Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: September, 2013

And I Stood on Top of a Volcano

Craters of the Moon, National Monument & Preserve, Idaho

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Belated from the Weekend of September 14

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

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The Fine Line Between Mundane SF and Lab Lit

(Note: The following is more of an analysis of genre classification rather than a book review. However, there is discussion about story elements that some may consider spoilers even though there is no examination of the plot.)

After seeing The Galaxy Express post on Red Shoes for Lab Blues by D.B. Sieders, I figured I had to read this because the main characters are scientists and the hero is Asian. Mostly because there are so few Asians and/or scientists as main characters in general. However, I had certain trepidations about reading this, too. Because I am both Asian and a scientist and if there was anything off about the technical or cultural details, I would be disinclined to like it.

Overall, I did like Red Shoes for Lab Blues, mostly because it was spot on about the research academic life and the technical details. Anyone who has ever worked in a lab (or read PhD Comics, I suppose) has encountered the personalities and mindsets populating this story. And I got the characterization of Henry (the hero). For instance, there is a scene where he and the heroine Stacey are arguing and he says something that she considers coming totally out from left field. But as a reader, I thought this was really well done because it does not gloss over the inherent social conflicts that many Asian Americans have between living in a Western culture and still being seen as Other.

It is primarily a romance, but I found Henry and Stacey’s relationship sweet rather than steamy. Well, the two characters certainly do more than just kiss, but I found the publisher blurb’s implication that it was erotic misleading. (Aside: If you want to read about scientists doing really steamy sexy stuff, Delphine Dryden’s The Theory of Attraction would fit the description better. However, unlike Red Shoes for Lab Blues which I found did characterization very well, the characters in The Theory of Attraction behaved more like caricatures from The Big Bang Theory.)

So back to the blog post that started all of this. Heather Massey from The Galaxy Express posits that this is mundane science fiction. (Personally I hate the term “mundane sci-fi” because it implies that it’s boring. “Contemporary sci-fi” might be a better term.) One of the commenters on that blog post even said that the word “lab” in the title made her think that this was sci-fi. I’m going to disagree and say that this is not science fiction at all but romance crossed with lab lit. Maybe even part of the subgenre of geek/nerd romance.

However, I must qualify this and say that genre definitions are fluid depending who defines them. Someone could say that Frankenstein was chicklit and never be convinced otherwise because their definition of chicklit was anything written by a woman. So I’m going to explain why this does not fit my definition of science fiction. And what’s my definition of science fiction? It is this: fiction containing speculative science elements integral to the world building, characters and/or plot. Just because a story contains laboratories and scientists and science that you (as an individual and not as the whole scientific field) doesn’t understand does not mean that it is sci-fi.

I did not find any speculative elements in Red Shoes for Lab Blues. I can see why some would think it is sci-fi, though. There is a bit of technical jargon non-scientists would be unfamiliar with and the characters are researchers trying to find a new drug to cure breast cancer. But despite that, nothing is new or imagined. The “compound Z” that the characters are testing is very similar to what real life researchers do. Drug companies have whole libraries of chemical compounds that they send scientists to test. Even the experimental setup for testing this imaginary compound Z is regular procedure that biomedical scientists use all the time. The science behind the fictional drug is sound, but it isn’t innovative. Rather than innovation and speculation, the story is about research and academic culture–working in the lab, teaching undergrads, backstabbing postdocs, getting tenure, publish or perish–hence lab lit.

So what would edge lab lit into mundane sci-fi? Wild speculation, for one. Let’s take the example of the cancer killing drug compound Z. In real life, there are a kazillion compounds that kill cancer cells–not all of them may make it to clinical trials, but the very fact that compounds kill cells is not new. However, what if this compound Z doesn’t kill the cell but alters them in some fundamental way which completely changes our understanding of cancer cells and how cells live and die? What if the compound is one step towards achieving immortality? Now that would be speculation and sci-fi. But only if this was somehow integral to the plot line and not just some character running her mouth at some flights of fancy.

There is definitely a fine line between science fiction and a fictional story simply about science and scientists. For me, science fiction must have a speculative element that is integral to the story, regardless of settings, tropes, and character. While sci-fi and lab lit can be combined, I consider them distinct from one another. And in the particular case of the story I read last night, solidly in the latter and not the former.

