I want to tell you a story with a wonderfully terrible ending.
It starts in high school, where I sat quietly in class for days on end ignoring girls and filling notebooks with cheap knockoffs of my favorite sci-fi novels. It looked like I was taking notes, you see. (“I was not challenged enough in school.” Isn’t that what they say these days?)
Like most young readers of my generation, Herbert and Gibson were big influences, although my middle teens were full of TSR fantasy. So not surprisingly what I wrote was cyberpunky sci-fi with magical overtones. I still have some of those old notebooks. There’s not a damn thing worth reading in the lot.
I was a big nerd, as you have no doubt guessed, and that meant I also read comics and played both tabletop RPGs and the early computerized versions, and I watched a crap-ton of Japanese anime, having cut my teeth on Robotech, Carl Macek’s mutant version of the Macross saga. I even co-founded an anime-themed student organization in college that, last time I checked (a year or two ago), was still going.
It was sometime in college that I switched from writing mostly novellas to writing mostly comic scripts. I didn’t stop with prose, but I was so immersed in it with my classwork, and what we read was so old and drab, that comics seemed edgier to 19-year-old me. New. Modern. So I grew a pair and submitted works to Dark Horse and Vertigo, both of which still accepted unsolicited manuscripts in the 90s, and was unanimously rejected.
But there was a clear progression, which I didn’t notice until I was leafing through my memorabilia box in 2012. I went from rejection slip to rejection form letter to typed, signed rejection letter to corresponding (briefly) with the submissions editor at Dark Horse, who encouraged me to get a job in the industry. He said the script I had submitted, an anime-inspired high fantasy, was otherwise good enough — he just wasn’t sure they could market it. I needed to prove myself, he explained, and then folks might be willing to take a risk on an unknown author. But probably not before.
Any sane person would have taken his advice and continued on after graduation, but noooooo. I just HAD to go to medical school. sigh… I tell everyone it was a smart decision — medicine is a noble profession with solid prospects — it just wasn’t the right decision, nor a good one. I was immature for my age, and it took me longer to realize than it should have. (A very mature 22-year-old wouldn’t have gone at all.)
One of the first clues to my mistake was my reaction to the loss of prose, the first of two. All you have time for in medical school is study, sleep, and the basics of life — or at least that was my experience. I loved science, and I liked medicine well enough, but I didn’t love it. And you really have to love it. I loved reading and writing. I slipped into a depression.
After I made the (very difficult) decision to drop out, I immediately went back to what I knew, only now I found myself torn between fiction and non-fiction. I got an entry-level office job, where I was again not challenged, and sat at my desk downloading porn and writing very haughty essays on politics and education and the biology of bad decision-making. I also tried my hand at a science fiction novel called Darksign.
It was, as all my works had been up to that point, heavily influenced by manga and anime, although it originated in a split-second dream — I was awoken from it — where all I really remembered was an image: a female manga character with no hair wearing a form-fitting body suit floating in the middle of a massive spherical hologram, which was a diagrammatic representation of and the control mechanism for her ship — a Mars-sized vessel made of concentric rings powered by a white dwarf star trapped in a bubble of space-time at the false planet’s core.
Over the next several months — this is circa 2001-2, just after my first visit to Japan, where I was on 9/11 — I began working on this novel after my day job and, while I had it, before my night job teaching biology. (Two jobs is not fun, but no one would pay a med school dropout a living wage.)
I failed horribly. I wrote 120-some pages, which was the most I had ever done up to that point, and had no idea where to take the story. I realized I had no idea what I was doing. Like, no clue. I didn’t even know how to approach it. I was better trained to remove an appendix, I thought. I wasn’t qualified for that, but I was better trained for it than for crafting a novel!
I overreacted, took the frustration as evidence that non-fiction was my calling, and began a now defunct “atheist-themed” blog, as one follower called it. People with talent, I figured — those who were meant to be novelists, the true masters — came to it naturally, and I clearly did not.
I had since moved from Oklahoma to Washington, DC and gotten a new job, and while I did blog regularly, I also advanced in my company — I was good at what I did — and so started working long hours. And once I started dating in earnest, whereas I never really had before (I told you I was immature for my age), I again barely had time to read, let alone to write, and blogging withered as well. I lost prose again.
But I got married. And I got promoted to executive management. I got my wife through law school. We bought a house. We were preparing for a family. And then came illness and destruction. And I lost all of that.
I came back to Darksign once more in the late 2000s, at which time I officially declared it junk and resigned it to the trash. I think I found a back-up copy of some middling version while I was cleaning out my house after my divorce. I can laugh at it now. As I should. Both of them, actually.
I hadn’t given the book any thought until just recently, when I found this art by Steve Burg (above), which is EXACTLY how I pictured the sentient planet-ship, TAL, as seen from the surface of a nearby inhabited world. And then I remembered.
At the start of the book, the main character is trying to save the last of a sentient, once-space-faring race of floating whale-like creatures — cetaceans — from a planetary infection. In that universe, dark matter was the inert remnant of transmutation by the ultimate replicating matrix, a matter-energy hybrid that did nothing but turn everything it contacted into more of itself. It “infected” anything tangible: asteroids, planets, even stars, and as they turned, they became cold and black and eventually exploded, which (like a cell rupturing from a viral load — you can see the influence of my medical education) spread the infection throughout and even between galaxies.
In the hasty evacuation from the dying planet, the main character turns one of the levels of her ship into an oceanic habitat and brings the cetaceans aboard, despite their objections that they wanted to die with their home world. The forced relocation of interplanetary refugees creates something of an ethical dilemma for her, and also convinces a firebrand revolutionary, preaching the destruction of the universe, to sneak some of the infection aboard, smuggled in the belly of a whale. And so the sentient planet-ship contracts a terminal illness through an act of biomechanical terrorism.
But the cetaceans were not the only species the main character has saved in this way. (Jemma was something of a do-gooder.) Entire burgeoning civilizations existed on board, some of which were completely ignorant of their location. Hence, the death of her ship would result in the loss, not only of millions of lives, but of whole races and cultures. And so it was she had to battle the raging infection, which caused systems on the ship to fail (at the worst possible times, of course), while also scouring the universe for a cure.
The plan, I think, was to have that search lead her into contact with races so powerful that even a star-powered planet-ship would be no sure defense — a damaged one less so. As a result of one such encounter, she would hear a rumor that there might exist somewhere in the universe a white form of the dark infection, and that if brought together the two forms would eliminate each other, as with matter and anti-matter.
In the background of all of this was another mystery, that of the origin and nature of a “race” of beings, or perhaps a single individual, believed to exist by all the great space-faring species, but which none of them had ever seen, and also believed to be the authors of the planet-ships, hers being not the only one — creatures known only as the Godhead. I think the idea was that “they” were incorporeal and as close to omnipotent as one could logically get. But I don’t think I ever figured out what they were for.
So as you can see, I had plenty to work with, both good ideas and bad. But I still couldn’t make a novel. And so it died. May it rest in peace.
The point, dear reader, is that novelists aren’t born. No one, except by chance, gets it right their first time. One can’t plan to get struck by lightning, or win the lottery. Such is luck. No one is born knowing how to read, or write code, or bake a cake, or play a game, or how to balance an accounting sheet, or be a master lover, or a spouse, or a mom, or how to plot, or make characters, or design a delicious twist, but we’re all born with the capabilities for such things. The difference is practice.