I’ve been working on a new project and am just now far enough into it that I can call it a manuscript. The title I’m working with is ‘Tin Ballerina,’ and I’m really quite excited about it. I think it has a lot of potential, and while the idea behind it is quite complex and difficult to do justice to in a short explanation, I think it will capture the imagination of my audience and lead to awesome things. I haven’t been this excited about writing in several weeks.
But it’s a Science Fiction novel, not a Fantasy novel. There are a number of differences between the genres, of course, but one is of particular concern to me as the author:
In a Fantasy novel like The Ballad of Iron Percy, I can make everything up. In a Science Fiction novel, I need to do research.
In Fantasy, even the laws of physics can be violated with Magic. History, Culture, and the concepts associated with both can be treated like a buffet – take what you want, leave out what you don’t. Nothing is implausible, because your readers suspend their disbelief. It takes a lot more for the story to descend into Lame. In Science Fiction, you actually have to sound like you know what you’re talking about. Your hypothetical future needs to seem somewhat believable according to the real, actual, not bullshit laws of physics and technological development that you’re used to experiencing in the real world. There’s some fudge room, of course. It’s fiction. Only the most determined pedants are going to hit wikipedia every time you introduce a new piece of hypothetical technology. Still, it has to pass clear a mental hurdle of ‘Yeah, that’s plausible enough for me to imagine’ in order for your audience to really get into the book.
You have to convince people who, in general, desperately want to believe you. This is by no means an impossible task, but you do have to try at it.
The book I’m writing features (you guessed it) a Ballerina as the main character, and its setting is a few decades after a near apocalypse in the near future. The world is relatively stable, now, but it’s vastly different from how it was before. There was a virus, and a few nukes did go off as deep, historical tensions boiled over when some nations’ populations were decimated, but that’s all in the past. Mostly. The important part is that the biosphere is relatively intact. So, instead, the Collapse was mostly economic. The world in 2030 (20 years or so before the ‘present day’ of the novel) relies heavily on a globalized economy to meet the needs of the people living in it, so in many places, life’s essentials come from far away. The means of transporting these goods around – liquid fuels – is suddenly disrupted as many OPEC nations are consumed by the Porcelain virus or reduced to nuclear craters, so survivors around the world are forced with the impossible task of trying to meet the demands of their unwieldy populations with what resources can be found or produced locally. In Post-Constitutional America, they have to do this without the aid of a central government, because the President and her administration are all locked away in a bunker beneath the irradiated ruin that was Washington D.C., and they cannot communicate with the outside because they are being actively jammed by the architect of the catastrophe.
This is an oversimplified version of the setting, but you get the general idea: thirty years in the past, a Malthusian wet dream ravaged the world economy and forced survivors to make some really tough decisions. Technology is less advanced than it was in the past almost everywhere , except where pre-Collapse tech has been salvaged and maintained. The institutions and ideas of Constitutional America have been repurposed or disbanded entirely. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t want to give too much away in a blog post. What I’ve mentioned so far should be enough for you to see the avenues of research I’ve got to take. If you’re reading this, perhaps you could suggest other books for me to check out.
First is Ballet. I knew next to nothing about the art last month, and I need to have enough knowledge on the subject to portray a Ballerina convincingly in a novel. Yet as I’m sure you’re able to imagine, Ballet is incredibly complex. It takes a lifetime of study to master. Students begin at a young age and practice constantly in order to get good at it. I picked it as the main character’s profession for a couple of reasons – Ballet is incredibly cool, it’s extremely technical and requires a large amount of patience and dexterity, and it’s completely useless outside of Manhattan in Post-Constitutional America. The character is intelligent and a master of her chosen discipline, but she’s easily thrown out of her element because her area of expertise is so narrow. She looks at almost everything through the Dancer lens. So, I need to have a pretty good idea of what that lens is like. A daunting task.
“That’s okay,” I said to myself. “I’ll just consult Google, then Amazon. I can buy a book or something. It will be easy!” Lawl.
As it turns out, it’s awfully hard to get your hands on a book on Ballet that was not written under the assumption that the reader aspires to be a Ballet Dancer. I certainly don’t fall into that category. I’m not looking for a step-by-step guide to direct my practice or technique, I’m looking for a book that puts the art of Ballet in cultural and historical context for me, that describes the basic techniques and gives me the background information I need to appreciate the art from a more informed point of view. I could not find one of these books while searching on Amazon.
However, while I was on vacation in America, I happened to come across a pair of them while browsing in random bookstores. The first is called Apollo’s Angels, by Jennifer Homans. This provides the cultural and historical backdrop I was looking for. The language is dry and fact-filled, but it’s exactly the sort of source I need to fake a lifetime of Ballet knowledge.
I was also given a more practical book on modern techniques, training, and practices, along with a huge number of stunning pictures. It’s called The Ballet Book, by Nancy Ellison and featuring the American Ballet Theatre, and it’s been a great introduction to the modern art of Ballet. Plus, it doubles as an excellent drawing resource. I haven’t been this stunned at what the human body can do with enough training since I discovered internet porn.
I’ve also had to look at the scientific and economic theories that make up the ’speculative’ part of my fiction here. I haven’t had to get too deep into speculative tech ideas yet, because I’m not at that stage in my novel and any pre-Collapse technology portrayed isn’t going to be too far away from the level of tech we’re at currently. There will be a few layover gadgets that haven’t been invented yet, but they’ll apply principles that already exist.
More immediately, I’ve found that I need a working knowledge of energy technology, the power infrastructure in the US, and a bit of information about where we get the things that we require to sustain our lives and lifestyles. This has led to some interesting (if frightening) reading and research. For instance, in my speculative future, the world’s surviving population loses access to most of its oil reserves.
Fun Fact: The United States consumes roughly 20 million barrels of oil in a day, which is the highest in the world. By a lot… China comes in second place, and we use roughly triple what they do. That’s a pretty conservative estimate, too, but I’m rounding down for the sake of my analysis. America’s proven oil reserves account for 1.5% of the world’s total – most of the world’s oil reserves are in the Middle East, though Canada does have a bunch. Anyway, if Jesus came and threw some miracles around this bitch to extract all of America’s proven oil reserves, you would get something like 21 billion barrels.
Sooo, if we maintained current consumption rates, we’d eat through our own oil supply in less than three years. (21,000,000,000 barrels / 20,000,000 per day is 1050 days, divided by 365 per year is 2.87 years) I don’t know about you, but that scares the shit out of me. It’s good for my concept, though – a sudden severance from abundant energy would have catastrophic results for the surviving population. When gasoline becomes too expensive to be viable, and our network of trucks becomes useless, how will food and other supplies get to population centers like New York? Answer: it won’t. Millions will face starvation if they don’t move as they realize that their location can’t possibly support the huge number of people living there.
Fun Fact Two: America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve is beefy enough to keep the country running for like 70 days. The SPR is spread across four locations in Texas and Louisiana. So, when the fit hits the shan and the Federal Government gets decapitated in my fictional universe, the Republic of Texas will be a strong regional power. After all, much of their pre-Collapse tech will still work, and they can keep themselves safe by conserving their massive oil stockpile and using it to give themselves a military advantage for a few decades. They will have fuel to keep their tanks and jets running, and it could last a while if they took steps to conserve it.
Anyway, the reading eats into my writing time on occasion, but that’s okay. It’s still forward progress, though it does make me a little antsy to spend my writing time on research because it’s a violation of my Method. So far, so good.