Automatic Coupledom: Or, “This is Not a Love Story”

One thing I dislike is when the male and female lead of a book/show/movie inevitably become a couple. I loved the early seasons of the X-Files (after moments in early episodes with Gillian Anderson wearing less clothes than on-duty FBI agents usually do, but the same not happening to David Duchovny) was that the two main characters were co-workers with a sense of professionalism. They were not (yet) fated by the writers to be together just because of their respective genders.

Give the same situation to any two same-sex FBI agents in another film or TV show and viewers rightly wonder: “Wait, how long have you known this person?”, “Erm, what do you see in this person, exactly?”, “Are you so badly written that you only know the people who appear on screen – or do you have a larger life of family, dates, acquaintances, things you do when you’re not working, musical tastes, childhood memories, etc.”

This is the kind of unquestioned writing assumption I like to take apart in my science fiction. Would a person with a social circle of five or eight people of the same sex (because they’re all co-workers on an isolated planetary frontier) fall for someone they ordinarily wouldn’t date? After how long? Why – how would that sound inside their own head? How would complicating factors of one kind or another (including different orientations, new temporary staffers, the obligation to raise children together) change that? (Starting with: “Hrm, we’re all co-workers and breaking up with one or more of them might make this place unlivable.”)

My novelette “This is Not a Love Story” (in Black Denim Lit) takes a situation that ought to create romance in popular culture – two soldiers alone on a ship – except that they’re both male and straight. Instead it’s a story about traumatic bonding and, in time, romantic friendship. These are the same two soldiers in “Searching” and “Planet 50” (and they’re there, offstage, in the background in “No Woman, No Plaything” and “Planet 38”. My other stories set in this same universe play with other possibilities: two castaways who fall in love in “Life on Earth” (perhaps because of an alien life form, one of the only non-terrestrial candidates for sentience in this universe), two male co-mothers in “The World in His Throat” (in M-BRANE-SF’s anthology) Things We Are Not, and the protagonist of “Nightskyman Hope” who ignores (reasonably and realistically) the spouse-to-be who appears on the last page. (Yes, Steven’s two friends are “The World in His Throat”’s Olaf and Pursell.)

So read “This is Not a Love Story”, then “Searching”, then “Planet 50” – and come see my play about the same two soldiers (and their far-future clones) this summer: “The Other Two Men”. Or read them in reverse order, or read “Planet 50” after reading “No Woman, No Plaything” or “Planet 38” – each path will change the stories and show the people in them in a different light.

So do they, automatically, belong together?

-Lisa Shapter

Read My New Short Story “Nightskyman Hope”

I have a new short story out in this month’s issue of Expanded Horizons:  “Nightskyman Hope“.

I’d been doing the Three-Day Novel Contest for several years and concluded (rightly or wrongly) that the then-sponsors and I had too widely divergent senses of taste for me to ever place in the contest. A few friends and fellow writers recommended National Novel Writing Month and I doubted I could get a new narrator (or at least a familiar narrator with a new project) to talk for an entire month. Worse, I never know how long a piece will be when I start writing it: I dreaded starting off with fine hopes on November 1st and ending up with firmly concluded a short story or a novella a few days later.

I decided to try: it was what I did when I had similar doubts about starting the Three-Day Novel Contest. At the end of that first November I had a complete novella (50,000 words is just over the Hugo award’s standard for a ‘novella’. It would make a fine short novel by 1950’s or ‘60’s SF publishing standards but it falls far short of contemporary ones.) The novella was “Steven’s World”. Like all of my National Novel Writing Month works it is still in the awkward fledgling stage – I work on them and revise them but never have the concentrated time to end up with finished piece that is ready to stand on its own.

Like many of my works, “Steven’s World” puts the narrator in a situation where he (or she) has every reason to quit but chooses not to. It’s a novella about the sole survivor of the small advance team whose colony site unravels catastrophically – and how he (or rather she) becomes the mother to a second, successful colony with a new advance team. Shortly after I finished the novella I wondered what let this narrator continue. I don’t write heroic SF: my narrators are ordinary people affected by new illnesses, prolonged trauma, isolation, repeated griefs and every other real-world consequence of spending decades alone far from help on a frontier. So what let this narrator report back to base and accept a second assignment? Personality? Beliefs? Loyalty to earth? Not being eligible to get out of his contract to serve? Was this a heroic story? Military SF satire? Or something far more small-scale and human?

I wrote a short story, “Nightskyman Hope” to explain his choice. Steven is alone on a 20-person ship: sick, depressed, and traumatized with no one and nothing preventing him from flying his ship into a star or a black hole. By the end of the story he’s back on base, he’s deleted his I-accept-any-and-all-penalties resignation letter for good, and he’s met the person who will be the center of the rest of his life – all because of a good psychiatric crisis-response computer program. (Or is it? Officially there is no live voice communication across galactic space ….)

I would like to finish the novella linked to “Nightskyman Hope”: Garnett Dorman shows up in two other pieces (alongside one of few earth-born women to remain at her post outside of earth’s solar system), in a third story Steven finally gets to hash things out with his ex (“Life on Earth”’s Edward) – with some help from Things We Are Not’s Olaf (yes, that’s Edward again in that story), and all of them get a last bow in a novel I’m working on now. Each story I write changes the other works I write.

A list of my stories: http://lisashapter.com/category/read-my-short-stories-in-order/

-Lisa Shapter

New Englanders, Come See My Play! (Nov. 2015-May 2016)

“The Other Two Men” at The Players’ Ring — Wed., Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m. FREE (And Jan-May 2016)

The descendants of the four founders of Gestae’s World decide to clone 2 of them and raise them in careful recreations of their 300-years-gone-by hometowns in order to solve the problem of what went wrong with their lives.

