no longer worry about how far something is, you just ask when you should show up.

Would happiness finally be mine if I could break the fetters of space? I visualize a kind of push-button phone-dial set into my car’s dashboard, and imagine that by punching in the right sequence of digits I can get anywhere. (Actually, the very first SF story I ever read was a Little Golden Book called The Magic Bus. I read it in the second grade. The Bus had just one special button on the dash, and each push on the button would take the happily tripping crew to a new randomly selected locale. Of course — ah, if only it were still so easy — everyone got home to Mom in time for supper and bed.) That would be fun, but would it be enough? And what is enough, anyway?

In terms of the Earth, power over space is already, in a weak sense, ours. If it matters enough to you, you can actually travel anywhere on Earth — it’s not instantaneous, using cars and planes, but you do get there in a few days. Even easier, by using a telephone, you can actually project part of yourself (ears and voice) to any place where there’s someone to talk to. But these weak forms of Earth-bound space travel are the domain of travel writing and investigative journalism, not of SF.

Hyperjumping across space would be especially useful for travel to other planetary civilizations. One underlying appeal in changing planets would be the ability to totally skip out on all of one’s immediate problems, the ability to get out of a bad situation. “Color me gone,” as some soldiers reportedly said, getting on the plane that would take them away from Viet Nam and back to the U.S. “I’m out of here, man, I’m going back to the world.” Jumping to a far-distant planet would involve an escape from real life, and certainly SF is, to some extent, a literature of escape.

(1.2) Time travel. I once asked Robert Silverberg why time travel has fascinated him so much over the years. He said that he felt the desire to go back and make good all of one’s major life-errors and past mistakes. I tend to look at this a little more positively — I think a good reason for wanting to go back to the past is the desire to re-experience the happy times that one has had. The recovery of lost youth, the revisiting of dead loved ones.

A desire to time travel to an era before one’s birth probably comes out of a different set of needs than does a desire to travel back to earlier stages of one’s own life. People often talk about the paradoxes involved in going back to kill their ancestors — this gets into the territory of parricide and matricide. And a sublimated desire for suicide informs the tales about directly killing one’s past self. Other time travel stories talk about going back to watch one’s parents meeting — I would imagine that this desire has something to do with the old Freudian concept of witnessing the “primal scene.”

What about time travel to the future? This comes, I would hazard, out of a desire for immortality. To still be here, long after your chronological death.

To a lesser extent than with space, we have some slight power over time: each day you live through brings you one day further into the future, and going to sleep is a way of making the future come “sooner.” And one of the appeals of marijuana is that it can time seem to pass slower, making the future come “later.” And of course, a session of intensely focused recollection can make the past briefly seem alive. (Thus Proust, thus psychoanalysis.)

As with power over space, we must question whether power over time is really enough to wish for. Eventually, both of these powers simply boil down to having a special sort of “car” which enables you to jump here and there, checking out weirder and weirder scenes.

(1.3) Changing size scale. Without having to actually travel through space or time, one could see entirely new vistas simply by shrinking to the size of a microbe. Alternatively, one might try growing to the size of a galaxy.

One problem with getting very big is that you might accidentally crush the Earth, and have nothing to come back to. I prefer the idea of shrinking. What need in me does this speak to? On a sexual level, the notion of getting very small is probably related to an Oedipal desire to return to the peaceful and ultra-sexual environment of the womb. On a social level, getting small connotes the idea of being so low-profile as to be unhassled by the brutal machineries of law and fame. Economically speaking, being small suggests independence — if I were the size of a thumb, my food bills would be miniscule. A single can of beer would be the equivalent of a full keg!

I would like to be able to get as small as I liked, whenever I wanted to. But would it be enough? Would I be happy then? Probably not. After a week or so, it would get as old as anything else.

(1.4) Travel to other universes. In a way, all three of the powers just mentioned are special instances of being able to jump into a different universe. Most of what was said about space travel applies here. Of course, travel to alternate universes can also be taken in a very broad sense which includes travel into higher-dimensional spaces and the like.

One’s place in the world seems to be fixed by such factors as income and ability — in another world, things might be so much more pleasant. Rich people and poor people live in different worlds — on a crude level, winning a state lottery can act as a ticket to a different universe. A dose of a psychedelic drug can, of course, accomplish an equally dramatic (but temporary) transportal — this is one reason why people take them.

The drug issue raises the fact that the universe is not entirely objective. To a large extent, the way your world seems is conditioned by the way you feel about it. Keep in mind that I think the driving force behind all of the SF travel-wishes is a desire to find a place/time/size/universe in which to be happy. Rather than asking for a different world, one might equally well ask for a way to enjoy this world.

(2) Psychic powers.

Travel is only the first category of SF wishes. Psychic power is the second of the four main categories mentioned above. What might we take to be the main types of SF psychic-power wishes? Let’s try these: (2.1) telepathy, and (2.2) telekinesis.

(2.1) Telepathy. Supposedly, God can see everything at once — God is omniscient. Telepathy is a type of omniscience, particularly if we imagine it as extended to include clairvoyance. It would definitely be pleasant to know everything — to be plugged totally into the cosmos as a whole. I guess it would be pleasant — actually, it might get boring. The omniscient gods of our myths and religions do seem a bit restless.

On a more personal level, I think of telepathy as standing for a situation where you are in perfect accord and communion with someone else. This often happens when one is alone with a good friend or a loved one. These moments are, I would hazard, as close to real happiness as one ever gets. The desire for telepathy is basically a desire for love and understanding.

Of course, what one often sees in SF telepathy stories is the hero or heroine being overwhelmed by the inputs from everyone else’s minds. You want to understand the people you love — the others you’d just as soon not know about.

As with the case of space-travel, telepathy is a faculty that we already, to some extent, have. By talking or by writing, I am able to get someone to share my state of mind; by listening or by reading, I can learn to understand others. Maybe we already have enough telepathy as it is.

(2.2) Telekinesis. Not only is God omniscient, S/He is omnipotent. Given a really strong telekinetic (also known as psychokinetic or PK) ability, you would be, in effect, able to control anything going on in the world.

This power appeals to me very little. I don’t want to control the world — I just want to enjoy it. I don’t need to run it, it’s doing a decent job by itself. Of course, a person with less self-doubt might find PK very attractive.

As with telepathy, I might also point out that we already have PK in a limited form. I stare fixedly at the cigarettes on my desk. I concentrate. Moments later a lit cigarette is in my mouth! (Does the fact that, by sheer force of will, I caused my material hand to pick up the cigarettes and light one make my feat less surprising?)

There is one special sort of telekinesis that I do find very appealing. This is the ability to levitate. All my life I have dreamed of flying — as far as I’m concerned, the ability to fly is right up there with the ability to shrink.

But what is so special about flying? Flying involves being high off the ground, and most everyone likes the metaphor of being high — in the sense of euphoria, elation, and freedom from worry. Rising above the mundane. Freud used to claim that flying dreams have some connection with sex, and I suppose that a good act of sexual intercourse does feel something like flying. And of course, flying would provide some of the same benefits that teleportation would, as discussed under (1.1) above.

(3) Self change.

Under this vaguely titled category, I include: (3.1) immortality, (3.2) intelligence increase, and (3.3) shape shifting, or the ability to change the shape of one’s body.

