Friday, March 30, 2012

A word on words

Hopefully it's become clear that I am picking my verbs very carefully for this novel. There are essentially three different gravitational conditions that my crew moves in: Mars gravity, asteroid gravity, and zero gravity (microgravity).

I want to be careful with my words because I want my readers to really have a sense of what extended space travel might feel like. My inspirations in this regard are Dune, and the videogame Portal.

When I read Dune (which is pretty often, since it's one of my favorites), I have to have a big glass of water on hand. Herbert makes me feel the water in my body, and persuades me to imagine what it would be like to have almost none. Some of the most moving scenes in the book help accomplish this. First, the scene where Stillgar the Fremen leader meets with Duke Leo Atreides. After talking of alliance, Stillgar spits on the Duke's table. It's a tense moment: surely this is a great insult! But Duncan Idaho quickly explains that it is, in fact, a great honor. Stillgar has given the gift of his body's water: the liquid in that sputum will not be reclaimed, and is gone forever. Later in the book, after Paul Atreides has killed Jamis, he cries at the young man's funeral. "He gives water to the dead," the Fremen whisper; an almost unconscionable waste, and a great gift. Herbert doesn't use scientific description to make the reader feel the lack of water on Arrakis, but instead uses human emotion.

One of the common tag lines associated with the game Portal is "Now you're thinking with portals!" It's funny, but it actually turns out to be accurate. At some point in the game, most players will begin to think three-dimensionally, moving their character in ways that would have been almost impossible to conceive of at earlier stages in the game. If the player is really immersed in the game, it may take a moment to remember that she cannot, in fact, port across their house to grab a soda from the fridge. (Here's a funny, but not terribly exaggerated, example:

That's what I want to accomplish with Beltrunners. I want my reader to be surprised when they stop reading for a minute and stand up, and their feet actually hit the floor. I want her to think, "If I pushed off the couch at the right angle, I bet I could float all the way through that door without stopping."

I'm trying to achieve this effect by selecting my verbs very carefully: in zero-g environments, I don't use words that assume gravity: step, sit, walk, set, lay/lie, etc. In low-g environments, I can use those words, but the effects must be different. In normal-g (for my characters, this is Mars gravity, which is about 2/3 Earth gravity), no zero-g words can be used: words like float, glide, push off, etc. (Incidentally, if you spot an word that's out of place in the novel, please let me know.)

People know intellectually what zero gravity looks like: we've seen videos from space, not to mention Apollo 13. But most people don't think about what it would feel like to live there for days on end. They don't understand on a visceral level how everything about your motion would have to adapt. That's what I'm hoping to do: make the ordinary reader feel like they've spent 9 months traveling through the Asteroid Belt with the crew of the Curious Machine.

I hope this works. The readers will be the ultimate judges.

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