Today I’m celebrating my 30th anniversary of becoming a professional writer. On this date back in 1992 I sold A science-fiction short story 12 paid professional magazine. What an awesome feeling that was.
Grackles. It always came back to the grackles.
Harold saw an opening in the crowd and made a break for it, hoping to slip past the overhead eyes that kept track of day-to-day humanity. They could see inside people but it was hard, he knew, for them to see through people. The best place to hide was in a crowd.
From the grackles.
They were silly looking black birds with long tails and yellow eyes – yellow X-ray eyes, as it turned out — and were armed with long, razor-sharp beaks. For four miserable years now they ruled as malevolent dictators, acting like some Hitchcockian nightmare when a human got out of line. The punishment was swift, sudden, and final.
Thou shalt not break the laws of the grackle.
No one had paid much attention as they migrated, spread, multiplied. An invasive species is all they were. Our own fault since we’d cut down their rainforest homes. They had to go somewhere, right?
To them, you see, we were the invasive species.
Even Harold had known, dimly, that they could talk — like a parrot could talk. He’d read about it somewhere. But no one, not even animal behaviorists on the extreme edge, had any idea the shiny black birds were plotting. Scheming. Positioning themselves for a strategic win.
Don’t dare call it “Bird Day.” Don’t refer to it, out loud, as “Avian Armageddon.” Refer to it by the proper name, the name they decreed we refer to it as: “Grackle Win Big, Mankind Stupid Day.” Make sure to pronounce it with the proper respectful inflection as well, or risk a beak hole in your cranium.
Harold had made it from the doorway and into the crowd. He kept his head down, his hands in his trench coat pockets. He heard the sound of fluttering wings pass overhead, and just as he feared, there came the piercing shriek of an alarm.
The noise they made. The noise. It would put a Moog synthesizer to shame. But it wasn’t just noise — it was their language. And not just their language, but also the language of other birds, other animals. The grackles were consummate masters of cross-species communication.
“Eggs stolen!” they began announcing in English. “Eggs stolen!”
“Egg thief! Egg thief!”
The words were punctuated with organ chords, bells, sirens, cell phone rings … a cacophony of alarms from a huge random library of sound bites. This was combined with more and more flapping of wings as the alarm spread and the grackles took to the air. Harold kept his head down, and like everyone around him, just kept walking — pretending none of this was happening. The man next to him muttered the f-word under his breath. The woman in front of him, young with curly dark blonde hair and smelling of flowery perfume, echoed the sentiment.
One of the grackles swooped down from its perch on a streetlight and landed on her head. She made an “Eeek!” sound and froze, trembling. The bird however only used her as a perch — it’s yellow, X-ray eyes were staring at Harold. First one eye, then after a turn of the head, the other.
“Human!” it said. “You smell of fear!”
“I’m afraid of beautiful women,” Harold told it.
“What is beautiful women?” it crawed at him.
“You’re sitting on one. She frightens me.”
“This women is not beautiful!” The bird’s voice cracked and hit pitches so high that it hurt Harold’s ears. “She smells of bad flower chemical butt smell!”
“This is why I fear her.”
“Stupid human!” The bird bounded into the air, iridescent black wings flapping, yanking a few of the young lady’s hairs out as it flew off.
The young woman turned to look at Harold. Before he could say a word or mutter some sort of apology, she slapped his face. Hard. Then without further comment, she turned again and resumed walking, as did the others in the crowd around them.
The shock of the pain, the stinging of the skin on his face, it didn’t bother him. The truth was women did scare him. That’s why the bird flew away — it didn’t detect a lie. Harold shook it off, and deliberately putting one foot in front of the other, he fell back into the flow of the crowd, his head down as before. The cacophony and flapping wings continued above.
Harold made it out of the area, crossing a bridge over murky water, and then entered his apartment building without further confrontation. Once behind locked doors and closed curtains, Harold gently extracted a handkerchief from deep within his trench coat pocket and holding it before him, gingerly unwrapped five tiny eggs. They were light blue with dark lines and spots as if someone had spilled ink on them. He held them, taking shaking breaths, his hands trembling.
These five delicate objects would fetch a fortune on the black market. It was the ultimate defiance. The eggs of the enemy. But Harold had no intention of selling them. They might be tiny, you see, but they were delicious.
It all came back to the grackles.
Harold craved an omelet.
It looked like God.
That is, if God had four eyes, four arms, and pincher-claw hands. And a giant mustache … which could, actually, be interpreted as mandibles.
It was undoubtably someone’s god. Carved out of a mountain, it loomed over the settlement and filled a quarter of the sky. There was a lot of talk about either moving the settlement, or building a new one on the other side of the mountain — because having this enormous four-eyed monster staring down at you all the time gave everyone the creeps.
Well, almost everyone. Philip Richard found it endlessly fascinating, and while most people built their homesteads to face away from it, looking instead out across the great expanse of the Dime River, Philip made sure the Godhead filled the view of his main picture window.
“Why did you do that? It’s hideous.” Regina stood next to him, sipping her drink and staring out the window. “The thing gives me nightmares.”
