WHEN I WAS WRITING

 

A Literary Memoir

by

Tom Purdom

 

 

 

Installment Five: Through Time and Space with

Giacomo Casanova, Episode Two

 

Somewhere in his memoirs (donít ask me to give you an exact page reference), Casanova tells how he met a young woman and her mother who were traveling to a certain city. The young woman intrigued him, so he told them he was going to the same city and offered them a ride in his carriage. They accepted-- and Casanova went out and bought a carriage. My memory of that incident formed the nucleus of the second Casanova novelette.

 

But where should the story be set? Where should Joe go next? Mars? The asteroid belt?

At some point in my musings, I had decided my future solar system included a group of "high energy cities" located in the inner solar system, where they could take advantage of all that extra solar energy. My first thought had placed the high energy cities around Venus. Then I had decided I should go all the way and place them in orbit around Mercury.

A city that orbited Mercury would have made an adequate setting but I wasnít satisfied with it. Joe would probably visit the asteroid belt in some future story and cities that orbit planets are just different versions of the kind of habitats he would find in the asteroid belt.

Asteroid cities have become a standard science fiction concept. To create an asteroid city, you hollow out a convenient rock, funnel sunlight inside through a set of lenses and mirrors, landscape the interior, and set the whole contraption spinning, so the inhabitants will enjoy the benefits of a centrifugal force that substitutes for gravity. To create a city that orbits a planet, you move an asteroid into orbit around the planet, or hurl some of the planetís raw material into orbit. Either way you end up with the same kind of environment-- a rotating cylinder with the people living inside. (In most science fiction stories, these things are called "habitats" or "colonies." I call them cities because that, to my mind, is what they are.)

Could Joe visit a city located on the surface of Mercury itself? I couldnít get excited about that possibility either. Mercury is essentially a larger version of the Moon-- an airless world pitted by craters. On both worlds, the standard habitat would be an underground city built into the side of a crater.

In 1995, the Society of Automotive Engineers (of all people) published a book called Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments by a British terraforming expert named Martyn J. Fogg. The book cost fifty dollars but I ordered it as soon as I read a review in the Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Iím always on the lookout for books that survey subjects that are of obvious interest to science fiction writers.

Terraforming was a major contribution to one of the long-term debates that run through the history of science fiction. In this case, the debate pits the writers who think we should colonize other planets against the writers who think we will colonize the solar system by building various versions of the hollowed-out-asteroid. The writers who favor artificial habitats feel itís silly to place yourself at the bottom of a powerful gravity field just so you can walk around on the surface of an Earth-like planet. Martyn J. Fogg rebuts this argument by noting that our experience with artificial habitats indicates their residents will be stuck with a lot of time-consuming maintenance. Vegetation has to be weeded and replaced, water has to be recycled with pumps and chemical treatment, nutrients have to be fed into the soil. On a planet, large scale natural cycles do all this work automatically.

I still havenít used most of the information on terraforming contained in Foggís survey but his book included a compromise concept that caught my fancy-- a giant structure that would cover a significant section of a planet and trap a breathable atmosphere under its roof. If you made the structure big enough, it might generate its own weather and maintain a balanced ecology with the lightest touch of human intervention.

The habitat I came up with went all the way around Mercury at an angle to the equator and generally matched the description in Foggís book. It was three kilometers high and twenty kilometers wide and its inhabitants lived and worked in the giant towers that held it up.

In my story, the landscape outside the towers is covered with forests, meadows, rivers, and other natural features. Motorized traffic inside the habitat is limited to small, three-wheeled recreational vehicles that roll along narrow paths. Humans normally travel from tower to tower on a high speed rail line that races through the vacuum outside the habitat.

The transportation system suggested a science fiction version of the situation Casanova describes in his memoirs. Two women are trying to reach another point in the habitat, and they have to get there within some kind of time limit. The rail system isnít operating and Joe offers to take them in a three-wheeled vehicle. They agree, and he spends a ridiculous sum buying a three-wheeler, at a time when heís bidding against all the other people who are looking for an alternate to the rail line.

 

Poul Anderson once said that he included certain things in his stories because they helped him maintain his own interest in the project he was working on. His interstellar novel Tau Zero, for example, is supposed to be a retelling of a famous memoir written by a Scandinavian woman who endured years of solitary confinement. I felt the connection between Tau Zero and the memoirs seemed tenuous, but Poulís writing strategy stuck in my memory.

