The Mouldering Projects

I keep a couple of project bars open on my sidebar to keep myself humble, but it’s been a few months for some of them, and the stories are still in draft mode. I thought I’d write notes on a couple of them, if for no other purpose than to roll them around in my head the way one mulls some homemade wine to decide whether it’s decent or swill.

1. The Egan Thief: This story concept is actually inspired by a true story, which I related to my classmates at Clarion West. I was working on the first novel I ever tried to write, begun around 1999 in Montreal. (I finished a draft, a horrible draft, in Dharamshala, India, in winter 2004, but never did get around to revising it.) It involved things like an ABC (American-Born Chinese) guy who was a news reporter fleeing exploring rural China and happening upon some kind of weird, let’s call it a Quantum-Mechanical Syndrome: people started seeing into multiple eigenstates at once. No apparent reason. Was a disease outbreak of some kind, and turned out to be the result of some kind of military computation experiments in the Chinese countryside.

Of course, relating this to my friend Charlie, I was immediately told to go read some Greg Egan, specifically the novel Distress. So I did. And nearly wept. Egan did everything I’d thought of, right down to the journalist-protagonist, and so I set myself back to the drawing board. Alterations; alterations; thought I was ready to redraft. Did a plot sketch, worked on some salvaging, brought minor characters to the forefront, like the Chinese soldier who was sent to serve in Nigeria as part of the Chinese Overseas Climate Debit system, whereby China could “afford” to continue to use coal as long as it sent its surplus males abroad as soldiers. (Which also helped even out the gender imbalance some.) Made the QM-illness a real illness, related to some almost-Planck-scale “lifeforms” that were damaged in a quantum computation experiment. Had some neat stuff. Ran that by Charlie.

He sent me to read another of Egan’s books, Quarantine, and what do you know. This, I have to admit, was unnerving, and I set out to read everything the man had ever published. (A habit I have not given up to this day.) Anyway, I mentioned this to my mother in passing, after having recently mentioned something about the slim feasibility of a backwards-in-time messaging system utilizing tachyons as the transmission medium or something.

“Aha, but you see!” my Mom declared, in unusually SFnal form. “This Greg Egan guy is just using a backwards-in-time radio to steal your wonderful stories and publish them five and ten years ago. So don’t work, write some more and he’ll probably start stealing from someone else!”

How my Mom ever came up with that, I don’t know, but it is a damned inspired notion, accusing the Hard SF God of reverse-temporal plagiarism. When I mentioend that to my classmates at Clarion, they urged me very strongly to write the thing up and fictionalize it, so that it was actually the real answer to the phenomenon. Heck, I think I still will, even if it’s mulling for now: I don’t even care that Cory Doctorow’s got a schtick about it in one of his stories… if I do it right, I think I could make this both Hard and Funny SF. And you don’t see that sort of thing everyday. If this story ever gets done, it’s definitely going to be dedicated to my Mom, who will, of course, get a cameo in it, too.

2. Peaches, The Strong Arm of the Flower Underground: During Clarion West (where a lot of my stalled sidebar stories got their genesis), Ian R. MacLeod urged us to do an exercise in which we invented a character by simply looking around ourselves and picking out random things to use as spurs to imagining another person. I opted to try the exercise with a partner, Maura, during a walk on the shore near campus in Seattle.

“What’s your character’s name?” she said in her lovely Irish way, and I looked at a nearby park bench and saw a large, apparently-unopened jar of preserved peaches. It was bizarre. So of course, I told her that the character’s name was Peaches. When Maura asked me whether this was a man or a woman, I immediately realized Peaches is such a stereotypically-bimbo name that it couldn’t be a woman, so I claimed that Peaches was a man. That reminded me of some of the names that my friend Ritu told me some Sikh guys have, things like Pinky and Cutie and Apple (okay, the only one I remember, really, was Pinky, but Peaches sounded passable to me). Peaches Singh, I decided upon, a nice Sikh fellow.

When Maura asked me what his job was, we were following classmates up through a field of flowers, and I said, “He grows genetically altered flowers.” The obvious follow-up questions led me into a bizarre world of flowers with the images of various Hindu gods engineered into their pigmentation patterns, and various mind-altering substances–all legal, mostly because thus far unclassified–engineered into their biochemistry. Peaches was a supplier of drugflowers to the rich and powerful in Mumbai, but had stolen the trade secrets from an old expert in Nepal.

