|Stories I May Never Write|
Issue #43 (March 1985)
A nickel's worth of ideas for the taking
Ideas are a dime a dozen. I know that - I've said so myself, many times. It's the doing that counts. Still, I've hoarded my little story ideas as though they were priceless gems, awaiting only the right opportunity, the right kind of inspiration, the right degree of push, to polish and mount
them as the jewels they should be, the ornaments of my self-conception as a writer.
Truly creative people don't worry about having their ideas stolen. They have so many ideas that they can give them away.
[quoteright]"Truly creative people don't worry about having their ideas stolen," Joan Shogren remarked to me once, unwittingly shaming me. Joan is a truly creative person. "They have so many ideas," she said, "that they can give them away."
Well, I can give away ideas too. But maybe not for the same comfortable reason that Joan does. I'm giving them away because I like them well enough to share them, but for some reason those magic conditions haven't coalesced sufficiently to permit me to develop them. You could translate that to mean that I've been too lazy to work on them myself, but I wish you wouldn't. Just possibly someone else will find a germ in one of them that leads to the creation of something interesting, and chances are that even if I eventually used them myself, my results would be so different from someone else's that the common source would be indistinguishable or wouldn't matter.
At the going rate, then, here is five cents' worth of ideas for stories I may never write.
Transition into the future.
Science fiction stories set in the future almost invariably take place when massive changes from our present conditions have already been accomplished: space travel is an established fact, new governmental systems have arisen, the social order has been overhauled, technology has drastically altered the performance of ordinary, everyday tasks. But however such changes actually come about, they don't occur through overnight transformations. Change is a gradual process, even in today's speeded-up terms, and we are in fact in the midst of such transitions right now.
My story would take place at the stage when advances in robotics had put fairly reliable mechanical drudges on the market for public consumption - all-purpose robots that could perform yard and household chores by a system of commands that the average person could master. The robots would be about as commonly in use as, say, personal computers or VCRs are now or television sets were thirty years ago: that is, they are still considered a luxury item, although their prices are coming down into the range that most people can afford; by no means does everyone have them, but advertisers are trying to make people think so, and people are starting to believe that sooner or later they will be in every household.
My main characters would be a young couple who have not quite caught up with the times. The woman wants a robot in the worst way. Her best friends have them. She is embarrassed to be seen washing her own windows or doing her own laundry while her neighbors have programmable machines to take care of the menial chores. She is blissfully optimistic about the imperfections of the devices - their tendency to malfunction periodically or their not infrequent gross misinterpretation of a command. She is confident that contending with the occasional foul- up, such as coming home to find her lingerie spread on the front lawn and the robot calmly scrubbing it with a rake, is preferable to her bondage to all the routine, repetitive, unrewarding tasks of household maintenance. She would much prefer to spend her time pursuing a career interest of her own.
Her husband does not share her eagerness to keep up with the Joneses. He says that robots are still too expensive and too undependable. He says that he would rather wait until the new technology of directly programmable homes is further developed - that he doesn't want to send a robot bumbling around the kitchen to make a pot of coffee when in just a few more years the kitchen will be equipped to make the coffee itself. He says that he would rather hire a person if she needs the help, and so what if all their friends have robots?
The story line would treat their conflict within the context of an uncomfortable transitional stage of our technological society - the near future, not the distant future. The tone would probably be humorous, but the theme would be that getting from here to there can mean crossing some rough terrain-not just for the space explorers out there but for ordinary people on your block.
At every major decision point in a person's life, a separation occurs between what the person becomes and what the person might have been. And sometimes the person may wonder - curiously, whimsically, sadly, or even bitterly - how things would have turned out if he or she had chosen differently.
But suppose that the "might-have-been" self somehow continued on its original course while the actual self proceeded in the new direction dictated by the choice. Over time, then, one would spin off multiple shadow-selves, each one of which represented the alternative to some choice actually made - "the road not taken." For example, a character and her family move away from her childhood neighborhood, but some part of her goes on living in the beloved old home. She grows up and goes away to college, but her shadow-self stays home and marries the high school sweetheart. She risks her financial stability on graduate school to follow a career of her choice, but her ever-conservative other self takes a well-paying but uninspiring job on graduation from college. Suppose, further, that at some point in life - a crisis point, perhaps - the person comes face to face with all those shadow-selves that he or she might have been. What questions would they ask one another? What answers might they find?