(3.1) Immortality. This is a key wish. As soon as we are born, we are presented with what I have elsewhere called the fundamental koan: “Hi, you’re alive now, isn’t it nice? Someday it will all stop and you will be dead. What are you going to do about it?” The fear of death is up there with the need for love as one of the really basic human drives.

One problem with immortality might be that you would at some point get bored. I’ve occasionally been so depressed that I’ve thought to myself, “Death is the only thing that makes life bearable,” meaning that if I thought I was going to have to be here forever, I just wouldn’t be able to stand it. (Though if you couldn’t die, and you couldn’t stand it, what could you do? Not a bad premise for an SF story . . .)

There are various sorts of immortality, short of the real thing, that we do comfort ourselves with. Let me list them, as I’ve thought about this a lot:

(3.1.1) Genetic immortality. If you have children, then your DNA code will still be around, even after you die. Later descendants may look and/or act like you — which means that the pattern you call “me” will still be, to some extent, present in the world.

(3.1.2) Artistic immortality. A human being consists (at least) of hardware (= the body) plus software (= the ideas). In creating a work of art, you code up some of your software. A person reading one of your books is something like a computer running a program that you wrote. As long as the person is looking at your book and thinking along the lines which the book suggests, then that person is, in some degree, a simulation of you, the author.

(3.1.3) Social immortality. Even if you have no children and leave no works of art, you will still, in the course of your life, have contributed in various ways to the society in which you found yourself. Perhaps you were a teacher, and you affected some students. Perhaps you sold clothes, and you influenced what people wore. Even if you had no direct influences, you were, to some extent, a product of the society that you lived in, and so long as this society continues to exist you still have a slight kind of immortality in that the society will continue to produce people somewhat like you.

(3.1.4) Racial immortality. This is similar to (3.1.1) and (3.1.3); similar to (3.1.1) if one takes cousins into account, similar to (3.1.3) if one views the human race as a single large society.

(3.1.5) Spacetime immortality. This perception of immortality hinges on the viewpoint that time is not really passing. Past-present-future all co-exist in a single four dimensional “block universe.” Today (May 14, 1984) will always exist, outside of time, and thus I will always exist as well.

(3.1.6) Mathematical immortality. It is abstractly possible to imagine coding my body and brain up by a very large array of numbers. This is analogous to the way in which extremely complex computer programs are embodied in machine-language patterns of zeroes and ones. The numerical description of me may in fact be infinite — no matter. The main thing is that this numerical coding can be represented as a mathematical set. And the Platonic school of the foundations of mathematics teaches that mathematical sets exist independently of the physical world. Therefore, long after I am dead, I will still have a permanent existence as a mathematical possibility.

(3.1.7) Mystical immortality. At the most profound level, I do not feel myself to be just my body, or just my mind. I feel, at this deepest level, that I am simply a part of the One, a facet of the Absolute. The disappearance of my body will mean only that the ever-changing One has changed its form a bit.

(3.1.8) Religious immortality. Who knows — maybe we do have souls that God will take care of. This belief is in some ways like the idea of mathematical immortality. When the good thief asked Jesus to “Remember me,” perhaps he meant it more literally than is usually realized.

(3.2) Intelligence increase. The idea of having a vastly increased intelligence is certainly attractive — particularly to people who already take pleasure in the life of the mind. One difficulty in writing SF about vastly increased intelligence is that it is hard for us to imagine — or to write about — what that would involve.

What does the wish for more intelligence really mean? It is somehow akin to the wish to be much bigger in size — a wish to include more of the universe in one’s scope of comprehension.

Pushed to the maximum, a desire for increased intelligence is a desire omniscience or perhaps a wish to know “the Secret of Life.” What would it be like to know the Secret of Life? Somehow I have the image of an orgasm that goes on and on, a never-ending torrent of blinding enlightenment. It sounds nice, but we do need contrasts to be able to perceive.

(3.3) Shape shifting. One form of this wish is analogous to the intellectual’s wish for more intelligence. An athletically-inclined person might naturally wish to be a world-class athlete; and a physically attractive person might wish to be a Hollywood star. In each case, it’s a matter of wanting to be better at what one already does well. We might also include here a compassionate person’s desire to be saintly, and an artist’s desire to be truly great.

Why should we want to be the best? The drive for excellence seems to be wired in way down there — it’s good for the race, within limits.

The kind of shape shifting I really had in mind here, though, was things like turning into a dog. You could really get a lot of slack if you could totally change your appearance at will. For me, this one is right up there with flying and shrinking: the ability to change my body at will. It would be so interesting to see the world through a dog’s eyes, or through another kind of person’s eyes.

What need is this one coming from? Wanting a diversity of experience, I guess. A desire to break out of the personality-mold inflicted on me by my specific body’s appearance and habits.

(4) Aliens.

By aliens, I mean two kinds of beings: (4.1) robots, and (4.2) saucer aliens.

(4.1) Robots. Intelligent robots will be very exciting — if we’re ever able to evolve them. One aspect is that if we can bring intelligent life into being, then we will better understand what we ourselves are like. Another angle that appeals to me is that, given intelligent robots, it would be possible to program one to be just like me, so that I would then have yet another type of immortality to access.

In some ways, we think of robots as being like the ideal sorts of people that don’t really exist. The notion of a happy, obedient, intelligent slave, for instance. Given human nature, no such human slave is possible. But still we hope to build a machine like this. Such hopes are, no doubt, doomed for disappointment. A machine smart enough to act human will be unlikely to settle for being a slave.

Another thing that makes robots attractive is the notion that they might always be rational. People are so rarely rational — but why is this? Not because we wouldn’t like to be rational. The real reason is that the world is so complex, one’s data are so slight, and so many decisions are required. Full rationality is, in a formal sense, impossible for us — and it will, I fear, be impossible for the robots as well.

There’s another SF tradition of writing about computer brains; here instead of intelligent robots, the vision is of a very large computer brain which is seemingly very wise and just. It is as if we humans might be hoping to build the God-the-Father whom we fear no longer exists. In most such stories the god-computer turns out to be evil, either like a cruel dictatorship or like a blandly uncaring bureaucracy. But this leads us out of the domain of things that writers wish for.

(4.2) Saucer aliens. I loosely use the phrase “saucer aliens” to include any kind of creatures that might show up on Earth, either from space, from underground, or from another dimension.

In C. G. Jung’s classic book on UFO’s, he makes the point that, in popular mythology, saucer aliens play much the same role that angels did in the Middle Ages. [C. G. Jung, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1958. See my Saucer Wisdom for further discussion.]

There is a hope that no matter how evil and messed up things might get on Earth, there are still some higher forces who might step in and fix everything. The UFO aliens are, perhaps, replacements for the gods we miss, or for our parents who have grown old and weak.

Another very important strand in thinking about saucer aliens is the element of sexual attraction. A key element to sexual attraction is the idea of otherness. An alien stands for something wholly outside of yourself that is, perhaps, willing to get close to you anyway. This drive is probably hard-wired into us for purposes of exogamy: it’s genetically unwise to mate with people so similar to you that they might be your cousins.

It is interesting in this context to note how some rock-groups try to give an impression of being aliens.

