And he always will be.
That is all.
Blog of science fiction & fantasy writer Joe Vasicek
And he always will be.
That is all.
As many of you know, my biggest life goal (besides obtaining a signed first-edition copy of David Gemmell’s Legend) is to make a living telling stories that I love. Accomplishing that goal is no small task. For the last five years, I’ve been focused on that goal like a hellfire missile, and as of right now it continues to elude me.
I’m getting closer, though. I’ve got 14 ebooks out, hopefully 18 by the end of the summer, and they’re actually selling. I won’t go too much into specifics, but my gross income is about 30% to 40% of what I’d need to cover all my expenses without another job.
Granted, I’m a young single guy with good health and no dependents, living on a shoestring budget in the cheapest housing in one of the cheapest states in the US, but that’s not an insignificant accomplishment.
Right now, I’m reinvesting all of that into the business, in order to boost sales and to avoid self-employment tax. But if I have a difficult month and need something to fall back on, my books are generating a fair amount of passive income, and that income is growing. If I keep doing what I’m doing, and things stay on more or less the same trajectory, I expect that I’ll be making enough to support myself in one or two years.
That’s actually a little better than the timetable I set a year ago, where I determined to go full-time by 2016. Then again, I also set a goal to be married by then, and I have no idea how that will change things. I suppose my spouse’s income would be able to supplement my own, but then there’s insurance and taxes and all sorts of other expenses that I can expect to go way up.
(At the same time, I have this wild dream of running off with my wife to some remote part of the world and spending a couple of years on some crazy-insane adventure, like trekking across Mongolia, or joining a Bedouin tribe, or couchsurfing across Europe. The world is a very different place outside of the US, and the cost of living in much of the world is significantly lower. Especially in the developing world, people know how to make do and be happy with much, much less.)
Even if I suffer a major setback, like an irreversible drop in sales or a technological shift that made my current business model obsolete, making a living is no longer a pie-in-the-sky sort of dream. It’s within reach, and I think I have a pretty good idea how I’ll get there.
First of all, it’s probably not going to be a sudden, earth-shaking event. It’s much more likely that I’ll ease into it gradually, first as a fallback for months when work is slow, and then as a way to pay off my bills while I keep a part-time job for spending money. One day, I’ll wake up and realize that it’s been five or six weeks since I’ve done anything but write, and then I’ll open up my budget and realize that I’ve arrived.
As I get married and start a family, my expenses will no doubt rise, and I or my wife may have to take another job for a while to make ends meet. Then again, if book sales continue to snowball with each new release, then we might be able to time it so that the kids start arriving just as the writing income really starts to take off. Even then, book sales fluctuate so much from month to month that until we have a significant amount of money in savings, we’re always going to feel like we’re a couple of weeks away from having to find another job.
And then, with the writing bringing in a comfortable six-figure income, we might finally be able to afford a house. It’s almost impossible to get a mortgage as a self-employed freelancer, so I fully expect to pay for most of the house up front. Good thing I don’t want to live in a city.
Of course, it’s also possible that the writing will never bring in a six-figure income. Science fiction is a relatively small genre, and the only stories I really care to tell are the ones that take place on other worlds. But that’s okay–as long as I’m able to support myself and my family, I’ll be happy. Anything above that, and it’s not about the money. In fact, it’s really not about the money right now.
The point of all this is that I don’t expect there to be a moment where I’ve suddenly “arrived.” If anything, it’s just going to be a continuation of what I’m doing right now, scaled up to meet life’s changing demands.
And you know what? I’m okay with that.
My resume might look a bit checkered, and job interviewers may raise their eyebrows when they see that I’m a college graduate, but these odd jobs give me a lot more flexibility than a stable “day job” with insurance and all that. I like being able to take a week or two off to do nothing but write, even if the off-time is unintentional on my part. I know how to be flexible, and I’m quite comfortable living a lifestyle where I don’t know where I’ll be getting my next paycheck.
And to friends and family who are concerned because I’m almost thirty and don’t have a full-time job … don’t be. I’m following my dream, and my dream is within reach. Everything else is just a stepping stone. I have a career, I’ve taken full responsibility for it, and I’ve turned it into something profitable. If making a living as a writer is a bit like making grizzly bear soup, I’ve already killed the bear.
