Thoughts on To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1972
Science fiction is often said to be defined by the phrase “what if?” The genre is speculative by its nature, and to my mind, that’s its greatest strength, the reason it thrives to this day. The human imagination being the boundless thing it is, as long as we ask questions, as long as we speculate on what was and what might yet be, science fiction will have a place and a role to play. That’s as true now as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when authors started reaching past bubble helmets and Flash Gordon to explore the possibilities of being human using the question “What if?”
Philip Jose Farmer’s novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go asks a big one. What if, in the future, someone found they had the capacity to restore to life every human being who had ever lived and died, over the entire course of history?
To Your Scattered Bodies Go is seen through the eyes of Sir Richard Francis Burton, starting with his death, and then his resurrection in the Riverworld, surrounded by billions of confused and terrified people from all the times of history. The world into which he has awakened is a strip of landscape bounded by impassible mountains and centered on an endless-seeming river. The story that unfolds along the banks of the Riverworld (another splendid example of a sci-fi “big, dumb object” or BDO), as these hordes of the recently revived cope with their sudden resurrection, is not flattering to the human species. People in general react badly, and in many cases violently, to the situation. No one has any idea why it’s all happening. The mysterious agency behind the event has taken pains (more or less) to provide food and supplies, but remains hidden, along with its motives. That these supplies include alcohol and narcotics doesn’t help the situation. Imagine millions of frightened people, with everything they’ve ever believed proven false and sure they have nothing to lose, with their inhibitions lowered or eliminated. It isn’t a pretty scene.
And centered in this is Burton, who I found to be one of the least sympathetic characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction of any genre. I don’t know much about the actual historical character, but in this novel he is presented as self-absorbed, obsessive, and at times painfully lacking in empathy. And as things go, Burton is one of the “good guys.” As years pass, his obsession with finding the source of the river, and an answer to the big question of why this is all happening, grows. Along the way, he and his allies uncover parts of the plot when they encounter agents of the race of beings responsible for the mass resurrection. From the hints and clues teased out in these scenes, the possible motives of the beings who have revived humanity and dumped it out into the Riverworld are glimpsed – and frankly, don’t make a great deal of sense. This was likely deliberate on the part of the author – keep in mind as you read this book, that it is the beginning of a series, and not everything is made clear in the end. However, for my tastes, the story arc of this first book needed to end less abruptly – or arbitrarily – to make this acceptable.
I first read To Your Scattered Bodies Go back in the late ‘70s. At that time, I was writing fiction in earnest for the first time, and seeking a broader knowledge of my favorite genre. I gathered and read award-winning material, using the fact of awards as a filter of sorts. By the time I picked up this one as part of that earlier endeavor, I’d read all but three of the novels I’ve reviewed for this series of essays. And this one stands out from that time as the first dud. (This time around, Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer got the first mild-mannered thumbs down.) It’s well-written, with some interesting characters drawn from real history. The concept is simply fantastic – no other way to put it. In the realm of “big, dumb objects,” only Niven’s amazing Ringworld beats it.
And yet, reading this short novel became, for me, a bit of a chore. First time around, it just left me with a neutral opinion. It won an award, I’d read it, and it became a data point of sorts. This time around I found myself more critical of the book. Burton’s suicidal obsession with exposing the agency behind it all, while understandable, didn’t really carry the story for me on its own. He passes through a world of people who are trying to cope, without Burton himself taking more than a passing glance at what was fast becoming a very complicated world. And there’s a constant element of despair as people try to pull together and make something out of the mess, only to fail as the resurrected villains of history attempt (with appalling rates of success) to reassert themselves. This unrelieved chaos – and never mind that the author has probably hit the nail on the head for the most part – wore me out. Surely someone, somewhere, built something that worked? But through all Burton’s explorations, we see only violent territorialism, with an emphasis on the strange connection Burton makes (unwillingly) with the diseased mind of Hermann Göring. I got what the author was saying, but found it overstated. At times, the word “cynical” came to mind as I read the book. I was left with the distinct impression that the author didn’t have a high opinion of humankind.
I have no problem understanding how this book garnered enough votes to take top honors in 1972. It’s a hell of a tale, on the face of it. That it doesn’t currently suit my tastes tells you only what I thought of the story, and does not speak to its quality. The story is well-told in terms of prose and technique, and certainly had for me enough engaging elements to keep me reading. But in that ultimate test of how the first book in a series succeeds or fails for a given reader, I feel no inclination to carry on. One trip down to the river, for this reader, was quite enough.
