by Phil Geusz
©2002 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
First and foremost, I want to see that recognition goes where it is due. Mark Van Sciver was the creator of The Blind Pig (TBP), the subject of this issue of TSAT. In my opinion, we transformation writers owe Mark an enormous debt of gratitude for creating the Pig. In doing so, in my opinion, he is responsible for creating far and away one of the most vibrant, flexible, long-lived and downright wonderful story universes ever. My hat is off to Mark, wherever he is, and I sincerely hope that someday he finds it in his heart to return to his TBP roots. I had the privilege of being on the TSA mailing list with him for perhaps the last month or so of his tenure there, and he was an invaluable asset to the group as well as one of the most creative minds among us. This having been said (and this, after all, being a column about the writing of TF stories) let's take a moment to look at what TBP offers to the rest of us writers.
On the surface, TBP is a fairly straightforward sort of fictional universe. It is the story of what happens to humanity after a biocontaminated space probe returns to Earth bearing the "Martian Flu", a virus with properties that violate the most basic laws of nature. The capital-F Flu, as it is commonly referred to, is both highly infectious and highly lethal. In a small percentage of its victims, however, it produces truly incredible symptoms such as changes in physical form. Even more bizarrely, however, it can produce 'impossible' victims whose bodies are not subject to the normal rules of time and energy and space, or who become living inanimate objects, crossing the boundary between what lives and what does not. The possibilities are endless, the backstories are fascinating, and the potential for new tales unlimited.
In my opinion, what a truly successful TBP story does is to put a human face on these very abstract concepts. Discussing the Flu theoretically is one thing, while describing a housewife who is bravely trying to deal with the fact that her son is now a flowerpot is another entirely. Even more profound are tales written from the flowerpot's point of view, where the son's new life and new potentials for future growth are studied and explored in detail, and the emotional tragedy and wonder of a human being forced to adapt and develop in wholly new and never-before-experienced ways are filled out and given life by a skilled writer. Done even very badly, TBP stories tend to be readable. Done well, they are exquisite indeed.
I've written more TBP than I can easily recall. In fact, I don't quite remember the timing of my very first TBP tale, Refugee. I do recall, however, that I either had just finished or else was still writing my first serious work (Transmutation Now!) and had also just discovered IRC for the first time ever. Brian Coe encouraged me to write Pig while we were chatting there, and it is no coincidence at all that the person who holds the door of the Pig open for my TBP avatar and actively encourages him to enter is none other than the good doctor himself. Indeed, it was the TBP stories of Dr. Coe and Jon Sleeper that led me to sign up for the TSA mailing list in the first place.
Today, reading Refugee makes me want to cringe in places. The editing is terrible and the storyline ineptly handled. However, I still treasure the tale greatly because it was a major growth experience for me as a writer, and a herald of even more growth to come. Within weeks it led me to write Green as Grass, a mediocre piece which in turn compelled me within twenty-four hours of completion to write a mirror story told from the viewpoint of another character entitled Butch and The Blade. Butch is one of two or three works whose writing I will never, ever forget. It's a filthy, nasty, dirty story about a filthy, nasty, dirty protagonist who kills people. I discovered a whole new side of myself writing Butch; indeed, I nearly vomited when I was done, sickened that such a vile creature as him had sprung from my own head. It was Butch that led directly to my exploration of the subject of true evil, as reflected in Death Is Real (about which more is to come), The Edelweiss Killer, and my novel Corpus Lupus (which is not a TBP story). I learned something important about myself writing Butch, and this learning will color everything that I will ever write and the person that I must always be from that day forward.
