Sunday, November 29, 2015

Selections from the Intragalactic Encyclopedia of Habitable Planets

My story, "Selections from the Intragalactic Encyclopedia of Habitable Planets," came out a few days ago in Kelly Ann Jacobson's new anthology, Dear Robot: An Anthology of Epistolary Science Fiction. I'm proud of the story, which is a Douglas Adams-esque take on a far-future encyclopedia cataloguing various species and cultural practices of the Milky Way galaxy.

But I'm even more proud of the anthology. It lives next to my bed right now and I read a story or two every night before I go to sleep, and dang! My co-contributors can write! I'm happy and humbled that my work appears in such company.

I started working on "Selections" in July of 2014. It began as a writing exercise. The first couple sentences of the first entry, "Sand," just came to me:  
"Two universal laws govern sand. One: every rocky planet that has either wind or liquid water has sand. Two: Sand gets into everything."
So I kept going with it, allowing myself to be silly. My normal fiction mode is more serious; this was the first humor piece I'd written. And once I finished the entries, all of which start with "S," I wasn't sure it would be a story. Who would buy it?

I showed it to my friend Scott Fogg, a regular and valued beta-reader of mine, who liked the entries but said they needed a narrative. I agreed, but wasn't sure what framework might tie them all together.  I didn't want to crib too directly from Hitchhiker's Guide, so I didn't really want the story to be about a journey in which the Encyclopedia gets used. Then my husband gave me the idea of the editors of the Encyclopedia. "What if the story is in their notes on the entries?" As a student of book history, I love learning about the ways in which texts are created--what kind of collaborative labor goes into an edited edition of a play, a medieval illuminated manuscript, or even an anthology. So the idea of telling a story using editorial notes and commentary appealed to the book-nerd in me.

Going in, I had no ideas about the over-arching plot, but once I started writing in the voices of the editors, their personalities were so strong that my story--about the creation of the Galactic Alliance and the discovery of a mysterious object called "The Box"--just came together. The first editor I created was Alyssa Carson, v. 13, an artificial intelligence and the lead editor on the project, whose unflappable rationality grounded the other two characters. She worked as a little name-drop, too, for one of my heroes; the real-life Alyssa Carson is a 9th grade "teen astronaut in training" who wants to be one of the first humans on Mars. I first heard of her because of Amy Poehler's Smart Girls initiative and in my alternate history, Alyssa gets her wish--and a lot more!

The other editors, being material and emotional, are more volatile than Alyssa. The human scientist Mahesh Atwal is intense, earnest, and pretty gullible. I wrote him as a stereotype of academics: really smart but lacking a well-developed sense of humor.

Which leads to some good pranks on the part of the third editor, R’Kaf Ka’Goff Uslav’terben-Jones. R'Kaf is a non-human whose origin, species, and even age are shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that zhe's gender-neutral, well-traveled, and more knowledgable about the galaxy than practically anyone else. Some readers might expect a character like this to be a sage, but my inspiration for R'Kaf was less Yoda, more Q from Star Trek: TNG. Zhe's immature, mischievous, and filthy-minded. I liked the idea of this ancient alien being basically a lovable asshole instead of a fount of wisdom.

The end of the story ... well, it's inconclusive, and it's meant to be. R'Kaf's trickster-nature comes through on the final page either way you read it. The truth of what actually happened depends on whether you take his statements at face-value or as jokes, and whether or not you believe that Alyssa is as reliable as she claims to be. But I'll leave that experience to you.

First page

*Shout-outs also due to Marion Deeds, Dario Sulzman, and Beth Pietrzak, who also read and gave me excellent feedback on this story!


Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky said...

I haven't read a lot of science fiction, but I just rediscovered 100s of handwritten letters under my bed. All for keeping the art of letter writing alive in our minds (and the world) Sounds like a great anthology.

Jana Nyman said...

It might be that I'm biased, but I thought your story was wonderful. I'm sure it's in very good company among the other stories in the anthology!

The Well-Rounded Geek said...

One of the great advantages of the epistolary tradition is that the narrator can be unreliable. Just love that!