A while back, in “The Process, Part One”, I very briefly discussed matters to do with imagination and where story ideas come from. What follows illustrates one way the tales I tell can get started. It isn’t always a daydream that points the way to the destination. On this particular occasion – and it has happened before – I had to sleep on it.
I’m currently under treatment for hypertension, and one of the medications I take has, as one of its few side effects, the tendency on my part to have “lucid” dreams. And they really are lucid. More than once I’ve not so much woken from such a dream as segued from the dreamtime into the dimly lit real world of the bedroom, early in the morning. Balanced between the two I am, for just a moment, convinced of the reality of both. All too often this segue comes as a relief, as the realization comes that it really was just a dream, and I don’t need to come up with a resolution for whatever awkward situation the dreamtime concocted for me that night. And these dreams are, far more often than not, weird. Some are seriously weird and even disturbing.
Sometimes they’re something more, posing puzzles that linger into the waking world, puzzles that I find myself thinking through whether it makes much sense to do so or not. Like the one last night, during which I was in the midst of an alien invasion. It was sort of a cross between the films Independence Day and Skyline. Strange machines in the sky, people in a panic, buildings collapsing under an avalanche of inexplicable lighting effects – you know, the standard Hollywood stuff.
Weird, yes, but after the fact, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that the dream took the form it did, considering how much of my time is taken up by reading and writing fantastical fiction. And I’ve enjoyed my share of alien invasion fare over the years. There was an oppressive quality to the dream and the waking-world residue that reminded me of the film Skyline, a movie I actually dislike because of its realistic hopelessness. Yes, faced with such a situation, it is unlikely humanity would prevail, but who wants that for entertainment? The aliens would surely have their way with us. All of which begs the question of why they’d want to have their way with us. Science fiction writers have, since the days of H.G. Wells, dreamt up a variety of motivations, the majority of which are most likely to be nonsense. Resources? Living space? Women? Please…
That’s the puzzle that lingered after the nightmare anxieties faded. It’s not a new question; I’ve heard and seen numerous readers and writers of science fiction raise it in the past. For some reason, this morning it was my time to tackle it, all because a weird dream triggered that train of thought. So – a species capable of traveling through the vastness between the stars would surely be able to tap the raw materials of the universe as needed. Why would they need to come here and make a fuss? There would have to be something about this Earth of ours they desired, something that didn’t accrete routinely from the interstellar dust from which stars and worlds are formed. Skyline was actually on the right track, in that regard, with the aliens after something you’d only find on a living world like Earth. (The way they employed their plot device struck me as being as biologically absurd as aliens wanting human women, but still…) Yes, it would have to be something very rare, if not unique.
There would also need to be a compelling reason to acquire that “something.”
And just like that, I had an answer. A thing we have here that might provide a motivation for aliens to come here, and a reason for them to want what we have, although perhaps not with hostile intent. In fact, there almost certainly wouldn’t be any hostilities. And with that answer, that idea, I found myself making note of a new place to go, and a trail in need of cutting to the destination that is a story’s climax, to reuse that metaphor I apply so often when I write about story telling.
I got up, went into the space I call an office, and jotted down some notes. Not sure when I’ll get to this one – it has a few competitors for my writing time – but the idea has been safely recorded, the trailhead marked for future exploration, and it will someday become either a long short story, or a novella. Because now that I’ve glimpsed this new story, I’ve got to write it. For me, there’s really no choice about it.
Crazy, perhaps, that it came about as it did. And yet, it just works that way, sometimes.
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1971
World-building is a term used to describe what science fiction and fantasy authors do to create the setting for the story being told. Any work of fiction requires some degree of world-building, of course, though in a murder mystery or a work of historical fiction this can be accomplished by describing the real world. In science fiction and fantasy, the world of the story may have few connections with the real world, and quite likely would have no connection to it at all. We often build worlds “from scratch,” so to speak. The “world” built for the story sometimes provides little more than a backdrop, but more often than not it becomes a powerful tool for moving the plot forward. It may even be the central element of the plot to begin with. To say that this is the case in Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning novel Ringworld would be an understatement.
