by Phil Geusz
©2001 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
Last Labor Day weekend, I found myself standing in a hotel parking lot in Memphis, Tennessee with a group of close friends. It was about midnight or so, and this particular hotel was located directly under the approach path of the local airport. It had been raining off and on for some time, and the clouds hung low and thick.
As it happens, Memphis is the home base of Federal Express, the famous overnight parcel delivery service. Chatting quietly and companionably, we stood together and watched in quiet awe as a miracle took place right in front of our eyes. One after another, a seemingly endless line of heavy cargo jets materialized out of the gloom and glided over our heads, with engines throttled back to near-idle and tiny wisps of fog forming at their wingtips in the heavy humidity. Each jet, weighing many tons, passed directly over our heads as if suspended from a dream and then vanished behind the hotel building as it went on to land in a nightly ballet that may very well have no direct parallel anywhere in the world today. What we were watching was not just a series of planes landing, but a multi-dimensional ballet involving hopes, dreams, thousands of years of steady technological advance and even the expression of social and financial systems evolved to a sufficiently high level to allow such a remarkable thing to take place. It was, in a word, incredible.
So, you may well ask, what does Federal Express have to with to do with transformation stories? The key phrase in the above paragraph is "a miracle took place right before our eyes".
As a rule there are four basic transformational devices used in TF literature. These are surgical, magical, technological and biological. Magical TF's can be as unlimited as a writer's imagination, of course, while surgical TF's are almost entirely confined to TG stories. Biological TF's, as epitomized by the well-known "Martian Flu" of the "Blind Pig" universe, generally operate under the guise of contagious diseases. Technological TF's, however, are far more complex and difficult to work with. Creating a technological TF device demands not only that the writer at least deal in passing with the incredibly complex issues of bio-engineering, but also that he seamlessly place these issues within the context of the society that produced such tech. When a writer attempts to write a story with technological TF's, in other words, he has by definition set out to write a work of science fiction rather than one of fantasy; therefore, in order to produce a credible work he simply must meet the very exacting strictures of a good SF tale. This requires discipline, discipline, discipline! However, the results can exceed in scope and impact any other form of artistic expression on the planet, at least in my opinion.
Genuinely superb SF is in my opinion rarer than hen's teeth; the vast majority of what I find on the shelves for sale today in fact makes me want to gag. While there seemingly have been almost as many articles written on the elements of good SF as there have been truly excellent SF tales, and many of these articles make excellent points, I have yet to read any of these "authoritative" pieces that really hits the nail on the head regarding the factor that produces real quality work of the sort that transcends the boundary between simple storytelling and true art. And that boundary, of course, is that the story must make a miracle, a real, genuine, honest-to-God miracle, take place right in front of your eyes.
This is one hell of a challenge for any writer, of course. Ninety-nine or more percent of all SF consists of the simple rehash of old ideas or plots that have been done a million times before. Yet the truly great ones have managed it -- from time to time the impossible has been accomplished and the reader led gently forth to touch the living face of God. It has been done, and can be done again. Heinlein did it in Orphans of the Sky, the very first and original tale about a generation ship lost in space so long that its inhabitants have forgotten they are space travelers. "The universe was three miles long!" declares the blurb on a paperback edition of this work that I own, and for once the blurb-writer has captured the inherent truth of the novel. The universe was only three miles long for the travelers, because the inhabitants had turned inward to superstition and violence instead of outwards towards science and reason. Their universe literally shrank to nothing as their minds closed, and when the viewpoint character finally rejects his religion and looks out upon the naked stars in all their majesty... <shiver> There simply is no more powerful use of metaphor in all of SF. None!
Arthur C. Clarke has taken his readers to see God as well, not once but many times. Perhaps my personal favorite is the story of Alvin of Lorraine in the classic Against the Fall of Night. Alvin lives in a world where humanity is in serious cultural decline, where risk-taking and exploration and even the mere idea of there being anything new or worthwhile to be found in the universe is simply unheard of. He explores the glory of Man's past, and rediscovers a heritage that reaches far beyond the mundane boundaries of his people. (Clarke later rewrote and expanded this novel as The City and The Stars, but I have always preferred the plainer and less embellished original version.)
Another more modern writer who has taken me to unexplored heights is Greg Bear. His Anvil of Stars (sequel to the also-excellent Forge of God) is possibly the single most depressing work I have ever read in my life, yet it is glorious and miraculous nonetheless. It is the tale of a group of children sent forth in an alien-provided starship to avenge themselves upon a people who have utterly destroyed Earth and almost all of mankind. Their society's whole purpose for existence is to seek out and kill these evil beings, and as they get closer and closer to their goal their interpersonal relationships warp more and more out of true until we find ourselves utterly repulsed by the stark, mindless hatred and bloodlust of a tribe of revenge-seeking primitive savages and, even worse, recognizing our own reflections much too clearly in their world. In the end it becomes clear that in order to put paid to the planet-killers (who have killed many other worlds besides ours and will continue to kill others unless stopped), several idyllic and totally innocent races must be exterminated as well: there is simply no other way. Among all the peoples and civilizations who have faced this dilemma, guess who alone is bloodthirsty and heartless enough to do what is needful to bring about victory?
Most articles about writing in general, including those about writing SF, tend to focus on the craftsmanship aspects of writing. Don't repeat words too often, they tell you. Show, don't tell. Use good grammar, and remember always that the all-powerful and all-knowing Bill Gates put a spellchecker on your computer for a reason. But what they will not tell you is that to truly transcend the limits of reality in your reader's mind, you must find and develop a core idea so powerful that it is analogous to plugging a thirty-amp lead into God himself. Even more, your execution of this idea must be in harmonious sympathy with the concept, so that your symbols sing and your metaphors match the greater flow of the tale. I would submit that the technological approach to transformation gives you far and away the greatest opportunity to make this happen, though I could not for the life of me tell you exactly why I think this is so. Perhaps it is that the discipline of thought required by the writing of true SF as opposed to fantasy brings about a pleasing sense of synchronicity on a subconscious level, or perhaps it is just that when writing about advanced tech we simply have to plan our works better and more carefully. But it is true nonetheless, at least in my experience. With almost no exceptions, every TF story I have ever read that could properly be described as being art rather than simple storytelling has been solidly based upon the thoughtful use of a technological-type TF.
So, here is my challenge to you. Make me feel the same way that I felt while watching those spectral planes wafting so effortlessly overhead in Memphis, and I will gladly read your works of fiction forevermore. Make a miracle happen in front of my very eyes, and I will be your slobbering fanboy from now until the end of time. For there was something far more magical than mere magic about those planes lined up so endlessly, a sight that even a few short decades ago was absolutely unimaginable and which would have been regarded as the purest of science fiction. TF tech is inherently no more impossible nor unbelievable, I would submit, than Federal Express. Technology is perhaps the most quintessentially human thing in all of the universe, the aspect of ourselves that most clearly defines us as a species. Nothing based in mere material reality is more clearly proof of who and what we are deep down inside than is our tech. I challenge you to take this thing called tech and run wild with it, to wrestle with this most difficult and most rewarding of TF story types and write a true science-fiction-type TF story with all the discipline and limitations that this style of work implies. After all, you never know. In stylistic limitations you may find true freedom, and in the attempting of something truly difficult you may find inner resources that you never even suspected you had.
Who knows? You might just make a miracle happen.