Of course, Earth is already full of aliens — other races, other sexes, other backgrounds. By constantly striving to broaden one’s circle of under-standing, one can begin to see the world in a variety of ways.

So — those are some of the things that SF writers want. Undoubtedly, I’ve left out some important types of SF wishes, and it may be that some other pattern of classifying SF dreams is more enlightening. One thing that I do find surprising is that it is at all possible to begin a project of this nature. When one first comes to SF, there is a feeling of unlimited possibility — what is startling is how few basic SF themes there really are. As indicated, I think most of our favorite themes appeal to us for reasons that are psychological.

As long as I’m whipped up into this taxonomic mania for systemizing things, let me suggest that the psychology of human behavior is based upon avoiding Three Bad Things, and upon seeking Three Good Things that are the respective opposites of the Bad Things.

The Three Bad Things might be called Jail, Madness, and Death — and the Three Good Things would be Change, Slack, and Love. I mean “Jail” here in the sense of any kind of imprisonment or dulling routine, and I mean “Slack” in the sense of serenity and inner peace.

— Appeared in The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Spring, 1985, in Seek!, Runnng Press, 1999, and in Collected Essays, Transreal Books, 2012.

How To Write. Getting Ideas.

January 16th, 2022

Lately I’ve been writing some “How to Write” posts for my blog and for Medium. For this one, I’m using excerpts from my huge document All the Interviews, which you can read as a PDF online. Today’s topic is “Getting Ideas.

From an interview by Nozomi Ohmori. Tokyo, 1990, for Hayakawa SF Magazine
There is a strong relationship between my nonfiction and novels. For instance, White Light can be considered as a sort of novelization of Infinity and the Mind. And Infinity and the Mind also includes the Software idea about self-reproducing robots evolving to become intelligent; this is in a section called “Towards Robot Consciousness.”

The ideas in The Fourth Dimension appear in The Sex Sphere and again in Realware, which has a number of scenes in the fourth dimension. The Hacker and the Ants can be thought of the fiction version of the research I carried out to write my software package Artificial Life Lab.

My fantastic fake-nonfiction novel, Saucer Wisdom, introduced the science ideas used in Freeware and Realware. The ideas include the Freeware “uvvy” communication device, the Realware “alla” matter controller, and the aliens who travel as radio waves. It’s like now I’m reaching a point where even my nonfiction is speculative.

I used to like to say that SF is my laboratory for conducting thought-experiments. But maybe when I said that I was just trying to impress my academic friends. Now that I’m older, I’m more likely to tell the truth. I don’t write SF to help my science. If anything, I study science to help my SF! I love SF for the ideas, but more purely I love it simply for the rock’n’roll feel of it, the power-chords, the crunch, funk.

Now I’ve been teaching software engineering in Silicon Valley. At the low level, teaching programming is like teaching automobile repair — just having to explain these random arbitrary things like the part-numbers of the pieces inside some particular model vehicle’s carburetor. And you can’t just skip over that stuff because the whole point of programming is to get a nice program that works really well on some specific actual machine.

At a higher level, I’ve learned a lot about computer stuff like fractals, chaos, cellular automata, complexity, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Life, so it would seem like a good idea to write a book about that. But these topics are very picked over; too many people have written about them. It’s like looking for a cigarette butt on the West Point parade ground. Even so, in 1997 I was trying hard to get a contract to write a nonfiction book like this. I wanted to tie the computer-inspired ideas more closely to immediate perceptions of Nature and to one’s own mental experiences. But somehow ended up with a contract to write Saucer Wisdom, a book about my fictional encounters with a man who’d been shown the future by some saucer aliens! It’s not always easy to predict what book you end up writing. Certainly my work with computers has very much affected the way I see the world, and maybe someday I can figure out a marketable way to write about this.

From an interview by Michiharu Sakurai. Tokyo, 1997, for [relax]
Transrealism means writing about your immediate perceptions in a fantastic way. The characters in a transreal book should be based on actual people. This has the effect of making the characters be richer and more interesting. One inspiration for me in doing this is Jack Kerouac, who thought of his novels as a single linked chronicle. Though many would just call Kerouac’s books autobiographical novels.

My transreal novels aren’t exactly autobiographical: I have never really left my body, climbed an infinite mountain, met a sphere from the fourth dimension, infected television with an intelligent virus, etc. But they are autobiographical in that many of the characters are modeled on family and friends — the main person of course being modeled on me. The science fictional ideas in my transreal fiction have a special role. They stand in for essential psychic events.

The quest for infinity, for instance, is nothing other than the soul’s quest for God. Or, more mundanely, it represents the individual’s quest for meaning. In another sense, a White Light at the top of a transfinite mountain stands for the psychedelic experience, which loomed large in those years when White Light was written (1978 – 1979). But, again, the whole point of the psychedelic experience, at least from my standpoint, was to see God. Another inspiration for me in pursuing transrealism is Philip K. Dick. His blackly hilarious book A Scanner Darkly was a real inspiration for me in forming my ideas about this way of writing. And in fact Scanner had a blurb on it describing the book as “transcendental biography,” which was probably the reason I coined the word “transreal.”

In a nutshell, transrealism means writing about reality in an honest and objective way, while using the tools of science fiction to stand for deep psychic constructs.

From an interview by Tatiana Shubin un San Jose, 2003, for Math Horizons.
You asked about math and SF. One thing we do in mathematics is to investigate the consequences of constraints or assumptions. You might, for instance, add a new axiom of set theory and then see if any nice theorems come out of this. Or you might make a definition, such as “an Archimedean solid has regular polygons for its faces (not necessarily all the same) and has the same arrangement of polygons meeting at each vertex,” and then carry out a search, partly empirical and partly theoretical, to characterize the objects satisfying your definition.

Science-fiction can be carried out in this vein. Thus I might ask what would happen if people had “femtotechnolgy” wands that would turn dirt or air into whatever kinds of objects they wanted. Or what would happen if people could make hundreds of copies of themselves. Or what it would be like if we had a mountain as tall as all the transfinite ordinals.

Science fiction can be thought of as a laboratory for carrying out thought experiments. The bare idea of a femtotechnolgy wand doesn’t tell you much. You need to do some work to investigate the consequences. In effect, you have to carry out a simulation of a society with your additional assumption. This is in some ways similar to what we do in mathematics.

Note that just thinking about a question often isn’t enough. You need to write something down. The paper does part of the work, that is, the act of writing elicits further ideas and fills in details, regardless of whether you’re writing literature or math.

Something I learned from mathematics was to never turn back from an idea just because it seems too counterintuitive. Logic can take you to some very strange places.

All this said, I need to point out that science-fiction is also quite different from mathematics. SF is a form of literature, after all, and literature involves creating realistic human characters and using words to capture one’s sensations and emotions. Personal human experience isn’t something that mathematics directly deals with.

From an interview by Lori White in Oakland, 2005, for Strange Horizons
You asked me about Edwin Abbott’s book Flatland. When I was in high-school, perhaps the tenth grade, my best friend and next-door neighbor Niles Schoening told me about this odd book he’d found in the Louisville Public Library. About characters who were squares and triangles and lines. I was intrigued, and I read the book.

On the first reading, the book confused me. Even though I’d read some Golden Age science fiction stories about the fourth dimension, I didn’t I initially understand that Flatland contains a series of analogies intended to help us visualize the fourth dimension. At the time I wasn’t yet aware that the fourth dimension is something solid and precise that it’s possible to actually understand. And, on a first reading, the satirical aspects of Flatland threw me off as well. The hero A Square is kind of a Victorian Everyman, not all that bright, and full of dumb received ideas about social class.

When my parents took me to begin Swarthmore College in the fall of 1963, my father bought me a paperback edition of Flatland in the little town drugstore. He himself was interested in the book; he’d recently become ordained as an Episcopal priest, and he saw the main character A Square’s experiences in the third dimension as an analogy to the spiritual life. I dipped into the book several times in the coming four years, but still didn’t get very passionate about it. I was too busy being a college student.

My interest finally came to a boil in 1970. I was at Rutgers University working on my doctorate in mathematics, and all sorts of things about mathematics were becoming clear to me, ranging all the way from the meaning of infinity and logical proof down to how carrying and borrowing work in pencil-and-paper arithmetic. Finally I began to understand what Flatland was getting at.

I was also getting interested in relativity theory, and one problem that nagged at me was how the geometric fourth dimension suggested by Flatland relates to the fourth dimension as used in relativity theory to represent the axis of time.

I was married by then, and we’d had our first child Georgia, and there was this one weekend when my wife had taken the baby to go visit her parents at the Watergate hotel in D. C. I was listening to a great new vinyl Frank Zappa album, Chunga’s Revenge, smoking pot, and thinking about the fourth dimension. I was also into underground cartooning then, I was drawing a strip called Wheelie Willie for the Rutgers Daily Targum. On this one magical evening alone with my speakers propped up the desk playing “The Nancy and Mary Music,” I started making Rapidograph drawings of A Square and of the spacetime diagrams of relativity theory, working them into an explanatory narrative, with captions and little bits of connective text. One of the nice things about the Flatland characters is that they’re very easy to draw!

A few weeks later my father was visiting our apartment and I showed my work to him — I had maybe a dozen pages done by now — and he was interested but a little baffled that I’d become that interested in the ideas of Flatland. “Where are you going with this?” Where I was going was into my career as a science and science fiction writer. But I didn’t know this at the time.

My friends in grad-school even began teasing me about my interest in Flatland a little bit. I was carrying around Dionys Burger’s Flatlandesque book Sphereland, and an English major friend asked me, “So is your career goal to write, like, Tubeland?”

My first teaching job was at what’s now called SUNY Geneseo in upstate New York and I took over a course called Foundations of Geometry. I was supposed to be focusing on axiomatic approaches to geometry, and I covered Euclid, but most of my course was focused on the fourth dimension. I wrote up some lecture notes that I mimeographed for the students; the notes were initially called Geometry and Reality and they grew into my first book, Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension (Dover Publications, New York 1977).

In my first book I invented some further adventures for A Square. And my 1983 story collection The Fifty-Seventh Franz Kafka included several science-fiction stories involving the fourth dimension, including “Message Found In A Copy of Flatland,” and “The Indian Rope Trick Explained,” both of which include drawings of good old A Square.

I also took another crack at a nonfiction book about fourth dimension: The Fourth Dimension (Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1984.) In the course of this book I describe events in an imaginary book called The Further Adventures of A Square. I tell about A Square having affair with the Flatlander A Hexagon’s wife Una — I really enjoyed copying the style of Flatland — which was already archaic at the time that Abbott wrote the book, remember that he was, among other things, a Shakespearean scholar.

At the very end of writing my Fourth Dimension book, I hadn’t tied up one last loose end, I’d left A Square cornered by an angry A Hexagon. And I had a dream of A Square down in Flatland, chirping up at me for help. So that went into my book too, at the very end, another excerpt from The Further Adventures of A Square. Here’s a quote from The Fourth Dimension (pp. 202-203).

I felt myself as but a Thought, a baseless fragment of some recurrent Dream. All around me I sensed my Dreamer’s mind. Mustering my courage, I cried out my plaint.

I: Can you hear me, my Lord?

Dreamer: And how! What time is it?

I: There is no Time — so says the Sphere.

Dreamer: Well, yeah. Not for you, anyway.

I: Return me to my fellows, oh my Author. Grant that the Hexagon forgives me.

Dreamer: I can do that. And thanks, I’ve enjoyed being with you. I hate to say good-bye.

I: But surely you will always be with me? Is not my World a fragment of your Mind?

Dreamer: It’s not my mind, really. I’m just filling in. Who knows who’ll dream you next. You’re the real immortal, Square, not me. You’re an eternal Form.

For an instant I could see it All: the boundless Truth, the many Dreamers, and my own life’s passionate play.

I was actually crying when I wrote this.

What I was getting at is that when you write about a shared world, like Flatland, or the Star Wars universe, or for that matter human history, you’re describing characters who in transcend any individual author. And that’s kind of awesome.

From an interview by Carmine Treanni. in Rome, 2005, for Quaderni D’Altra Tempi
When I start, I always have in mind a few crucial situations or devices that I’m eager to explore and depict. These ideas arise to some extent spontaneously, and to some extent from thinking about scientific and social ideas that interest me.

Once I have a vague idea of the book’s theme, I begin working on figuring out the characters, the geography, the society, the tone, the point of view, the story arc, the physics, and, above all, the plot outline.

I write about all these ideas in a notes document that I develop in concert with my novel; usually my notes documents end up nearly as long as my books. I post each of the notes documents online when the corresponding book is published.

The virtue of having a notes document is that then there’s something I can work on when I don’t quite feel ready to write the novel.

When a book’s going well, I can average about a thousand words a day. When I get my thousand words, I print it and go to the coffee shop and reread it and mark it up, then type it in again and repeat the process. I might cycle through a given section three times in a day, and the next day maybe one more time and then I move into the next section.

I tend to be somewhat anxious when I work, worrying I won’t be able to get things to come out right. In general, I worry too much.

From an interview by Ernest Lilley, Brandywine, Maryland, 2006, for SFRevu
I’m so sick of quantum mechanics getting a free ride. It’s an intellectually empty edifice, a false front with nothing behind it. They used to be able to get away with saying, “ah, reality is stranger than we can know,” but I think a lot of us have had it with that line of mystery mongering. Our brains are made of the same quantum mechanical matter as everything else in the world, so if there’s an explanation to be had, there’s no reason we can’t understand it. The foundations of quantum mechanics suffer from a complete and utter bankruptcy of new ideas.

According to a newer new line of thought — I’m thinking of people like Stephen Wolfram, Lee Smolin, and John Cramer — there could well be a deterministic subdimensional physics below quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is like mist over the landscape of the crisp underlying reality.

You mention predestination, which is a way of broaching the question, “If the future is determined, does that mean I don’t have free will?” Maybe we don’t have free will, but in practice this isn’t so bad because, at least in the world we live in, the future is computationally unpredictable. Turns out there’s a distinction we didn’t use to be aware of. The future can pre-exist in an idealized kind of way, but it may well be that it is even in principle impossible to predict it. This is widely believed to be the case in our world.

