When I was in an undergraduate fiction workshop, my teacher told us not to worry about what our stories were about. Focus on the characters and plot, he said, and the rest will sort itself out. This is often good advice—but not always. Some stories are about ideas, and the issue becomes not how to momentarily forget those ideas but, instead, how to attach them to the characters and plot so that they read as story rather than apart from it.
One genre that consistently tackles big ideas is science fiction. And one of the most interesting new science fiction writers is Aliette de Bodard, whose story, “Immersion,” appeared in Clarkesworld and won or was nominated for pretty much every award possible: Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Short Story. You can read “Immersion” at Clarkesworld‘s website.
How the Story Works
The story states its ideas outright. It’s about a piece of technology that allows its user to drop into a world and culture that isn’t their own and still communicate. In the story, de Bodard writes that certain people “believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” She also writes that the technology takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”
These are strong statements about culture and cultural appropriation, and it’s impossible to not read them as sharp critiques of very real technology in our very real world. The risk that any story runs when stating its ideas in this way is that can begin to feel more like an essay than a narrative. Essays are great, of course, but when readers begin a piece of fiction, they often have little patience for tangents that do not advance the forward momentum of plot and character. So how does de Bodard successfully include these statements in her story?
- She applies them directly to a single character. Here’s the story’s first sentence: “In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.” And why is the character not sure? Because she wears a device that produces an avatar that not only produces an external image but also delivers cultural and linguistic cues directly into the character’s brain. Imagine a Fodor’s guidebook mixed with Siri and the information delivery system in The Matrix. In short, de Bodard has created a machine that turns her ideas into tangible objects with consequences for the characters who encounter with them.
- She makes the plot hinge on the character’s decision. The story begins by asking the character who she is, and the plot follows an attempt to answer that question. Three of the characters (her husband, Quy, and Quy’s sister) are actively pushing or, at least, tangentially giving her space to answer that question, but the technology (the immerser) is pushing back. It wants to supply its own answer. In a way, the plot is similar to any story about powerful external influence (addiction, cults, relationships with manipulative partners). Because the technology is a character with (almost) a will that it exerts, it makes perfect sense for de Bodard to write that the immerser takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”
The Writing Exercise
Let’s write ideas into a story using Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion,” as a model:
- State your ideas. What is your theory about _____? de Bodard is writing about cultural appropriation, and you can write about something equally large. Or, you can focus on something smaller. To get you started, how would you finish this sentence? The thing about (pick your group of people) is ______. For instance, you’ll sometimes hear people claim that certain men suffer from small-man syndrome; i.e. the guy is short and making up for it. Congressman Paul Ryan recently blamed poverty on inner-city people who don’t know how to work. President (at the time, candidate) Obama once said about Midwesterners that “”it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Interestingly, when my Midwestern, religious, gun-owning father heard this, he thought it seemed about right.) All of these statements are basically ideas or theories about human behavior. de Bodard’s ideas are more rigorously academic, but they are still about human behavior. So, what’s your theory about 1) why people act the way they do or 2) the systematic consequences of that behavior?
- Create a machine that turns those ideas into things. This can mean a literal machine like the one de Bodard has created. The point of the machine is to put your character into an existential dilemma that is tied to the theory you have developed. So, if you believe in short-man syndrome, you might create a machine that makes tall people short. If you’re a Paul Ryan acolyte, your machine would make people unwilling to work (a city full of unwilling scriveners). Or, if you agree with the president, your machine might make people bitter in order to see what they cling to. But your machine doesn’t need to be an actual machine. I’ve already mentioned that addiction or cult personalities can fulfill many of the same functions. But so can the circumstances you create: if you want to make a character bitter enough to hate foreigners and brandish guns, there are realistic ways to do that. Melville found a way to make Bartleby avoid work. Many stories are filled with characters who suffer illnesses or accidents that change their physical appearance. In short, you can use the world of your story to drive your character into a situation that forces them to act.
- Make the plot hinge on the character’s action. How will the physically altered character react, and how will that reaction the ones she loves? If the character refuses to work, even in the face of extreme poverty, will someone eventually step in to help or not? Will the bitter character use the gun you’ve given him against the people he blames for his misfortunes? Turn the plot into a question of the path your character will take? The story can end once the decision has been made. Or, it can proceed from there to show the effects. Either way, you’re turning your initial ideas into a story that may have room for the statement of those ideas.