In related news, I learned this week that I’ve been pirated in Japan. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or alarmed, but since my books are 1) available from multiple retailers 2) relatively inexpensive, and 3) DRM-free (on all the sites that allow it, anyway), I’m not too concerned about it cutting into my income. I am worried about people downloading my books from an unsafe site that might give them a virus or something, but people will be people and there’s not much I can do about that.
If anything, it’s just another sign that I’ve arrived–or rather, that I’m exactly where I’ve wanted to be all along, and it’s just a matter of making things work.
Sometimes, it certainly looks that way. All the major stuff seems to be reprints of past series and reboots of decades-old franchises. Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Ender’s Game, Dune, Babylon 5–all the big names seem to have had their start at least a generation ago. At any science fiction convention, you’re likely to see more gray-haired men than kids in their teens and twenties. And if you go to a publishing conference, new adult, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance are ascendant.
I’ve noticed that people are using the term “science fiction” increasingly to describe stories that don’t have anything to do with space. Dystopian, post-apocalyptic, steampunk, even time travel–all of these subgenres are certainly part of the fold, but they’re very different from the stories about starships and alien worlds. And then you have all the markets for short fiction that have been forced out of business–and even a few larger publishers, like Night Shade Books which is now selling off all its assets (read: authors) to avoid bankruptcy.
I remember going to World Fantasy 2010 in Columbus, Ohio, and feeling dismayed at the complete lack of science fiction. World Fantasy is (or was, at least) the premier professional conference for speculative fiction literature, but all of the attention was going to urban fantasy and steampunk. On the freebie table where publishers often dumped ARCs and review copies of their books, the only space opera stuff I really saw were a couple of titles by Glen Cook and one other guy–and I watched that table hawkishly for the full three days of the conference.
Sometimes, it seems as if it would be so much better if I had grown up in the 80s. That’s when science fiction really had its heyday. But all through the 90s, the genre seems to have been on the decline, much like NASA and the US space program.
So is space-centered science fiction on the way out? Have we passed the glory days, and it’s now just a long decline until it becomes an obscure niche, beloved by some, but enigmatic to others?
In spite of everything I said above, I actually don’t think so. In fact, I think we’re on the cusp of a science fiction renaissance, and that sci-fi geeks like myself will look back twenty years from now and wish that they were born in our era. Here’s why:
1) Scientific discoveries are transforming the way we see the universe.
The day I posted P is for Planets, NASA’s Kepler mission announced the discovery of three Earth-like worlds orbiting in the habitable zones of their stars. The existence of alien Earths is not conjecture–it’s a confirmed fact. As our ability to study these worlds improves, it’s only a matter of time, IMO, before we find a world that has life.
We’ve discovered the Higgs-Boson. We’re unraveling the fundamental building blocks of the universe. We’ve built telescopes to look back to the dawn of time itself, and we’re learning more about the cosmology of the universe every year. Perhaps even more remarkably, we understand now how little it is that we actually know–that the entirety of the observable universe is only about 5% of it, and even that’s optimistic.
All of this will take time to trickle down to the popular consciousness, but with all the new discoveries that are happening, I think that’s already in the process of happening. In particular, I think the recent discoveries in the realm of exoplanets and astrobiology are going to shake things up in a major way in the next five or ten years.
2) The privatization of space travel is paving the way for a rapid expansion into space.
The US space program has been plagued with funding problems since at least the end of the Cold War space race. Since the space shuttle program was retired just last year, the only way for our astronauts to get into space is through the Russian Soyuz spacecraft at Baikonur. If NASA had to put a man on the moon, they do not currently have the knowledge or technology necessary to do it.
In the private sector, though, it’s been a very different story. SpaceX has had a number of successful launches recently, most notably sending the first unmanned resupply capsule up to the International Space Station. And just a couple days ago, Virgin Galactic had the first successful test flight of its rocket-powered spacecraft.
It’s sad to see the space shuttle go, but there are a lot of reasons why the program was flawed and inefficient to begin with. By handing things off to the private sector and turning space exploration into a viable business venture, we can hopefully overcome those inefficiencies and eventually make space accessible to the general public.
And then you have the organizations like Mars One that are looking even further ahead to the colonization of Mars. There’s a groundswell of excitement for Martian colonization that is starting to get some real money behind it. Will it go anywhere? It’s hard to say right now, but even if it suffers another decade or two of setbacks, it’s getting public attention, especially from the younger generation.