Death Is Real was another major turning point for me as an author, and remains among the handful of works that I am most proud of. It was a very conscious attempt to metaphorize and explore the shadowy borderline between what is alive and what is not (viruses, for example, are clearly both dead and alive, thus their inclusion in the plotline). A friend who used to be a bounty hunter had just told me a terrible true story about a murder that he had once stumbled upon while chasing a bail-jumper (the Drano killing, sadly enough) and I'll admit that the movie Seven was a major influence as well. So I decided to try and make Death almost a character by making the killings particularly terrible and memorable in the pulp tradition, the 'Butch' part of my writer's mind dancing gleefully amid the carnage back in his nasty little corner. It was 'Butch' that really powered the work, and the repetitive theme of individuals hovering in the never-never land between death and life that gave it its sense of horror. Over and over again, the alert reader will note, there occurs situation after situation where the fuzziness of the line between what is dead and what is not (and sometimes between what is real and what is not) is slammed right in the reader's face. 'Subtle' is not part of my usual game plan, and Death did more to create any sort of distinctive style that I may have evolved over the years than any other work that I've ever done. I'm damned proud of Death, and 'Butch' still loves it when someone writes me to say that they are still having nightmares years later...
Since this is a column about writing, I'll also share with you a few of the not-so-nice things that can come of writing in shared universes. There are most definitely some extra pitfalls to be avoided. Of all the TBP stories I've ever penned, Death has proven to be the most controversial and troublesome. I first posted Death to the then-new TFWF mailing list in parts, and if memory serves everything went just fine right up until I got about halfway through. Then, seemingly, the world ended.
When you write in a shared universe, there are boundaries that you are not permitted to cross. Some of these are obvious and well documented; for example, in TBP, no one is allowed to find a cure for the Flu. Others, however, are by the very nature of things vague and foggy matters of personal judgment. In Death I had several very deadly and far-reaching transformations occur which my fellow Pig authors considered to be (according to which individual you spoke to) illegal, not in the best interests of the story universe, immoral, or even ethically obscene. (This latter was quite an achievement, considering the fundamental nature of much TF fiction.) Even though the TF's in question were not central to the plot I rather stubbornly held my ground, as I felt that their cosmic implications and all-encompassing nature were important to the theme and integrity of the tale as a whole. Some authors took my side, while others tried to reason with me. Finally I posted to the tale to the TSA-List as a non-canon TBP work, and behind the scenes wrote Mark Van Sciver himself to see what he thought about the issue. Much to my surprise, he objected to none of the points raised on the TFWF by those who thought I was wrong. Rather he objected to the speed at which I had my transformations take place, which was not fixable without changing the entire storyline. Very reluctantly he 'bought' the tale as is, because the problem clearly could not be fixed but he liked the story nonetheless. To my knowledge there are no hard feelings over this whole ordeal, but there very easily could have been had things gone just little differently or had any one of us been less than polite while discussing what was a surprisingly highly emotional matter. I consider the whole affair to be a near-miss, flame-war wise, and I remain grateful in the extreme that we were all able to be civil.
This is not the only controversy that I've ever experienced while writing TBP. Another issue that I've definitely been 'in the wrong' on is character usage. Especially in my earlier works, I was pretty free and loose about using the characters of others. This was because I really didn't understand the personal connection that many people feel towards their analogs. Also, I didn't appreciate just how many people actually read the works posted on the TSA. You can almost tell how old one of my TBP works is by how many references it contains to other author-characters. In recent years I've made it a habit not to mention anyone outside of my own exclusive authorial control at all, for fear of either offending someone or else because I want the character to behave in a highly specific manner that their owners might not agree with. People have told me that this violates the basic operating norms and principles of the shared universe concept, but I do not agree. To me, the purpose of a story universe is to generate excellent works of fiction. If this method works for me, then why should I not continue to use it? At least I've been stepping on far fewer toes of late...
There's one more point to be made regarding Death and its sequels, The Edelweiss Killer, From the Depths, and others. They are written from the point of view of Ken Bronski, a detective who bears little or no resemblance to me as a human being. He is my second viewpoint character in the TBP universe, and I created him after a careful examination of the universe rules revealed that there was absolutely no regulation requiring me to limit myself to one character or to name that character after myself. I've had a lot of fun and done a lot of growing as a writer with Ken, and I encourage other Pig writers who feel that their character is 'written out' to try introducing a new one and starting over. After all, why not?
