Daily Archives: March 4, 2008

A Manuscript, Pocked With Red

Here’s the copyedit of Zoe’s Tale, which I will need to get through and see if I agree with where the copyeditor says I have gone horribly wrong. I’m sure she’s correct in all cases — even so, best if I eyeball it to make sure. But not today, since due to illness last week I’m behind on a novella I owe someone. So I am novella-ing today.

As an aside, I’m always amazed, when I get back a copyedited manuscript, how big it is. I send in all my manuscripts electronically (which I suppose technically means they aren’t actual manuscripts at all), and I haven’t owned a printer in years, so I rarely see printed versions of my work until they come back to me in this form. And then I’m always, like, damn, I sure do blather on, don’t I. I fear to think what the copyedit manuscript on some of those huge fantasy novels looks like. And I pity the UPS dude who has to deliver one.

Anyway, off I go to write. See you all later.

Yes I Can and Did

Yes, I voted today. On a Dieblod voting machine! No, really, I did. Fortunately, I had a USB drive with me. So now everyone in my precinct is voting for Ron Paul. That’s not a problem, is it?

But yes. If you are in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island or Vermont, please do your voting thang. America thanks you. Unless you vote for the wrong person. In which case: Oh, you will get yours.

The Big Idea: Jennifer Pelland

First, a thanks to the writers/editors/publicists who responded to the call for more Big Ideas — y’all rock. For everyone else, I got a lot of interest, and over the next few weeks, you should see an interesting mix of writers swing by here to share their ideas about their books. I know you’re a-quiver with anticipation. Well, stop. All that quivering is freaking me out.

Second, Jennifer Pelland — current Nebula Award nominee — kicks off March’s lot of Big Ideas, and is here to talk about Unwelcome Bodies, her new short story collection. The collection includes “Captive Girl,” the short story that has garnered her that Nebula Award nomination, but in this Big Idea piece, Pelland focuses on another story entirely: “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man.” What does it show? That short stories need big ideas, too, and how those big ideas can extend beyond the bounds of the story itself.

JENNIFER PELLAND:

I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities–both wondrous and horrific–of the human body, but never quite realized how much that fascination affected my fiction until Teresa Nielsen Hayden suggested the name for my short story collection. Nearly every story in it deals with the body in some way, either as the main plot, or as a background element.

We already live in a time when plastic surgery and body modification are pushing the boundaries of what constitutes humanity. Right now, people are having surgery to change things as fundamental as their face or their gender. Are you the same person if you can’t recognize yourself in the mirror? If you have your labia and vagina turned into a penis? And what about the people who use extreme body modification to make themselves look deliberately inhuman, maybe by tattooing every inch of their skin, or by splitting their tongues, or having horns implanted in their scalps?

That’s happening now. What’s going to happen in the future as medical technology comes up with more effective ways to change our bodies? And on the other side of the equation, what about when things go terribly wrong with someone’s body? How does that change them in ways other than the obvious?

The story in my collection that probably best exemplifies the breadth this theme is “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man.”

Joseph Merrick is probably the quintessential example of just how horrifically a human body can go wrong. He was born normal, but his deformities began manifesting themselves when he was still quite young, until ultimately, they appear to have killed him at the age of only twenty-seven. I initially decided to write a story about him after seeing a television documentary on his life. They showed a close-up of his face, and in that close-up, I could see his humanity shining out through the small oasis of normality around his left eye. I wanted to save him, but he’d been dead for a century, so that’s where the fictional time machine came in.

And what kind of future should Joseph Merrick be brought forward into? A world where body modification had been taken to such an extreme that his body would be fashionable. In this story, I postulate a closed society that entertains itself by, among other things, radically and frequently altering their bodies. Extra arms, phosphorescent skull lumps, mouths that go from ear to ear, entirely absent genitals, limbs that disappear when held tightly against the body–when you can do all that to your body in just an afternoon, wouldn’t the naturally grotesque be the ultimate fashion statement? And so in the story, I “save” Merrick by putting him in someone else’s healthy body, while that other person walks around in Merrick’s.

Of course, then Merrick is forced to watch what this other person does in his former body, which brings up an entirely different set of issues over how body ownership works in a world where people can swap. How much of our identity is wrapped up in our bodies vs. in our brains? Based on how much time human beings spend fretting over our appearance, the answer to that seems clear.

I still don’t feel like I’ve pushed this issue nearly as far as it ought to be pushed, and I’m sure I’ll tackle it again in a more extreme fashion some day, but I really enjoyed playing with the tension between a Victorian man who lived in history’s most notoriously deformed body and a world where people gleefully become voluntary freaks. I don’t think that world is all that far off. I’m definitely interested in seeing how close we get to it in my lifetime.

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Read “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” at Helix magazine. Visit Jennifer Pelland’s LiveJournal, and read this interview of her at QSaltLake.

Authors/editors/publicists: learn how you/your author can participate in The Big Idea here.

Things I Don’t Know About My Own Universe

Just got an e-mail from a reader who had two questions about the Old Man’s War universe: How many humans, solider and civilians, have been killed in the wars the Colonial Defense Forces has fought, and how many planets do the humans have under their control.

My responses, respectively: Lots, and depends on the day.

Now, you may be thinking wow, Scalzi’s a jerk, but the fact is these are the most detailed answers I can give, because when it comes right down to it, I have absolutely no idea how many humans have been killed in the alien wars, and I have only a fuzzy idea of how many planets the Colonial Union has under its control at any one time. Why don’t I know these things? Because they haven’t ever come up in the course of writing the books in the series. If it doesn’t come up in the course of the writing, I tend not to think about it. So, honestly, I just don’t know.

Conversely, when I do know a specific number of something in the Old Man’s War universe, it’s because I have a reason for knowing it that comes out of the process of writing itself. For example, in The Last Colony, we learn that the Conclave — the big U.N.-ish like entity of alien races — has 412 races in it. Why 412? Because there’s a scene in the book where a ship from every race in the Conclave shows up above a planet at the same time. I needed to know how many ships that was, and I needed it to be a fairly impressive number of ships. 412 seemed like a large enough number of ships in one place at one time. So: 412 races in the Conclave. Really, that’s why.

Now, I realize this sort of de-romanticizes my world building process: those of you who imagine I have a detailed bible of the entire history and ethnography of the OMW universe will be undoubtedly disappointed to learn that I mostly just make stuff about that universe, as needed, as I go along. But what can I say. We can’t all be Tolkien and develop three different languages and five thousand years of history for our worlds before we feel sufficiently comfortable to tell a story in the place. Nor, really, would I want to be: That’s just too much effort.

For me, when I need to introduce a new element to a universe I’ve created, here are the two questions I ask: Does it make sense in that universe? And: Does it conflict with anything else I’ve written about that universe? If the answers are “yes” and “no,” respectively, then everything is groovy. I like working this way because it leaves the maximum number of options open for when I write myself into a corner and need to extricate myself from my own foolishness.

Does this mean I make everything up on the fly? Well, no; there are some plot and general universe backstory that I have floating in the back of my head, which have an influence on how I put things together. What I don’t have, and am not in a rush to create, are lots of fiddly details that don’t have practical application to something specific that I am writing at that very moment.

In this regard, the Old Man’s War universe is strongly anthropic: Most of its parts exist in clouds of possibility that only coalesce if and when I need them to. To a large extent, what I know about that universe is what anyone else who reads the books knows — the stuff that’s in the books. I just happen to know it a lot sooner, and I happen to know it first.

So if you ask me something about the OMW universe or any other universe I work in, and I answer you “I don’t know,” I’m probably not trying to be a jerk; I’m probably trying to tell you the truth.