Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Reading and How to Structure Story Starts and Ends

I've been reading.

I've read my first novels by established SF authors Stephen Baxter ("Timelike Infinity"), and Gregory Benford ("Foundation's Fear"). It is with marvellous excitement that I become acquainted with the deepest concerns of these writers, as revealed through those subjects they express passion on in their books. Baxter's time-travel riffs I compared to Orson Scott Card in the bookshop, and came up with a marvellous idea between the two for a short story. And Benford's book is part of Asimov's Foundation series, first book of a new trilogy. What is most notable about this trilogy, however, is that it is written by a trilogy of authors, and, incredibly, they do Asimov's idea justice. Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin. Should be an exciting read.

Writing and reading all weekend. Peaceful, even languid, I have stayed close to home, going out only to vote and attend a meeting which, even as I entered the rooms, I was aware I had no intentions of staying at. Sure enough I left before it started and came home frustrated and irate with myself. People!

I started reading the Iliad. Successfully for the first time I immediately grasped the sense of astonished sublimity in the world Homer creates. The java version I was reading collasped as soon as I went offline, which is yet another subject lesson on the grave limitations of java applets.

On the other hand I started reading Plato's Apology of Socrates, but I think I will have to be an old old man to appreciate Socrates. I have found him and his adherents, including Ben Franklin, annoyingly sanctimonious in the studied and manipulative ignorance of their rhetoric. Everything about him I find tiresome, and yet people who love him find it all sublime. Experimental melodrama more likely.

Saturday I read Orson Scott Card's How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. He has some fascinating things to say about plot structuring:

The plot should be structured around the character who suffers the most, first and foremost.
The plot should be structured around the kind of story that is being told: in other words, the story that is started at the start must be completed at the end.
Many stories begin too early or too late or from the wrong point of view altogether, and this is because the wrong structural principles misinform the author's choices.
Often a story's start gives you one idea, and ending gives you another. This is because the structure changes in the story itself.
Caring and the nature of the drama itself define what kind of ending you feel is necessary. In turn, the ending defines where, when and with whom you must begin.

The key to all this is faithfully investigating into what kind of structure informs your plot. Experienced and inexperienced writers all seek the correct structure to write within, some more consciously than others. By knowing the structure, you gain freedom and power to express your drama fully:

Card's lens for investigating what kind of structure best fits is MICE - Millieu, Information, Character, and Events. MICE is an investigative or hermeneutic tool, rather than a diagnositic device. Here's how it works:

- You know the story is about a MILLIEU, when the true start of the story features a stranger entering a world, and the true end features them leaving that world.
- You know the story is about INFORMATION, when the true start of the story is the realisation that information is missing, and the true end of the story is the transformation that ensues as the missing information is revealed.
You know the story is about CHARTACTER, when the true start of the story is the moment the character realises that they have suffered so much that they need to begin the process of change, and the true end obviously is when the process is complete.
Finally, you know the story is about EVENTS, when the true start of the story features a disturbance in the Order of Things, and the true end of the story results in a New Order, Restoration of the Old Order, or, more rarely, a Return To Chaos.

I submitted my own novel to analysis, and only now do I realise that here are several character subplots (Al, Lynne, Val, and Sattva, the main characters), no less than TWO important millieu's to explore, and a large amount of information to explore about the science and science fiction involved in creating a world wide biological network computer.

So how to structure the story?

The final key Card presents for discerning the plot structure is to look at what element of what you've written so far that evokes the most caring in you. Is it the events, information, character or millieu? I looked and it was clear that the events of the novel were what interested me most. In fact, it rapidly became clear that here was one of those rare novels which feature the events as follows:

The world is in order. The world tips out of order. The world falls into chaos. Indeed, if I have any faith in the power of the ideas of the book, then the chaos at the end is the necessary expression of the cultural consciousness of the late 21st century. Rather than the noirish sense that things are going down the drain that we experienced in the 80s, the latter part of this century will feature the sense that chaos is here, all around us, and that in fact that is quite the better thing than what came before, ie - centralised government, nationalism.

The adventure of Return To Gaia consists of the sense that, as Val and Sattva visit different isolated human cultures across Asia on their Return To Gaia, they are witnessing Gaia's experiments on humanity, as she developes a comprehensive theory about what to do about humanity. The complexity of the different cultures revolves around their relation to the Gaia gene sensors, which inevitably is the central focus of their lives since, on some level, every culture senses they are reliant on this innocent grey box for their life and livelihood. So the simple touchstone of the varied events is the grey box, but the conclusion, the descent into absolute chaos, features a complete dispersal of human potential, rather than an awakening or fulfillment... the release of tension here is in the natural sense, as the loyalty of Sattva to her people and her religion are released by the ultra-religious Thai nationalists, and the scientism and hurt of Valery are released by his acts of caring and service to Gaia. Both characters are effectively transformed. Sattva dies in defense of Gaia, and is integrated into Gaia's undated core memory. And Valery becomes something less than human by virtue of absorbing Gaia's sensor genes into his body's immune system, at the same time becoming something more than human by compassionately allowing Gaia to live.

Thus in the second book, Gaia quite naturally wishes to show Valery what she has done while humanity sleeps in the way of biotechnology, and she wishes to preserve the humanity of Sattva and Valery for further Gaian enterprises. The horribleness of this kind of conclusion is belied by the organicism of the process, as their nonhuman plot is counterpointed against the Dreamer sect in the former United States, a human love story between a Dreamer Tribe girl and a Hunter Tribe boy.

It is remarkable how much of this plot I have written, but lacking the cohesive world, and the strong backing of research, I have been unable to carry it through. My fear is that this simple plot, the natural order falling into natural chaos deeper and then still deeper, does not - to use Robert Silverberg's phrase - set the bomb's clock ticking on every page. A further problem is the detail that arises before the catastrophe itself, the slow invention curve of Biotech that leads to the inception of Gaia. How relevant is it to the story? Would the story be complete without it? Would there be aspects which could be parsed off into another book... such as a "prequel"... heh heh... bizarre idea... "Prelude To Gaia" giving the story of the early days of Valery's life and Al's early adulthood, and Lynn's career in full. Interesting!!

By advancing on the notion that I can start with the experiment, or at least somewhat before it by showing the reader reasons why they should care what happens to Valery or his father Allan, I can dispense with the (already convoluted) first 8 chapters of book one.

It is strange to write this, since I have just this Friday done a first draft of the plotting sequences for the first 8 chapters, chapters I now feel okay parsing off from the main story!

I will have to reflect some more about this, but the lesson is clear... it is important to start in exactly the right place if you are to end in exactly the right place. Midpoint corrections only make sense if the performance as a whole is in the correct parameters. More food for thought from Orson Scott Card.


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