I apparently ran into a period when my interest in this story began to flag. Then I thought of something that made me smile. I could build the conflict around a political struggle-- but it would be a struggle inside a future version of a writers' organization.

I have very strong feelings about the value of writers' organizations. I joined Science Fiction Writers of American when Damon Knight founded it in 1965 and I served as vice president from 1970-72 and eastern regional director for several years in the 70ís.

On the other hand, Iíve also observed all the tempests that have bedeviled SFWA and its volunteers during the last forty years. All writers' organizations have one big problem, in my opinion. All their members are writers.

One of the issues every writers' organization has to deal with is membership qualifications. If SFWA were an organization of plumbers or carpenters, this probably wouldnít be much of a problem. People donít join a plumberís union so they can impress their friends. There are hundreds of people, however, who would happily pay fifty dollars-- or even a couple of hundred dollars-- just so they could own a card that said they were members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (as the organization is now called). Where do you draw the line? Full time writers? Everybody who ever sold a short story to any publication that called itself a science fiction magazine?

When Damon drafted the SFWA bylaws, he managed to slip through a set of membership qualifications that limited active, voting membership to "active science fiction writers".  Writers' organizations, Damon argued, tended to fall into the hands of ex-writers and people who were only marginally writers to begin with. Science Fiction Writers of America, he felt, should be controlled by people who were currently selling science fiction to American markets.

SFWA was primarily supposed to be a business organization. As Damon once put it rather succinctly, "The purpose of a writers' organization is to help writers make money." The organization he envisioned would inform writers on matters like contracts and good business practices, and help them deal with agents, publishers, and editors.

Under Damonís original bylaws, active membership was limited to writers who had sold a short story within the last two years or a novel within the last three. You gave the Secretary-Treasurer a credential when you paid your dues, and remained an active member as long as you met the requirements. If you failed to sell anything within the time limit, you became a non-voting associate member until you made another sale.

At the time the organization was founded, these seemed like pretty lenient rules. I had been a selling writer for eight years in 1965 but I was still a low volume beginner by the standards of most of the well known writers in the field. I had sold about a dozen stories to the SF magazines and I had sold my first paperback and signed the contracts for my second. I would have had no complaints if Damon had set up the rules so writers like me were given some kind of non-voting status. Instead, when Damon published the names of the 70 founding members, I found my name posted on a list that included Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson and most of the other writers I had been reading since I was a teenager.

Damonís rules lasted for a few years before they were loosened slightly, to three years for a short story and five years for a novel. Then, sometime in the mid 70ís, the membership issue ignited a major fracas. Eventually we ended up with our current rules: anyone who has sold three short stories or one novel can remain an active member as long as they are willing to pay the dues.

There have been two attempts to restore some kind of "requalification" rule. We had just finished the squabbling created by the second attempt when I started planning the second Casanova story. The politics in the story, I decided, would revolve around an organization called the All-Mercury Coalition of Documented Creative Specialists-- an organization which mostly exists to hand out awards once every Mercury year. Mercuryís year only lasts eighty Earth days, and the Coalition presents the awards in ten different categories, so they give out forty awards every Earth year.

The older woman in the story, I decided, would be the future equivalent of a romance writer. She creates simulated fantasy worlds "in which people spent their lives dancing in elegant settings and browsing through gardens populated by citizens who dressed themselves with understated (but unmistakable) refinement." Her political rival is a male who designs fantasy worlds "for people who wanted to combat various kinds of imaginary opponents and dispatch various kinds of imaginary animals." The older woman lives in a city that orbits Earth, but she has returned to Mercury-- a three month trip-- just so she can vote in a poll that will determine the organizationís membership requirements. She has to vote in person and she has to do it before the voting period ends just a few hours after she and her assistant reach Mercury.

I finished the story, so my application of Poul Andersonís psychological trick apparently worked. I felt my little jibe at SFWA was a good humored poke at the organizationís tendency to become over involved in awards and internal matters.

SFWAís annual awards are called the Nebulas. They are selected through a three step process that begins with members sending in personal recommendations. None of my stories have ever reached the second and third steps, but most of them have received two or three recommendations. This story, for some reason, didn't attract a single recommendation.

