Monday, May 17, 2004

Song of the day: "I'm Not In Love" (Talking Heads)

I've been perusing the Turkey City Lexicon, a list of things to avoid when writing science fiction. And quite honestly, I'm guilty of some of this crap, especially variations of:

The Grubby Apartment Story

The Kitchen-Sink Story

The "Poor Me" Story

Some of my science fiction stories are infected with a rambling, self-pitying quality. It's a stilted comparison, but a few of them are like the SF equivalent to Morrissey's underwhelming "Kill Uncle"; the good ones are a bit more like "Everyday Is Like Sunday" or something by The Cure.

My fiction writing took a decided turn for the morose after I first really watched "Blade Runner." Now I'm almost incapable of writing a story that isn't set in a bleak, urban near-future where it rains a lot and characters have conspicuously easy access to consciousness-altering technologies ranging from particle accelerators to funky designer drugs.

Here's an excerpt from a blessedly unpublished novel about neurology and quantum physics I wrote in 1998/1999. This particular project, while educational, ultimately failed because of Kitchen-Sink Syndrome. I was trying to graft way too many weird ideas into one story, producing more than a few scenes like the following:

It was worse than Zak had expected.

The dim lights of Roma's apartment revealed mountains of rubbish: sheaves of CD-ROMs, dismantled hard-drives. Screens scrolled enigmatically in the corners of the living room, which had been converted into a bewildering shrine. The animatrons, dressed in rags of dying skin, knelt meditatively in a pile of microchips and torn cables, eyes pinched shut, pubices encrusted with discordant bits of metal and silicon.

Roma led him through the door. The omnipresent alien, now crowned in fiber-optics and wadded electrical tape, shut it with a four-fingered hand.

"Roma . . ."

Zak swallowed and stared mutely. Every inch had been transformed. Fastidiously arranged ZIP drives had turned the walls into gleaming murals; shredded diskettes carpeted the floor like matted leaves. His every step crunched, as if he walked on a thick layer of beetle husks.

Roma led him closer to the dormant simulacra, hands cool and restless as she ritualistically kneaded his arm, testing his solidity. The skin below her eyes nicitated. Zak noted with alarm that her lips had completely lost their color; they had adopted the predominating off-white of the computer shells throughout the apartment.

Roma became very still and put a finger to her lips. Her pupils contracted into dusky pearls as she crossed an apron of plastic and knelt among the animatrons.

Zak gasped as he saw her body for the first time. Roma had streaked her skin with liquid crystal, skewered her nipples with blunt plastic screws. Dried blood striped her abdomen, neck and thighs. Buds of metal and plastic poked through her skin like stunted quills.

"I came to see what you're doing here," Zak said. He almost mentioned Michael's referral but caught himself at the last second.

Roma began leaning to one side. One of the animatrons broke her fall, cradling her in chapped hands. The nutrient tanks Michael had used to keep the cloned skin alive had run empty, leaving the skin to slough away from the elaborately wrought armature beneath.

Even from where he stood, Zak thought he smelled decay. He wanted to retch, to fall on his knees and cry.

Roma had opened the door without the slightest glimmer of recognition. Her face, pinched by slow starvation, had become a rictus of numb piety. No emotion . . . Zak couldn't fathom the change that had eclipsed her eyes, stripping them down to flat circles. She had the flat, guileless look of an ancient tomb painting.

He crossed the living room, shoes crushing shoots of brittle wire and panes of glass from gutted flatscreens. Mosaics of burned circuitry gleamed in his peripheral vision. Through some trick of perspective, the wires seemed to reach out at him, offering him some rare understanding. When he turned his head they fell away like weary insect feelers and resumed their usual two-dimensionality.

He looked up at a ceiling festooned with video cable, a kind of sloppy fish-net used to suspend the few books and videocassettes left over from the Roma he had used to know. She had reduced them to squalid ornaments.

To what purpose? Zak thought. He felt he was traipsing through some piece of misguided conceptual art. He looked back at Roma, who slowly detached herself from the mothering animatrons and walked toward him, bare feet unscathed by the debris covering the floor. Flecks of dried blood fell from her thighs as she walked. Zak could see the illicit dance of sinew in her neck and calves.

He forced himself to stand still. Roma walked within touching distance and spread her palm, revealing a single Pentium chip. Only on second glance did he realize it had been pressed deeply into her flesh, and even then he wanted desperately to believe it was simply trompe l'oiel, something to be wiped away with a warm, soapy cloth.

"Look," Roma said.

"I'm looking"

"She leaned closer until Zak feared she would collapse into him. "Look closer."

He did. And for the first time he saw the shimmering matrix embedded in her skin, a rambling fractal composed of strands thinner than spider silk. The strands, faint but unmistakable, branched from the Pentium chip and traced riotous patterns up her wrist, arm and shoulder.

Roma pivoted like a runway model striking a pose, letting the light reveal the matrix in its entirety. It spanned her entire body: galaxies of triangles and squares that caught the light and threw it back at him in eye-scalding clarity.

Zak knelt in wonder. The schematic continued undaunted across the insides of her legs and knees. The lines didn't seem to follow any recognizable pattern. They reiterated themselves in their own private logic, unconfined by symmetry.