Ringworld is a classic example – perhaps the best-known example – of world-building that results in the so-called Big Dumb Object (BDO). The first use of the phrase is usually attributed to British writer Roz Kaveney, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It was apparently intended as a tongue-in-cheek expression, but science fiction is a genre not afraid of playfully making fun of itself, so the phrase is now used on a regular basis. The idea is that you have a plot element, and often it’s the plot element, take the form of something mind-bogglingly huge and complex. The BDO is frequently (though not exclusively) of a nonhuman origin, and the humans who discover it generally experience a serious “holy crap!” moment when they do so. Then they begin to investigate, and therein lies the tale. The BDO can be done to great effect, as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and John Varley’s Titan. And of course, there’s the ever popular “That’s no moon!” – the Death Star of the Star Wars Trilogy. Science fiction has an impressive collection of BDOs, but few – the river world in Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go comes to mind – can compete with the Ringworld for sheer scale.
The artificial world Niven builds for this novel is beyond the range of the superlatives of the English language. It’s an astronomically large band big enough to wrap around its star at about the distance that Earth orbits the sun. Its foundation is an impervious substance that defies analysis by the story’s heroes. This ring structure is broad enough that oceans larger and deeper than anything on Earth can be found within, and standing in the middle of it, you can’t see all the way to either side. Big Dumb Object, indeed, although I’d debate the “dumb” part in this case, tongue-in-cheek or not.
The Ringworld is one of the grandest examples of world-building you can find in science fiction, and Niven puts it to marvelous use in the tale of the first investigation performed on the object. He drops a curious cast of characters in the now decrepit Ringworld – the builders’ civilization having collapsed thousands of years ago. Two are human, a man who has lived two centuries and “seen it all,” and a young woman born lucky, which is a story of its own. With them travel two aliens, one of the warlike Kzin, and a cowardly two-headed Puppeteer who happens to be the leader of their expedition, which is soon stranded on the Ringworld. To find a way off, they must cross to one of the edges, a journey that involves crossing a distance that would encompass all the continents on Earth. Along the way many things are revealed, of the Ringworld itself and the universe of which it is a part, and of the characters and their respective species.
For fans of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, the Ringworld adventure, and its sequels, form a sort of hub. So much of this tale touches on other works of Niven from that universe that you have the pleasant feeling of things tied together into a network of storytelling. And yet, for someone who stumbles onto Ringworld without prior Known Space experience, the novel stands on its own quite well.
I’ve reacted to previously read Hugo Award novels a number of different ways since I started this project. There have been numerous revelations of ideas missed, and disappointments that tales haven’t withstood the test of time. This rereading of an old favorite has started an episode of rediscovery. Ringworld brought me back to a sci-fi universe that I enjoyed immensely once upon a time, and a long time ago at that. So many comments and asides from the characters invoked half-remembered tales in the same universe that I find myself pulling old paperbacks off shelves, and hunting down copies of Ringworld sequels that I never got around to reading when they were new. Aside from the Hugo award winners for these reviews, I don’t reread fiction very often. There’s so much new (and new to me) to read! But I’m going to make an exception here, and revisit in a big way one of the first multi-book sci-fi universes to ever grab my attention.
It’s a common joke, among writers at least, that part of the reason we do what we do is that we somehow never outgrew having imaginary friends. We don’t, of course (maybe I should say “usually”) call the imaginary people inhabiting the stories we tell “friends,” but we do get to know them pretty well. How they come into being, and sometimes surprise us, is a less than straightforward process, one that varies from author to author. For me, the characters often become companions of sorts along the trail I follow, on the journey of discovery that results in the story I’m trying to tell and in which they have their entire existence.
There’s always a character, sometimes two or three, right there when I start cutting the trail. The character (or characters) appearing on the first page usually figured prominently in whatever bit of daydream sparked the story idea in the first place. Nameless, sometimes genderless at the very beginning, these beings have an experience in my imagination and a story starts to unfold. Something has happened to them that must be explained, with suitable embellishments. That first bit of daydreaming usually evolves rapidly, if it takes on a life of its own at all. (Not all of them do so.) By the time I’ve thought it through far enough to establish the trailhead, these vaguely realized characters have usually acquired names and genders, as well as a general appearance – height, weight, skin and hair color, and so forth. In a matter of a few pages, personalities begin to emerge, as I experiment with how to show them as individuals, usually through their interactions with each other.