 

The giant greenhouse I had chosen for the storyís setting made me confront a psychological quirk. From the time I had started reading science fiction, the twenty-first century had been another world-- a magical kingdom in which almost anything could happen. But I was writing this story in 1998-- two years from the night we would cross the line into the year 2000. My story, according to the timeline I had worked out, took place in 2089. Could I really ask readers to believe we could erect a giant structure on Mercury in ninety-one years?

I didnít have any trouble believing we could develop the appropriate technology in that time. Any really believable science fiction story, in my opinion, must contain at least one or two developments that now seem unlikely.

In 1900 H.G. Wells was asked to make some predictions about the new century and he assured his readers mankind would take to the air sometime before 1950. Would anyone have believed him if he had told them the first half of the century would end with a global war in which Europe would be devastated by years of aerial bombing? How would they have reacted if he had predicted that the first landing on the Moon would take place only nineteen years after the half century mark? The real future that lies ahead of us is going to look just as improbable to us as B-29ís and the Apollo project would have looked to the people who read Wellsí predictions three years before the Wright Brothers made their first flight.

The big problem wasnít the structure itself. It was the time it would take to build it and fill it with life. Fortunately, one of the current fashions in the science fiction world offered me a way out of my literary dilemma. Nanotechnology had become a popular SF concept. Little machines, the size of a few atoms, could be used to perform all kinds of miracles. They could gather up the right kind of atoms from some common material-- such as the surface of a planet-- and assemble larger structures atom by atom. They could, in theory, provide every human being with a device that would manufacture anything he or she could possibly desire.

It wasnít a new idea. Arthur Clarke had discussed it in his 1963 book Profiles of the Future-- a futurist classic in which he explored the limits of the possible. In 1972, the British science writer Nigel Calder had devoted a chapter to the subject in Spaceships of the Mind, a book that surveyed the ideas scientists and science fiction writers have developed about the future of space travel. Clarke had called his imaginary devices replicators. Calder used a more evocative term coined by Theodore Taylor, a physicist who has acquired some renown among science fiction writers. Taylor called them Santa Claus machines.

A Santa Claus machine receives some common substance like lunar dirt at its input end, applies the free solar power available outside the Earthís atmosphere, and outputs any object a consumerís heart could desire.  If the process was almost entirely automatic, you could put a small package on Mercury, the little nano machines could set to work building bigger devices, and the giant structure I had envisioned could build itself in a few years.

It was an extension of an unstated idea that lurked in the background of all the interplanetary stories I had been writing. Robotics and miniaturization, it seems to me, are the real keys to the colonization of the Solar System. Space travel is ridiculously expensive because you have to carry everything you need for the round trip. What would a flight to California cost if an airliner had to carry all the fuel for the round trip, and all the food and water the crew and passengers would consume during their stay? If we already had a refueling station, research facilities, and food production facilities on the Moon, the economics of space travel would look less forbidding.

My fictional scenario for the colonization of the solar system starts with a few hundred pounds of robotic equipment landing on the lunar surface. On the Moon, as several authors have noted, the construction machinery could even be controlled from Earth. On the planets, we could land small packages that contained huge, phase-by-phase programs. If I assumed we would also develop fast growing trees and plants, I could, with a little stretching, convince myself Joe could visit a thriving habitat on Mercury around the time of his hundredth birthday.

I had been avoiding nanotechnology in my stories because it obviously raised a flock of economic questions. Some of the writers who had written about personal replicators had sounded like the 1950ís prophets who had predicted automation would cut the work week in half or produce a mass leisure class that lived on minimum incomes provided by the government. As I noted in the second installment of this outpouring, we have doubled the output per worker in the manufacturing sector of our economy, but Americans still work forty hour weeks. Iím inclined to think nanotechnology will be just as non-revolutionary. People seem to have unlimited wants and unlimited wants create unlimited opportunities for work and profit.

In the story I sidestepped the larger economic issues. Joe has a personal fabricator (as the Santa Claus machines are called in the story) and itís stocked with programs that produce champagne and other luxuries. The fabricator also underlines Joeís commitment to his romantic adventures. A large scale fabricator could produce a three-wheeled vehicle for a modest price but it would take several hours. Instead, Joe puts a noticeable nick in his finances so he can buy a complete three-wheeler now.

