Monday, May 18, 2009

So what's Dock Five really like?

One of the most fun, writerly things is inventing and describing alien (as in, not where you're sitting right now) settings and places in SF/SFR books. One of the toughtest writerly things is inventing and describing alien settings and places in SF/SFR books.

Mugwump much, Linnea?

One of the things I've wondered about since I was a wee kidling (and yeah, I really did think about this stuff) is whether the color I deem to be "red" is the color you see. That is, I know we have an agreed upon experience called "this is the color red" but do my eyes and brain process and interpret that color the same way you do? We've been told that cats and dogs only see in shades of gray. So if I asked Daq-cat to point out something "red" (ie: the cover of SHADES OF DARK), though we both would agree the cover was red, what he sees is different than what I see. His "red" would be, we're told, a shade of gray. Mine is, well, what I call "red." (And who's to say I'm right and he's wrong?)

Lost yet?
Have another cup of coffee.

I think about things like that when I write my settings, my worlds, my ships. Which is why I get into arguments with myself as to how much to describe in some level of detail, and how much to describe in concept and let you all come to your own interpretations. Especially when I'm describing or dealing with something that has no exact counterpart in our current experience.
So what is Dock Five--that seedy, disreputable conglomeration of mining rafts in deep space somwhere near the Aldan-Baris border--really like? What is the Boru Karn, Sully's personal ship, really like? Is Admiral Mack's Cirrus One Station the same as Chaz Bergren's Moabar Station? Well, no. Cirrus One has parrots. But other than that, does Linnea have a stock space station she drops into each story?

In my mind, no, oddly enough. My mind's eye sees Moabar Station and Dock Five and Cirrus One in completely different colors and styles. To a great extent, it's as if I drop myself into my character's skin and see his world exactly as he sees it. (Which adds another layer of personal interpretation...oy!). But all--since I'm still me--have to have a constant basis of information and experience.

For me it's cruise ships. As many of you know, that's been an addiction of mine for several decades. The feeling of being isolated, dependent and yet with pretty much everything you need (including a full hospital) is something I've drawn from being on cruise ships. But what if my reader has never been on a cruise ship, or never served on a naval vessel? What if my reader is a land-locked Kansas farm-dwelling reader from a long line of land-locked Kansas farmers?
How do I make them understand what Dock Five or the Boru Karn is really like?
I think this is one of the problems non-SF readers have with coming in to SF or SFR: this flow into and acceptance of the never-experienced. Reading SFF trains the mind to reach for analogies and find a workable interpretation--even if perhaps that interpretation isn't what the author had in mind. SFF readers don't mind not fully getting everything at first. They're willing to go along for the ride and figure it out as it happens.

But if a reader's experience on the pages has been predominantly the known and familiar: a supermarket, a television, a Chevrolet pick-up, it can require a little more work, a little more "suspension of disbelief" to envision the bridge of a starship. I see this happening most often when my books are reviewed by a romance site and a reviewer who admits s/he's never read SF before or much SF. The reviewer may note: loved the book but wish Sinclair added more description of the starship bridge. The same book reviewed by an SF or paranormal romance site will state: loved the book and her descriptions were so spot-on I felt as if I were there!

One of the keys, obviously, is that everything is experienced through the characters. But keep in mind that to my characters--other than Theo Petrakos in The Down Home Zombie Blues--their "normal" is our "unreal." Starship bridges, faster-than-light travel, Stolorths, telepathic furzels and bio-cybes are their norm.

So what is Dock Five really like? It's seedy, run-down, cramped and smelly. Yet it functions; for the most part, its inhabitants aren't in fear of their lives from the facility (the denizens are another matter). Is it the same as a back-alley in some derelict New York City neighborhood? If you want it to be, sure. But it's different that that. For one thing, there's no sky. And you can't eventually run away from the area--there's really no escape (unless you can breathe vacuum). Dock Five--to me--has something of the feel and smell of subways tunnels. A factory or warehouse basement. But without the brick/stone moldy smell. It's all metallic. It's small enough to be familiar to its inhabitants (something that makes them feel secure) but large enough and, moreover, convoluted enough in design to make getting lost a very real possibility. (corridor image from DAZ3D)
A maze? Kinda sorta. But not quite.

It goes back to whether or not the red I see is the red you see.
So how much do you bring your own experiences into what you read, and how much are you willing to let the author take you on an unfamiliar journey?


SHADES OF DARK, the sequel to Gabriel’s Ghost, July 2008 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

The Karn jerked hard, alarms screaming in triplicate, overload warnings flashing. The grating sound of metal wrenching echoed off the bulkheads. Snapped power lines whipped past the front viewport as something thumped, hard, and something else thudded, once, twice. The ship lurched then we were thrown sideways, my armrest catching me in the ribs in spite of my safety straps.

“Full shields!” I said hoarsely. God damn, that hurt. “Verno, don’t let her spin. Marsh, crank those sublights higher.”

We dove away from station—a hideously ugly departure. Narfial controllers cursed the Fair Jeffa, assuring us the freighter was back on course and was never a threat to us at dock.

“Bite my ass,” Sully intoned.


  1. "One of the things I've wondered about since I was a wee kidling (and yeah, I really did think about this stuff) is whether the color I deem to be "red" is the color you see."

    Too fuuny, I thought I was the only person to think this. No wonder I love your books.

    Another weird thought is using bad words. They're only bad because the society you live in has agreed that they're bad. If you don't agree, can you say them with impunity?

  2. Bad words...ah, Vicky. I thought about those a lot too. ;-)