In Mathematicians in Love, they start out in a world in which the world’s computation is in fact simple enough that they can make a device to predict the future, but they end up in our rich and gnarly world, where prediction is a practical impossibility. I also discuss these ideas in my nonfiction book, The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul.

From an interview by R. U. Sirius, in San Francisco, 2007, for MondoGlobo
A lot of the ideas in my recent novels come from Stephen Wolfram’s work. My The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul was largely about his work. The basic idea is that any natural process can be regarded as a computation. We define computation in a fairly broad sense to mean any deterministic system that obeys definite laws. And it doesn’t have to be digital.

The digital thing is sort of a red herring. We have this idea that being a computer is about being digital. But computers aren’t actually digital, OK? They’re made of a bunch of electrons. And the electrons are fuzzy analog wave functions.

So you can look at a brook or an air current and you can say, “That’s doing something complex.” And if you look at the natural world, there are four kinds of things that you see. Where something is sort of stable — not changing — it’s static. Or else it’s doing something periodic. Or it’s completely fuzzy and like totally scuzzy and screwed up. Or it’s in the interface zone — which is what I call the gnarly zone — the zone between being periodic and being completely scuzzy.

Life is gnarly. Plants are gnarly. Air currents are gnarly. Water currents are gnarly. Fire is gnarly. In Wolfram’s view, every one of these actually embodies a universal computation, similar to a universal Turing Machine or a personal computer, and in principle they can compute anything that you want it to. I agree with him.

Wolfram says interesting things about evolution. He does talk about evolution a little bit. Someone might say, “How could a butterfly have evolved that precise pattern on its wings? Or how could we evolve the exact shape of our body.” And Wolfram makes the point that natural systems are actually fairly robust computations. They like to do things like make spots on butterfly wings or grow limbs from animals. The genetic code doesn’t have to be as finely tweaked as people sometimes imagine. You could actually perturb it quite a bit and you would still get plants and animals that look pretty similar to the way we look now. So it’s not so much that things evolve to perfection. They just get to a level of functioning well enough. In fact, we aren’t tuned to complete optimality.

From an interview by Anneli Rufus in Berkeley, 2009, for East Bay Express
The ideas trickle in unpredictably. Often I’ll push for an idea, focusing on a story situation and trying to imagine what comes next. When I’m brainstorming like this, it helps to be taking notes, either on a scrap of paper, or by actually typing into my laptop. Making little drawings helps, too. But I don’t always get the full insight that I need while I’m pushing. The search seems to continue in my subconscious, and maybe a few hours or even days later I’ll get an “aha” moment about what I need to do. That’s what we call the muse.

And I do go out and do research. When I was working on Hylozoic, I made a trip to Hieronymus Bosch’s home town, s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. I used the material from that visit a lot, it was rich. And My wife and I lived for week in a flophouse on Valencia Street in San Francisco, and I picked up some local color there. And I read this scholarly book by David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, about the history of the idea that objects might be able to think. And always I’m cruising the web, watching movies, reading…looking for clues everywhere.

From an interview by Mike Perschon, in Edmonton, Canada, 2009, for Steam Punk Scholar
I think there’s still a lot of room of all kinds inside science fiction. My genre’s house has many mansions.

The field isn’t very old when you think about it—I’m only like the second generation of science fiction writers, next in line after Fred Pohl. But already you have to be careful not to repeat the old things. I don’t want it to be like I’m throwing down standardized cards that say, like, time machine, spaceship, robot. And I don’t want to write SF that’s parodistically or self-mocking. If the ideas become juiceless tropes, that’s not interesting. As an extreme of this, in certain comedic SF books I feel like the authors are saying “Oh let’s just be silly—SF is all silly garbage, let’s be silly together.” It degenerates into fan fiction where, again, you’re just throwing down picture cards and laughing at them. That’s not a route I want to take.

It’s all about making up new tropes, or using the old ones in fresh ways. There’s always more cool new stuff we can work with, and the future is coming faster than people can absorb. We don’t want to fall back on recycling whatever Heinlein and Asimov did, any more than a contemporary musician wants to emulate Sinatra or even the Beatles. That’s over, it doesn’t speak to our time.

I’m particularly leery of using things that I see on TV or in the movies…that crap is so watered down, it’s written by fifteen people, it’s completely under the establishment’s control. Star Trek is another way for the government to grind its boot into your face, another way for the rulers to indoctrinate the masses with lies about society.

I like to think of science fiction as an edgy literature, like the beatniks or the punks, where we’re turning our backs on the bullshit, we’re trying to make a new world, we’re trying to look at things with fresh eyes. And it’s always possible to look at things with fresh eyes. It’s never been easy to do that, but it’s not any harder now than it ever was.

I think it’s exciting when you have science fiction where you don’t depend on your characters working in a government lab. If you just need to have an arbitrary door to another world, then let’s do it. I mean, there’s been so many surprises in the history of science, why would we think we couldn’t still have something really surprising happen?

And if it’s mysticism—fine. We really have no idea what’s really going on.

Visions of the Metanovel

January 14th, 2022

The Singularity was brought on by some nanomachines known as orphids. The orphids used quantum computing and propelled themselves with electrostatic fields.

The self-reproducing orphids doubled their numbers every few minutes at first; fortunately, they’d been designed to level out at a sustainable population of some sextillion orphids upon Earth’s surface. This meant there were one or two orphids affixed to every square millimeter of every object on the planet. Something like fifty thousand orphids blanketed, say, any given chair or any particular person’s body. The orphids were like ubiquitous smart lice, not that you could directly feel them, for an individual orphid was little more than a knotty long-chain molecule.

Thanks to the power of quantum computing, an individual orphid was roughly as smart as a talking dog, possessing a good understanding of natural language and a large amount of extra memory. Each orphid knew at all times its precise position and velocity, indeed the name “orphid” was a pun on the early twenty-first-century technology of RFID or “Radio Frequency Identification” chips. Rather than radio waves, orphids used quantum entanglement to network themselves into their world-spanning orphidnet.

The accommodating orphids set up a human-orphidnet interface via gentle electromagnetic fields that probed though the scalps of their hosts. Two big wins: by accessing the positional meshes of the orphids, people could now effectively see anything anywhere; and by accessing the orphids’ instantaneous velocities, people could hear the sounds at any location as well. Earth’s ongoing physical reality could be as readily linked and searched as the Internet.

Like eddies in a flowing steam, artificially intelligent agents emerged within the orphidnet. In an ongoing upward cascade, still higher-level agents emerged from swarms of the lower-level ones. By and large, the agents were human-friendly; people spoke of them as beezies.

By interfacing with beezies, a person could parcel out intellectual tasks and store vast amounts of information within the extra memory space that the orphids bore. Those who did this experienced a vast effective increase in intelligence. They called themselves kiqqies, short for kilo-IQ.

New and enhanced forms of art arose among the kiqqies, among these was the multimedia metanovel.

In considering the metanovel, think of how Northwest Native American art changed when the European traders introduced steel axes. Until then, the Native American totems had been handheld items, carved of black stone. But once the tribes had axes, they set to work making totems from whole trees. Of course with the ax came alcohol and smallpox; the era of totem poles would prove to be pitifully short.

