lessons from fiction

In the last several days, I've spent a lot of time writing and working on this new novel that seems to be capturing too much of my attention. It's a nifty story, definitely the best piece of fiction that I've written henceforth, despite all my worry, dread, and seemingly limitless self-doubt in relation to the project. Despite the gremlins on my shoulder saying "why aren't you working on short fiction; why aren't your characters having more sex; do you really think you can float such a disjointed/complex narrative; do you have a clue where this is going? ...and so forth," I've learned a few rather interesting things from this story this past week.

It's a time travel story, stupid!

Yeah, I'm well into the 7th chapter (of about 12?) and I finally figured out that I was, at it's core telling a time travel story. No, it's not a case of getting several tens of thousands of words on paper and realizing that you're writing the wrong story, but rather that I've always thought of it as a quirky space opera, and just this week I realized that what makes it quirky is that it's fundamentally a time travel story.

Right.

My goal in this project was to write about history and how "history" emerges from "a collection of things that happen" to something more coherent and recognizable as such.

In a weird way, my fiction (since I started writing again in early 2007, at least) have always addressed the issues at the very kernel of my academic/scholarly interest. I'm interested in how communities form, and how people negotiate individual identities amongst groups of people. Open source software, cyberculture in general, and hackers are one way of looking at this that is very much the center of how I'm looking at these questions. Queerness is another. Same kernel.

In any case, history--however defined or used--is a key part of this community-identity-individual loop. Can you participate in the emacs/emacs-lisp community without knowing about the history of the XEmacs fork? Linux without knowing a little about the early days with Minix and UNIX? Git without knowing a little about CVS and the bitkeeper story? If you can, not for very long. There are other more mainstream culture examples as well, Americans and the great depression (particularly Roosevelt's fireside chats, say?). Queers and stonewall? Etc.

This stuff is, to my mind, an incredibly important factor in "who we are" and how we all exist in our communities and the world at large. And because I'm who I am, I'm writing a story about this.

The science fictional effect, at play is relativity--lacking fantastic super-liminal (FTL; faster than light) space-drives--our characters must endure some pretty intense time dilation during transit: it takes them t weeks to get from planet A to planet B but meanwhile, it's t years later on both of the planets who more or less share a common time line.

Now I don't do the math right, for it to work out as being sub-light speeds (exigencies of plot; interstellar spaces are really big), but the time dilation is a huge feature of the story and of (many) main characters place in the world, particularly in contrast to each other.

And thus, in a manner of speaking, it's a time travel story. Albeit where the time travel is one way (future bound,) linear, based on Einsteinian principals, and common place.

And it took me half the book or more to recognize the story as such, which will--if nothing else--allow me to explain the story a bit better.

In the future Project Xanadu Worked

I'll probably touch on this later, but I realized (and this might not be particularly unique to my story) but that my characters were interacting with "the database" in the world. An internet-like system, only more structured, and more distributed, easier to search, easier to operate locally.

Which was basically Project Xanadu, on an interstellar scale. The features that my characters take advantage of:

  • Distribution and federation of copies: I have ansible technology in the story, but even so, given the trajectories of data storage technology it makes more sense to store local copies of "the database" than it does, to route requests to the source of the data, or even your nearest peer for records. Assume massive storage capability, advanced rsync (a contemporary tool synching huge blobs of data across a network), and periods of, potentially, years when various ships, outposts, and systems would be out of contact with each-other. Nah, store stuff locally.
  • Versioning Having a data store that stores data along a temporal axis (versions across time) is handy when you're working on your computer and you accidentally delete something you didn't mean to. It's absolutely essential if you have lots of nodes that aren't always in constant contact. It means you don't loose data after merges, it solves some concurrency problems, interstellar data would require this.
  • Structure: The contemporary world wide web (The Web) is able to function without any real structure, because we've imported data visualization from (more) analog formats (pamphlet layout/design; pages; index-like links, desktop metaphors), and we've developed some effective ad-hoc organizations (google, tags, microformats) which help ameliorate the disorganization, but the truth is that the web--as a data organization and storage tool--is a mess. My shtick about curation addresses this concern in one way. Creating a "new web" that had very strict page-structure requirements would be another. In the novel, their database grew out of the second option.

The future is here folks, but you knew that.

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