 

In addition to the giant habitat and nanotechnology, the background of this story included personality modification, drastically extended lifespans, genetic modification of humans and other organisms, and computers that were so powerful Joeís financial program had become his "alter" and conducted high speed trading maneuvers he couldnít hope to follow. The background included, in other words, all the developments that are probably going to take place over the next fifty to a hundred years. They all played a role, as the story progressed, in the plot and the development of the characters.

I wasnít just throwing all these things into the story for the effect. I thought of the background as a reasonably realistic picture of the future. In the early days of science fiction, some writers advanced the idea that a story should only contain one novel element. As the genre progressed, however, writers realized this wasnít very realistic. In the real world, lots of things change. Eventually, everything changes.

Nanotechnology may be the one element in this particular mix that isnít inevitable. Iím not convinced we can actually create commercial applications that manipulate individual atoms. I hedged a little by using the term "molecular technology"-- which implies that miniaturization had stopped somewhere around the molecular level. Even if we donít get to the nano level, I think miniaturization is one of our most interesting long term trends,

Many commentators have chortled over the fact that SF writers completely missed the development of the personal computer. Most of the science fiction written in the 50ís and 60ís assumed computers would become bigger as they grew more powerful.

But that generalization only holds true if you focus on the best known stories and novels. If you look a little deeper, you will find a few obscure stories (by equally obscure writers) that can be used to defend the honor of our genre. In my short story "The Warriors", which Cele Goldsmith published in the June, 1962 issue of Amazing, a soldier who is riding in the back of a jeep works with "a computer and a full communications set" he has "hooked to the rear of the front seat."

I didnít include this little detail because of some flash of prophetic insight. I had decided to add compact computers to my settings mostly for literary reasons. A few months before I wrote the story, I had read an article in Scientific American that discussed "large scale integrated circuits"-- the forerunners of the really large scale circuits that fit onto the little powerhouses we call chips. I didnít understand the article as well as I would have liked to, but one idea did penetrate my brain-- miniaturization was one of the possible trends in the computer industry.

It might well be true, for all I knew, that the super computers of the future would fill small office buildings. But there was another possibility none of the major science fiction writers seemed to be exploiting. Little computers might not be any more likely than big ones, but at least they would be different.

 

The story focused on extended lifespans and their implications so I thought the title should include a musical term that implied time had been stretched out in some way. I looked through my reference books and wracked my memory while I was doing the final revisions, but there didnít seem to be any such term. I made one up, therefore, and called the story "Romance in Extended Time."

Gardner bought it for Asimovís but this time he asked me to beef up the ending. When Gardner asked me for a change, he usually wanted a new title or a revised ending. Iím happy with stories that fade out. Gardner likes a little more oomph.

I engaged in the customary writerly grumbling and started applying myself to the problem. I thought the ending I had written was perfectly satisfactory. Then I remembered one of my favorite lines of poetry-- Andrew Marvellís famous "Had we but world enough and time, this coyness lady were no crime." I realized I could build a few sentences around that and tack them onto the end of the story.

If you read the story (itís available from Fictionwise), the original ending comes just two paragraphs before the ending it now has. The last two paragraphs are the addition I made at editorial request. Theyíve become one of my favorite passages from the whole series.

 

Joe Baske is primarily based on Casanova but he has also been influenced by four guys I have known over the years. None of them, I should emphasize, were boasters. They didnít stand around talking about their prowess. Still, one could piece things together from observation and occasional comments. They talked about their romantic adventures-- when they talked about them-- in the same way some travelers will drop an observation into a conversation without giving you a detailed account of one of their trips.

They were all, in my opinion, men who genuinely liked women. They werenít predators racking up scores. They liked interacting with women. Someone has noted that successful ladyís men tend to be men who spent their childhood surrounded by females. I donít know if that was true of my contemporary Casanovas, but it was certainly true of their predecessor.

Physically, they were all fit and presentable, but they werenít studs or hunks. They all wore glasses, in fact. They looked more like Clark Kent than Superman.

These stories are all told in the first person, so you never get a physical description of the hero. You learn he is a a little below average height for the period he was born in, but thatís it. In my own mind, I have always pictured him as a bald man who resembles two of the Latin movie lovers of my childhood-- Charles Boyer and Jose Iturbi. They were both bald (or balding), somewhat stocky men who played mature, worldly characters with a talent for charming women.