3) Video games are bringing a fresh new look and feel to the genre.
Not all of the big sci-fi series hail from 70s and 80s. Halo started up as recently as 2001, and it’s a multi-billion dollar franchise with games, books–even Legos. In fact, there are lots of sci-fi video game franchises right now, many of them right on par with other classic space opera. Just look at Starcraft, for example, or Mass Effect, or Eve Online and Sins of a Solar Empire. The number of sci-fi games has been exploding.
In fact, this explosion has been happening for some time. While literary science fiction may have suffered something of a decline back in the 90s, that was the heyday of games like Master of Orion and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Flight simulators like Flight Commander and X-wing proliferated like crazy, while even some of the classic RPGs like Final Fantasy borrowed heavily from science fiction tropes. And those are just a few of the games that I can list off the top of my head!
Whether or not literary sf is on the decline, a whole new generation has been introduced to the genre through the medium of video gaming. This is not just a small niche audience playing this stuff, either–in the US at least, Halo is as mainstream as Monopoly or Settlers of Catan. In fact, you could say that science fiction is more mainstream now than it ever has been, and a lot of that is due to sci-fi video games.
4) The e-publishing golden age is giving us thousands of new voices.
But what about the world of literary sf? Are we in a decline? Do people just not read science fiction anymore? How bright is the future for science fiction literature?
Actually, this is the area where I’m the most optimistic of all.
The publishing industry is changing at the speed of light, much in the same way that the music industry changed about a decade ago. Just as the MP3 revolution allowed all sorts of eclectic yet entrepreneurial artists to thrive without the oversight of record labels, the epublishing revolution is opening all sorts of doors for the enterprising author. And while the changes are driving publishers (such as NSB) out of business, they are enabling authors who only sell in the mid-list range to make a respectable living.
At Worldcon 2011, Ginger Buchanan (senior editor at Tor) asserted that there has never been a runaway science fiction bestseller. In the eyes of New York publishing, that may be true–but New York has a notorious record for missing the catch in pursuit of one big fish. Because of epublishing, whole new genres like New Adult that publishers thought would never sell are now going mainstream.
And even the niches that stay niches are becoming quite lucrative for the authors who can build a decent following. When author cuts out the middlemen and develops a direct relationship with the readership, it only takes a thousand true fans or so become a financial success. As Kris Rusch pointed out so aptly, those numbers may bring only scorn from New York, but for the writers who actually produce the content, that’s a vein of pure gold.
I can’t tell you how many success stories I’ve heard from fellow sci-fi writers over on the Kindle Boards, who started just for the grocery money and ended up quitting their day jobs. But as Hugh Howey pointed out, the runaway bestsellers are not the true story of the epublishing revolution–it’s the little guys who only sell a few hundred copies a month but are earning enough to support themselves writing what they love.
Indeed, we’re already starting to see an explosion of new science fiction, thanks largely to the ease of electronic self-publishing. I’ve only read a few of them so far, but Nathan Lowell stands out among them, as well as my good friend Kindal Debenham. These guys and so many others are bringing a fresh new voice to space opera, revitalizing the genre in ways that simply weren’t economical back in the days of Big Publishing.
So even if space opera as a literary genre isn’t quite large enough to go mainstream, it is large enough to support a wide range of new voices under the emerging business models. And as the epublishing revolution continues to mature, I think we’re going to see a new golden age comparable to the era of the pulp adventure stories.
I’ve been publishing my own work since 2011, and I can attest that there’s never been a better time to be a writer. I’m not quite making enough to go full-time yet, but at the rate things are going, it will only be a year or two before I realize my dream of making a living telling stories that I love. And if they’re the kind of stories that you love too, then that’s great news for all of us!
So has science fiction reached its zenith? I don’t think so. It went mainstream about a generation ago, which was definitely a huge moment, but for the last few decades it’s been in the process of branching out and rediscovering itself. Right now, I think we’re on the verge of a wonderful new renaissance that is going to blow us all away. As a lifelong reader and writer of science fiction, I certainly hope that’s the case. And because of the reasons listed above, I sincerely believe that it is.
So I’ve been following Dean Wesley Smith’s blog pretty closely over the last few days, as he posts about his creative process for a novel he’s ghost writing. It’s more than a little mind-boggling–he started literally with nothing, not even a working title, and yet he’s averaging between 5k-7k per day. If he hasn’t already, he’ll probably finish it tonight.