In the aftermath of Jonestown, many people asked themselves what it would take to make people follow someone like Jim Jones so very far along the dark, twisted paths of his own making. We have been told that the basic human necessities are physical in nature: food, clothing, and shelter, sleep, the fulfillment of sexual drives, and so forth. But those people put something - what? loyalty? faith? a philosophy? - ahead of the fundamental instinct for survival.
Suppose that someone decided to try to investigate directly the nature of such power over people's lives and minds. Suppose that he possessed certain charismatic qualities of leadership and that he had access to a group of people - fellow students perhaps - on whom he might try out his influence. Suppose, even, that he were a psychology student who at the outset had nothing more insidious than an innocent experiment in mind. So he invents the trappings of a cult, placing himself at its center, and begins to attract followers. Maybe in the beginning he has a few associates who are willing to go along with him, half-jokingly, in the spirit of inquiry, to see what comes of it. Now suppose that some of those he draws to him take him entirely seriously - and suppose further that his own ego becomes involved to the extent that he begins to believe his own rhetoric and imagines that he has the powers named in his own fictions. What will happen to him? Where will it lead him? When will he lose control and become the puppet of the imaginary forces he himself has created? How will he and his followers end up?
It is no longer astonishing to see news accounts of some crazy with a gun who shoots up a school yard, a restaurant, or some other public place, injuring or killing utter strangers without warning or mercy.
My idea involves a man who might easily have been a sniper's victim. A sniper strikes at a time and place where he had intended to be on that particular day; only the sheerest chance had kept him elsewhere. His escape from the most meaningless sort of death - as a random victim of an enraged, impersonal killer - haunts his mind. He begins to fear public places and to overreact to minor incidents that he perceives as potentially threatening. For instance, he is lunching in a fast-food restaurant when a man with a package under his arm walks in. For some reason this man's behavior makes the central character uneasy, so that when the man with the package makes an unexpected move, our character suddenly throws his table over and crouches behind it, shouting to the other patrons to get under cover. It is his behavior, not that of the man with the package, that is strange and upsetting to others. Fear feeds on fear, and the wary reactions his increasingly odd behavior triggers in others intensifies his paranoia. In the end, he has grown so obsessed with the terror of becoming a random victim that it is he who sits beside an open window with a rifle over his arm, taking aim at the passersby.
The young adventuress.
A little girl is an avid reader of the classics of children's literature. Whichever one has made the deepest recent impression on her becomes part of her life for a while, absorbing the realities of her everyday world. After reading Cinderella, for instance, she dressed herself in the rags her mother kept for dust cloths and scrubbed the garage floor with Comet.
Every summer she spends part of her vacation living out the experience of one of the books she has read. Her parents take it all in stride.
"She's back?" says her father at dinner one evening. "Where's she been this time?"
"Oh, she's been an orphan for the past three weeks," says her mother, setting the table. "You might have guessed it from when she was reading Oliver Twist a while back. It was either going to be that or she was going to go and be marooned on some island. The orphan was probably easier. I don't know where she went, though. You'll have to ask her that at dinner. She's gone upstairs to put on her best dress because a kind, wealthy family has just taken her in."
"Us?" her father asks, lifting the lid of a pot on the stove.
"Right," says her mother. "You know, I wish she could just let us know when she's coming back. At least we wouldn't have been having beef stew."
The Biblical account of the life of Jesus comes to its dramatic climax with the events that Christians commemorate at Easter: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. According to the gospel, all those events came about just as Jesus has foretold them to his disciples.
But what if things had gone differently when Pilate offered the crowd a choice of which prisoner to release? Suppose they had called for the death of Barabbas and the freeing of Jesus? God's plan had to be fulfilled and the lamb had to be sacrificed. Wouldn't the disciples have had to sneak Jesus out of town by night and give out the word that he'd been crucified anyway? Would Jesus have had to live incognito in another city for the rest of his life? Would he have died many years later, old and defeated and unknown, in a room of some run-down hotel?
Better disguise this one in some other setting - another culture, another time, another set of characters - but raise the question just the same: what happens to a messiah whose persecution doesn't come through on schedule?
* * * * *
I've heard it said that the difference between somebody who is a writer and somebody who isn't is that the writer actually writes it. Putting these ideas down on paper doesn't make me a writer - it just makes me somebody with ideas. But I do feel more like a writer now than I did when they were just in my head. Now we'll see if I can take the next step and turn one of them into something. If I don't, maybe you will.
And just watch - if I do, someone will accuse me of stealing the idea, because he remembers reading it somewhere before.