During time off this week, I’ve been reading some science fiction in preparation for a course I may help teach next year, and the experience has made me think about a science fiction novel I’d dreamed up quite some time ago. This morning, I sat down to write the opening of the book I imagined.
I have no gift for fiction, generally speaking, but the books I’ve read this week lead me to believe I would not be the only sci-fi writer with that issue. All the front-loading necessary to create an alternative reality seems to make the openings of these books particularly challenging. They are sometimes pure exposition—you have to find a way to say you aren’t here and where you are exactly—and that creates some clumsy, often un-evocative writing. I thought it might be fun to try to overcome some of those issues…without having to write the whole novel!
It might also be fun to write the whole book, but even this much is tough for a writer so unattuned to fiction…
Ash and milk.
The words float up in Kip’s mind as he drops another three flats of cans onto one of the growing towers in the house. Once in the light again and headed back to the truck, he looks at his wrist, still expecting to find the time there, though he sold his watch—his last possession—a week ago.
He glances up to find the sun and guess the time, but the sky is overcast, ash and milk.
Judging by the stacks he’s made, he thinks lunch might be soon. He is at it alone today, repeating the seventeen-step journey from the driveway to the house solo. Yesterday, he had help, a Mexican with little English who laughed mirthlessly at every awkward hand-off of cans between them. Kip missed him. He was an improvement over the day before when his co-worker proffered bits of conversation at each exchange, a long speech in too many pieces about how, in his former life, he’d been “King Sell.” But that was a different suburban house in a different suburban ghost town and best forgotten.
Once, this might have been warehouse work and forklift work, but Kip, and whatever companion found for him, were cheaper. During the moment he pauses before climbing into the truck again, a forklift parks in Kip’s imagination. Does everyone remember them? Kip feels another wincing moment of nostalgia. How had inefficient brute labor like this become sensible again?
He mutters to no one present, “It isn’t worth thinking about” and pulls his fingers from between the flats as he half-lifts and half-scoots another tower closer to the mouth of the truck. He monitors the tightness developing in his lower back. To be paid, he has to reach the end of the day, and Kip swallows welling despair when he considers the hour, the ash and milk sky, the surging heat of late afternoon, and working alone.
Lunch is no kindness. He has little to eat and knows the hour off is really reason to pay him less. He will hear again how lucky he is, how many aren’t. Then he will have to find a place to eat and sleep.
This job might not be so bad if he could stop his idling mind, if he could follow what his body is doing as a spectator might. Yet Kip rarely finds that state and is always running in place mentally. No one, he knows, was raised for this, and he curses for the millionth time the ambition bred in him. His parents meant well but did what every parent does, poisoned him with dreams.
The sun burns though clouds a high wind teases apart. Then the sun disappears. Kip sees his shadow as in the slow flash of a camera, moving with a burden he doesn’t recognize as any part of himself.
In the novel I’ve imagined, Kip becomes a subject for research into virtual reality, eventually “commuting” between what the world has become and a utopian—but somewhat sinister—alternative. Lots of other stuff happens too, but I may write this book yet…