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Writing Excuses 8.49: Hard Social Science Fiction with Joel Shepherd

Writing Excuses 8.49: Hard Social Science Fiction with Joel Shepherd


Key Points: Look at the social and human implications. Motivations are complicated. Look at beliefs, abstractions, things outside of the character. Model your fiction on real history. Look for the drama. Tell us about process, not conclusions. The model, the prism, the way you look at things may make you arrive at very different conclusions.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 49.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, hard social science fiction with Joel Shepherd.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we're excited to welcome Joel Shepherd onto the podcast.
[Joel] Thank you very much for having me on.

[Brandon] Joel, tell us a little bit briefly about your books.
[Joel] Well, it depends on which one you want to know about.
[Brandon] Well, what about your writing? What sort of style of writing... Your published by Pyr, I believe?
[Joel] Yeah. All seven of my books are published by Pyr in the United States. I've done three science fiction books, that's the Cassandra Kresnov series, and I've done a fantasy series as well, A Trial of Blood and Steel, which is a four book series.

[Brandon] Excellent. Now, Howard pitched at me this idea, and at you, the idea of doing a podcast on hard social science fiction. I want to define this for our listeners because when we talk about hard science fiction, usually that means science fiction in which the physics and the math and the chemistry and the astrophysics are very big part of the plot. But we don't talk as much about this idea of the social sciences in science fiction. You use the social sciences... What, you have a background in social science?
[Joel] Yeah. I'm currently doing a PhD in international relations, specifically on Indian foreign policy if anyone is interested. I just got back from a year of living in Delhi which was a very interesting experience. So these are the kinds of things that I like to draw upon. Because the social sciences involve people rather than physics and math, and that's really what gets me going.
[Brandon] So how do you spark that into a story? You're reading some interesting sociology paper or whatnot. Where do you go from that?
[Joel] Well, it's the implications of it. I mean, Cassandra Kresnov, my main character in that series is an artificial person. As for... This is the great thing about science fiction, no one actually knows how an artificial person works. I mean, it's that old line about any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So it would be pointless of me to sit here and to try and explain how that technology works, just like it would be pointless for someone from 500 years ago to try and explain to them how a jumbo 747 works. So I'm interested in the sociological and human implications of the technology rather than trying to explain actually how it works.
[Brandon] You find stories and conflicts just in these sorts of things?
[Joel] Well, yeah, because in that series, the entire conflict between the two sides, the war that she was created to fight, is about artificial humanity. You've got the one side who believes that all progress is good, and that artificial humanity is going to lead human be... Human race in a good direction. And then you've got the other side who think we're just one step away from advancing the human race into extinction. So this is what the war is essentially about. So this places my character directly in the center of that war.
[Brandon] Awesome.

[Howard] When we talked at dinner the other night, one of the things that you pointed out is that so many conflicts in books seem to just come down to the author thinking about side A and side B, and that when you're really looking at the political science aspect, when you're really looking at the motivations, it's far more complicated than that. How does that inform what you just described?
[Joel] Well, it completely changes the plot structure in terms of the motivation for the character. I think traditionally, and if you're looking at... I mean, superhero type stuff for a start, you look at the motivations that for example, Batman has. I mean, his father died. This is a very personal motivation, this is something that happened to him. They're always trying to find a conflict between the hero and the villain that is personal. A revenge story, because people feel they can connect with a revenge story. But I really like the motivations where the motivation is external, because external motivation means that people are often motivated by something other than just themselves. This means that sometimes you can have not just good people and bad people fighting against each other, that's not the source of the conflict. You can have good people and good people fighting against each other. I mean, I find nothing more compelling than some of the stories in say the War of the Roses or say the Civil War where you find two brothers on opposite sides of the fight. They're both very good people, they just happen to believe in very different things. So when people are motivated by a belief, something abstract, something outside of themselves, this can create all kinds of tension. I find that far more powerful and dramatic than just the usual personal "oh, you kicked my dog, I'm going to get you" kind of thing.

