Speculative fiction, science, and technology for September, 2018.
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Welcome to the Reader's Room for September, 2018.

Hidden Structures

I think a lot about the story and the plot of things. It’s a necessary tool for writing, but it’s at least as useful when reading. I won’t quote the dictionary, but most formal definitions of plot and story are essentially interchangeable. But it’s a lot more useful to think of them as distinct things.

E.M. Forster wrote that a plot is a, “narrative of events, with the emphasis on causality.” He gave this example: “‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then queen died of grief,’ is a plot.”

Forster gives a glib start of a definition, but only scratches the surface. A Storyteller and a Plotter do very different things. Plotters make plans, set things into motion. Storytellers, if they’re any good, talk about people and stir up emotions.

I think of the plot as the ‘what’. It’s the big events, the kind that would be covered in a dispassionate history or news article. The story is the ‘who and why’. It’s a useful division that can reveal some interesting things. To use a popular example, in the first Start Wars film, the plot is a race to retrieve stolen plans for a battle station. History would record the Rebellion winning the race to get the plans, and using them to destroy the Empire’s super weapon.

But the story, as its told, is about a boy, dissatisfied with his life on the farm, who discovers hidden talents and finds something bigger than himself to fight for.

In this case, the plot and the story sound completely unrelated. And the story is different for each character. From a certain point of view, it could be about a Princess willing to die to protect her rebellion, a dark wizard extending the Empire’s power, or a hermit making good on an old promise. But the plot never changes.

It’s not required for the plot and the story to be different, but when they are, the stories tend to be deeper and more compelling. The separation of plot and story is at the core of some genres. Historical fiction uses actual events as the plot, while the story is about the people who are forced to deal with those events. The plot of Detective fiction is always about a murder, but the story is about chasing the trail of clues. In Romance, the story and the plot are usually at odds: The story is about people finding love, the plot is what gets in the way of them doing so.

In the past year I’ve read two series that have an identical plot. They are both post-postapocalyptic: Something happened so far in the past that most of what remains of the old world is scattered legends of the things being different. One legend says the sky used to have a moon in it. Which is weird because there are other mysterious things up there now, and they’ve always been in the sky, right? Almost everyone in the world is struggling with the basics of survival, but they are surviving, not realizing that something seeded in the no-so-mythical past is coming back, and it will mean the end of everything. It’s up to someone with rare powers to discover the cause and avert the new end of the world.

That is a lot of similarities for two series with completely different stories. But they’re both worth reading.

I’ve talked about one of these before, N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which has earned her an unprecedented Hugo award for each volume the past three years. Her story is a powerful tale of loss and grief as a mother pursues her stolen child across a world being torn apart by natural disasters. The story is not gentle on the reader, and each volume leaves you gasping for breath and hungry for more.

The other series is The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. The first four books predate the *Broken Earth* trilogy, but they’re new to me, and thanks to Adam for introducing me to them. The Steerswoman (or sometimes, Steersman) is an itinerant searcher of knowledge. Ask them any question and they must answer truthfully. In payment, you must answer their questions in kind, or you’ll be banned by the guild from their services. They’re generally welcomed as they travel, bringing news from distant lands, the latest navigational maps, and as the last arbiter of bar bets. They’re part scientist, part shoe leather-based internet, discovering and distributing knowledge. One of them is pursuing her curiosity about some unusual gemstones, and finds herself hunted by a secretive organization, one whose mystery is only deepened by the Steerswoman’s centuries-long ban on their uncooperative members.

These two stories couldn’t be more different. While the plots are very similar, it’s superficial, like how Moby Dick and King Lear echo each other, but clearly stand separately. The *Broken Earth* is grim, shaped by a mother’s loss in a world of conflict and racial hatred. The Steerswoman has its own high stakes and action, but is also filled with warmth and driven by curiosity in a world where gender and racial divisions have been forgotten. Instead of a land filled by cataclysms and refugees, hers is full of amiable, but comfortably self-absorbed people who are unable to see the world being broken around them. Both stories are, in their own way, full of timely messages.

Rosemary Kirstein‘s The Steerswoman is currently four books, but a warning for completionists: the series has at least one more book to go. N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is complete, or as complete as a series about fractured lives can be.
Michael Whelan did the cover illustrations for a ton of great books that I read as a teen—back in the days when inspiring science fiction didn’t have to be a grimdark post-apocalypse. I especially remember his covers for Issac Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series.  So glad to see he’s still doing great things.

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The Ig Nobels are my favorite annual prize. They’re the whimsical version of the Nobel Prizes, rewarding ridiculous science. For example the Ig Nobel for chemistry this year went to a team who studied the cleaning power of spit. What makes the awards interesting that that there is usually some practical offshoot for the science. For example the spit polish study found that saliva was in fact a better cleaner of gilded items than the cleaners used by conservationists. Other awards given out this year include one for self-colonoscopy, the effects of swearing while driving, and the efficacy of voodoo dolls. Ars Techinca rounds them up.

Some science has clearly practical applications, and creating organs from a patient’s own cells so rejection is not an issue is a big one. It’s gone from concept to application remarkably fast, as there are currently ten people walking around with functional bladders that have been 3D printed from a matrix of cells cultured from their own.

I love how technology influences language. We tend to forget things like the word ‘hello’ became popular because no one knew what to say when they answered early telephones. Over at Jalopnik, they cover the history of how we settled on the name “automobile” instead of oleo locomotives or autokinetics. There are a lot of great names we missed out on.

Listen to the Podcast:

Audio versions of the Reader's Room are posted the same time as the email.
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Writing Status:
My own real-life plot changed recently, which has had an impact on my storytelling. The only writing I’ve done in the last month has been this edition of the Reader’s Room, and I’m going to have to put that on hold for a couple of months while I take care of more pressing matters. Looking to put out the next issue around the end of the year. Don’t worry, I won’t forget about you.

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