Inquiring Minds

Kage Baker had an inquiring mind.

Many writers do, of course; though not all. James Fenimore Cooper did not like to speculate much, which is how he wrote such supremely boring novels about a well-documented historical period barely a generation before his own. But another, more inquiring and imaginative writer – Samuel Clemens – used Cooper’s habit to produce the hysterically funny “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”*, which Kage cherished as a guide on how NOT to write historical fiction. So every technique has its uses.

But most writers like to know the details; especially fiction writers and historians. They want to know what happened next, or what would happen if, or what might have happened if no one had been watching …  Being writers, as well as possessing inquiring minds, they then are compelled to tell someone else what they think occurred.

You get a lot of “secrets of history” books out of this sequence of events and compulsions. It’s about even odds as to whether the resulting story is  faerie tale or truth; if the author puts in enough footnotes and references, you may still be unsure by the time you reach the end of “How the Battle of the Bulge Secretly Hinged on the German Consumption of Vichyssoise”. Especially if you find out there that the author mistook potato leek soup for a French government.

But, you know, these things happen. Merely having an inquiring mind is insufficient to the task of producing either poetry or prose. Humans have a unique ability to convince themselves of the veracity of their own conclusions. A lot of people spend a lot of their time absolutely certain sure – probably wrong, but sure. And a lot of those are writers.

The knack that writers of this ilk have for producing books that sell plentifully is a torment and a mystery to writers like Kage: writers who are dedicated to research, who prefer truth to fantasy, who want to know the inner workings of whatever they are presenting as What Might Have Been. Kage agonized over whether or not the technology in her science fiction had a deep enough foundation in real physics, or science, or engineering: I would assure her that it only mattered if she understood sufficiently enough to write about it. But she did not agree, saying that she had to understand how it worked before she could speculate on what else it did ….

As she was not of a STEM-inclined set of mind, that was hard. We worked out the technology in madly involved details, in order to make things at least plausible to Kage herself. “It’s your world!” I would exclaim. “It works the way you say it does!” And she would glare at me and say, “That’s cheating. It’s got to connect to reality at least a little bit.”

And she was undoubtedly correct. She did get some disgruntled letters from readers complaining that the science in her stories was wrong, or the fiction was too fictional. Since they were usually citing her interpretation of Mars, we tended to tell these folks, “No, sorry, it’s valid extrapolation on known facts”. And then cite the reports we’d used for the description. Funny thing: a lot of what Kage wrote hopefully into her version of the colonization of Mars has come true – there’s water, there may very well be microbial life, there’s magma under the almost-dead crust. An even funnier thing: no one ever complained about Time Travel or immortal cyborgs – although several people got rather stroppy when Kage refused to explain how either process worked.

(It’s the Pineal Tribantine-3, of course. And you can make it up in the kitchen sink, like Love Potion No. 9. Someone does, somewhere in the Company books.)

But her ever-increasing insistence on connecting her fantasy to reality paid off in richer worlds, as well. Her Operatives were originally conceived as running on clockwork and hypnosis – their workings were gradually converted to GMO techniques, gene splicing, nanobots and unscrupulous biochemistry. This change produced more, and more interesting, stories. Two of the most tangible results were the story “Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin”, which revolved around an Operative who was allergic to his own memory RNA; and “O False Young Man”: about a dapper bachelor who was, indeed, run by clockwork.

Even her outright sorcerous fantasy – specifically, the universe of Smith, the Anvil of the World and the improbable Lord Ermenwyr – was based on as workmanlike and hands-on a school of magic as Kage could imagine. It works on mathematics, music theory, Chaos and Uncertainty in their swallow-tailed formal working coats.  For example, the reason Gard becomes a successful sorcerer while his saintly foster brother does not, is that Gard has perfect pitch – and Ranwyr is tone-deaf.

“That is just the kind of crap that really happens,” Kage would mutter, lost in creation at her keyboard. “The world needs more grit!”

Maybe she was right. But I know (because she did it) that Kage could look at the grittiest and most realistic story available in the news, and her eyes would unfocus softly, and she would say in a musing way (as if the ideas actually connected somehow) : “Hey, have the Russians really managed to transplant a dog’s head alive?”

“NO!” I would say indignantly. “And Lysenko didn’t grow beans inside of pumpkins, either!”

“Oh, I know that,” Kage would say. “That whole fiasco was exposed by Walt Kelly in Pogo.” She would consider her source then and add, “but what if they could?”

Then, that Halloween, she planted runner beans in a rotting Jack O’Lantern. And they grew …

*http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html