I’m learning a lot from these posts, especially about the importance of switching off your internal critic and trusting your creative instincts. Over the last couple of days, I’ve tried to do just that with the sword & planet novel I mentioned last week, and I can say that it really works! By doing all I can to put words on the page and ignoring everything else, I’m averaging about a thousand words per day and the story is unfolding wonderfully. It’s like a trust fall with my muse, where instead of failing miserably I’ve found she’s there to catch me.
All of this has made me think that I need to reorder my writing routine and make some resolutions in order to keep this momentum going. If I can overcome some of my bad habits and replace them with good ones, I can be a lot more productive, and writing will be that much more fun.
So here’s what I’m going to do this week:
Basically, I’m going to treat my work-in-progress as something fun, rather than work or a chore. I’ll use a stopwatch to keep track of how many hours I write each day, but I won’t give myself a quota.
My writing process isn’t the same as Dean’s, and I’m not going to try to imitate his process, but I am going to pick out what I like about it and see what works. Also, I’m going to focus a lot more on quantity than quality, with the understanding that treating everything as practice will likely improve both.
As for the A to Z blogging challenge, I’ve got two posts left, Y and Z. I haven’t written them yet, but I’ve got a great idea for both of them. Since writing takes precedence, though, I may not get to them until later in the day. It also depends on whether the temp agency calls me up in the morning with a job–they’ve been doing that a lot recently. Last week I was at a factory making toothbrushes for dogs (true story). This week, I could be doing anything–or nothing, as the case may be. I’d like a couple of days of nothing, just for a good chance to write.
When Gene Roddenberry pitched the original Star Trek series back in the 60s, Westerns were all the rage. Consequently, he pitched his show as a “wagon train to the stars,” where a bunch of quirky characters on an awesome starship travel from adventure town to interstellar adventure town, exploring and pioneering the final frontier.
Sound familiar? Yeah, I thought so. The concept proved so catchy that it’s been redone time and again, from Battlestar Galactica to Firefly to Doctor Who. Even though Westerns aren’t nearly as popular as they used to be, many of its tropes are so well suited to Science Fiction that they drive the genre even today.
For example, adventure planets. In a typical Western, the characters travel from town to town, with a different adventure in each one. Well, in Science Fiction, the characters do the same thing, except that they’re traveling from planet to planet. And really, if you’ve got the ability to travel to other worlds, how can you not have an adventure in each one?
A large reason for the Western / Science Fiction crossover is the whole concept of space as the final frontier, which we explored earlier in this series with I is for Interstellar. There’s a very real sense of manifest destiny in the space exploration community, not because of humano-ethnocentrism (heck, we don’t even know we’re not alone in our local stellar neighborhood), but to ensure humanity’s long-term survival. The parallels between that and the westward movement in 19th century America aren’t perfect, but they do exist.
Similarly, as we explored in R is for Rebel, the notion of space as the final frontier has a special resonance with the American audience. The days of the old frontier may be over, but its spirit lives on in our culture, from guns to road trips to our glorification of the rugged, self-made individual. Today’s Science Fiction, especially the space-focused SF of Space Opera, grew out of the adventure fiction of the pulps, which thrived on that frontier American ethos.
In fiction, the frontier can still be found in two major genres: the Western, which is historical and therefore more backward-looking, and Science fiction, which is futuristic and therefore more forward-looking. Because Science Fiction isn’t burdened with all of the historical baggage of the traditional Western, it’s a much more flexible medium for story, readily adaptable to contemporary issues and concerns.
For example, where Star Trek echoes the large-scale nation to nation conflicts of the Cold War (Federation vs. Klingons and Romulans), the new Battlestar Galactica series echoes the much more asymmetrical conflicts of the post-9/11 world (Cylon agents who are indistinguishable from humans and may not even know that they are cylons). At the same time, the wholesale co-opting of Western tropes enables a latent sense of nostalgia, evident in the look and feel of Firefly, or the famous opening lines from Star Wars: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
My first real experience with a wagon train to the stars type of story was probably Star Trek: Voyager, which I watched religiously with my dad every Wednesday night until maybe 9th or 10th grade. The Western-borrowed tropes are somewhat more muted in that series, but they exist, especially the planetville / adventure towns stuff. However, it wasn’t until Firefly and Serenity that I really experienced the awesomeness of a true Space Western. There were a lot of things in Firefly that I really loved, especially the character interactions, the gun-toting action scenes, and especially the starship Serenity. There were some things I didn’t like so much, like the fact that every planet is basically Wyoming, but overall I really enjoyed the show.