There were also some dangers associated with the orphidnet. The overarching highest-level-of-them-all agent at the apex of the virtual world was known as the Big Pig. The Big Pig was an outrageously rich and intricate virtual mind stuffed with beautiful insights woven into ideas that linked into unifying concepts that puzzle-pieced themselves into powerful systems that were in turn aspects of a cosmic metatheory—aha! Hooking into the billion-snouted billion-nippled Big Pig could make a kiqqie feel like a genius. The down side was that kiqqies were unable to remember or implement insights obtained from a Big Pig session. The more fortunate kiqqies were able to limit their Big Pig usage in the same way that earlier people might have limited their use of powerful psychoactive drugs.

If the Big Pig was like alcohol, the analogy to smallpox was the threat of runaway, planet-eating nanomachines called nants—but I won’t get into the nants here.

“Covid: Third Year” Jan, 2022, 40 x 30, acrylic.

Although the postsingular metanovelist Thuy Nguyen had some trouble with Big Pig addiction, she eventually recovered and began work on her remarkable metanovel Wheenk. Thuy wanted Wheenk to be a transreal lifebox, meaning that her metanovel was to capture the waking dream of her life as she experienced it—while sufficiently bending the truth to allow for a fortuitously emerging dramatic plot. Thuy wanted Wheenk to incorporate not only the interesting things she saw and heard, but also the things that she thought and felt. Rather than coding her inner life into words and real-world images alone, Thuy included beezie-built graphic constructs and—this was a special arrow in her quiver—music. The effect was compelling; in later years users would say that accessing Thuy’s work was like becoming Thuy herself.

Among Thuy’s metanovelist friends during the time she worked upon Wheenk were Gerry Gurken, Carla Standard, John Medford, and Linda Loca. Each of them had their own distinctive approaches to creating a metanovel.

Gerry’s metanovel Banality was a vast combine of images all drawn from one and the same instant on a certain day. No time elapsed in this work, only space, and the story was the user’s gradual apprehension of a vast conspiracy woven throughout not only our world but also throughout the worlds of thoughts and dreams. The images were juxtaposed in suggestive ways, and were accompanied by a spoken voice-over delivered by a virtual Gerry Gurken who wandered his memory-palace at the user’s side.

Gerry’s title, Banality, had an ironic resonance, for his timeslice was located at orphidnet time-zero, that is, 12:00:00 PST on the first day after the beezies had implemented their protocol of having the orphidnet save, a hundred times per second, the positions and velocities of every orphid on Earth. This postsingular moment marked the day when history had truly changed forever, and what did Gerry find there? Human banality, the same as usual—but with something odd and sinister beneath the surface.

By the way, Gerry, who was a convivial and gregarious sort, preferred to select the images for Banality not by browsing in the orphidnet time-zero database, but rather by roaming the realtime streets. He had a good eye; he saw disturbing connections everywhen and everywhere. Often as not, the beezies were able to scroll back from current sightings to find nearly the same image in the orphidnet time-zero database, but even when the match was wildly inaccurate, that was fine with Gerry too. To his surrealist sensibilities, a cauliflower was as convulsively beautiful as a catfish.

Banality would have taken hundreds or even thousands of hours to explore in detail, and it bulked larger every day—in that sense Banality was like a blog, albeit a blog eternally focused upon a single global instant of time. Any ten-minute block of the work was fascinating, disorienting, and revelatory—leaving the user’s mind off-center and agog. Unfortunately, by the twenty-minute mark, most users found Banality to be too much. The work was like some bizarre, aggressively challenging sushi bar that the average person abandons after tasting only a few dishes: geoduck, sea cucumber, nudibranch, and jellyfish, say, and then it was always, “Thanks so much, very interesting, gotta go.”

The metanovelists occasionally experienced the phenomenon of having one of their characters send messages to them—they called this feedback phenomenon blowback. Gerry Gurken, for one, had regular visitations from the simulated Gerry Gurken of Banality, the virtual Gerry clamoring that he wanted metanovelist Gerry to edit in a girlfriend character for him. Telling this story, portly Gerry would dart hot intense looks at Thuy Nguyen, as if he were planning to feed a model of her to virtual Gerry, which was perfectly fine with Thuy, and she said so, Thuy being in a lonely-but-coned-off emotional state where she was ready to accept any admiration she was offered, as long as it was virtual and with no strings attached.

Intense, lipsticked, nail-biting Carla Standard used what she called a simworld approach in creating her metanovel You’re a Bum! Her virtual characters were artificially alive, always in action, and somewhat unpredictable, a bit like the nonplayer characters in an old-school videogame. Rather than writing story lines, Carla endowed her characters with goals and drives, leaving them free to interact like seagulls in a wheeling flock.

You’re a Bum! was experienced through a single character’s point of view, this protagonist being a homeless young woman who was enlisting people to help her unearth the truth about the mysterious disappearance of her kiqqie boyfriend. There was some chance that he’d been abducted by aliens. The heroine was bedeviled both by her mother’s attempts to have her brought home, and by the advances of a predatory pimp. Backing her up were an innocent younger-brother figure, a potential new boyfriend, a mysterious federal agent, a wise old Big Pig addict, and a cohort of hard-partying kiqqie friends.

For the You’re a Bum! dialogue and graphics, Carla had her beezies patching in data from the day-to-day world: conversations of kiqqies in San Francisco bars, shops, apartments, and alleyways. Each user’s You’re a Bum! experience was further tailored with data drawn from the user’s personal meshes and social situations. In other words, when you accessed Carla’s metanovel, you saw something vaguely resembling your own life.

By the way, Thuy Nguyen’s two sessions with You’re a Bum! proved painful, even lacerating. First she’d relived a moment when she and her former boyfriend Jayjay stood under a flowering plum tree in the Mission, Jayjay shaking the tree to make the petals shower down upon her like perfumed confetti, all the while Jayjay’s eyes melting with love. And then she’d seen their breakup, but more objectively than before, with the simulated Thuy hungover from the Big Pig, her clothes in disarray, Thuy hysterically screaming at Jayjay in a metapainting-lined alley, and poor Jayjay’s trembling fingers nervously adjusting his coat and hat.

Like Gerry Gurken, the excitable John Medford was one of Thuy’s admirers, but he held little physical appeal for her. He was too thin and overwrought, too dandruffy, too needy. As part of his doomed campaign to engage Thuy’s affection, Medford had undertaken The Thuy Fan, an unwriteable and unreadable metanovel wherein every possible action path of his young heroine Thuy would be traced. Waking up with a man, a woman, or nobody in bed beside her, Thuy hopped out of the right or left side of her bed, or perhaps she crawled over the head or the foot. She put on her slippers or threw them out the window, if she had a window. In some forkings she jumped out the window herself, but in most she went to take a shower. In the shower she sang or washed or had sex with her partner. And when she emerged, she might find a table by her bed bearing a breakfast of lox, lobster, steel-cut oats, or a single boiled ostrich egg. In some forkings, Thuy had no time to eat, as her house was on fire, or menaced by an earthquake or a giant ant.

