On the limits of prescience

“Daily Delivery” by Rob Gallop

Like many American boys my age, my first job was as a paperboy. For those who don’t know what that is, there used to be these things called newspapers that gave you all of yesterday’s news, and companies would hire local boys to hand deliver them to people’s houses. You could also buy a newspaper at a store, or through a machine that operated on the honor system, but many people, especially old and fat ones, preferred to have a boy deliver them to their doorstep so they wouldn’t have to actually get out of the house.

Anyway, every day I would get a stack of newspapers delivered to my house by a van-driving middle aged guy who had a, I don’t know, rapey quality about him. (I know, you’ve always wondered “Who delivers to the delivery guy?”). I would then put the newspapers into individual bags and proceed to drive my ten speed around town so people could finally figure out whether they won the lottery or which of their friends was arrested the night before. I did this every day, including Saturday and Sunday morning, for about two years. For all of this work, I was only paid $150 a month, plus tips. No one ever tipped me.

At the same time, I also fancied myself a bit of a writer. A science fiction and fantasy writer, no less. I imagined a future where I would live in New York, rich off of all my short story sales, drinking champagne every night and hanging out at a lot of coffee shops. Obviously, this was before the bottom fell out of the lucrative short fiction market; now, I only imagine living in Poughkeepsie and drinking Coke Zero.

All of this took place between 1992 and 1993, at the height of the Fab Five and right before internet access became commonplace. I was cutting my teeth on Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Alan Moore, Robert Jordan, and Neil Gaiman while enjoying the musical stylings of Nirvana and Public Enemy. Bill Clinton was playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall show and Michael Jordan was already the greatest basketball player of all time. This was when I was at my most naive and optimistic; in only a year, Kurt Cobain would kill himself and O.J. Simpson would drive a white Bronco down the highway, thus ending my extended childhood and thrusting me into the cynicism of late adolescence.

So, as I was delivering my newspapers, I had quite a bit of time to think. About an hour and a half every day. During that time I would write stories in my head, most of them sci-fi, and most of them very, very bad. I don’t remember most of the stories, but they were probably blatant ripoffs of popular stuff with a very obvious avatar of me as the protagonist. Oh, and I also probably was a ladies’ man, closely depicting reality.

One story that I do remember was decent, but made irrelevant by modern technology. The protagonist was a young paperboy in an isolated farming town who went from house to house with a 3.5” floppy disk (the things used before CDs and thumbdrives but which were not, in fact, floppy), loading the daily news into each home’s central computer. The character would ride his hoverbike to a house, insert the disk, enter his passcode, and upload the news; after upload, the family could read the news on any computer they had, as well as the TV and a tablet like device (the latter stolen from 2001: a Space Odyssey).

The paperboy, who was never given a name, grew tired of hearing all of the bad news. Day in and day out, he would read about war, rape, murder, famine, and even cyber attacks (which seem quite obvious considering everyone had an unsecured disk drive on the front of their house). The more he, and the town, knew about the world, the more depressed they became. So, in a fit of inspiration, the paperboy decided to rewrite the news to make it more upbeat. (It’s unclear whether cable TV existed in this world.) He wrote what he thought the news should be, making nations sign peace agreements and the murder rates drop precipitously.

Sure enough, the people of the village cheered up. They came out of their funk and started being nice to each other, organizing street fairs and festivals. Block parties were a weekly occurrence. Utopia was at hand. But, of course, that could not be. People from the government found out about the paperboy and tried to shut him down. They sent a new paperboy, a paperman, who delivered the real news while attempting to subvert the false news. The paperboy fought back but was, in the end, defeated by the government. The people, who probably knew the news was fake all along, went back into their black mood.

For a story written by a 13-year-old, The Paperboy wasn’t too bad. I’m sure it wasn’t original, and it certainly was inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four and Pump up the Volume, but it was enough to earn me an A+ in Mrs. Williams’ English class. At the time that was all I really cared about. While I was hoping for a literary career, I was much too shy to actually show anyone but my teacher the piece. (NB: I’m still much too shy to show anyone my writings.)

As far as literary themes, the story isn’t too bad. It says a lot about the nature of the news and how we are being manipulated by what our newsmasters choose to tell us, as well as how knowledge does not always lead to enlightenment, sometimes it just leads to misery. This is one of the things I have always loved about Dune, and something that shows up quite a bit in my writing; a character seeks to learn a mystery, but upon learning it discovers the Pandora’s Box should never have been opened.

Another key element is the individual rebelling against the collective. This is quite a trope is sci-fi, especially dystopian fiction, but one that appeals to teenagers. I can imagine how pleased I was at writing about a character who was the only one to see the problem and who took it on himself to fix society’s problems. This is, of course, every teenager’s place in the world.

The ending, a dark bit of business that would characterize most of my stories, was more about my feelings of futility in the face of the adult world than anything. This Cassandra complex, of both seeing the future yet being unable to do anything about it, is perhaps a bit too biographical, but it does sum up how I felt at the time. (And often feel today.)

The problem with the story is not necessarily the plot or the characters, cliches and all, but with the treatment of technology. At 13, I could not imagine a world where the internet existed (although it did exist at that very moment) or where people had an abundance of choices for getting information. In the town I lived in, population 500 or so, not a single person had internet access. The library didn’t and the high school didn’t, nor would they for at least 5 more years. The only options for getting news were two out-of-town newspapers, one radio station, a few TV stations from 100 miles away, and, if you were lucky enough to have cable, CNN. Within that context, it made perfect sense that everyone could be fooled by fake news. I was constrained by what I knew, although I could have imagined greater.