My mother had a brother named Esposito Tigna-- Uncle Es when I was a boy. He was balding, right around middle height for his generation, a barber by trade and a cutup by temperament. Once, when I was sitting beside him at a family dinner, sometime around my eighth year, he and I got in a dispute over the last olive on the table and settled it with a little sword fight with toothpicks. The sword fight only lasted a moment but we both thought it was funny and it obviously meant something to me, since Iíve never forgotten it. Sometimes, when Iím visualizing Joe Baske, I realize Iím actually seeing Uncle Es.

 

The third story in the series, "Romance with Phobic Variations", was also inspired by an incident in the real Casanovaís life. During his stay in England, Casanova pursued a woman who tried to take advantage of his feelings. She led him on, making promises she never intended to keep, and deliberately toyed with his emotions.

In his account of the incident, Casanova says things like "if I did that I would be her dupeÖ.I must not be her dupe." He was obviously aware his normal modus operandi made him vulnerable.

In my story, Joe visits Phobos, the tiny inner moon of Mars, and becomes the target of three female criminals. They learn he is coming several months before he arrives and they develop a model of his personality and create an ambush. One of them deliberately modifies her appearance and personality and transforms herself into a woman they know he will find irresistible. She snares him, as planned, and they draw him into financial situations designed to relieve him of his money.

I picked Phobos, instead of Mars, because a lot of people were writing about Mars at that time. In the story, Phobos is primarily a resort, with spectacular views of the planet it orbits. Mars itself can only be visited by researchers and their families and support staff.

Phobos presented the same problem I had dealt with when I had decided to set a story on Mercury. A city on Phobos would look just like a city on the Moon. The inhabitants would live underground and grow their food and their oxygen-producing plants under artificial sunlight generated by solar power, nuclear power plants, and other energy sources. Phobos had two qualities I could use to set it apart and add some interest to the setting: its views of Mars and its gravitational field.

Most science fiction stories take place in zero gravity environments-- such as a spaceship-- or on the surface of worlds with substantial gravity fields such as Mars (one third Earth) and the Moon (one sixth Earth). Phobos would be a microgravity environment. Objects would still fall to the surface. Dust would settle in corners. Spilled liquids would still make puddles on the floor. But the fall would take a lot longer. If you drop an object from shoulder height here on Earth, it takes about half a second to hit the ground. On the Moon, it would take almost one and a half seconds. On Phobos, it would eat up almost twenty seconds.

The microgravity environment is mentioned several times during the story. At one point, when Joe finds out heís been hoodwinked, he notes you can literally climb the walls on Phobos. But it played its biggest role in the climax-- a chase across the surface of Phobos.

When I was developing the plot for the story that became "Romance in Extended Time", it occurred to me most of my stories had used two kinds of plot structures-- the obstacle course and the assault on a fortified objective. For Joeís adventures on Mercury, I decided I wanted to try a different structure-- the journey. One of my favorite science fiction writers, L. Sprague de Camp, was a world traveler in real life and several of his historical novels had been built around a journey. It seemed like a suitable structure for this story, and I thought it might push me in new directions.

As it turned out, I dropped the journey about halfway through the story, and switched to another structure I had ignored in the past-- the chase.

In "Romance in Lunar G" Joe had been chased across the lunar landscape at the climax and he had joked about the talent for running away that he had developed during some of his love affairs. It seemed natural to have him display the same skill again. I decided that all the stories in the series would include a passage in which Joe has to break for safety with a violent pursuer hot on his heels.

In "Romance with Phobic Variations", he is pursued by hoodlums who work with the women who have duped him. For most of the chase, he and his companions skim across the surface with low-powered jetpacks on their backs. They use jetpacks because running on Phobos is slow and awkward. You can jump long distances by Earth standards but youíre suspended above the surface for several seconds, and you canít maneuver while you hang there waiting to hit the ground.

It was a good final scene but I felt the story needed one more element-- a final confrontation between Joe and the woman he is running away from. He knows heís her dupe but he also knows heís still under her influence. The story needed a climactic scene in which Joe has to struggle against her grip on his emotions.

There are times, when youíre plotting stories, when your mind produces something that envelopes you in a wonderful calm-- a total, almost euphoric satisfaction with the gift your imagination has bestowed on you. The scene I came up with combined all the basic elements of the story-- the physical action adventure plot, the inner conflict the woman has triggered off, and the special qualities of the science fiction setting. The woman enters the chase after Joe has used up all the fuel in his jetpack and started struggling toward safety on foot. She still has a full jetpack, so she hauls him three hundred feet above the surface. She and Joe will fall for over two minutes and she can take him right back up again when they land. He canít get away from her appeals. He must struggle with some of his most basic emotions-- and he has to engage in the struggle because of the special nature of the setting.

