Why I Read and Write Science Fiction

Yesterday, I detailed my struggles with creative writing. And yet throughout the ongoing war with bad writing and my doubts relating thereto, science fiction (SF) has always been there as a sort of talisman, something to read and reinforcing my love of future- and technology-minded literature, both as something to read and something to write.

Why I Read SF

Not too surprisingly for a GenXer, I got sucked into SF courtesy of Star Wars and Star Trek. SF fans got me to read “real” or hard SF (as opposed to space opera), which generally meant “Golden Age” writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. As I got older, my tastes, politics, and interests shifted a bit. I shifted to Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, and Frank Herbert, plus a lot of one-off titles that I often grabbed based on the cover art or the blurb on the back of the book.

The common elements in all of these novels (and short stories) included a focus on the future…often more technologically advanced and better in some social matters than the present. Perhaps that was what I needed in my moody and bully-populated adolescence: a focus on and belief in a better future. I absolutely needed that sort of attitude at that age because my contemporary circumstances sucked.

SF also featured a lot of brainy or intellectual characters as heroes, which was something I appreciated as someone who was small, thin, weak, bookish, non-athletic, and clumsy. Characters in SF weren’t always klutzy (though the works of Frederik Pohl were more obviously flawed than most), but they were clearly brain-forward and often the worlds they lived in respected that intellectual ability.

Why I Write SF

My fiction writing has tended to be in a science fiction mode. Even when I write “stories” (narratives might be a better description–see yesterday’s post) about more typical problems like personal growth or romance, they are often placed somewhere in a science-fictional, future world. Current problems don’t excite or inspire me. So I’ve tended to write about the future, with the message being that it will be better.

My ghost-writer buddy Laura suggested that I make that sort of fiction my focus, .

Focus on the message or the experience you’d like your reader to have. I write for my younger self. My main message that I wanted 12 year old Laura to receive was one of self empowerment/self belief and also belief in a very cool future. So I wrote into that. 

And really that makes sense. It’s like my blog, which provides practical career advice to my younger (22-year-old) self in the hopes of helping other English majors find a fulfilling way to use their skills and pay the bills. Perhaps I should go back through my younger years and consider writing stories that younger Bart would have loved and found inspirational. There are still kids being bullied in this world, and they’re being fed a ton of dystopian fiction. It would be nice if they read about a better future that’s worth living for, yes?

Where is Technology Taking Us?

At 6 a.m., my brain suddenly decided it wanted to write. More to the point, it wanted to discuss the future: which directions might we go, and where we were likely headed. I waited until I’d showered and had breakfast to do something about it because I don’t like writing on an empty stomach. That said, where are we going? Below are some of my thoughts.

Specifically, my busy mind was looking at some dichotomies:

  • More freedom or more control?
  • More efficiency or more redundancy?
  • More complexity or more simplicity?
  • More inclusiveness or exclusivity?
  • More community or more isolation?
  • More choices or fewer choices?

Some of these bullets are technological questions, some are social questions that could be embodied by our technologies. The originators of the internet wanted information to be free. However, ironically, the internet didn’t grow and improve technologically until government and businesses moved in to populate the virtual spaces. Government uses our patterns of electronic behavior to determine our potential risk to lives and property. Businesses use our online behavior to sell us products and services and sell our buying patterns to other businesses so they, too, can sell us products and services.

As my tech-minded friends like to remind me when I complain about mostly free online environments like Twitter and Facebook, “If you’re not paying for the service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

Users are aware of these dynamics, more or less. Some enjoy the convenience of having helpful, fun, or interesting products and services marketed to us (the Hawaiian shirt makers have started swarming my Facebook profile lately). Some migrate to other digital environments, either out of concerns about how their information is being used or because they feel their personal or political views are being censored by large social media platforms.

I can’t say that we’re moving in a purely utopian or dystopian direction. Our computers are watching us, but it’s mostly corporations tracking and shaping our spending habits rather than the government minding our propensity for thought crimes. On the other hand, if people participate in blatantly antisocial or violent actions, they’re likely to announce their intentions beforehand or brag about their “success” on YouTube afterward, giving the government plenty of evidence for making an arrest. Whose “fault” is that?