Another TBP work that meant a lot to me was Graduation Day. In this story, TBP Phil is presented with six 'impossible' cases in his capacity as a vocational councilor. What makes this tale so special to me is the way that I went about writing it. What I tried to do was to put myself in Phil's non-shoes (he goes barefoot) by creating and actually posting to a wide audience six fairly realistic problems for him to solve. While I'd like to be able to claim that I'd solved none of these problems mentally before posting, the truth of the matter is that I had two worked out, but with respect to the other four, I had absolutely no more idea than my character did about what to do with them. One of the 'unsolved' cases was a bat-person, and I literally drove myself and everyone around me nuts trying to work out a way out of his dilemma, each day turning up the pressure on myself (the same kind of pressure that Phil was experiencing due to his short deadline) even further by posting another story part without resolving the issue. I kept putting it off and putting it off, just like Phil would have to do in his life until he could find an answer. Indeed, in many story parts I had him despairing of ever finding a way out, just like I was doing in my own 'real-life' universe. Finally a chance discussion with Xodiac on IRC combined with a totally accidental mention of James Bond in an earlier story part resolved the dilemma for me in a way that I found most satisfying. Phil was proud, and I was proud too. Never has a character ever come so much to life inside of me!
Four other TBP stories also merit quick mentions here, in my opinion. Midnight, With Stars, Tinsel and Golden Years all each came to me in individual blinding flashes of inspiration, each time leaving me literally frozen where I stood as the whole story, down almost to the last word of dialogue, flowed into my mind from whatever mysterious place stories originate. What writer worthy of the name would not cherish such an experience? Hard Wiring also came to me in a flash, but not nearly so pleasantly. I wrote that one shortly after my divorce, and to this day I recognize that it badly needs editing. However, whenever I look at or even just think of the story for too long I literally cannot stop weeping long enough to do any work on it. I wrote Wiring in little fits and bursts while bawling my eyes out, and all I have to do is remember what that night was like to begin crying all over again. (I just took a break and shed some more tears.) That tale runs very deep within me indeed.
Recently not one but several people have told me that they think TBP is mined out, a 'dead' universe. Respectfully, I would submit that this is nonsense. TBP's span encompasses the entire planet and every nation and culture on it, not just one bar on one street in one city in one nation. It can deal with virtually any aspect of the human experience, and open any window of the soul. There are whole new vistas absolutely begging to be discovered by the first writer to come along and really take a serious look at what is available. No one has yet to my knowledge done a really serious story about a chronomorph to date; my own Golden Years just barely scratches the surface of the subject. Most of the religious and mystical aspects of the Martian Flu remain totally unexplored; how, for example, does a minister reconcile the God of mercy with some of what the Flu is capable of? How does someone explain to a mentally handicapped man why God made him into a bunny rabbit? How do you break the news to someone that he is now aging backwards, and that his date of death (unless something else gets him first) is predictable almost to the minute? (And how does that knowledge affect his life? And the lives of those around him?) There's a TBP writing experience every bit as intense as my own Death Is Real episode just waiting for the first writer to come along who seeks to deal with these issues in a mature and realistic way. Indeed, as of this writing I very much want to write a TBP story of my own for the fiction section of this very magazine but have had no luck. I've not had any ideas yet, but who knows? Maybe I'll try to bring one of the above to life myself...
You see, that's the most beautiful thing of all about TBP. The hardest work, that of justifying the transformation in a realistic and believable way, is already done for you. All you have to do as an author is look at the inevitable consequences of it all and, even more importantly, what it all means to the characters involved. This is the real meat-and-potatoes of any quality tale, and TBP lets you focus on what really matters while leaving all the 'impossible' parts sitting by the roadside. The reader is ready and receptive, or they would not be reading "Pig" to start with. What writer could ask any more of any universe?
TBP is far from dead. It is alive and vibrant and still just a baby compared to what I think that it will someday be. Viva TBP, and Viva Mark Van Sciver!