Gardner bought the story without any requests for revisions and it appeared in the February 2001 Asimovís. When I opened the magazine to page sixty, I discovered the two page illustration showed Joe and his female nemesis confronting each other as they hovered over the surface of Phobos-- a choice that indicated the artist had shared my feelings about the climactic scene.

 

In all these stories, Joe is forced to confront some of the consequences of genetic enhancement and personality modification. In the fourth story, I returned to a subject that had played a major role in "Romance in Extended Time". Joe is living in a world in which each new batch of genetically enhanced humans is more intelligent than the last. What will he do when the women he falls in love with are so advanced they see him as a "crude prototype"?

I had created a timeline of Joeís life, so I could keep track of exactly when things happened. The fourth story begins in 2132. Joe has reached one hundred and thirty six and he has traveled all the way to the Kuiper Belt-- a region of icy planetoids just beyond Pluto-- with a younger woman whose measured intelligence beats his by a factor of five. Ganmei has taken him on a multi-year voyage because he has persuaded her she should have some human company. Joe spends most of the voyage in his own apartment, pursuing the enthusiasms of a music-obsessed "alternate personality" Ganmei has created for him. Ganmei brings him back to his normal state when she feels the need for sex and company. The time they actually spend together is supposed to total two years-- the length of time Joeís longer love affairs usually last.

Their arrangement was a variation on a marriage system Robert Sheckley described in a story he wrote in the 50ís. In Sheckleyís story, the wives on a certain planet are put in a time-stasis device and brought out when the husband wants to spend some time with them. A newcomer finds this revolting and angers the woman he marries when he doesnít put her in stasis. He didnít understand that the wives in this culture go from one pleasant experience to another without passing through the dull parts in between. The wife lives a life that is composed entirely of candlelit dinners, vacation idylls, and evenings out. Her husband dies of old age while she is still young and she inherits his money and starts another marriage.

 

The story assumes that economic and technological progress will continue at their present rate and the standard of living will continue to double about three times per century. Ganmei travels from the asteroid belt to the Kuiper Belt-- in a nuclear spaceship she has built herself-- so she can build an array of large telescopes and place them in orbit in the outer reaches of the solar system. The project would require the resources of a government today, but a dedicated individual can pull it off single handedly in the future imagined in the story. Joe likes women who are intelligent and competent but he is initially attracted to Ganmei by her drive and audacity.

The conflict is created by a character whose attitudes toward women are the exact opposite of Joeís-- a sex criminal who is primarily interested in dominating and destroying women. He has followed Ganmei to the Kuiper Belt and taken control of the exterior of her ship when the story opens.

In the course of the story, Joe and Ganmei construct a psychological model of their captor. The general nature of the model was taken from the contemporary FBI profile for serial killers and serial rapists, as it is described by one of the founders of the FBI profiling system, John Douglas, in the books he has written about his career. I had also had a chance to see the FBI profile applied to a local case. Center city Philadelphia was plagued by a serial rapist a few years ago and an FBI profiler gave a presentation at a town meeting I attended.

At the climax of the story, the sex criminal drops his cool, easy going manner and Joe sees the rage he has been concealing. I got that bit of business from Ann Ruleís book on Ted Bundy, The Stranger Beside Me. Bundy normally maintained an amiable front but he became enraged one day as he was leaving the courtroom. The face he showed the world at that moment was captured on film. Ann Rule believes it is the face his victims saw as they were dying.

True crime is my most reliable literary anodyne. I turn to it when Iím sick or need distraction or when Iím just feeling at loose ends. When I got hit by sciatica in 1990, and had to spend six weeks flat on my back, I survived the first two weeks by reading a stack of true crime books a friend loaned me. The genre includes books that are written in the worst kind of trite journalese, but itís always engrossing, even when itís insipidly written, and it has two extra-literary virtues. Itís a painless way to pick up information on police procedures and it can introduce you to people you donít meet in other genres.

True crime has exposed me to the personal histories of jewelry factors, working class mothers, appliance store owners, and people who work in the Manhattan temp business. Serious contemporary novelists never write about people like that because they donít know anything about them. Journalists ignore them because they arenít considered interesting. They only become worthy of our attention when they become murderers or rapists, or someone murders or rapes them.