I’m in control of this, as I am of all other aspects of the process of writing fiction. I don’t, however, sit down and sketch out a dossier for each character; it’s a more organic process than that. The background that I invent to explain each personality evolves with the story, being shaped by it and, to a degree, shaping it as I extend the trail ever further. Along the way I often find myself describing things or creating dialog that wasn’t part of the plan a few hours or moments ago. It’s as if the characters, having evolved to a certain point, develop some sort of emergent property, a degree of self-will – hence the jokes about characters “speaking” to us, or taking charge. They don’t, really, in my case; the effect is the result of a certain logic involving what I’ve already done to create a character, which then dictates how they should respond in a particular situation, which in turn can cause me to reshape the story for a better fit. Being an organic, evolutionary process that isn’t always operating on a completely conscious level, the results often surprise me. I’ll add elements to characters, put words into their mouths, thoughts in their heads, all of it on the fly, and then set them into situations that call for a reaction. How would this person react to such circumstances? What would make sense, at that point in the story? And – more challenging still – does it still make sense in the context of how they started out back at the trailhead? The answers to these questions can lead to significant revisions, as changes propagate forward and backward through the story, suggesting more depth to the characters and changing the direction of the trail I’m blazing.
Think of it as a form of co-evolution. As characters develop ever stronger and clearer personalities, possibilities suggest themselves. All too often these possibilities, which occur to me late in the first draft, would be best applied nearer the beginning. The story, as a result, evolves as a whole, the characters along with it. Characters can (and should!) change over the course of a story, as a part of the story itself. But they require a degree of consistency, as well. As companions along that trail to story’s end, this can make them seem a touch psychotic at times, because their existence is equally valid at both ends of the first draft, even when the ends don’t match. And it has to match. I take who they are when I’m done and tweak them at the beginning to make sure the whole thing makes sense. If these imaginary friends of mine were in any way real, they’d experience moments of deep confusion, when I clean up the trail we’ve cut together. They might not recognize themselves from one draft to the next.
An imaginary friend with an identity crisis. That could only happen to a writer!
Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970
Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.
I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.
This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.
In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.
There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.
It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.
When I pulled The Way of Leyra’an from the file, my intention was to go through it to check for typos and such, and clean it up for self-publication as soon as possible. While doing so, I continued my investigation of the so-called “indie” author movement. What I learned convinced me that simply cleaning the manuscript up and turning it loose probably wouldn’t do. I needed outside input on the story, its qualities and shortcomings. Professional editors had been impressed by the book, but that wasn’t exactly a critique. Hiring an editor was not an option. My employment situation had become precarious and I had good reason to believe I would soon be unemployed. (I was, unfortunately, proven correct in this.) I needed to set money aside, not spend it. I latched onto the concept of beta readers, and pondered how to make use of it. All the while, I read through The Way of Leyra’an, correcting errors and making notes as ideas came to mind.
At the same time, I pulled together some amateur astronomy material I’d written for, but never posted to, my favorite astronomy forum. With some work I was able to blend it all together into a short memoir of my experiences as a star gazer in my teens, and how I came to pick up the pastime again as an adult. The idea had occurred to use this small book to test the waters of self-publishing. It became Mr. Olcott’s Skies – An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession. While I revisited the novel and began to first revise and then completely rewrite it, I used the memoir to learn what I needed to know in order to actually make a book. You know, those little things like fonts and formatting, cover art and design, product descriptions and tables of contents. (Actually, this part was a journey unto itself, and I found myself exploring things that I’d never considered would be part of the publishingg experience. That’s worth an essay to itself, someday.) The experience proved valuable down the road.
Meanwhile, The Way of Leyra’an became another book altogether. Rereading and reworking it, I discovered a different, and longer, story in the material. Cleaning up or even just expanding the book wouldn’t do. This was a trilogy, no doubt about it. On the day that this thought occurred – I’d been working with the original manuscript for more than a month – I decided to take the original idea and just start over. The Way of Leyra’an had served its purpose, and it was time to write The Luck of Han’anga. As I gained momentum and a story began to evolve, I remembered how deeply I’ve always enjoyed the process of making words do what I needed them to do. I remembered how good it felt to write. Life seemed less bleak and purposeless.
