Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Preface that will be in future editions of Embassy and Resonance

Preface: On the Intentions of My Work

Over the course of my nearly 12 years as a science-fiction author, I’ve settled into a rather unconventional style of storytelling. To some readers, the style and development of the story is so different from so many other genre fiction stories that they see this as a lack of a “predetermined storyline,” and, therefore, as a setback to the story.

Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that this essay is meant to show readers the type of story they’re getting into when they pick up my books, and why I chose to write in this way. At the end of the day, these are still just books like any other, subject to the same praise and criticisms that any other book would receive.

I think William Wordsworth put it best in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads when he said, “The principal object…was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination…” By this, he calls attention to the fact that he intentionally used common language and phrases to make his work sound more natural and relatable to the common reader. He stayed away from the deep, philosophical approach that many other poets followed: a structured, standardized approach that was widely regarded to be the only way to write good poetry. He goes on to point out that critics would take his work and “exult over the Poet as over a man ignorant of his own profession,” to such an extent that many readers ignored Wordsworth’s work simply because some critics claimed he was writing poetry all wrong.

I have no argument with my own critics. I love seeing how one person’s taste differs from another. Having 11 different beta readers between my latest two novels, I’ve learned to value criticism, not despise it—so long as that criticism isn’t an outright attack meant to insult me (which, I admit, happened in 2014. But such is life).

To explain my approach to storytelling, I want to give a bit of background on Embassy, the first book in my current science-fiction series. I wrote it in early January 2013, following the first of two points in my life that I would consider to be rock bottom (the second would come in mid-2014, and influenced certain scenes in Resonance, the second book in the Recovery series).

My initial approach to writing Embassy was what anyone would consider conventional. Even now, after more than a dozen rewrites (and 50+ rewrites for certain chapters), you can still see the basic framework I was trying to fit. The main character’s father was famous (the Shadow), he hates his current life (the Known World), joins a renowned program he’s only ever heard stories about (the Unknown World), and goes on an adventure that will change him forever (the Journey). It’s a structure that almost all successful books follow, and it’s become a staple of modern storytelling. You’ll the same tropes that many other YA sci-fi books have: the Embassy (the New World) has different branches the characters will fit into according to their life goals and personalities, where they will fulfill certain roles in the Embassy Program (the Selections). Along the journey, the main character would have a range of experiences that change him forever and determine his new place in life. This is EXACTLY how I structured Embassy in the first draft.

Instant best seller material, obviously!

Over the course of the next 22 months, I myself had a range of experiences while revising Embassy that came to shape the final draft of the book. In my own life, I began to realize what I wanted to stand for and get out of life. I began to understand, though not yet fully, who I wanted to become and what I wanted to teach other people. As a result, my approach to storytelling changed. In fact, one of the big themes of Embassy was to emphasize—in a relatable way—that we all follow different paths to happiness. But at one point or another, we realize who we want to become, and we must take the necessary steps to make changes in our lives.

Such is the case for Arman Lance, the main character of Embassy and Resonance. He’s depressed. He wants to take the easy way out and leave his past behind. He resists opportunities to change, and misses out on experiences he might have otherwise enjoyed, because he doesn’t want to leave his comfort zone and is deeply afraid of his plans falling apart.

Being a character-driven story, not plot-driven, Embassy (and, arguably, Resonance, too) puts Arman into situations we all face in our daily lives. He’s not the chosen one, destined to save the galaxy. He doesn’t have superpowers. He’s just a guy who thinks his life sucks and follows his obsessions because he thinks that’s the only way he’ll ever be happy again.

William Wordsworth would agree that Arman’s journey in Embassy is a basic, very human journey. I intentionally ended up shaping the story to be just that: an emotional, sympathetic journey. Admittedly, it’s much quieter than the action-packed, gun-slinging, alien-invasion YA sci-fi books lining the shelves, but I’ve decided that I don’t want my books to be like that. As you’ll see, I put the theme of “what makes us human?” front-and-center. I want readers to question their place in the universe, question their values, even question what they can do to make the world a better place.