Nowadays, I think there are two stories growing under the name of Peaches, one that is all about this flower-dealer, and another about, well, a very different fellow with a very different job, but who I think might be a cousin of Peaches’ assistant Pinky. (Something about theft reclamation of Indian antiquities and national treasures from the British Museum, during a time when Indian museums look like a safer bet for long-term stability than the British one. A student’s recent essay on the subject tweaked my focus and interest a little, but we’ll see if I get around to it.)

The draft content counted up in the progress bar is mostly for the latter story, not the former one.

3. A Killing in Burma: I don’t really count this as stalled, since I only started writing it a couple of weeks ago and some ideas are still percolating for it (and I’ve got a travel guide to Myanmar which is waiting to be flipped through). But in general, it’s about a small business startup that happens in a post-collapse Myanmar, using some very odd technology that literally drops out of the sky, to achieve some very odd results. The title is a trick, supposed to make the reader expect a horrible murder when, in fact, it’s about “making a killing” in Burma by using a new, appropriate form of technology to retrofit the hyperluxurious Western lifestyle to a developing nation in a state of turmoil.

I have a bunch of blathering about the other stories in my “To Draft” and “To Redraft” folders, but I’ve decided to post that in the “Private” section of the blog, meaning for Level 1 members and up. My friends, I trust, but nobody else. Might entertain some of my friends to see what other wacky stuff I’m working on, so I will post it immediately after this one.

2 thoughts on “The Mouldering Projects

  1. Your stories are all set in Asia. Have you travelled through and studied these places in the flesh? Or are books your only source?

    I forget if it was Wells or Verne, but my understanding is his only source of information was his library- he (whichever one it was) wrote of distant lands but travelled not at all.

    Anyway, all the best to you in finishing these stories.

  2. Kwandongbrian,

    Nah, not all of my stories are set in Asia. “Ogallala” is set in the Arctic Circle. “The Egan Thief” is set in Montreal (where I used to live) and Australia (I’ve visited, only briefly, but it’s not hard to pull off), although the novel I was writing when the basis of the story was set in China, which I’d not yet visited but done loads and loads of research about. “Triangle Man” is set in Enlightenment-period France. “Peaches” is two stories, and while one of them takes place in Mumbai, the other takes place in London! I do have a penchant for writing stories set in Asia–partly because I see the nonwhite world represented so little, or often so poorly, in SF–so I think about half my stories end up being set in Asia… though these days, I’m more and more getting the urge to write about a futuristic Canada as a foreign land But in any case, no, not all of my stories are set in Asia.

    As for the stories that are set in Asia, like Irreducible (the novel draft from which “The Egan Thief” springs), “A Killing in Burma”, “Shoopahs” and “Peaches”, well, I do a lot of research about South Korea because I live here, but yeah, I rely on a mixture of reading, experience, and feedback about other places. For example, I have traveled in India, spent a few days in Japan, been in Thailand enough to get some idea of the place, but that doesn’t make me an expert on any of these countries. Hell, for all my experience in Korea, there are things that still jump out at me.

    Even for places I’ve gone, I rely on reading and research, and bouncing things off people who know more than me, to make sure I’m not flubbing things too badly. The impressions formed in travel can be useful in writing about a place, but far less useful in extrapolating its future and exploring its politics and so on.

    However, there is value to visiting a place when one writes about it. I am planning a trip to Southern China–Nanjing, to be precise, as well as Shanghai–in order to see some of the Taiping monuments. This, I theorize, will help me better to depict events in my alternate history, in which a British character passes through Taiping-controlled Southern China.

    I’d imagine it was Verne who did no traveling. Wells was always steaming across some ocean to talk to some political leader. He was quite the intellectual futurist, had meetings with all kinds of organizations and with all kinds of major world leaders, from Stalin to Roosevelt. (Though maybe later in life; I think most of his interesting SF novels predate this.) In any case, Wells mostly set his fiction in Western lands, and it was Verne who had people traipse “around the world”.

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