Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Presidential Politics Alien Style


This is a blog about Alien Romance, but a while ago someone asked about the writing technique known as Worldbuilding -- and for most of my posts since, I've been developing a long instructional piece on how to do the kind of thinking native to SF while still telling a whopping romance story.

Most people think of worldbuilding as having to do with science -- and sometimes they dare to include sociology or psychology. But the real point of all the science (how big is the world you're building, what's its gravity, what kind of sun does it have, moons?, cycles and seasons, evolutionary pressures, contact with other worlds in this galaxy or another etc. etc) the real point is to start with the physics of the star's makeup, project what kind of worlds would circle that star, start with a raw dead hunk of rock and develope an environment conducive to life.

Then you have to populate that environment with plants and animals (or some bizarre equivalent) from single protein molecules on up -- then figure what pressures that environment would put on life to force the development of intelligence -- THEN decide what sort of Divine intervention actually happened to produce people, or what sort of Divine intervention those people postulate and/or believe solemnly.

And the point of all this -- ROMANCE!

The point of thinking through each step from raw sun to rock to life to intelligence is to postulate how physiology and environment combine to generate cultures.

Yes, Alien Romance is inherently about intercultural communication -- which may often include conflict. And where there's conflict, there's STORY.

But what good is all that hard work if the people who read your story don't understand it or care to try to understand it?

Your story has to say something about today, humanity, life on earth, our cultures and their conflicts. A story has to be relevant to its times (no matter if set in the future like Star Trek or set in the past like a time-travel romance).

The whole point of writing a story at all is to arouse the reader and provide an emotional experience they couldn't get from "real" life. But they must return to "real" life with some new point of view, some new idea, (this is SF Romance or Romantic SF -- any way you slice it Alien Romance is primarily SF and thus the Literature of Ideas - so readers must return to reality with an IDEA to think about and explore.)

You want to get famous as a writer? Produce ideas your readers will TALK about to their friends, thus inducing people to read your books.

So where do writers get those kinds of ideas? SF ideas?

Just watch the evening news!

We just saw an election in France that promises to change the political course there -- toward building a more capitalistic economy and edging away from the kind of economy that failed in Japan where laws made it hard or impossible for corporations to fire people. Strangely, the inability to fire people means that unemployment goes up and up and UP and the government crashes down in revolution -- or as in Japan, things get changed on the government level.

Now the USA faces a truly important Presidential Election. No matter which side you're already on, you know that the choice we make in 2008 will change things in the whole world.

Nearly a year before the first primary we have a field of 18 candidates - 10 of them Republican.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are going into this presidential campaign. It's a spectacle to rival the Roman Circus!

What's an SF writer looking for an Alien Romance story to do if the source of ideas is the evening news? And all that's on is Presidential Debates?

Sit back, put on your alien ears, and just listen to what these people are saying. Oh, yeah, they're all politicians. Like preachers, they have learned a certain "cant" -- a chant, a tune, a manner of speaking and a set of phrases, jargon, and so on, mostly incomprehensible to someone who's not American or maybe British (though I have to admit I don't understand British politics at all.)

Well, I did this exercise the other night and I've been watching the sound-bytes and reading some articles online -- and one thing leaps out at me more starkly even than in prior campaigns.

These characters all try to distinguish themselves from each other by WHAT they will FIGHT FOR -- not about their attitude toward fighting in general.

"Elect me and I'll fight for your right to X, Y, Z."

They'll fight global warming; they'll pledge to fight whatever people don't like at the moment.

How would that sound to someone from that planet we invented above, the planet upon which a species evolved to produce a major Hunk our Earthling can fall in love with while hating or rescuing him?

How we choose the SUN around which this bare rock forms -- (yes, worldbuilding goes that far back -- how you choose the sun) -- will determine whether politicians from those civilizations FIGHT or whether they PROBLEM SOLVE instead.

Do they argue instead of negotiate? Do they keep arguing until they convince everyone -- are their elections about finding out what is right instead of who is right?

If so, then our elections and our Presidential Politics will look pretty ridiculous or incomprehensible -- "How can you settle a war by fighting? It makes no sense."

Thus our glorious Hunk looks upon the Love of His Life who is running for President of the USA on the pledge to FIGHT FOR GALACTIC PEACE, and runs for the hills!

Ooops. Back to choosing the right sun to build our world around.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Excellent, as usual. No matter how wonderful the story, if the author falls into the Mars Housewife Syndrome the reader is going to chuck the book out the window. Nailing world-building can make the difference between a good book and a truly great novel readers will absolutely love.

  2. "Fight for Galactic Peace" -- wonderfully ironic phrase. Metaphors matter, esp. when they trip off the tongue so facilely that we hardly recognize them as metaphors. As Suzette Haden Elgin (who's a pacifist as well as a linguist and SF writer) often points out, hymns such as "Onward Christian Soldiers" evoke an image that's directly at odds with the essence of Christianity as a religion of peace. Likewise, a metaphor such as "War on Poverty" (or "War on Drugs," which has led us into a quagmire of building more and more revolving-door prisons instead of addressing the problem by treating it as a medical and social issue) channels our thinking into grooves that are often counterproductive. Speaking of presidential elections, I wonder whether the framing image of a "war on terror" was a mistake from the beginning, imputing more dignity to terrorists than they deserve. What if the conflict had been framed as a matter of criminal justice, rounding up and punishing malefactors, instead?

  3. Margaret:

    Good observation -- for a couple decades the precursors of Al Qeda were treated as criminals and criminally insane because their acts appeared insane to the Western eye.

    They would blow up things at random that didn't much matter and made no difference after repairs.

    Why would any idiot do such a worthless thing?

    Obviously, they're insane.

    HOWEVER what was really happening was that the beginners trying to drag in ordinary Moslems had to demonstrate they could actually perform a military operation, however small (and they got bigger and bigger).

    They weren't trying to hurt us or stop us. They were bent on presenting proof of prowess to their peers.

    With every hit on us they recruited hundreds - then thousands, and now they're big enough to hurt us.

    Their physical acts were not acts of destruction but rather of philosophical argument.

    Our mistake, as you point out, was failing to understand that and failing to respond with a philosophical COUNTER-argument that spoke TO THE MOSLEM WORLD not to ourselves.

    And that's the kind of inter-cultural failure to think that SF should now be addressing head on.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg