The Pasadena Author’s Fair took place on February 21, 2015. Hobnobbing with other authors, and signing and selling books entertained me from setting up at 9:30 am until packing up books, bookmarks, and posters at 2 p.m. There was also a chance to present. My remarks, including four passages I read, are the bulk of this, my first blog post.
Good afternoon. I’m Rubin Johnson, a Californian, born in New York. I graduated Harvard before doing an engineering Ph.D. at Berkeley. I worked at big companies before starting a software firm. Lately, I’ve been focusing on the craft of fiction.
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my novels – Well Oiled and Cyberbully Blues, both Mayberry Multisport Adventure stories. Why Mayberry? I’ll explain and then read some excerpts.
My explanation includes my views of fiction, science fiction, and optimism. First, fiction. For me, there are three parts: the story, the storytelling, and, finally, the writing.
The story is characters and plot – what they do as well as when, where, and why. Solid likeable complex entities, people who want something and go after what they want – that’s key. For me, it takes imagination, research, and time to craft interesting characters and a plot that works.
Storytelling is how the writer does it. Selecting point of view characters, deciding what details of the settings to show, and the use of foreshadowing, suspense, and pacing – all these elements matter. Good storytelling can’t save a bad story, but bad storytelling can spoil a good one.
The third element is the writing. In my opinion, good writing is like a lamp shining on a page. Readers shouldn’t be pulled away by bad spelling or grammar. Instead they should read clear and concise prose that makes them feel the writer respects their time. Editing, critique groups, re-writing, beta readers, and re-writing some more can improve a piece but still, not even strong writing can save a weak story.
I agree with John Gardner’s notion that good fiction creates a continuous vivid dream. That requires the writer to use words to convey emotion and tickle the senses. Much like coders program computers, a writer programs the reader’s imagination. Good writing illuminates a good story being told well.
For me, science fiction is special. It means my goal is to explore technology’s impact on society by showing how it affects people you care about, specifically, characters in my stories. I write about the future, but to quote SF author William Gibson (who coined the term cyberspace): “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” So my futures include existing and new technology, but nothing that violates scientific principles. On the other hand, I push technology, sometimes to illogical extremes.
When technology is pushed, bad things can happen. Nuclear power inspires nuclear apocalypse. But we don’t have to imagine horrible outcomes; we can simply look around – global warming, privacy breaches, cyber-terrorism, and more. There are so many motivations for dystopian sci-fi. Alas, I grew up with space operas, an expression of space exploration’s hopefulness. So my third point: I decided to buck the dystopian trend with optimism, so I stumbled … into Mayberry.
So for all of you: Welcome to Mayberry, an idyllic southern California town of the near future that shows technology’s promise more than its pitfalls. My goal is to imagine what might go right while telling stories that expose the not-so-nice underbelly of a suburban paradise. Even without world-ending catastrophes, technology enables the best and worst of human nature. That’s what I write about.
Since I code and have done multiple Ironman races, both novels have heavy doses of computer programming and triathlon multisport references. I also touch on geocaching and bitcoins. I invent holos – combination cell phone-computers with holographic displays; homebots – household computer-telecom centers, and Stabilization of Life units – a realization of medical technology where quality of life has been sacrificed for quantity.
My first novel, Well Oiled, explores oil extraction issues based on plans to once again drill in my city, Whittier. I set the conflict in Mayberry, in the context of a story of teenaged cousins, Frank and Joey Wilson. They’re smart and athletic but have their challenges. Frank is especially troubled about his father’s mysterious death ten years ago.
Excerpt 1 from Well Oiled about technology
He wondered if they had boxed him in a Stabilization of Life Unit. He remembered seeing rows of patients stacked in individual SOL pods, each a gray coffin of timeless life, a sensory-deprivation cell humming with pumps and tubes pulsing with nutrients, fluids, sedatives, and more. Prods and probes outputted vital stats wirelessly to a central computing facility. Calories and drugs flowed in; waste products, data, and revenue flowed out. These antiseptic-smelling units were the fastest growing and most profitable segment of the health care industry. Underground caverns with robots were key to an efficiently managed warehouse environment.
A small team of technicians, programmers, and a single doctor could service thirty thousand. Low leakage rates meant losing fewer than one patient in ten thousand annually. Modern hospitals bragged they could keep people alive indefinitely in a cost-effective manner in their highly automated SOL units. Insurance payouts and social security checks kept flowing, mostly to the health care industry. Uncle Lee said being in an SOL was a fate worse than death.
A second excerpt, a race scene
Joey stretched out in aero position as he hit 40 mph on the road’s gradual descent. His one good eye now registered how quickly the turn was coming up.
He blinked. He scrunched his right eye especially hard. When he opened it, the road came into perspective. He’d powered into this turn way too fast. Up out of aero position. Hands on brakes. Squeeze gently. The world slowed. He alternated adding pressure on front and then rear brakes to bleed off more speed. Time crawled. He made his body as big a parachute as he could. It was working.
And it would have worked but for a small patch of red sand on the otherwise black pavement. His race tires touched one grain too many and gave up their grip on the world. Joey’s lean into the turn morphed into a meeting between the asphalt and his left side as the bike continued straight off the road.
Time that had so conveniently slowed for his recent maneuvers now quickened as Joey’s body scraped across the road, painfully removing skin.
My second novel, Cyberbully Blues, a prequel, ends where Well Oiled starts. It is a coming of age story of a technology-challenged teenaged girl, growing up with just her mom. Dakota has to deal with bullying, in real life, and in cyberspace. In addition, this novel offers a positive role model for girls to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), especially computer science. You may have heard of an organization called Girlswhocode. This novel shows how such a group might work.
First excerpt from Cyberbully Blues
Dakota saw a boy. He stood tall and relaxed. His eyes scanned the crowd as he bellowed, “Come One, Run All, Join Mayberry High’s cross country team this fall.” His smile infected her with playfulness. A bushy brown ‘fro topped his golden face, hiding his ears. His lean frame exuded energy. Taut muscles pressed against a tight tee shirt.
For the first time in her short life, Dakota’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of a boy. Without taking her eyes off this handsome target, Dakota nudged Marilyn. “Who’s that?”
Dakota pointed with her eyes.
“The blond man? The cross country coach?”
Dakota shook her head. “Not him. That tall boy. There.”
Marilyn laughed. “You mean Joey Wilson. Everybody in Mayberry knows Joey. Where have you been? And what’s this – you asking about a boy? No, you asking about a person. Dakota Hamilton, number one head-stuck-in-a-book girl only concerned about what, how, and maybe why, now asking a who question. What did your momma tell you yesterday?”
And a final excerpt
Dakota stood up and put her hands on her hips. “But Mom, I told you — I didn’t order those. Somebody pranked me.”
“I know. I know. But please try harder this school year. It’s important. And get the door. The homebot’s alerting. I need to get ready for work.”
As her mom headed upstairs, Dakota hurried to the front of the house and pulled aside the picture window’s curtain. A delivery drone loitered. She opened the door and walked out into a warm breeze. Six boxes sat in front of the garage.
The drone dropped another box. Then a small bot detached from the drone, flew to her, and hovered. “Dakota Hamilton? Mayberry, California?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Special delivery.” Her face, green eyes and all, filled the bot’s display screen. “Facial recognition confirmed.”
“But I didn’t order anything.”
“Voice match confirmed. 3:40 p.m. 31 August 2037. Delivery confirmed. Thank you.” The bot flew back and reattached to the drone. The shiny aluminum quadcopter rose into the blue cloudless sky, whirring and twisting into silence as it faded away.
Find me at mayberryoil.com.