Regina was a beautiful second generation clone with blue eyes and dark hair. Philip had met her at the Politico rally a fortnight before. It had taken him this long to lure her over. “Maybe,” he said to Regina, “that’s what its purpose is.”
“To give people nightmares? It’s working.” Regina turned her back to the window. “Don’t you have curtains you can put up?”
“A blanket? Some foil?” Her face puckered like she were tasting something bad. “Bricks?”
“You should try not to look at it negatively,” he told her. “An ancient race dedicated lifetimes to creating this godhead, probably as a protector. And if you think about it, it’s still working — we, trespassers on this world, are completely freaked out by it — which for all we know is exactly what it’s supposed to do.”
“Of all the places on this world, it’s crazy that the Guardians chose to land the seed ship here, settle us here.” She shook her head. “They’re supposed to be so smart, why can’t they also be freaked out by the thing?”
“The Guardians saw it as a perfect starting point — the site of a former civilization,” Philip said. “We’re supposed to be inspired.”
“By a civilization that vanished? What if this godhead of theirs had something to do with them disappearing?”
Philip shrugged. “Evidence points to them evolving away from corporeal existence.”
“I don’t buy that, ‘they turned into The Force’ nonsense.”
He gave her a warm, genuine smile. “Neither do I, really.” They shared a look which quickly grew awkward, and finally he said, “If the view of the godhead bothers you we can go into the other room.” He pointed.
“Is that your … bedroom?” she asked.
The silence stretched, growing even more awkward, and he thought that this wasn’t going to work. But then Regina said, “Okay. Anything to get away from that big creepy monster.” Her arms crossed in front of her, she walked through the doorway, and after a moment he followed.
The next morning Philip emerged, feeling incredible. The night had been awesome. He was in such a good mood that if he wasn’t afraid of waking Regina, he would have been whistling.
Gazing through the window at the godhead, it seemed to glow in the light of the rising sun. If he didn’t know better he’d say it looked alive, pulsing with energy and warmth. Putting his hands together in front of him, Philip gave a little bow to the godhead and thanked it. Sincerely, honestly, thanked it.
He’d decoded the alien glyphs. He’d translated the ancient texts. Philip knew exactly the true purpose of the giant statue.
It was a fertility goddess.
“I want bacon flavored bacon on my bacon. I want so much bacon flavor that it obtains critical mass. I want it to collapse into a bacon singularity were no flavor can escape.”
She pushed her glasses down her nose so that she could look over the wire-rimmed frames at him. “That’s crazy,” she told him, “that would leave you trapped inside the bacon event horizon.”
“That’s where I want to be,” he said.
“All alone? Forever?”
“With bacon you’re never alone.”
“You’re insane.” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “But if that’s what you really want, I can’t stop you.”
“This is goodbye, then,” he said. “I’m gonna have me some bacon.”
He smiled and waved, then stepped into the giant Bacon Accelerator. There was a loud hum, a flash, then he was gone.
You are a science fiction writer. Your finger is on the pulse of technology and society’s trends. Closing your eyes, you can see the world of tomorrow, and with your talent, you craft a great work of fiction set in this world you envision.
It takes time to craft a novel. Even after you’ve finished the first draft, there are successive rewrites, and publication woes, and printing and distributions lag times. When your readers finally get a hold of it, there’s a problem. The acceleration of technological advancement has overtaken your vision of the future. A good portion of the science fiction in your story has become reality, or worse, invalidated.
How do you avoid it? Plan for it. Deliberately.
Many of the classics have a timeless quality about them. There’s something about these works which sets them out of time’s reach so that they’re as fresh now as when they were first printed. While there’s no sure way to write something that will become a “classic,” there is a way to make sure your writing is timeless.
One way is to write your story as a period piece. This works with SF stories where the events don’t change history as we know it. Think “thwarted hidden agenda.” (Author Tim Powers is especially good at this.) Choose a setting either right now or some date in the past. State the date, the place, and incorporate real historic events – this helps build solid suspension of disbelief, and adds an air of authenticity. By its very nature, this type of story can’t become outdated. It exists in time, as history.
Another method is to use a break in reality. Create a future event, without a date, that resets expectations of what comes afterward. It could be a nuclear war, or plague, or maybe an alien invasion. It could also reset the year counter so that even the date is removed from reality. So if your story takes place a hundred years after this event, instead of being the year 2101, it could be year 100. That puts your story completely outside of time.
Of course, you could also set your story in a place entirely removed from our reality. This could be another world, or an alternate reality, or so far in the future or past that there’s not even a remote connection to the here and now. Remember the phrase: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
There are always stories that, by their very nature, need to be set in a specific point in the future. Even if time passes them by, the strength of the story itself pulls the reader past the fact that it’s outdated. Look at “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Personally, I don’t care that time has caught up with this classic. So don’t feel you have to try for timelessness in everything you write, but keep it in mind when you feel you’ve come up with your magnum opus.
Not many things suck as much as finishing that big, wonderful, complex story only to have something happen in reality to make what you’ve written completely implausible.
Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way.