Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mark Dreizig - The Necropsy

Leatherwing is right. "Mark Dreizig" was published in 1998, in pretty much the same form as you've read it here, except for a few typos that I took the liberty of correcting when transcribing it. Nonetheless it took me nearly ten years to get this one published, and I doubt it would have been published at all if I had not at that time recently won the Philip K. Dick Award, so I consider this one to be an instructive failure.

It's not so much a failure as a story. It's mostly pretty good in terms of character, plot, and flow. True, I'm not entirely happy with the ending. I feel I left a lot of things up in the air, and it should have been longer, although I'm not sure how much longer. As it stands the plot weakens at the end: an awful lot of serendipity goes into setting up the ending, and there were backstory things explained in earlier drafts that were cut in the final draft in the interests of brevity, that perhaps should not have been cut after all.

Bobby and Pudge's sudden bravery at the end? No, that wasn't what happened. What happened was that they got lost in the swamp, wandered around for hours, and blundered onto the scene just as Dreizig was taking aim at the HK, thus spoiling his shot. What came after that was the way they told the story once they got back to town, partly because that's what they saw from their point of view, and partly because what 12-year-old boy wants to admit to being scared, stupid, and just plain lucky?

That's another of the things I didn't quite pull off in this story: the attempt to tell the ending from both Jerry's and Pudge and Bobby's point of view. Pudge and Bobby — and through them, everyone else in town — have what they think is the story, and Jerry, Dreizig, and Jerry's mother are the only ones who know the real story, which they must keep secret. The scar on the butt is a telling detail. It ain't exactly the red badge of courage, y'know. If you're charging into battle, how do you wind up wounded in the buttocks? Like father, like son.

Another thing that doesn't quite work is that I was trying to give the HK-211 an erratic lethality. It's been sitting out exposed to the weather for 12 years and its systems are failing, but somehow, I never managed to communicate this idea in a way that worked. Readers, conditioned by generations of Terminator movies, expect it still to be remorselessly and effectively deadly, just limited in some more obvious way. Maybe if I'd given it a limp...

This ties into another idea that I failed to communicate. Bobby is dead — no, wait, he isn't dead. A lot of readers have complained about this surprise at the ending; that they felt cheated, somehow. You have to remember that Jerry is limited to what he sees and hears and the assumptions he makes. SF readers in particular tend to assume first-person narrators always tell the truth and are always in full possession of all the facts, and when this turns out not to be the case — especially if they've grown to like the narrator — they tend to get quite upset. I think, if Jerry had simply been not so certain Bobby was dead, I could have gotten away with it.

All of these things are fairly minor and correctible, though. The big problem with this story isn't even in the story, except for one throway line of dialogue. And to explain this big problem, I must take a digression off into theory.

As regular readers know, I have long held to The Monomaniacal Gonzo Loon theory of writing: that all really successful genre writers basically have one single Big Idea, which they stumble onto early in their careers, seize onto with the tenacity of a pit-bull, and spend the rest of their entire careers strip-mining for stories. Whether this is a fair characterization is a topic for another time; it may not reflect a paucity of the writer's imagination so much as the happy accident of finding something the fans really like, and only later discovering that you are trapped for all time in a positive feedback loop.

Never mind that. Back when I was first beginning my writing career, I made a deliberate effort to come up with a Big Idea that I could spin out into lots of stories, and with luck, novels. My first big idea was a flop: it was a sprawling space-opera saga that ultimately seemed to have nothing to say beyond the fact that Star Trek is poorly thought-out neosocialist techno-utopian twaddle. (Which is an idea that does bear repeating frequently, but good luck selling any books containing that idea in the science fiction market.)

My second big idea was one I didn't even recognize as a Big Idea at the time: "Cyberpunk." If only I'd realized then that the fans were deeply fond of the cartoon violence in anime and manga, looked at computers as akin to voodoo, and would only stare at you blankly if you spoke of things like "compilers" and "bandwidth" —

Ah, but we've talked that one to death before. So let's leave it dead.