The sheer number of options for communicating or receiving information has enabled us to customize the electronic “world” we see. And the more we focus our attention in specific directions or toward specific ideas/topics, the more we find our perceptions filtered through our self-grown information ecologies. More choices, but less shared experience. More inputs, but less community.

We’re still moving in the direction of communities off Earth, flying or autonomous cars, and “smart”homes, but we’ve also got people becoming polarized by different views of the world and even different facts. What’s a valid source? Which facts are worth paying attention to, and in what order? These are the questions we are all forced to confront, though it might be harder for younger generations, which never grew up with a more limited print and television environment. How do they view the present? How will they view the future?

Is there a point to any of this rambling? I don’t know. I’ve been struggling (again? still?) with writing science fiction, and I was hoping these thoughts would lead to a story idea or a way of looking at the future, but all it’s done is add to my struggle and confusion. I am not particularly imaginative when it comes toward envisioning the future. I’m much too conservative (in the limited intellectual sense, not necessarily the political sense). Still, I try to understand the present by writing in a science fictional mode because people and their concerns in the present vex and often bore me. SF is about the future of our relationship with the universe and the technologies we use to cope with it. Mainstream/contemporary fiction is about people as they are and their current, personal concerns. I’m not interested in other people’s personal problems. That’s like traveling in gossip. Writing SF is about individual destinies, aspirations, and accomplishments. Technologies might or might not figure prominently in mainstream fiction–though it’s harder to ignore them, even for people focused on personalities.

Maybe I’m thinking about the future of technology as a proxy for trying to figure out my own, personal future, in literature and elsewhere. Where am I going? Where are any of us going?

To be determined. To be continued.

Forced in on Myself

I’m not expecting any great “transformation” or personal insights during this period of enforced isolation. They could happen, mind you, but I’m not expecting or forcing any. What follows are my thoughts about the state of my soul before and during this shared crisis called pandemic. Continue reading “Forced in on Myself”

Making the World a Better Place

I was direct messaging with an internet friend recently about what to do to find a “mission” in life–always a big thing for me–because I like a solid reason to get up in the morning and be motivated. What I came up with as a potential project was to start researching technologies to make the world a better place. Today I’ll take a shot at explaining what I mean by that and then, over subsequent posts, I’ll discuss individual topics or technologies of interest. This could be a hit, it could be a flop; in any case, it’ll keep me entertained. And being the harmless egoist I am, that’s pretty much why I’m doing this. So let’s start with something “simple,” like answering, “What do I mean by ‘make the world a better place’?” Onward! Continue reading “Making the World a Better Place”

Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 3

This is my third of three summaries of what I observed at the AIAA Space 2018 Forum (the other posts can be found here and here). This isn’t necessarily the last posting on this conference…I might write later about my overall impressions of the space business in a separate entry in a week or two. However, these entries are long enough (this entry runs over 3,300 words, my apologies), so let’s get to it. Continue reading “Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 3”

Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 1

It’s been around 10 years since I last attended a conference for the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the professional association for aerospace engineers. I attended the AIAA Space 2018 Forum this week, and it felt like a different experience from when I was a NASA contractor 2006-2012. I also wasn’t attending as a reporter or for a job, just Bart Leahy, AIAA Member and interested space geek. Part of that could be my age, part of it was a reflection of what’s happening in the space business now. Exciting times to be in the business or just observing it as an interested member of the public. What follows are some of my notes from the various sessions for your reference. Continue reading “Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 1”

Working Through Depression

Life doesn’t always go the way we want. You might be going through emotional pain or upset. I’ve been there, and after multiple bouts with depression, I developed a set of habits that–if it doesn’t prevent The Suck from getting to me, at least shortens the amount of time I suffer through it. What follows is my approach; it might or might not work for you–and if you’re in serious trouble, I recommend a therapist. But for those times between visits to the shrink, you might find this helpful. Continue reading “Working Through Depression”