Sunday, April 29, 2007

Why Am I Now Writing Fiction: 4. Surrounded by Einstein and His Friends

One way to describe a character in a story is through setting—showing the reader how your character surrounds himself. Another way is by the company he keeps. Today, I learned that Quantum Books had featured The Aremac Project on their website.

Naturally, I had to look at the page, and was I ever surprised to find myself surrounded by two books about Albert Einstein. I shouldn't have been surprised, because I'm surrounded every day by the Man of the Century. Any time I am temporarily paused in my writing, I can look up and see no less than four pictures of Einstein, plus one action figure. From this information, you, the reader, may surmise that Albert's writings have been a great influence on my life and writing. In this essay, I want to make some of those influences more explicit in terms of quotes by Einstein and some of his friends.

Social Change and Technology

"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." - Albert Einstein
Not just the atom, but all technology, could lead us to unparalleled catastrophe, including the computer technologies to which I have contributed. I feel a deep obligation to write books that may help change our thinking about how we respond to technology.

What We Owe Each Other

"Every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving." - Albert Einstein
I feel this same sense. Before each meal, I say a silent grace, thanking all those people who have worked together to bring this food to my plate. And before each book, I think deeply about all the people who might read it, and how it might influence their lives, written this way or that.


"If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor." - Albert Einstein

I try to write truth, so I try to write simply. I will never win any prizes for eloquent prose, but perhaps I will be understood. Perhaps, if I write untruth, people will more easily see through my words.

Why Science Fiction?

"When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking."- Albert Einstein

I can think of nothing more depressing than the thought that our world is limited to what happens to exist today. At many miserable moments in my life, I've been kept going by the thought: "It doesn't have to be this way." I could never allow myself to be constrained to writing about the way things are. (In no way does this denigrate the great book, The Way Things Are, by Nobel Prize Winner, Percy Williams Bridgman. This is one of the ten books that has most influenced my life.)

Humanity and Technology

"Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavor. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations." - Albert Einstein

My goal in fiction is not to write about technology, but about human responses to technology. I write about how we make machines and how machines, in turn, make us—but primarily how we can and do make ourselves. You won't find many equations or diagrams or scientific explanations in my fiction, but any that you do find will first serve the goal of making us more fully human.

Charlie Chaplin

One of the photos facing me as I write is Albert Einstein with Charlie Chaplin, each dressed in a tuxedo.


“A day without laughter is a day wasted.” - Charlie Chaplin

Nobody who has seen a Chaplin film will be surprised by this quote. He was a man who could leaven the most serious subjects with laughter: Greed (The Gold Rush); Tyrannical Power (The Great Dictator); Dehumanizing Technology (Modern Times). I will never be one-millionth the comedian he was, but I am committed to leaven my serious fiction with as much humor as I can sneak in.

Character Creation

“I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.” - Charlie Chaplin

This is exactly the way I create my characters, in a virtual sense. I dress them with the character, brilliance, and personality of the people I have known, then I let them walk on the stage—the pages of my manuscript—and become fully born. Perhaps this is why my villains are, as one critic said, "a bit wooden at times." I simply haven't known many villains in my life, just people trying to do the best they can with what they have.

Rabindranath Tagore

Another photo facing me as I write is Einstein with Rabindranath Tagore, the poet from India.

The Limits of Logic

"A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it." - Rabindranath Tagore

I write about the people I know best, the scientists and engineers whose primary tool is the sharpness of their minds. To do that truthfully, I must also write about their deviations from logic that both complicate and enhance their lives.

Systems Thinking

"By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower." - Rabindranath Tagore

A system is more than the sum of its parts. I write about how properties and behaviors not seen in parts of a system emerge surprisingly from their combination.

Facing Problems

"Every difficulty slurred over will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on." - Rabindranath Tagore

I am not awfully interested in writing about victims. I want to create characters who face their problems—though often wary and fearful—and deal with them using the powers of their minds. I want characters who know, or discover, as Tagore also said, "You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. "

Unconventional Solutions

"The flower which is single need not envy the thorns that are numerous." -Rabindranath Tagore

My characters not only cope with the problems that face them, but they cope with them creatively. Theirs are not the tried-and-true solutions that may or may not work for others. Instead, each solution is like an engineering problem, with opportunities to choose among, and tradeoffs that constrain the choices.

The Hopi

The largest of my Einstein pictures has him standing in front of the Fred Harvey Hopi House, at the Grand Canyon, Arizona, with his wife and a half a dozen Hopi Indians. Incongruently, but humorously, he is wearing a Plains Indian headdress and holding a "peace pipe," but the message is clear enough. Einstein once said about racial bigotry, "What can the man of good will do to combat this deeply rooted prejudice? He must have the courage to set an example by words and deed, and must watch lest his children become influenced by racial bias."

I hope I am of sufficiently good will to combat each of these prejudices in my novels, particularly by showing what can be done if we shed them, but also by showing the sad consequences if we don't.

Natural Law

"The supreme law of the land is the Great Spirit's law, not man's law."  - Hopi saying

My novels are all fantasy, but not in the "fantasy" genre. I want to confine myself to natural laws that are at least plausible in terms of what we know. No gods emerging from machines, no ghosts, no vampires or werewolves, but, from time to time, aliens. No magic, except in Arthur Clarke's sense that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


"One finger can't lift a pebble. " - Hopi saying

I am particularly interested in writing about teams, for that is what I know from half a century of working with teams of brilliant people all over the world. Like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, those teams, when good, are very, very good. And, when bad, are horrid. I hope to help them by showing what it takes to be very, very good.

Story Telling

But, in the end, why tell stories at all? I believe the Hopi deserve the last word:

"The one who tells the stories rules the world."