One day, while working on this new novel and enjoying that feeling of having gotten a scene just right, there occurred one of those moments of absolute clarity that we all experience a few times in our lives. I understood something and knew this thing absolutely. The gloom of the previous years was well and thoroughly banished, the lack of purpose completely expunged because I was writing again, and doing so not only with the intention of publishing but in full knowledge that it would be published. In that moment of clarity I understood the nightmares and the black moods. When something defines you, when that something exists as the very core of your being, as writing has always done for me, it’s more than merely disappointing to leave it aside and walk away. It is, for some of us at least, impossible to do so without harm. The moods and bad dreams were a manifestation of the mental and emotional damage being done by my attempt to walk away from writing. The new world of self-publishing came along just in time, and I’m pleased to say no permanent damage was done.
These feelings of relief, of finally being back on the right track, were heightened with the publication of my very first book. Mr. Olcott’s Skies was released in March of 2012 and was well-received. By then I’d completed a draft of The Luck of Han’anga and found some beta readers, all of them people I knew well enough to expect they would provide honest criticism. They did; some of it made me cringe a bit, but when I read what they said and re-examined the book, I couldn’t argue the points. So I made revisions and tried to learn from it all, with my eyes already on the next book. My wife went though the final manuscript and checked it for errors, resulting in a very clean copy and a much stronger ending for Book One. I applied the knowledge I’d gained publishing the memoir and hit the publish button, and the first book of the War of the Second Iteration series went live on June 7, 2012.
By then I was well into the first draft of Book Two, and was having trouble figuring out how to end it in a way that would allow the next book to wrap up the trilogy. I actually sat down at one point and sketched out a sort of timeline to illustrate roughly the sequence of events I needed in order to reach the final scene, which was already fixed in my mind. To my surprise the overall story arc fell into not three but five sub-arcs. This was more than I’d bargained for, but I accepted what the story was telling me and forged ahead. I couldn’t help myself. There was no angst or hand-wringing involved; I was having too much fun.
And so it went, through books Two, Three, and Four. The story evolved as I wrote it, and each book built on those that came before. I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of the details and maintain continuity. By Book Four I was rereading material in the previous volumes, in self-defense. I’d had no idea what I was getting into and the climb, while manageable, was pretty steep. Then it came time to write Book Five, and it was like heading straight for a wall.
How do you end a story that’s gone on for so long? I’d done so, in a manner of speaking, four times by then. But in each of those cases there was a next book ahead to carry things forward. There was no going forward after this, and I felt oddly constrained as I wrote. (The fact that the year in which I wrote Book Five was a troubled time surely didn’t help.) I needed this to work, to be the grand payoff, and I’d never done anything quite like this before. Previous experience with individual books just didn’t seem to carry any weight. How to stop this train without turning it into a train wreck?
The story itself eventually gave me the answer. As I wrote and figured out more of what the implacable foe was and could do, and led the characters through the discoveries they needed to make within the plot, the end shaped itself. And then it was written, beta read and revised – and the end of the process seemed to come on all of a sudden. I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and rather pleased to have pulled it off. Whether or not I truly succeeded, well, you’ll have to tell me!
When I hit the button and published Setha’im Prosh, it was a strangely anti-climactic experience. Yes, it was enormously gratifying, and yes, I feel a great pride in what I’ve accomplished, but… How is it possible this is really all said and done? This has been the center of things for more than five years. Where are all those characters I’ve come to know so well? It feels strange to walk around and not be wondering what tune Robert MacGregor should play on the bagpipes next, or what new tricks the Faceless have up their sleeves. The impulse to do such things has not abated, but this story is done. Where am I supposed to go from here?
Elsewhere, of course. Into another imaginary universe, of which I have no shortage, believe me. And I already know which one it will be.
It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.
In early 2011, following certain revelations regarding an alleged revolution in self-publishing, I pulled an old manuscript out of an overstuffed file cabinet. The title of the book was The Way of Leyra’an. It was the first and only novel I’d written since completing a long-delayed B.S. in plant biology in 1998. Before my return to academia I’d written half a dozen novels (and rewritten all of them at least once), and enough short stories and magazine articles that I can no long remember the count. I’d sold some of the nonfiction, but not a single novel or short story. The sort of fall-back work I’d been doing while writing was wearing me out physically, so I went back to school to increase my range of options. As soon as the degree was done, I went back to writing fiction. Although it was easily the best thing I’d written to that point in my life, by that day in 2011 The Way of Leyra’an had spent the better part of a decade in that cabinet, and came very near to being my last work of fiction.