It wasn’t until I started getting more acquainted with straight-up Westerns that I saw the real potential for crossover between the genres. Stories about mountain men like Jeremiah Johnson really captured my imagination–what would this look like if it were set in space? In that sense, I came to the Space Western more from the classic Science Fiction side first, rather than the pulp adventure stuff. But once I discovered the crossover connection, it naturally found a way into my own work.
That’s basically how the story idea for Star Wanderers first came to me. I was lying on my bed, daydreaming about having my own starship like the Serenity, when I wondered what it would be like for a starship pilot to get roped into an accidental marriage like in the movie Jeremiah Johnson? The collision between the two ideas was like a supernova exploding in my brain. I rolled out of bed and started writing, coming up with chapter one of Outworlder almost exactly like it’s written today. And the more invested I became in those characters and that world, the more the story grew. I’m writing Part VII right now (Reproach, from Noemi and Mariya’s POV), and so long as people read them I’ll keep writing more.
Genre mash-ups and crossovers are a great way to keep things fresh and come up with some really interesting stories. Some genres aren’t very well suited for each other (Erotica and Middle Grade, for example), but others come together so well that they seem almost complementary. That certainly seems to be the case with Westerns and Science Fiction, at least here in the United States where the spirit of the frontier still echoes through the popular culture.
In science fiction, whenever two characters from different planets or different alien races have to interact with each other, they almost always speak the same language or have some sort of universal translator that magically makes them able to communicate with minimal misunderstandings. This is especially common in Star Trek, though it happens in just about every franchise involving a far-future space opera setting of some kind.
I’ve got to be honest, I think this is a cheap plot device that almost always weakens the story. As a writer, it’s tempting to have something like this so you don’t have to deal with any pesky language barriers, but when you do this, you remove a major potential source of conflict, thus violating the rule of drama. Also, you make your fictional universe feel a little less grand, your aliens a little less alien. After all, if everyone can perfectly understand each other, then there must not be a huge difference between Earth and the far side of the galaxy.
There are some times when having a universal translator allows you to broaden the story and focus on other conflicts. For example, if some sort of interstellar legislation is under review in the grand galactic council, you can’t spend all your time focusing on basic communication difficulties.
However, if this is the case, then you can usually overcome the language barrier through other means–a galactic lingua franca, for example, or translation tools that may or may not misfire on occasion (much like Google Translate). Of course, if you’re writing a comedy like Galaxy Quest (or parts of Star Control II), then falling back on a universal translator is forgivable. But if you’re going for believability and a sense of wonder, this trope isn’t going to do you any favors.
While linguists and technologists have been working on translation programs for some time (and admittedly making some significant breakthroughs), I’m extremely skeptical that we will ever develop a perfect universal translator in real life. If we do, I expect we will have to develop a sentient AI as a prerequisite, since the nuances of language are so inseparable from the things that make us human.
Here’s how translation services like Google Translate work:
This data crunch method of translation works fairly well for simple words and phrases, but it falls apart in the more complex grammatical structures. I see this any time I try to use Google Translate with an Arabic source. Arabic is an extremely eloquent language, with all sorts of structures that simply don’t work in English. One mistranslated word can completely change the meaning of the entire text, and even when it works, the technically correct English translation sounds as if it’s full of errors.
The methodology also falls apart for languages that are too small to have much of an electronic database. The Georgian language is a good example of this. It’s spoken by only about 4.5 million people worldwide, most of them in the country of Georgia, which is predominantly rural. Internet access for most of the population is very limited, and most Georgians who do communicate online tend to use the Roman or Cyrillic alphabets more often than their own. As a result, Google Translate for Georgian is utterly useless–seriously, you’re better off just sounding out the letters and guessing at the meaning. There are some other sites like translate.ge that try to fill the gap, but they seem to rely on actual lexicons, not databases and algorithms.
All of this is between entirely human languages that developed in parallel on the same planet–indeed, languages between human cultures that have traded and shared linguistic influences for thousands of years. What happens when we encounter an alien race whose biology makes it impossible for them to make human-sounding noises? Or an alien race that communicates through smell or electromagnetic impulses instead of sound? What happens when humanity is spread out across hundreds of star systems, each of which periodically becomes isolated from the others for hundreds or even thousands of years? When our definition of human is stretched so thin that we would not even recognize our far-future descendents as anything but alien?