As one reviewer of Embassy points out, “The story is meant to be about US. Me. You. The human race.” This is exactly what I intended for readers to realize. Embassy and Resonance aren’t meant to be stories that take you into another world, one which we know will never be. They’re meant to show what could be in humanity’s future. They’re meant to celebrate human endeavor, to show readers that we all have problems, that we’re all human in our own unique ways. That even though we don’t have superpowers, we are all capable of creating our own happiness, and realizing our own potential, if we only open up to experiences we might otherwise resist. That in order to care for others, we must learn to care for ourselves. That we can overcome our self-hatred and see the world in a whole new light.

Embassy became a test that allowed me to see what direction I wanted to take the series, and so the overall plot has changed dramatically from where I anticipated the story would go from Day 1. To be quite honest, I originally intended for Embassy to be a shoot-em-up story with aliens and gun fights. But this is where writing for yourself versus and writing for an audience comes in. Choosing to write a quieter story about humanity and the emotional state of Arman Lance felt much more fulfilling to me—as the author—than had I stuck to the original plan. My first three books, written while I was in middle school and high school, are what I like to call my “video game books.” They would make for a good Star Wars-esque RPG, ripe with an assortment of aliens, planets, and explosions on every page.
Quite literally every page, now that I think about it.

Now, six years after abandoning those books, I’ve moved on to realizing my voice in the world. The story I want to tell. And through that story, I’m creating what I envision as humanity’s future in space. Not only our future as a species, but our future as a society. In doing so, I raise several questions: How would we interact as a multi-planetary species? Over the course of thousands of years, would humans living on different planets evolve independently of each other? How would their technology differ? Would some planets progress faster than others? How would economies and governments function? What issues will humans of the future have to face, and on a similar note, what issues will we have solved? And what issues do we create through solving others? How would people living on one planet see life differently from people living on another planet? In times of crisis, how would various planets handle disaster relief efforts, or conflicts with other planets? Can there be interplanetary conflict when humanity is spread so widely? How does traveling between planets affect people mentally, physically, and emotionally? Can people make life-long friends and acquaintances across the galaxy? How do we treat the environment(s)? And, ultimately, which is more important: human life, or nature?

These questions and more are explored in Embassy and Resonance from the vantage point of Arman Lance, who I believe is the perfect character to carry the reader through this story because of how he learns to overcome his own internal struggles and self-imposed mental isolation.

Another quiet approach I took to telling this story, predominantly in Resonance, was the placement of conceptual world elements and plot points. Embassy and Resonance are both attached to a plot that surrounds the fate of Belvun, a planet suffering from extreme natural disasters after decades of poor environmental maintenance. Though this plot largely stays in the background of the first two books, its repercussions will resonate throughout the series as a whole so as to address even more themes relevant to the issues we face in today’s world.

My largest goal of these books, and the goal I have with the rest of the series, is to have readers come out of these books thinking that this could very well be a realistic depiction of humanity’s future. I’m a fan of Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX; Stephen Hawking, who revolutionized theoretical physics; and of course, Bill Nye the Science Guy. They don’t know it, but they’ve all influenced how I’ve chosen to depict the worlds and societies you’ll find within my books. All three of these men will find a place in history books of the future, and I know that when humans living a thousand years from now look back through the history of space exploration, Elon Musk will be the name they remember above all others. I have created a character representative of Mr. Musk as a historical figure within the series itself, named Benedict Drake. I’m writing a prequel entitled We Cannot Be Content to show the events that led to humanity leaving Earth for good, which will revolve around Drake’s life.

It is my intention to convince readers that this future is a realistic option for humanity. Embassy, Resonance, future installments of the Recovery Series, and any additional installments taking place within the same universe all share a common element: they are all meant to inspire a sense of wonder of the universe, and of humanity, within the reader.

None of this is meant to trivialize other works of science-fiction, as I’m well aware that there are books which tell the story of humanity’s future vastly different from how I envision it! To each its own merit. Reading these types of stories is important. To appreciate the endeavors of humanity, we must also connect with its flaws. Achieving this greater appreciation is the key to moving toward a brighter, more fulfilling future, and so I’ve attempted to capture the essence of humanity in my writing, weaving experiences that everyday people can relate to into a story that shows us as we all are at once. The story I’ve created is my vision, and no matter how close it comes to the truth, or how far it deviates, my intent is to at least inspire readers to have a greater love for humanity, and a greater love for themselves.

To All Our Endeavors,

S. Alex Martin