In practice no human author would have had the time and energy to contemplate so richly ramified a document as The Thuy Fan, but John Medford had his beezies helping him by autonomously roughing in sketches of ever-more action paths. As the mood struck him, Medford would add voice-over descriptions to the paths; he had a flair for making anything at all sound interesting. But, densely tufted as the branchings were, Medford only managed to fully polish Thuy’s action fan for the first two and a half seconds of her day. Random assassins, meteorites, a stroke, the spontaneous combustion of Thuy’s pillow—so many things were possible. And, insofar as Medford’s goal was to charm the real world Thuy into his arms, The Thuy Fan was a failure. Medford eventually set the work aside, declaring it to be finished.

As his next project Medford began an inversely forked work called April March, lifting both his title and concept from the celestial pages of Jorge Luis Borges. Medford’s plan for April March was to start with a scene on a particular day and to document plausible variants of what happened on the days before. To make the work more tractable than The Thuy Fan, Medford was austerely limiting his branching factor to one fork per day. The initial scene, set on April 1, would present an ambiguous conversation between a man and a woman at an airport, followed by two versions of March 31, four versions of March 30, eight versions of March 29, and so on. Medford planned to march as far as March 24, making a thousand and twenty-three scenes in all, linked together into five hundred and twelve plausible action paths which would constitute, so John claimed, an all but exhaustive compendium of every possible kind of detective story.

Bouncy Linda Loca created a metanovel entitled George Washington, depicting the world as seen from the point of view of a dollar bill. What lent her work its piquancy was how literally she’d managed to execute the plan: while perusing George Washington you felt flat and crinkly; you spent most of your time in a wallet or folded in a pocket; and when you came out into the air the main thing you saw was countertops and people’s hands. The beezies had helped by providing Linda with the life histories of real, orphid-meshed bills. The user could of course scroll past the dull parts, but the presence of the realistic data gave the work heft and seriousness.

When, once in a great while, Linda’s George Washington dollar changed hands, the bill moved the story along by buying drinks, influence, or sex, and thereby sketching the rise and fall of a young cop whom Linda had named George Washington as well. Young officer Washington became corrupted due to his sexual attraction for a promiscuous older woman named Donna, who talked him into executing a hit on her landlord, who turned out to be George’s biological father, this fact being unknown to George until too late.

For a time, Linda had blowback issues with her George Washington character because, to round him out, she’d made him an aspiring writer. Problem was, George began pestering Linda with messages about her metanovel—dumb suggestions, by and large, for the character was, after all, only a beezie simulation of a human, and not a true artist. He failed to grasp, for instance, the dark, erotic beauty of a four-hour scene consisting of the slow shifting of the dollar within a felt-appliqué wallet in Donna’s tight jeans while Donna trolled Mission Street for men. By the same token, George was unable to understand that the precise convex pressure of his own virtual buttock upon the eponymous dollar as he sat writing at his virtual desk might be more interesting to his creator Linda Loca than what he wrote.

Weary of arguing with her character, Linda edited out virtual George’s love of writing, and made his hobby bowling instead.

As it happened, Thuy’s old boyfriend Jayjay ended up with Linda Loca. And then, while trying to prevent an outbreak of nants, Jayjay died. In the instant of extreme grief and despair when she learned of Jayjay’s death, Thuy finally finished Wheenk.

The pieces of the metanovel came together like a time-reversed nuclear explosion. Her adventures in the kiqqie underworld of San Francisco, her lost love for Jayjay, her worries about the threat of the nants, a particular cone shell she had on her dresser, her mother’s face the day Thuy had graduated from college, her father’s bare feet when he tended his tomato plants, the dance Thuy had done down the rainy street one night while exulting over her metanovel—everything fitting, everything in place, Wheenk as heavy and whole as a sphere of plutonium.

Her Great Work finally done, Thuy pulsed the Wheenk database to the global orphidnet. Her pain had produced artistic transcendence.

Note on “Visions of the Metanovel”
Written May, 2006.
Mad Professor, 2007.
Reprinted in Complete Stories.

In the summer of 2005, I read Accelerando, a collection of linked short stories by Charles Stross (Ace Books, 2005). These stories had a tremendous effect on me; Stross showed that it’s possible to go ahead and write about what happens after the co-called Singularity.

As many readers will know, the Singularity is a notion invented by the novelist and computer scientist Vernon Vinge in a 1993 talk—to read the original talk, just search the web for “Vinge Singularity.” Vinge pointed out that if we can make robots as intelligent as we are, then there seems to be no reason that the robots couldn’t plug in faster processors and bigger memories to then be more intelligent than people. And then—the real kicker—these superhuman robots can set to work designing still better robots, setting off an upward cascade of ever-more-powerful machines.

Some timid souls have suggested that writers and futurologists must stand mute before the Singularity, that there’s no way for us to imagine the years beyond such a cataclysmic change. But, hey, imagining the unimaginable is what thought experiments are for! And Stross shows us how; he blows right past the Singularity and deep into some very bizarre and fun-to-read-about futures.

In his Accelerando the solar system has become concentric Dyson spheres of computing devices with only our Earth remaining like “a picturesque historic building stranded in an industrial park.” And some minds in the shells want to smash Earth, simply to enhance their RAM and their flop by a few percent.

This struck me as being no different, really, from people wanting to fill a wetland to make a mall, to clear-cut a rainforest to make a destination golf resort, or even to kill a whale to whittle its teeth into religious icons of a whale god. I was outraged. But also very intrigued by the idea.

And so I began writing my novel Postsingular (2007). The novel opens with an attack of world-eating nanomachines called nants. The nants are rolled back, at least temporarily, and then one of the characters introduces a more benevolent kind of nanomachines called orphids, as described in “Visions of the Metanovel.”

I’m very intrigued by the question of what kind of art we might make given vastly improved abilities. By way of researching the question, I studied Jorge Luis Borges’s visionary writings, particularly his tale, “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain,” which indeed describes an imaginary novel called April March. (The Quain piece appears in, for instance, Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions.) Also of use to me in this context was the Stanislaw Lem’s 1979 book, A Perfect Vacuum, in which he reviews a series of nonexistent books.

Although Postsingular features a kiqqie metanovelist named Thuy Nguyen, I didn’t include the full text of “Visions of the Metanovel” in my novel. My sense is that people reading a novel don’t want to negotiate a bulky sequence of intellectual games. But I felt that the games might seem amusing if presented as a single short piece.

Writing and Painting.

January 13th, 2022

Selections from interviews asking about my painting and my writing.

#217. Elephants.

2009. Interview by Charlie Jane Anders for io9.

Q. Do you think your writing changed when you started painting a lot?

A. All along, I’ve made little pen and paper drawings of my scenes before writing them, but now I enjoy the more heavy-duty process of breaking out my kit of acrylic paints. I took up painting when I was writing my historical novel about the painter Peter Bruegel, and I started using paintings for pre-visualization while I wrote Frek and the Elixir.

A painting takes longer than a drawing, and I get more deeply into it. My sense is that I’m using a different part of my brain when I paint a picture - as opposed to when I’m revising my written outline. It’s like visiting a different muse. I get tired of thinking all the time, and when I don’t know what to put into an upcoming scene, it’s nice to just get out the paints and see what happens.