This is about the day the two young men meet.

Four years ago, in about this part of November, I was working on my National Novel Writing Month novel. I had started a sequence of 74 short stories (“Planet 38” and “No Woman, No Plaything”) and I had decided the unfinished novel The 75th Story needed a sequel. That National Novel Writing Month I was writing that sequel – and about this point in the month a minor character in the novel said something to the narrator, took over her chair, and said “Author, I have a story to tell you.”

I sometimes have several narrators with different stories trying to talk to me all at once so I said what I usually say: “Get in line. You’ve interrupted the narrator I was already working with.”
The reply was quite surprising, “Well, she’s my wife. And you need to hear my story first.”

Characters spring these sorts of surprises on me all the time: in this case the first narrator, Resada Gestae, was happily married to only one person – not the second narrator. “Fine. Talk. Make it snappy, I have a 50,000 word deadline to meet by the 30th – just like every November.”

That novel made the word count by the end of the month – and I am still working on it as of this week. The same second narrator then interrupted Reseda Gestae’s sequence of 74 stories (including “Planet 38” and “No Woman, No Plaything”) to tell “Story 45” through “Story 63” (including “Searching” and “Planet 50”) – and then handed narration back to Reseda.

Just when I was thinking about revising that past November’s interrupted novel for National Novel Editing Month, the second narrator, Saskatoon Elis, interrupted again with another curve ball: a version of him from 500 years ahead started talking, the first man’s clone. So I wrote a long short story about the clone called “The Other Two Men” – while keeping up with the original story-a-week-project. I was looking at that long short story a few months later and noticed it was all in one setting and had only two main characters: rather claustrophobic or stage-y for a science fiction story, even SF stories that take place on one ship usually have more characters than that. I started to wonder if it would work as a play, so I looked for a word processor with a preloaded stage play format, lifted out all the short story’s dialogue and started a long process of re-writing (including showing the play to an actor and giving the play to my editor who writes plays for a living.)

In the process of sending my short stories to literary magazines (“The guidelines say ‘no genre’? Hey, I don’t like skiffy, either.”) I’d noticed that a few of them took scripts along with short stories, poems, and/or essays. I also sent the script to a few theaters but since I’m new at this I wrote it to be read on the page. (I went through a jag of reading The Best Play of the Year in high school, so I’ve read most of my theater rather than seen it.)

Portsmouth, New Hampshire has a decades-old tradition of small theaters who perform avant-garde, small-cast, minimal-set plays. I drew on that tradition as I turned “The Other Two Men” into a play, aware of what a small theater could and could not do. I sent to play to one of these role models: Portsmouth’s Pontine Theater and in their kind rejection note they suggested the Generic Theater might like to look at it. After a bit of confusion over how their process worked I hand-delivered three copies of the script (this is my first time out of the gate) with three copies of a form explaining in triplicate that, erm, no, I had not gone as far as casting or selecting a director for the piece – I only wrote it. I had very low hopes: my script was going into a contest against experienced playwrights who had done all of those things. I went home, sent out more short stories, and waited for another type of rejection slip – this time from a theater instead of a magazine editor.

Instead, I got an email that my play was part of a short list of 8 or so plays sent to the Players’ Ring, a second local theater, for the selection of the finalists. That was nice to know – my rejection slip would arrive a bit later than expected.

Both theaters wrote and said my first play “The Other Two Men” was selected as a finalist – however it was quite short (I knew that, my theater friends did talk me through giving an estimated run time) and it would be paired with a second play. I quietly hoped the second playwright would be better known than me – but odds were any playwright would be more experienced and better known that I was, so I was glad to hear that news.

The Generic Theater and the Players’ Ring matched my first-time play with James Patrick Kelly’s “The Promise of Space” – the man who’s won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus award (and many others, besides), the man who wrote for the Sci-Fi Channel’s Seeing Ear Theater. The man with an English degree whose acclaim-starred career in science fiction is nearly longer than my lifetime.

I will very much enjoy seeing his play “The Promise of Space” tonight – and on the dates to come in January-May 2016 at The Players’ Ring in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I will see the work true professionals, from the author to the director and actors from the Generic Theater of Portsmouth.

And I will have a chance to revise my play with feedback from an experienced director and actors and get a second chance at making the “The Other Two Men” into something that can work on the stage. I am deeply grateful for this, and to the Generic Theater, and the Players’ Ring, and to James Patrick Kelly (“Y’know, you don’t need *this many* stage directions.”) for their guidance and advice.

Come see James Patrick Kelly’s “The Promise of Space” and my play “The Other Two Men” read tonight by the company of The Generic Theater at The Players’ Ring tonight at 7:30 p.m, the tickets are free. (Further dates will follow in January-May 2016).

– Lisa Shapter

My New Book A Day in Deep Freeze is Out!

My alternate history novella A Day in Deep Freeze is now available in paperback and ebook forms!

1963: Emran Greene is a successful corporate accountant, a hopeful soon-to-be-father, and an unremarkable husband–except for the lingering effects of an experimental wartime truth serum, his ex-boyfriend, the impossibility of his conceiving a child, and all of the other secrets he keeps from his wife and his employer. One of these, the secret of the lonely grave he visits regularly in Riverport’s Castleview Cemetery, holds a tragedy that just won’t stay gone…

Order it from:

Amazon,com

Aqueduct Press

Are you a bookstore or library?  Click here.

Are you a reviewer?  Click here.

-Lisa Shapter