Also, while the idea of someone physically uploading news to your home computer network is laughable today, at the time it made perfect sense. I remember sharing this revelation with my friends, who were certain something like that could never happen. There would always be newspapers, they assured me. Again, we were constrained by what we knew. I knew that one day digital news would replace paper news, but couldn’t imagine a scenario in which the bits would be delivered by wire instead of a person. I understand how stupid this is, since there were already technologies in place that did this very thing (computers, fax machines, telegraphs, etc), but at the time it was the only feasible solution. Also, I really didn’t want to lose my job.

The problem I had, one the affects even great writers, is that there is a limit to what I can imagine. For all of the iPads and cellphones that were predicted, there are tons of things that sci-fi writers just got plain wrong. How many stories had flying cars and ubiquitous jetpacks? How many movies and TV shows from the 90’s still had us using giant CRT monitors fifty years in the future? How many imagined the miniaturization of computers and the rise of mobile computing?

This limit to our prescience is nothing to be ashamed of. Storytellers are not in the business of predicting what will happen in the future, they are in the business of telling really good stories. You don’t read Dune to figure out how the Holtzman drive works, you read it to follow Paul on his journey. You don’t care that much of the hyper and warp drive stuff is crap, you just want the hero to rocket off into the stars. And in the case of my (terrible) story, it’s not important that the paperboy’s technology is outdated, what’s important is that he discovers the truth of knowledge.

NPM09: The Proof of a Poet

For the final day of National Poetry Month, here’s a good quote from Whitman:

The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.
(Preface to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass)

Poetry, much like music, always takes place in a local context. While there are bands that are created to appeal to everyone, the music they make is inevitably boring and without any discernible character. In the same way, poetry is best understood within a geographical and historical context. Whitman cannot be completely understood outside of the context of the nation he so fully absorbed and wrote about.

Of course, the irony of the quote that America didn’t really absorb Whitman until later in his life, and especially after his death.

A Prayer for the 3rd Week of Advent

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
ever faithful to your promises
and ever close to your Church:
the earth rejoices in hope of the Savior’s coming
and looks forward with longing
to his return at the end of time.
Prepare our hearts and remove the sadness
that hinders us from feeling the joy and hope
which his presence will bestow,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

From the Companion Missal

Idea Log

moleskine journalOne of the best pieces of advice from David Allen’s Getting Things Done is to get things out of your head and onto paper.  If you decide to do something, like mow the lawn, your mind thinks you should be doing right now.  Your mind, Mr. Allen says, does not know the difference between present and future.

Another good reason to write things down instead of letting them brew completely in your head is so that you won’t forget a good idea.  At least a few times a week I have a good idea (whether in my sleep or while awake) only to forget about it later.  Perhaps the idea wasn’t worth remembering, but it could have been the greatest thing in the history of mankind (as is almost everything I write down).

A while ago I started an idea log so as to avoid forgetting ideas.  Basically, I just put the date on the top of the page and write down every idea I have during the day.  I take the notebook with me everywhere I go, whether to work, to church or the park.

And I actually do write down every single idea I have.  Some days there are only a few, but other days I take up two or three pages.  Most of what I write down isn’t worth the paper (I doubt my idea to solve global warming will ever come to fruition), but the little snippets of dialogue, story ideas and blog post ideas are worth much to me.  Heck, I can even make grocery lists in it.

This is a good way for writers, bloggers and even parents to stay organized.  You can go back and re-read your old ideas (with time many will seem positively stupid) to see what kind of progress you have made.   It’s better than a journal for me, because I’m not writing with a self-conscious filter, just my ideas as they flow out of my head.  It gives a better idea of what I’m thinking.  Does anyone else do anything like this?  Have any good ideas for a Moleskine notebook?

You Must Read This

No, not this post, this article on the proper use of apostrophes.  Please pass it along to your friends, especially those who write things like “Pray for the Frizzell’s.”  If there is any justice, there is a special place in the afterlife for those people (they probably send forwards, too).

Writing Software

Do you use software to help you write?  I used to be a big fan of the five subject notebook and tons of hand written notes, but over the past year I’ve joined the digital age.

The first program I use is ZuluPad, a personal wiki of sorts.  It helps me organize research and put background info in a coherent system.  ZuluPad is as easy as a text editor to write in and putting in links is as easy as clicking a button.

The other program I’ve been using is yWriter, a word processor for authors.  yWriter is interesting because it is a complete system for writing a book.  You can create character lists, scenes, outlines, and write individual chapters.  You can even set a daily word count goal.

Both of these are for Windows, but I’ve heard CopyWriter for the Mac is good too.

Good Writing, Good Thinking

From S.M. Hutchens (HT Justin Taylor):

If I were to identify what I think is the most frequent mistake of the writers of bad writing we receive, I would say that it is the same that most of us have with speaking: we express ourselves without first thinking clearly and carefully—and with brutal self-criticism–about what we are going to say and how we are going to say it. We have the impression that our minds are pregnant with valuable thoughts that really must be heard without recalling that unless exercise the labor and discipline necessary to put them in a form that can be understood by others, as thoughts-to-be-shared they remain sterile. This is why writing is an art–a rhetorical art–and a process that, while it depends on good thinking, should be thought of as another thing entirely. For while good thinking depends on the internal coherence of the thought itself, good writing, like good speaking, is the art of word-use and knowing the mind of one’s audience.