Whether I’m writing or painting, I don’t necessarily know exactly what I’m going to come up - but painting gives me a different way being surprised. Painting has taught me a few practical things about writing as well. When I’m doing a painting, for instance, it’s not unusual to completely paint over some screwed-up some bit of it and start over. I think this has made me feel more relaxed about revising my fiction. And I’ve also noticed that the details that I haven’t yet visualized are the ones that give me the most trouble - but that the only way to proceed is to put it down wrong, and then keep changing it until it works.

Q. Do you think that working as an artist helps your writing to be more visual? Do you think it helps you have an eye for the telling detail or the vivid description? You’ve always had really surreal imagery in your books, but do you think it’s gotten more visual and less cerebral with books like Postsingular?

A. I’ve always sought to provoke the reader with a steady flow of powerful images. And, at the same time, I like to keep things moving with action, dialog, and the stream of consciousness of the main character. Absorbing a story is quite different from looking at a painting. With a painting you have a synoptic view, that is, you can overview the whole scene at once. But in reading a story, you have to build the scene in your head by processing a linear sequence of descriptions. I don’t like to overdo the visual description in the “fine writing” sense, which can be a pain for the reader. My goal is to put in just enough description so that when the reader looks back on the scene, they have a mental image similar to the one I started with. I don’t mean that I want to be stark or minimalist, what I mean is that I like the conciseness of poetry - where you line up exactly the right words and phrases to set off the intended response.

Q. Is the visual a big part of “world building” for you? Do you visualize your settings and scenes as images before you start to think of them as places where stuff occurs?

A. All along, I’ve had a visual imagination. For me writing is a little like dreaming while I’m awake. That is, I see the scene in my mind’s eye before I write it. Sometimes I’ll nurse an image of a place or a situation for quite some time before I write about it, in fact I sometimes write a book simply to be able to mentally visit certain locales that I’ve dreamed up. I pretty much can’t write a novel unless I have an image of a fabulous place where I want to go. By writing about these scenes, I make them more real to myself. And painting is another way to layer on more details.
Q . When you’re dealing with a fantastical topic, like a post-singularity world or robots on the moon, do you think having a strong visual sense is one way to ground the narrative and make it feel more real?

A. Oh yeah, everything has to be visual. I think I learned that from Robert Sheckley and Jorge Luis Borges. Ideas are important, but what you want in a novel is an objective correlative for the idea. You don’t want to go on and on about your bogus scientific explanations, you want to show the reader some weird little physical device. Imagine, say, a wriggly green horseshoe with antennae on it, call it a jinker - and when you point your jinker at some object, the target object becomes weightless and the size of a matchbox and you can carry it off in your pocket. Maybe the jinker talks to you telepathically, maybe pairs of jinkers like to get together and mate, and while they’re doing it, all the objects in your house are floating around and changing size. That’s all much more interesting than talking about spatial metrics and gravity tensors!

#47. Welcome to Mars

2009. Interview by Henry Baum for Self-Publishing Review.

Q 282. What’s your relationship to painting versus writing fiction? It’s great to see the cross-pollination of the painting The Sex Sphere on the cover of the novel of the same name, but I notice a much different style in your painting than in your novels. Like Welcome to Mars can be described as a kind of childlike utopia and your novels don’t really fit that description.

A 282. In my own head, my paintings look very much like the scenes in my novels. Since I’m known as a cyberpunk, people sometimes imagine that my novels are dark and full of machines, but that’s not the kind of book I’m writing these days. In recent years I’ve become interested in scenarios where the machines have withered away and been replaced by bio-tweaked plants and animals, or futures where our computational devices have migrated down into the very quantum vibrations of the atoms around us. And this leads to a world that does in some ways resembles a utopian fantasy landscape.

198. The Halo Card

2016. Interview by Liz Argall for Lightspeed webzine.

Q. In your transrealist manifesto you cited the importance of organically finding a story, what might be described as sketching rather than plotting. I’m intrigued to see how many of your paintings are part of your novel writing process. Could you tell us a bit more about how your visual arts practice and writing practice interweave and feed into each other?

A. It’s the left-brain / right-brain thing. Part of my mind fabulates tales and thinks in words. Another part of my mind sees images and dreams up flash. It’s useful to do a drawing or even an oil painting that relates to whatever might be in one of of my upcoming chapters or stories. The paints and canvas do a lot of the work. I shove the colors around and see what I get. By the way, you can see my paintings at Of course, if I can get loose, my writing can be that way too. Sometimes I’ll be tempted to go with a completely crazy and out-there scene, even though, in the current terms of my story, it doesn’t make sense. Turns out it’s almost always better to go with that impulse, and to do the gnarly scene. You and the readers want to have fun and to see wild things. And you can patch in an explanation later. Another lesson from painting is that revisions are easy. You can always paint over a fence or daub in a tentacle. It’s just paint, it’s just words.

176. Ponytails

2019. Interview by Jeff Somers for B&N SciFi & Fantasy Blog

Q. You also paint, and have received notice for your artwork, which favors surreal sci-fi themes. Are there connections between your painting and your writing?

A. I started painting in 1999 because I was writing a historical novel, As Above, So Below, about the life of the artist Peter Bruegel. I wanted to get a sense of what it’s like to paint. Over time I got to enjoying it more and more. I’ve done almost a hundred and seventy paintings by now. I’m not a great draftsman. But with paint, you can push it around and layer it until it looks like what you want. And then of course you ruin it, and fix it, and ruin it again, and fix it, and eventually you stop.

I like how painting is completely analog. No keyboard and screen. Smearing paint on a canvas. I love it. When I’m unsure about an upcoming scene in a novel, I do a painting that relates to it. Not an exact representation, more like an evocation. Like dreaming while I’m awake. Writing is like dreaming, too. You get out of your way and type.

216. Calder Grabs Crab

2019. Interview by Robert Penner for Big Echo ezine

Q. Since I mentioned Blake it might be a good moment to talk about the relation between what you write and what you paint. Could you could say a few words about working across media? How does that kind of play across forms shape your ideas?

A . I think it’s the attitude that’s the important thing. The specific ideas - well, I always just think about the same few things, whatever I’m doing. Sex, gnarl, color, sounds, and the now. I’m here in this rich, amazing reality and - I can’t believe it! My family teases me. “Be quiet, Rudy. You always say that.”

So, okay, I have no mind. It’s my attitude that’s the key. What kind of attitude is needed in order to write, or paint, or take photos, or to assemble a zine from arbitrary grunge mailed in by strangers?

Be loose. Spontaneous bop prosody. Forget yourself. Keep it bouncing. Ruin it, fix it, ruin it again. Make it fun. Revise, revise, revise. God is in the details.

Painting has made some of these practices clearer to me. Like the whole concept of painting over an awkward patch - yeah. And the importance of popping the colors and working the chiaroscuro.

If I’m painting to match a sketch, it’s a drag, and it doesn’t really work. It’s better when I’m mindlessly dabbling, just following the shapes and the colors, and letting my brush loose. Ditto for writing. I don’t worry too much about outlines. I prefer surprise. If the action takes over, and the chracters are talking, and I’m dreaming while I’m awake, and transcribing what I see - that’s when it’s good. I’m in it so deep that I’m gone.

All paintings Copyright © Rudy Rucker 2022. See my paintings page for more info.

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