Distal Muse


by Mark W. Tiedemann

      My new novel is now out. REMAINS, published by BenBella, is my tenth book, depending how you count them--Iím including my Double Dog, Of Stars And Shadows, as a book, but not the chapbooks. Anyway, REMAINS is now out. You can buy it. Please do.

      Iíve never talked in the Distals about my writing so much. Iíve been using the space for general observations about culture and politics or anything else that strikes my fancy. This time, though, Iíd like to indulge a bit of wordage about my words.

      Iím quite proud of REMAINS. It grew from a short story written before I attended Clarion, back in 1988. I had an abused woman who wanted to kill someone she held responsible for the abuses, and a man who falls in love with her who wants to help, but discovers he canít. At least, he canít help her fulfill her revenge. But because she was a cyberlink--someone who can directly interface with computers--he finds a way to actually modify her memory so that she thinks sheís exacted her revenge. Hence she can let herself off the hook and they can get on with their lives. I sent the story around to many magazines and so forth, but prior to Clarion I wasnít having much success convincing anyone to buy my work. Then, sometime in 1989, I sent it to a guy doing magazine/anthologies, who liked the story but said that, to him, it felt more like a novel. The idea took root. Several years later, it was a novel.

      The murder changed. The cyberlink was no longer the one seeking revenge. The one needing the help was the man. I donít want to tell you much more about the plot--I might spoil it for you--except to say that I worked through the permutations very diligently. There is a murder mystery, but itís not the central issue of the book, and anyone who beats up on it for any flaws that might exist in the who-done-it part of the story will be missing the larger point. Enough about that, too.

      What I very much wanted to do was extend my personal range of language and experiment with the possibilities of a love story--a full-bore, all-out, torrid love affair--with a Sfnal twist. Because I have a love affair which turns on the science involved, believe it or not, and is utterly integral to the plot. The make-up of Nemily Dollard and Maceís own background are inextricably linked to how they are together and how their relationship plays out. I wanted to do this with the best imagery I could manage, with full deployment of a substantive subtext, and with some artistry.

      Gene Wolfe and John Crowley, as well as Samuel R. Delany, Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, all the way back to Edith Wharton and Thomas Wolfe inspired the approach to language. I wanted a depth and richness in the text that was at the same time accessible and plain.

      It took a lot of work. Even after BenBella bought it, it took even more work. I must give proper thanks to the editors who worked on the book--they are smart, dedicated people who did me a tremendous service. Itís a better novel for their efforts.

      I think by rough estimate REMAINS went through about eight drafts.

      A number of years ago another SF writer set out to intentional conflate two different genres--SF and romance. Now, there have always been a few writers who have tried this. Marion Zimmer Bradley comes readily to mind. It has largely been unsuccessful, for a number of reasons, but Iíll only discuss a couple here. Itís relevant.

      The timeless accusation of non-Fans is that SF canít do deep character or, consequently, believable romance. I would flippantly counter-argue that what passes for romance is far too often unbelievable for other reasons than being set in a milieu antagonistic to its conceits. My companion once declared that most genre romance is more science fiction than a lot of SF, because where else does one find so many virgins achieving rapturous orgasm the first time in the sack. This, too, is flip, but my reading of several romance novels tells me that this is part of the fantasy (small "f") . There is a good deal more in category romance that fails the "reality" metric, which may be one reason the two genres have mixed poorly in the past--SF prides itself on dealing with testable realities where possible and presenting its fantastic speculations with a frisson of realism. Adding in the misty-eyed, lace-and-satin conceits of "romance" requires language that often goes counter to the rock-hard, unsentimental text of a science fiction novel. Either part on its own may be fine, but when shoved together in one book merely end up pointing at each other, laughing. A bad blend.

      Be that as it may, none of this is any reason genuine, truthfully examined relationships canít be done in science fiction. It just requires being willing to talk about people as they really are, at a level which may have nothing to do with the conceits a given writer is examining in a particular story. Itís more work that, frankly, might not advance the plot or add anything to the aesthetic of the piece at hand.

      This is often a cop-out. But SF gets blamed for indulging the cop-out more than other genres. You can find detective stories, war stories, historicals, political novels a-plenty with poorly-handled relationships, especially love relationships. But I suppose in these instances the flaws donít stick out as much.

