Ferrett Steinmetz: Five Things I Learned Writing The Uploaded
Life sucks and then you die…
…a cyberpunk family drama from the ingenious author of Flex.
In the near future, the elderly have moved online and now live within the computer network. But that doesn’t stop them interfering in the lives of the living, whose sole real purpose now is to maintain the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life slaving away for the dead. It turns out that he’s not the only one who wants to reset the world…
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I think Tolkien is one of the most toxic influences on speculative fiction. It’s not because of his dodgy racial overtones in making all the orcs dark, degenerate Elves, or the way he pounded Tom Bombadil’s godawful Vogon poetry into our eardrums.
It’s Tolkien’s maps. And his fancy-shmancy languages. And all his meticulous worldbuilding.
Not that I’m opposed to worldbuilding, mind you! My novel The Uploaded is soaking in deep, crunchy cultures, because I take a single idea – so what happens 500 years after we perfect brain-uploading technologies and no one’s afraid of dying any more? – and follow that concept all the way down.
But Tolkien’s influence hangs over speculative fiction like its own cancerous Eye Of Sauron, leading thousands of wayward nerds to believe that you need a robust cartography program and a linguistic analyst before you can write your world-busting saga. I have at least ten friends who clutch their painstakingly-imagined portfolio of Coherent Magic Systems and Plausible Alternate Biologies to their chest, believing on some level that if they accumulate enough worldbuilding details, the weight of their imagination will spontaneously cause a novel to form.
But no. Let me tell you the first thing I learned in writing The Uploaded:
You Are Not Writing An RPG, So You’d Better Learn To Be Your Own GM
“So they’ve invented a digital Heaven,” I thought. “Your brain’s uploaded at the moment of death, and saved to a game server where you live forever playing the most awesome MMORPGs in existence.
“How’s that change society?”
Bing! The worldbuilding centers of my brain lit up. Because when you know as a stone-cold fact that there’s a palpable reward awaiting you when you pass on, life becomes kind of an inconvenience. Everyone wants to be dead – especially when the dead have the votes, and the old crusty racists never die, and the living world becomes only useful as a means of keeping the game servers running. Dead politicians would need to pass laws to prevent suicide, and living would become downright unfashionable, and people would come to hate tangible things because who wants to watch both your creation and your meat-body rot when you can craft digital items that will await you in your artificial paradise?
If I’d been writing a roleplaying supplement, all that shit would be awesome. Some DM would get plotbunnied and generate their own adventure, and some players would devise compelling characters, and I wouldn’t have to be bothered with coming up with a story that utilized all these elements.
But I wasn’t. I was writing a novel. And while pure worldbuilding is fun for those of us with a what-if nature, you can get lost in generating artificial details.
Eventually, every story needs two things:
– At least one person readers will find interesting enough to follow them through 300+ pages of pure Novel, and:
– A reason to get that person out of the house and adventuring.
Thus far I had neither. So where would I start? Fortunately, I had a mentor who loved porn.
Neil Gaiman’s Porno Expertise Comes In Surprisingly Helpful
In 2008, I went to the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop, and Neil Gaiman was one of my teachers. And I talked to him about some half-baked idea I had for a story, and he brightened and said, “Oh! It’s like porn!”
“Whaaaaaaa?” I said, boggled that Neil goddamned Gaiman was sharing his deep-seated lust for The Devil In Miss Jones with me.
“Or a musical,” he added quickly. “You want an excuse plot.”
“Of course I do,” I murmured, but by then I was, unfortunately, still stuck on the porn.
“I mean, all the viewer wants in a porno is to get to the next sex scene,” he explained, not at all lasciviously. “Just like all the viewer wants in a musical is to get to the next musical number. Anything that gets in the way of that is going to annoy them.”
I was, by now, ablaze wondering exactly how many pornography novels Neil Gaiman had written, presumably clever Victorian pornos where gentlemen with monocles were studiously served by prim horseboys in strict adherence to classical mythology, under a pseudonym like “Melmoth The Rogerer” – but he seemed into this concept of “plot,” so I nodded.
“What you want,” he told me, “Is a plot that showcases as many of the weird elements of your world as possible. Devise something that draws your characters through the most interesting parts of your landscape and then get out, quickly.”
“You mean climax quickly, of course!” I ejaculated.
“Get out,” he said, flinging his tea at me, and I have never heard from Mr. Gaiman or his erotic Gormenghast fanfic again.
Still, his advice rang back to me when I began looking at The Uploaded again – okay, I had a ton of weird subcultures in this world where death had been conquered – the suicidal LifeGuard squadrons who were tasked with keeping the living in line, the terrorist NeoChristians who violently rejected what they saw (not illegitimately) as a soul-destroying affront to God, the orphanages where kids were dumped after their parents nipped off to the Upterlife, the scientific enclaves where they maintained the servers.
So I needed a plot that would have someone herded through all of these locales, and then exit stage right. Probably a rescue plot – a boy on a quest to murder his sister! That’s an excuse if ever I’d heard one. I’d knock this plot off before lunchtime and then return to scouring the net for Neil Gaiman’s porn.
But I was too clever, alas. Because:
You Can’t Worldbuild Someone Into Feeling
Now, what drew me to this project was how every one of our normal emotions got inverted by the presence of an irrefutable (if artificial) afterlife. Murdering a stranger becomes an act of charity when you know for sure that Heaven awaits your victim! Chain-smoking tarry cigarettes becomes a clever move to bring you to death’s doorway!
