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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

A Moderately Serious Post About Writing, For A Change

As a writer, one of the questions you keep hearing is, "Where do you get your ideas?" Most non-writers have trouble understanding that good ideas are everywhere, free for the taking; the hardest part is finding the time to develop those ideas into stories. But as we wade into the STUPEFYING STORIES slushpile, it becomes evident that it's time for a quick refresher course on the relative quality of the various sources of free ideas.

1. The worst possible place to get an idea for a story is from a movie. That's what makes this topic suitable for Ultimate Geek Fu. As I hope we've demonstrated over the years that we've been running this column, original thinking is anathema in Hollywood. And yet, we've seen many a manuscript that suggests that the author saw something in a movie that made him or her say, "Wow! I want to write a story just like that, only different!" And then they did.

I think the reason why movie-derived ideas generally make lousy print stories is that most people fundamentally misunderstand the core appeal of movies. A movie is not a novel, turned into a play and captured on film. (As a century of botched cinematic adaptations of novels and plays pretty conclusively proves.) A movie is a carnival attraction. The whole point of a movie is to get your money, get you inside the tent, give you the old razzle-dazzle hootchie-kootchie show, and then push you out to make room for the next crowd of rubes. As Ernie Fosselius put it in Hardware Wars: "You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll kiss three bucks goodbye."

What if, as you emerge blinking into the daylight, you suddenly stop stock-still and say to yourself, "Hey, wait a minute. That made absolute no sense at all?"

Tough. We already got your money. It's not like the carnival is coming back to this town before next year. And by that time, you'll have forgotten all about how annoyed you were when you realized you'd been scammed, and remember only how much fun you thought you were having while you were inside the tent.

2. The second-worst place to get an idea is by watching a TV series. Not only does TV screenwriting suffer from the same general dearth of originality as movie screenwriting—if it's truly a unique and ground-breaking idea, there's almost no way in Hell it's ever going to be green-lighted to become a series, much less stay on the air long enough to find an audience—but again, people suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of the product being delivered. A television series does not exist to deliver entertainment to you.

It's there to deliver your eyeballs and focused attention to advertisers.

Hence the "crisis every ten minutes," "let's stop right in the middle of everything and argue about our relationship issues," and "make sure you never really resolve or change anything" approaches to scriptwriting. It's not because those make for good storytelling. It's because the primary and secondary objects of the script are to: a.) make sure viewers don't change channels (or worse, turn off the TV) during the commercial breaks, and b.) make sure they leave wanting to watch the show again next week.

If you've ever done some focus group work and watched videos of people watching TV, it's all there in their expressions of slack-jawed stupefaction. Good God, the last thing anyone in the television industry wants anyone in their audience to do is to start thinking.

3. Currently third in the Bad Source of Ideas derby, but moving up fast, are video games. It's depressing to realize how many young writers seem to believe that a verbatim retelling of a video game back-story, cut scene, or playing level, equates to telling a story. I am watching this development with great trepidation.

4. The fourth-worst source of ideas, and I feel some discomfort in saying this, is reading other peoples' stories. You must like to read fiction in order to write good fiction. Literature is our mythic reservoir; it's the common collective memory of our species. You simply cannot be a good writer if you do not also read a lot. Especially in genre fiction, there is typically a body of tropes that defines the genre, and you must be cognizant of and pay attention to at least some of these tropes in order to write what is recognizably genre fiction.

All the same, we're seeing quite a few stories that suggest that the writer hasn't read anything written after 1960. And while there are some forms of fiction in which this is not a problem, here in the domain of the genre that calls itself "The Literature of Ideas" — that's a conceit, not a truth, but we can have that argument another time — producing a slower, longer, less focused and more complicated retelling of a story that Heinlein first told in 1942 is not generally a desirable thing to do.

"Okay, Mister Smarty-Pants," I hear someone say. "You've been pretty disparaging so far. So what do you consider a good source of ideas?"

First off, you have to realize that good ideas for stories rarely come whole. More often they present themselves in pieces, and then some catalytic spark triggers the creative synergism that makes for an idea.

For example, I've long known that Lockheed Martin has been working on the HULC, a powered exoskeleton intended for military use. I've also long known that one of the chronic problems with exoskeletons has been the power source. It's hard to build something that doesn't expend most of its energy lugging around its own battery-pack.

Then I learned of the Vanderbilt arm, an experimental prosthetic limb that gets around the battery problem by being steam-powered. Steam? Yes, steam, generated using highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide.

So I did a little more reading. Fascinating stuff, hydrogen peroxide; in 80- to 90-percent concentrations it makes a terrific monopropellant. All you need to do is introduce a catalyst—say, silver—and it immediately and aggressively turns itself into free oxygen and steam. Withdraw the catalyst, and the reaction instantly ceases. Lace the hydrogen peroxide with another fuel—say, alcohol—and put it in the right kind of combustion chamber, and you can get one hell of a lot of thrust in a tiny package that can be controlled via an on/off switch.

Okay so far. But how do you control that on/off switch? Well, DARPA is currently looking to fund development of Reliable Central-Nervous-System Interfaces, so that wounded military veterans can be turned into useful cyborgs with reaction times on the order of 10x to 20x faster than normal human neuromuscular lag times. Very cool stuff. But again, how do you power it?

Enter the catalytic idea. A few days ago I was browsing around the BBC News Technology site, and I ran across this item. A team at Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble announced the successful creation and testing of a biofuel cell—in other words, an implantable device that generates electricity from bloodstream glucose and oxygen.

Voila! In a sudden moment of creative synthesis, I realized that the steampunks and gamers were right all along! In the future, cyborg soldiers will get tanked-up on Red Bull and vodka before going into battle!

Let the arguments begin...
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