      What I wanted to attempt in REMAINS was a love affair. This isnít a romance. There is romance, but only as part of the love story. Iíve got two people--more, really, but to explain further will give things away--who fall in love with each other. At least, so it seems. They have to work that out. I wrote about it in language that is consistent with everything else thatís going on in the book. Itís part of the story, not something set on top of the story.

      When I was growing up, I started reading SF smack in the middle of the New Wave Movement. Never mind the legitimacy of the movement, who was in it, what it was about--one of the new things about New Wave stories that became very apparent after a while, was that suddenly there was an awful lot of screwing. I canít help but think a lot of it was a pose. Whatever, it seemed to me that suddenly writers found out that they could use sex in their stories, and they used it as a kind of sign that declared "serious content here, people copulating," which was a universe away from the pulp era in which, despite what may have been on the cover of the magazines, had a real Ozzy and Harriet approach to sex, namely none at all. The term "gratuitous" comes to mind. It was like as kid with a new toy, a dog with a new bone. Much of it didnít seem relevant to the stories. But there it was, and gradually, as the more mainstream writers of SF began to absorb some of the other elements of the New Wave, they began having sex in their stories, to greater or lesser degrees of success.

      Letís be honest, though--a lot of science fiction is NOT about relationships. There are relationships in the stories, sure, but they arenít the point, the theme, the main trope. So to do deep relationship studies in the midst of a story about, say, a million-year-old artifact that unleashes terror and destruction on those who find it--to stop the action, in other words, to examine the reasons Dr. So-and-So has the hots for his lab assistant and why she wonít sleep with him because every time sheís ever had sex sheís been non-orgasmic, possibly because her step-father abused her...well, you can certainly do it, and do it well if youíre good enough, but it has nothing to do with figuring out how to stop the menace unleashed by the alien artifact, and it will be a very different kind of book if you do it well enough to make it fit.

      There are any number of SF writers who do good relationships--that is to say, believable, consistent with how we know people are. Even one or two so-called "hard" sf writers. Gregory Benford is, when he wants to be, quite good at it--check out his masterpiece, Timescape , to see what I mean. Michael Bishop is good at it. Two of my friends, Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge (to whom REMAINS is dedicated) are very good at it. Many more are adept at knowing how to suggest a relationship without actually exploring it, and when youíre done reading their work, you think youíve been exposed to a truthfully depicted relationship.

      Itís very hard, though. In many ways, itís a hell of a lot harder than the science and technology, plot consistency, believable dialogue, or even proper grammar. Itís hard because itís personal. The only way to do believable relationships is to do honest characters, and that means opening your nerve endings to the way Life is. If youíre going to write about a broken heart, and your heartís been broken, you revisit it, and put it down, and relive it. It can hurt. But more than that, people in relationships are far more complex than people all by themselves, and people by themselves are incredibly complex. Keeping all that in mind and in play is--can be--exhausting.

      So I took a shot at it. REMAINS is the best Iíve been able to do to date.

      I did my science homework as well. Itís science fiction according to every definition of SF I accept as valid.

      I would very much like people to buy this book and enjoy it. Iíd like you to tell your friends, buy it as a present, but please spread the word. I say this because it has come out from a small press with not much advertising budget and in the mad stampede of new books is likely to get lost unless people do a little bit of evangelizing on its behalf.

      The last couple of years Iíve learned a few things about publishing--some unpleasant lessons as well as some useful, hopeful ones. I learned that if I donít blow my own horn, likely as not no one else will do it for me, at least not effectively. But Iím reticent to do that. False modesty, self-consciousness, call it what you will, but I can rave about someone elseís book and find it almost impossible to say much of anything about my own. Partly, I want the book to speak for itself. But if no one ever opens the cover, it canít. I need to give them a reason to open the cover, and more often than not I donít have a good reason, other than I think theyíll have a good time if they do.

      So Iím posting something of a request here. Please. If you buy a copy of REMAINS and enjoy it, tell ten people. Or more. I think the only way I may be granted the privilege of writing more books will be through a grass roots--or a cyber-roots--campaign, and simply asking for support. It has just come out. Iíve got three or four months for it to make an impression. Maybe more.

      I thank you in advance for your help.

      I hope you enjoy the book.

copyright © 2005 by Mark W. Tiedemann