There is so much wasted potential whenever a science fiction story falls back on a universal translator. Case in point, compare Halo I, II, and III with Halo: Reach. In the first three games, the Master Chief’s universal translator enables him to hear exactly what the enemy Covenant troops are saying. This is great fun when you’re chasing down panicked grunts, but it tends to get old after a while. In Halo: Reach, however, the human forces haven’t yet developed a universal translator, so everything the Covenant say is in their original language. All of a sudden, the game went from a hilarious joyride to a serious war against aliens that felt truly alien. That one little change did wonders to the tone and feel of the entire game.
Needless to say, you won’t find a universal translator in any of my books. In Star Wanderers, the language barrier is the heart and soul of the story–it’s a science fiction romance between two characters from radically different worlds who don’t speak the same language, and yet overcome that to develop a strong and healthy relationship. In Sholpan and Bringing Stella Home, Stella knows a language that is fairly similar to the one spoken by the Hameji, but there are still words and phrases that elude her. This detail is critical because it impedes her ability to understand and adapt to the Hameji culture, leading to some major conflicts later in the book.
As someone who’s lived for significant periods of time in Europe and Asia and learned languages very different from English, I can say that the language barrier is not something that we as writers should avoid, but something that we should embrace. There are so many interesting stories that can be told when two characters don’t speak the same language. Please, don’t be lazy and write that out of the story through a cheap plot device! Let your aliens be truly alien, and your worlds and cultures so fantastic that we can’t help but feel hopelessly lost in them. More »
Just as sprawling interstellar empires are a staple of space opera, so are the plucky rebels that fight against them. From Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica, Firefly to FTL, there’s no shortage of characters in science fiction trying to stick it to the man.
I’m not sure how it is in other cultures, but in America, it seems like science fiction upholds a host of values closely related to rebel tropes, such as self-reliance, individualism, freedom and independence, frontier justice, enterprising self-made men, etc. A lot of this probably grew out of the genre’s early ties with pulp-era adventure fiction, which often featured former Confederate soldiers leaving the civilized world for the realms of adventure following the US Civil War. That’s certainly the case with John Carter in A Princess of Mars, and echoed to some extent with the Browncoats from Firefly.
It may go even further, though, to the revolutionary origins of the United States itself. The frontier has always loomed large in our culture, shaping our values in the early days of settlement and, now that the age of the frontier is largely over, standing for an idealized nostalgic past. Americans have always favored the self-made individual who stands up to injustice and corruption in high places, and we’ve always had an aversion to the centralization of power and authority.
Back in the days of the Cold War space race, when writers like Heinlein and shows like Star Trek really started to popularize the genre, there seems to have been a real push to promote American identity and values. The science fiction of that day certainly got caught up in all that, which is weird because as pro-Americanism became the establishment, a genuinely rebellious counterculture began to push back. To its credit, though, there was plenty of science fiction that embraced the counterculture, especially in the New Wave movement that followed the Golden Age.
So why are we so enamored with rebels? Probably for the same reason that we all love a good rogue. Since space is the final frontier, it’s naturally the kind of place that would attract a more rugged, individualistic type. At the same time, rogues and rebels are much more likely to have exciting adventures than the more mild-mannered folk who are apt to stay at home and conform. Let’s not forget that most people who read science fiction are adolescent boys (of all ages), hungry for adventure and often a little rebellious themselves.
Though the rebels are often the good guys, that’s not always the case. It all depends on who they’re fighting against, and how black and white the story is trying to be. If they’re fighting against the Empire, then they’re almost always courageous freedom fighters standing up for truth and justice and all that, but if they’re fighting against the Federation, things can be a lot more gray. In FTL, for example, the rebels are the outright antagonists, and you have to save the galaxy by defeating them.
The rebels don’t always win, either. In stories like Star Wars that skew towards idealism, then in the end they usually do, but in darker, grittier tales (such as most cyberpunk), they may or may not. And even in some happy-go-lucky adventure stories, the rebels are apt to be martyrs for a lost cause–again, think of the Browncoats from Firefly.
The wide variety in the role of rebels in science fiction is a good indication of a healthy, vibrant back-and-forth in the genre that’s been going on for some time. It also means that there’s plenty of room for a new writer to take these old, worn tropes and shake them up in a new and exciting way. As much as we love Luke Skywalker, we love Han Solo just as much, and if you combine him with John Carter to get Mal, then you’ve got a rebellious character that a whole new generation can come to know and love.
I love playing around with these tropes, and do so quite often in my own fiction. In Bringing Stella Home, James McCoy is very much a rebel, though it’s not the Hameji that he’s fighting against so much as everything standing between him and his brother and sister. In that sense, he’s kind of a martyr without a cause, a determinator who shakes his fist at the universe even when the more sensible thing is to learn how to cope. Similarly, Danica and her band of Tajji mercenaries all fought in a failed revolution and have been wandering the stars ever since. Their backstory features much more prominently in Stars of Blood and Glory, in which things come around full circle. And then, of course, there’s Terra from Genesis Earth, who isn’t about standing up to the man so much as giving him the finger and running off somewhere where none of that even matters–the frontier ethic taken to its furthest extreme.
So yeah, I’m a fan of this trope, and have been ever since I saw Star Wars and fell in love with the genre. You can definitely expect to find lots of rebellious characters throughout my books in the future.
If it takes a village to raise a child, does it take a group of like-minded creative souls to raise a writer? I don’t know, but in my case, having a writing community around me really helped. That community was Quark, BYU’s Science Fiction & Fantasy club.
I joined Quark my second semester of college. I’d heard about the writing group, and on a whim I decided to check it out. This was when Ben Hardin was the writing group leader, back before the current iteration of the club was really well-organized. Aneeka Richins had basically built the writing group from scratch only a year or two before, and Kindal Debenham and Annaliese Lemmon had each spent a year as president shortly after that. They were all still around, workshopping their stories and adding to the community.
We met on the second floor of the Harold B. Lee library, in one of the study rooms way in the back near what is now the classical music area (2520 was the room number, I think). Looking back, it seemed like a weird place to meet, since we were always so LOUD. However, back in those early days Quark didn’t get a lot of respect from the BYU student administration (BYUSA, known more familiarly as BYUSSR), so we kind of organized under the radar.
The spring semester of 2007 was a lot of fun! I fit in very well with the group, and made a lot of friends. It wasn’t until they made me the writing group president that I started attending regularly, though. In retrospect, accepting that post was probably the best extracurricular decision I could have made. I lead the writing group for two years, from fall of 2007 to spring of 2009, and that’s when I really became a writer.
When I first started back in 2007, I had a couple of hobby projects kicking around here and there, but the main thing I wanted to write was a Final Fantasy VI fanfic. At the same time, I had a great idea for an original novel, but I’d never written a complete novel before, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Aneeka convinced me to go with my own project, and that became The Lost Colony, also known as Ashes of the Starry Sea.
Around that time, I also started this blog, mostly so my writing friends could keep me honest. I finished the first draft in 2008–a whopping 168k word manuscript that barely held together. After coming back to the US from a study abroad program in the Middle East, I started revising it, but soon decided to trunk it in order to work on other projects. Shortly thereafter, I finished the first draft of Genesis Earth, and the rest is history.
I later wrote up a detailed post on the origins of Quark, one that was published in a short-lived magazine called Mormon Artist. You can find that article here. Orson Scott Card himself commented on it, which really made my inner fanboy squee. For me, though, Quark was all about surrounding myself with like-minded friends who could foster my natural sense of creativity. I probably would have become a writer anyway even without them, but it would have happened a lot later, and the road would have been much more rocky.
And now that we’ve all graduated and moved on, I’m happy to say we still keep in touch! Kindal is a self-published indie writer much like me, with some excellent books out there. He’s organized an online writing group that is mostly made up of us old-time Quarkies. Aneeka’s got her webcomic, which seems to be fairly successful, and the others who chose to go a more traditional path are having success there as well. But mostly, it’s just great to keep in touch.
After my time as president, Quark really exploded in popularity and became officially sanctioned by the BYUSA. It’s really thriving right now, with a book club, a board/video gaming group, a film forum, and a bunch of other stuff. Most of that was there when I was in the writing group, but it was floundering, and the writing group was much more autonomous. But the guys who have carried on the torch seem to have done a great job making things even better, and that’s encouraging. More »