That’s so cool, right?
No. Because here’s the thing:
In the early drafts of The Uploaded – and The Uploaded had many, many drafts – I’d start out with something Very Clever, saying, “Ah ha, my lead character Amichai wants to murder his sister!”
The problem is that in this world, “Wanting to murder your sister” makes you, well, a murderer. People thought Amichai was a dick, or wanted to know how evil his sister was that he’d been driven to plotting her death.
“But wait!” I’d cry. “This world is different than ours!” And I would dump a nice, steaming load of Infodump on my poor beta reader to explain that in this crazy world, murder was kindness and up was down and bell peppers actually taste good (don’t @ me), at which point my reader would check out.
Let me tell you something someone mercifully told me: If readers do not empathize with what your character wants by the end of your first page – and that’s the stubby little three-quarter page of text floating under the title – it will be remarkably difficult to sell your book.
Now read that again: not just understand what your character wants. To empathize. As in, to go, “Oh, I could want that too.” You need to trigger a resonant emotion within 250 words or so. It likely won’t be a deep emotion by that point, but that first “I get this person” has to be birthed on Page One.
You don’t get emotion by explaining things to people. And as such, “Everything is inverted in The Uploaded!” became a liability.
So what do you do?
Find The Origin Of Your Character’s Greatest Ache
There’s a lot of ways to generate sympathy, and good writers should know as many of them as possible. But here’s a classic:
Find the moment that hurt your character so bad they never recovered, and tell it.
For Amichai, I kept starting in the present, just before he broke into a hospital to kill his sister. But that wasn’t where the average reader could emotionally hook in.
So I went back to where Amichai himself learned what the Upterlife was. Back when he was nine years old, having watched his parents die of a new drug-resistant plague, being told that their anguished screams was just temporary meat-trauma, they’d get to paradise soon.
Then they died.
And they didn’t call.
And his sister was stuck trying to keep them in their apartment while Child Protective Services kept threatening to put them in the orphanages, and she was only twelve, and she kept telling him that Mom and Dad still loved him, but if they loved him then why were they spending all their time playing stupid Upterlife games, why did Mom and Dad get to go to this awesome place and leave my stressed, impoverished sister to struggle alone…
And then Mom and Dad called.
The opening chapters are here – but the point is that “finding the moment where someone discovers why their world is unfair” is a time-honored way of cutting to the bone.
And by the time we get to “Why is Amichai breaking into a hospital to murder his sister” in chapter two, well, that question’s been established. The emotional line of “Why he cares” and “Why he’s upset” is clean.
Except there’s one final problem….
Know Which Tropes Are Offensive, And Do Your Best To Avoid Them
You know what people with disabilities are fucking sick of seeing?
The story that tells them they’d be better off dead and “happy” than alive and with a disability.
And man, do they get that one a lot. Too many stories involve anguished, paralyzed people peacefully put to rest by their lovers because you couldn’t possibly want to keep breathing in a wheelchair, amiright? Having dirt shoveled on your dead face is better than being blind, right?
So even in a world where everyone is measurably better off dead, where even the healthiest people long for the electronic grave, a plot like “Amichai wants to kill his plague-stricken sister” is gonna poke a few buttons. Maybe volcanically.
Now, I know people with disabilities are sick of this storyline because I follow a lot of people with disabilities on Twitter. Which is, honestly, the least you can do if you’re gonna write a book about people. And so I wisely realized before feces impacted the fan that this plot needed to be retooled.
So things got switched around a bit. Amichai has a bit of a grudge, which fomented when his fucking parents abandoned him – he hates the Upterlife. He hates how everyone’s ignoring the wonders of our world to stare into a goddamned monitor. And he hates how the dead only value the living for their muscle, not their brains.
Which, thankfully, made it easy to make Amichai’s quest not to murder his sister, but rather to help convince her that life was still living even if the dead didn’t value her. (A quest that rapidly transforms into him uncovering and then interfering with a plot designed to brainwash the living, but spoilers, people.)
Furthermore: I had some of my friends with disabilities read the text to ensure that it didn’t kick them in the jimmies. Then I paid a sensitivity reader – or, as I think of it, “A super-informed reader” – to check my goddamned privilege.
I’m not saying The Uploaded is perfect, of course, even if it features two wheelchair-enabled leads very prominently. I’m gonna fuck it up somehow. And even then, “people with disabilities” are not a hive brain and just because the four readers with disabilities I got to spot me were cool with it doesn’t mean that every single one will be. Someone might get offended.
But I did as much due diligence as I was capable of. I asked people. I know the tropes.
That is, I feel, what you owe people when you write about, you know, their existence.
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Ferrett Steinmetz’s debut urban fantasy trilogy FLEX (and THE FLUX and FIX) features a bureaucracy-obsessed magician who is in love with the DMV, a goth videogamemancer who tries not to go all Grand Theft Auto on people, and one of the weirder magic systems yet devised. His latest book THE UPLOADED, well, you just read about it, didn’t you? He was nominated for the Nebula in 2012 and for the Compton Crook Award in 2015, for which he remains moderately stoked, and lives in Cleveland with his very clever wife, a small black dog of indeterminate origin, and a friendly ghost.