 

The Kuiper Belt is a wide belt, just beyond Pluto, filled with objects that are mostly composed of ice. Many astronomers believe Pluto should be considered a particularly large "Kuiper object", rather than a planet. I didnít include a full description of Ganmeiís telescope project in the story, but I had it mapped out in my head. Ganmei is building an array that will be so powerful she will be able to observe, in detail, planets orbiting other stars.

I decided Ganmeiís spaceship would be nuclear powered after I consulted the appropriate sections in a book called Borderlands of Science by Charles Sheffield. Sheffield was a physicist who wrote a lot of first class science fiction, served two terms as president of Science Fiction Writers of America, and died unexpectedly at a relatively young age, just a few years after he married another major science fiction writer, Nancy Kress. In Borderlands of Science, he assembled a series of essays that added up to a basic reference work for science fiction writers. For twenty-two dollars, his colleagues in the SF guild could obtain answers to most of the questions they had probably pestered him with over the years.

Sheffield's paragraphs on nuclear powered rockets indicated a nuclear rocket with a top speed of twenty-five miles per second looked reasonable. So how long would a trip from the asteroid belt to the Kuiper Belt last if you had such a rocket at your disposal?

This is not a simple calculation. You canít look up the distance and divide by 25. The rocket starts with a speed of 25 miles per second but it slows down, second by second, under the influence of the sunís gravity. You also have to take into account the fact that the sunís gravitational field becomes weaker as you move outward through the Solar System. The rocket loses speed at a lower rate as it gets further from the sun.

If I had been Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein, I could have looked up the relevant data on the sunís gravitational field and plugged the right numbers into the right equations. I could probably have calculated the travel time, in fact, if I had merely retained the calculus I had sort of learned during my abortive attempt to earn an engineering degree.

Instead, I demonstrated my science fiction writerís mastery of contemporary state-of-the-art technology. I posted a request for help on the Compuserve science fiction forum and got a response from a forum member named James "Bat" Masterson.

Jim actually gave me two answers, which I rounded off into the figures I used in the story. If Ganmei used a minimum-energy trajectory, the trip would take about forty years. If she went barreling out to the Kuiper Belt as fast as she could go, as she did in the story, it would take about five. The round trip, including a stay in the Kuiper Belt, would eat up about twelve to fifteen years of Joeís expanded lifespan.

The forty year figure played a role in the story, too. When Joe and Ganmei are taken prisoner, their captor indicates he will probably keep Ganmei on his ship and leave Joe marooned on Ganmeiís disabled ship. Somebody back in the inhabited parts of the solar system may eventually launch a rescue ship but they will probably have to use an economical low energy orbit. Joe will spend at least forty years in womanless isolation.

 

How do you describe characters with massively augmented intelligence when you are, yourself, merely an unaugmented product of the 1936 model-year? Is it even possible?

In this story, I mostly emphasized Ganmeiís multi-tasking powers. Joe notes, for example, that Ganmei can manipulate the robots that are constructing her telescopes and still look like sheís totally absorbed in all the things they do together, including sex. When she becomes a prisoner, he knows she is devoting most of her attention to other matters when she submits to their captorís sexual demands.

Speed is another quality the plodding mind of the author can put to use. As Norman Spinrad noted in one of his review columns in Asimovís, the author can spend fifteen minutes thinking up a brilliant line of dialogue that his super-intelligent characters toss off on the spur of the moment.

At the climax of the story, Ganmei collects and analyzes the names of all the composers listed in the Baroque entries in the electronic version of Groves Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians that she has stored in the electronic files implanted in her brain. She does this in search of a name Joe has forgotten and Joe notes that she narrows the list to three possibilities in less than five minutes.

She pulls off this little stunt, in addition, while she and Joe are both under attack from the sex criminal and his robots. She can outthink Joe-- and present day humans-- even when sheís coping with all the distractions created by intense emotional stress.

 

Shortly after we were married, Sara discovered that many people automatically assumed her husband "believed in flying saucers" when she told them I wrote science fiction. They always looked surprised when she gave them her stock answer.

"He thinks anybody who believes in flying saucers is nuts," Sara would say. "They all do."