The first publisher to see it rejected it. This came as no surprise, since the odds are overwhelmingly against any given publisher saying “yes.” The rejection letter intrigued me, however, and encouraged me. It wasn’t a boilerplate response with a hastily scribbled signature at the bottom. It was an expression of regret. The editor liked the book! Unfortunately, he didn’t believe his company could find a viable market for it. They already had too much of that type of story in the pipeline. Bad luck regarding the marketability, but at least he liked the book! So I bundled The Way of Leyra’an up and sent it to the next publisher on my short list of those still accepting un-agented manuscripts – a list that has grown steadily shorter in the years that followed, or so I’m told. I waited and went about my business – working on student loans and getting accustomed to mortgage payments – and lo and behold, there came another rejection letter. It said essentially the same thing. Third time’s the charm, so they say. Whoever “they” are, they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. The book bounced that time, too, with essentially the same letter coming along for the ride.
The message seemed clear – I needed to be better than every other aspiring writer, luckier than the rest, and have the psychic power to see into the future and avoid writing books that would be unmarketable by the time I finished them.
Knocked down three times, get up four, some would say. Persistence is easy to preach, but by that time I’d been knocked down and around by rejection letters for more than twenty years. I’d had enough. I didn’t send it out a fourth time. I packed it away, closed work-in-progress files on my computer, and quit. It was time to find other ways to spend my time when I wasn’t busy working to pay off those debts.
The consequences of this decision were not immediately apparent. In fact, for a few years it felt like I’d recovered from a long illness. I spent more time in the garden and returned to the world of amateur astronomy. The latter in particular soaked up a lot of creative energy, and the time I’d originally devoted to writing. It was (and is) an immensely enjoyable and rewarding hobby. But the feeling of emancipation didn’t last. At some point in 2007 I became aware that my basic attitude toward life had shifted in the wrong direction. I was more sarcastic and cynical, and more likely to see the negative side of things. A comment from my wife started the process of realizing I was headed for trouble. She said that I didn’t laugh as much as I used to, her way of asking what was wrong without making a complaint of it. Given the amount of humor that was a hallmark of our relationship, I was baffled and unsettled by the question – and I didn’t see it her way, which represented a hefty dose of denial on my part. Then I started to have the nightmare. It was a dark dream that repeated along variations on a theme, the central element being that I had gotten myself lost and, for some reason this was worse, couldn’t come up with a reason for being there. What purpose did it serve, I’d ask myself. And the answer would come: “None.” I’d then be seized by chest pains that lingered when I woke up in a cold sweat, leaving me to wonder if this time the heart attack was for real. It was never real. It was frightening nonetheless, and as the frequency of the nightmare increased, it started to wear me down.
That sense of being without direction or purpose was corrosive. I wasn’t as much fun to be with or work with, and I lost any sense that the work I was doing was worth anything or was going to take me anywhere I wanted or needed to go. I was considering asking my doctor to refer me to someone qualified to throw me a lifeline. Depression? No doubt about that. Nothing made much sense, fewer and fewer things seemed worth doing, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Oh, life wasn’t uniformly bleak. There were good times that diverted me and provided some relief, but more and more often, especially in winter, I would awaken to a black mood and the firm conviction that none of this was worth a damn.
All the while, Amazon and its Kindle e-reader were turning the world of writing and publishing upside down. I’d heard of the Kindle; being book-oriented regardless of what else was going on, I could hardly miss it. I remember my amazement the first time I saw and held one. There’d been e-readers before, but they were big, clunky disasters. This thing was like a gadget out of Star Trek. I was fascinated, and I immediately wanted one, but I had no clue regarding the effect it was having on the world at large. So I couldn’t have predicted how e-books would ultimately influence my life.
That changed when my wife and I had lunch with a couple I’ve known for quite a few years, one of whom had recently published her first novel with a small press outfit. Over lunch this friend mentioned her plan to self-publish her next book. I’m afraid my mind translated “self-publish” into “vanity press,” since the two had been nearly synonymous for many years. I tried not to react openly to this, but she knew what I was thinking – it was such a predictable reaction. The explanation that followed acquainted me with e-book direct publishing and print-on-demand paperbacks, developments that had passed me by because I’d stopped paying much attention to the publishing world. It sounded way too good to be true, but I looked into it anyway. What I learned sounded promising, and next time we were with these friends I said as much. The suggestion was made then that I pull out an “old” manuscript and try self-publishing it to see what would happen. Of course, I pulled out my most recent attempt, The Way of Leyra’an.
What came next will be the subject of the second part of this essay.