by Tom Greene
I started working on “Better” back in 2016 with the idea of making broad, fundamental changes in my approach to writing. I had noticed that some of my published stories seemed to get a good reception from readers, generating positive emails and even an AnLab award, while other stories not so much. So I started this project with the idea of making a lot of behind-the-scenes changes in my process that would result in something more like what I like to see when I’m the reader: an elusive and half-understood combination of fresh, thought-provoking ideas producing an emotionally engaging character tale. I gave it the working title “Better” because I hoped that’s what the story would be for me and my writing.
I should not have been surprised when the story almost immediately became about itself.
Like the alien object in the story, the ideas seemed to rig themselves together from random bits of disconnected notions: a moment of watching mechanical dogs at a kiosk in the mall, Steven Pinker on the role of vision in human cognition, some background reading about pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (part of my own ancestry on my mother’s side). I never thought I would take on the challenge of writing about non-human aliens, but I got to thinking about alternatives to the two major tropes of (1) Cold War era “evil alien bugs must die” (ala Heinlein) and (2) Vietnam era “alien bugs turn out to be kind of like us” (as in Orson Scott Card).
So I stumbled on the idea of an alien race destined by the circumstances of their evolution to be amorally, relentlessly expansionist. That would lead to a flood of refugees, Casablanca-style, toward Earth, guided by some notes I had about morally-ambiguous interstellar colonialists, analogous to the British Victorian “native troops” system. Like the object in the story itself, what these bits of rubbish-from-the-imagination were becoming was mostly inaccessible to me, and the semi-conscious, internal entities doing the work of assembly (Jung would have called them “autonomous functions”) were not communicating their purposes in any straightforward way and were often resisting, and sometimes disregarding, the instructions that I was trying to give them.
Then things got really weird as the piece came together and the morphosomes in the story became conflated, in my imagination, with potential future readers. I was following my own agenda of trying to build a better fictional product. The theoretical readers had strong ideas about what is “better” based mostly on perceptions I couldn’t share and ideas I didn’t understand. I became the hapless manager trying to decode the fragmentary, sometimes-contradictory messages about what these readers wanted me to do, what they needed from me, before the clock ran out. (Not that I’m complaining about readers; I feel I can hardly complain about whatever readers I’m lucky enough to get, since I’m the one who started the whole thing by presuming to try to write a story in the first place.)
In the end—as in the story—the process of writing “Better” reconfirmed for me something I knew, but needed reminding of. If a story is going to connect, it can’t be just an intellectual puzzle or narrative exercise. A better story needs a genuine emotional investment, an altruistic giving of the self without the expectation of reciprocation.
Readers may come through your fictional world as visitors (or refugees), but if you want to stamp their visas with the “resident” stamp, that requires a sacrifice, in which you lay yourself metaphorically out there on the altar and hand over the flint and say, “Go ahead. Take it out.” Otherwise, there really doesn’t seem to be much point.
So is “Better” actually any better? Honestly, I have no clue. I would like to think that, if I’m really trying, then every new story should be the best story I’ve ever written. But if readers don’t like it, I completely respect that. The next one will be better.
P.S. For those who are interested, the story mentioned in “Better” about sentient dolphins and their language is a real story: “King of the Sea,” 1979 by Derek Bickerton, still available in the usual places.