Isaac Asimov once pointed out that no one ever assumed Beatrix Potter believed rabbits could talk or mystery writers really believed a private detective could consume a bottle of whiskey, get knocked unconscious by a blow on the head, and bed three women in twenty-four hours. So why should they assume a science fiction writer believes little green men are secretly visiting Earth and kidnapping farmers?

You can make a similar statement about any other subject a writer may play with. There is no particular reason why anyone should feel a writer has Casanovaís sexual proclivities just because heís written several stories about a character based on Casanova. Still, I can understand why some readers might wonder about the connection between the author and the stories in this case. Why would someone whoís been married to the same wife for over forty years devote so much time and energy to historyís archetypal womanizer?

When people think of Casanova, they tend to focus on numbers. But that isnít all there is to his personality. The major link between the writer and the character in this case, it seems to me, is Joeís romantic feelings. As I noted in my last installment, we now have some evidence that romantic love is a separate emotion that has its own area of the brain, its own chemical pathways, and its own evolutionary history. In characters like Joe Baske/Giacomo Casanova, their romantic feelings drive them from woman to woman. In others, their capacity for romantic enthrallment becomes a component of somewhat longer alliances. Either way, it is a psychological trait that adds a symphony of overtones to our emotional lives. I have met people who donít seem to possess it.  They always make me feel a little distant.

The series hero who has a different love interest in every story is a common figure in genre fiction. With characters like James Bond or Conan the Barbarian, itís just assumed the hero will flit from woman to woman. With others, the heroís love life presents a problem. If he develops a lasting romantic relationship, he may have to assume the responsibilities of marriage and abandon his adventurous lifestyle. If he doesnít marry the love of his life before too many books have passed, on the other hand, he may look like a cad, or readers may begin to suspect heís one of those defective males whoís afraid to make a commitment.

John D. MacDonaldís Travis Magee believed sex should always include some kind of emotional component. Magee found shallower relationships repugnant. MacDonald employed the obvious solution to this problem at the beginning of the series, but he couldnít keep it up forever. By the time he got to the fifth book, most readers had grasped that any woman who won Mageeís affections wasnít going to make it to the last page. In the later books, Magee usually became involved with women who needed the attentions of an understanding male and the relationship ended when they were ready to return to their normal lives. In a couple of cases, the women actually left Magee before he was ready to end the relationship.

Donald Hamiltonís Matt Helm is the other contemporary series hero I actually followed through the complete series. Many of the women Helm took up with eventually left him because they discovered they couldnít live with a government hitman who possessed the hardheaded attitudes demanded by his occupation. When Helm did manage to establish a relationship, the woman was usually killed-- two or three books after he met her-- for the very plausible reason that she was an easy target for Helmís enemies.

When your hero is modeled on Casanova, your female characters can respond to his overtures without undue apprehension. Your protagonist can travel from woman to woman-- and adventure to adventure-- because itís in his nature.

But the primary reason I wrote these stories, I think, is the reason Iíve written most of the science fiction Iíve produced. I thought the basic idea would generate some good stories. I donít think I can put too much stress on that. People tend to assume thereís a direct relationship between a writerís life and the things the writer churns out. Music writers will often explain some composition by Beethoven or Mozart by saying itís a cheery piece because the composer was in love when he wrote it or itís dark and brooding because he was going through a bad period. I think the process normally works the other way: the ideas you get determine the mood of your work. Some ideas produce buoyant, lighthearted stories. Other ideas are obviously tragic or stormy.

I usually felt pretty good when I was writing these stories. Joeís romantic obsessions generate all the troubles and dilemmas a writer could ask for and he lives in a reasonably happy, reasonably prosperous world in which he is surrounded by fascinating, glamorous, incredibly alluring female personalities. His feelings about women may be based on an illusion, as he admits, but itís an illusion he enjoys. He is, on the whole, a happy man with happy problems. What more could a writer want?

 

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Copyright 2005 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.

 

("Romance in Lunar G" has been reprinted in Isaac Asimovís Valentines, an anthology of science fiction love stories edited by Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams.)

 

When I was Writing: Installment One

When I was Writing: Installment Two When I was Writing: Installment Three

When I was Writing: Installment Four

When I was Writing: Installment Six

When I was Writing: Installment Seven

When I was Writing: Installment Eight

When I was Writing: Installment Nine

When I was Writing: Installment Ten

Grieve for a Man (complete text)


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