The End of a Writing Marathon, the Beginning of Another

Around 10 PM, I finished another short story. Which meant over Labor Day Weekend, I managed to rack up 32k words of fiction. So, I surpassed my goal of 30k for my unofficial participation in the 3-Day Novel Contest. I’m actually less impressed with the word count and more impressed that I actually finished two stories in three days. I think that has to be a record somewhere.

The latest story I finished was a retelling of the fairy tale Prince Lindworm. I don’t have a title for the story yet–my placeholder is simply “Retelling of Prince Lindworm” right now. My retelling also has elements reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, but I think it’s only a superficial resemblance. At the moment, the draft is in very rough form. It’s also told in first person by the heroine who kind of comes across as very angry. (Then again, she’s had a lot happen to her so I get why she’s angry.) It needs quite a bit of editing, especially on characterization. Because if the reader is going to sympathize with her, she needs to show some vulnerability.

But now that the 3-Day Novel Contest is over, I’m looking forward to NaNoWriMo. Yes it’s in November, but still. Less than two months away! And with the idea I have in mind, I think I may need a fair amount of time to prepare. So what is this idea? Well, I first mentioned it on Twitter. It’s based on The Dakar Rally which I found really fascinating when I first read about it. My original thought was to have a sci-fi version of the event, but then I thought it would work even better as a fantasy. There are so many interesting themes and ideas I can work with in a race across the African continent.

I already have two very interesting main characters in mind for the story. They are both murderers. They don’t like each other. But if they don’t work together and win the race, both of them will die. (Of course, they could die in the race, too, but that’s another matter.) As the actual Dakar Rally had different routes from year to year, my first step in planning is to pick what route to take. Then I’ll start research on the countries the route passes through, paying special attention to the mythology and folklore in those places. I think it’s going to be fun looking that stuff up. I’ve always thought that African folklore and mythology was interesting, but I’ve never had the proper story idea to use all that stuff before. But now I do.

Yeah, I’ve done NaNo for a long time. This should be old hat by now. But that’s the thing about loving writing. Every time you sit down and do it, it’s exciting because you have an exciting idea to tell. And I think it’s great that I’ve finally found an idea I’m enthusiastic about using for this year’s NaNo. (Of course, this is subject to change between now and then, but I haven’t been this excited about an idea this early in the game since 2005.) Because if you’re not enthusiastic about the idea, it’s going to be a long, long November.

Writing Update (A.K.A. Pew-Pew-Pew-OMG-BOOM)

So, AugNoWriMo came and went. I only got halfway through my goal, but if you added in all the writing I did for work, I would have easily surpassed it. But no, usually for these writing-a-novel-in-a-month things, I only count fiction so I’m content to just say I “failed” this and only got halfway.

However, I did manage to finish a short story to submit to the AugNoWriMo anthology. In some ways, finishing a piece is a lot more satisfying than just pounding out a kazillion words with no ending. It’s called “Unnatural Neighbors” and it’s about a hacker who gets shipped off to a backwater planet on a new assignment because she did something she wasn’t supposed to. The whole story revolves around whether or not the hacker’s new landlord actually killed his last tenant. So it’s more like a cozy mystery masquerading as sci-fi. And while there are genetically modified creatures and laser beams and pew-pew-pew-OMG-BOOM moments, most of this takes place in a freakin’ tea house. You can’t get more cozy than that.

Labor Day Weekend is also the time for the 3-Day Novel Contest. In previous years, Labor Day Weekend did not overlap with August so I didn’t have to worry about two writing events happening at the same time. But this year, no such luck. The last two years, I officially did the contest and actually submitted my work. This year, I decided to do this unofficially because I knew I would be busy and I haven’t had a chance to do any planning.

My goal, when I had done the 3-Day Novel Contest previously, was to write a 30k novel. Because it has overlapped with AugNoWriMo, I’ve decided to modify my goal to simply writing at least 30k over the three day weekend. And I’m counting the words I wrote for AugNo (but only the words I wrote on August 31) in that goal. So as of this writing, I have 20k more to go.

This morning, I did some outlining rather than writing. I’m more of a planner than a pantser in temperament and I’ve found that planning, even a little bit, beforehand allows me to write faster. I’ve outlined a retelling of the fairy tale Prince Lindworm. But while I’m a fan of fairy tales, enjoy reading other people’s retellings, and have plenty of ideas for retellings on my own, my follow through rate is rather dismal. So we’ll see if I crash and burn in the next two days.