My third big idea was my attempt to do some really serious futurecasting and sci-fi world-building. I put a lot of time into it — at the time, circa 1985 or so, I was working second-shift as a mainframe programmer/operator, in theory porting a ghastly mess of Singer ABOL code to Honeywell COBOL, but mostly just launching batch jobs and waiting for them to crash and need to be resuscitated. So, given that I was living the life of Walter MTTI, I had a lot of time in which to think, in short spurts in-between catastrophic interruptions, and so I decided to spend that time applying what I knew of economics, politics, technology, and demographics to developing some picture of what it would really be like to live in the next century.

What I ended up with was not encouraging.

Mind you, I did this in 1985, and somewhere around here I've still got all kinds of hand-drawn notes, charts, and maps (on wide-carriage greenbar paper, no less), laying the whole thing out.

The Soviet Union, I figured, would not make it past year 2000, and would collapse because of its own internal contradictions and economic failures. It would not go out with a bang but with a whimper, and the resulting power vacuum would lead to a cascade of regional wars from the Balkans through the 'stans. (This, the astute reader might note, is the background for the Breakup Wars MRPG that Mikey is playing in the beginning of Cyberpunk.)

Japan, I figured, was right on the verge of becoming the England of the 21st century; a bankrupt island nation kept alive by dreams of past glories. There would be some de facto Asian economic colonization of the western coast of North America, but they wouldn't move far outside of the major metroplexes, and we certainly wouldn't end up with anything like the hybrid Nippo-American culture so beloved by 1980s science fiction writers.

As far as the United States was concerned, the breakup of the Soviet Union would be no cause for joy, because by 2020 the United States would effectively become the New Soviet Union, with an oppresively socialistic government and all the benefits of a modern omnipresent surveillance technology the likes of which the Kremlin bosses could only dream. This in turn would lead to regional autonomy movements of varying degrees of virulence (which, the astute reader might again note, show up as part of the backstory in Rebel Moon), culminating, circa 2040, in my Big Idea: The Rising, and Post-American History. By 2040, I figured, the "United States" would effectively have ceased to exist, and the North American continent would be covered by a Balkanized patchwork of regional republics, monarchies, thugocracies, and protectorates.

There would still be something that called itself the United States of America, true, but it would be a black Islamic nation and its territory would consist of the area roughly bounded by lines running from New York, through Detroit to Chicago, to St. Louis, to Washington DC, and back to New York. Minneapolis would be the furthest west outpost of civilization, kept alive only by a tenuous lifeline from Chicago, and everything else between the Mississippi River and the Cascades in the north and the Sierra Nevadas in the south would be "Indian Country," to be entered by civilized people only at great personal risk.

That, in a very tiny and highly compressed nutshell, is the idea behind "Mark Dreizig" and After the Rising. The particular stories I was interested in telling were the tales of the children growing up on the Great Plains region of this world, for whom all of this is normal and The Rising is something that happened to their parents' generation, and so these were the stories I started to write.

The idea turned out to be absolutely unsellable.

I should have picked up the clue when I was pitching the idea to some book editor at a reception at some con out East, and he very kindly said, "Look, kid. Nobody in New York gives a shit about the future of the Midwest." At the least, I should have had the wits to put this story of a failed revolt against an oppressive central government on Quoxnarg IV, or made the much-feared government soldiers reptiles or insectoids or something like that. Or maybe, if I'd made the oppressive central government a right-wing Christian theocracy, I could have gotten away with setting it in 21st Century North America.

But I set the story here, and made some slightly recognizable extension of the current Federal government the object of hate and fear, and most of all, I included one throwaway line that obliquely suggested the possibility that Federal soldiers of African-American descent might be sexually abusing young boys in re-education camps —

And for ten years, that made this story unsellable. I don't have a log of when exactly I wrote it; it's so old it predates my story-logging system. I lost track of all the magazines I submitted it to, and got snotty rejections back from. It wasn't until 1996 that an editor I knew quite well finally took pity on me and explained what it was that made this story so utterly, horribly, unacceptable.

A year later, I sold it to an original hardcover anthology. The editor of that book must not have gotten the memo. But the anthology only sold 300 copies in hardcover, and was never reissued in paperback.

From time to time, I still think of After the Rising, and catch myself thinking, "Maybe, it's worth revisiting..."

Nah. Screw that. From now on, I'm setting all my stories on Quoxnarg IV.