The idea of ideas, part 2

So, I wrote about ideas in writing as building blocks of a story on a par with nails. Which was a slight oversimplification, for purposes of setting perspective. Some ideas are more important to a particular story than others, so some of them might be boards, others major support beams, and others cornerstones. The main point is that it is the entire assemble of the structure that constitutes a story.

I admit that questions about ideas are one of my pet peeves. For example, in the late 1980s I started writing a series of hard science fiction short stories about a group of scientists and grad students following up on a tremendous interstellar tragedy caused by a small-ish black hole moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light. I got asked several times, “Where did you get the idea of a black hole moving so fast? That is so cool.”

Each person that asked seemed to be quite let down when I replied, quite truthfully, “There’s a small globular cluster orbiting the Milky Way Galaxy that has jets of hydrogen shooting out of it at a significant fraction of the speed of light. The total mass of those jets is the equivalent of thousands of stars. If a small globular cluster apparently made of ordinary stars could have an event that did that, what might be happening in the hearts of large galaxies?”

Astronomers have since discovered much more dramatic things shooting out of the center of big galaxies than those hydrogen jets that originally gave me the idea. So now the idea seems even less unusual.

And they were even more disappointed if I explained that the first story was to answer a request from the editor of the shared universe fanzine where the story originally appeared. For reasons way more complicated to go into, she needed me to destroy an entire inhabited star system with certain preconditions.

To me, the story isn’t about the black hole, nor even is it about the death and destruction caused by it. The first story is about the scientific method, and the kind of people who can’t observe an unexplained thing (in this case, a gravity lensing effect where one isn’t expected) without trying to figure out what caused it.

The subsequent stories are about curiosity, and different ways people react to it. One of the recurring conflicts is between some people who are obsessed with finding answers at almost any cost, and others who don’t feel that way. If you want to engage me in a conversation about the stories, that’s what I want to discuss, not the black hole. Nor the method someone might use to attempt to protect records are artifacts from a nuclear (or worse) attack. Nor how someone would engineer a biological weapon to effect a species from an alien ecosystem which you have almost no knowledge of. All of those are just gimmicks—things I concocted to put the characters into a series of situations where I could explore questions about the pursuit of knowledge, the morality of such pursuits, and so forth.

Those concoctions are interesting, and yes, I spent a lot of time researching various odd corners of science to come up with those building blocks, but that was all in service of the story.

And in the end, it’s the story that matters. If I don’t tell the story the best I can, I have failed. Even if I come up with a lot of “cool” ideas along the way.

Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.
-Ray Bradbury

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