[Mary] So do you... When you're looking at things like this, do you model it on something real from the real world... For instance, in... I have a book that's got the Luddite rebellion in it. So I have... I looked at the Luddite rebellion, but then I used it to model... How that went down in British history, I used that to model how a magical rebellion would go down. Do you do a similar thing or do you... Are there general principles of the social sciences that you use that can predict how humans will react to certain situations? Like... Where... What's the science?
[Joel] Well... Yeah. The science in this kind of thing... In fiction, it's really wherever you want it to be, wherever you find that it will be the most dramatic. I mean, I use a lot of... I use some theoretical stuff in the background, but it's pretty hard to translate that into an actual plot. Mostly what I'm looking for is situations where people can have motivations that will be set at each other's throats. Because you're looking for drama. Ultimately, that's where the whole thing is. So where is the science? I guess it's wherever you want it to be. I mean, it's...
[Mary] I think I've... Let me rephrase that question. What I'm looking for is, if we're wanting our listeners to be able to write something that is exploring the social sciences, how can that be a... Something that they can do? What are the techniques that you use to create that? Rather than just well, you look at where the drama is, can you get more specific about how that is done?
[Joel] I'm not sure that I can. I think you either see the dramatic potential in it or you don't. I see these kinds of conflicts just when I open a newspaper every day. I'm sure a lot of people have family members who believe things that are different to what they believe. So this is... Those kinds of things are is important to me as the actual science, I think.

[Brandon] Okay. Now this may be another "well, there's not really a good answer to this" question, but a lot of people who do hard science fiction and the physics and whatnot, when they read a book that does it poorly, they get really angry. I've noticed the same thing from economists, they read fantasy books and they're like, "The economy in these books...!" Do you see writers approaching social topics and social science topics poorly? Are there thing... Pitfalls that a lot of writers fall into that you can make us aware of?
[Joel] Well, the logical one is writing about politics. There is a tendency to be didactic, obviously. I have particular political beliefs. I'm very pleased that most of my readers on either side of the political spectrum usually don't know what they are.
[Brandon] Okay. That's very good. That isn't [garbled – easy?]
[Joel] I'm not going to tell you what my political beliefs are. My friends know what they are. But if people from the opposite side of the spectrum and sometimes people who are so far off the scale, like so far away, come up to me and assume that I'm one of them. I take that is one of the greatest compliments. This is one of the most common mistakes that people who want to write about these... They say, "Oh, I have a point that I want to make" or "I have an opinion I want to get across, I want to convince you of my opinion, that my political belief is right." Don't do it. Just don't. I'm interested... I'm more interested in the process of belief that I am about your actual conclusion. Your conclusions are entirely up to you. It doesn't interest me. It's not dramatic for other people to read about. Because you're either preaching to the choir, in which case you're not... In which case that's a very limited audience in the first place, or you're alienating vast swathes of people who are different from you in one way or another. The process of why people believe in things in the way that they do is the thing that I find really intriguing, with politics in particular.

[Brandon] Let's do our book of the week. Not surprisingly, we're going to pick a Joel Shepherd book. Tell us about Crossover.
[Joel] Well, Crossover is the first book of the Cassandra Kresnov series. It's... God, it was a while ago now. It's actually because I get published in Australia, and it takes a while to get out into America. Then of course I took a break to do the fantasy series. Now I'm finally coming back to it. So it's more than 10 years ago, now. But it's the first book about Cassandra Kresnov. It's about how she becomes disillusioned with the side that she's fighting for and decides to try and make a peaceful life for herself in the home of her former enemies. She finds that it is obviously a lot harder than what she bargained for.
[Brandon] Excellent. Howard, how can they get that?
[Howard] Go to and you can start a 30-day free trial membership, pick up Crossover by Joel Shepherd narrated by Dina Pearlman for free.

[Brandon] Excellent. Howard, you actually do a lot of this social science fiction in your stories. I'm going to put you in the hot seat. Why do you do it? What sparks the stories for you? What advice can you give to our listeners?
[Howard] I'm going to start... Joel, you said something interesting about you open up a newspaper and you immediately see the drama and in many cases the motivations right there. I open up... Well, I don't open up a newspaper, I google the news. Let's be real about this. I look at the news and I look at what's happening and I know that as I am looking at it, I do not have the whole story. Because on the surface, what I'm seeing doesn't make sense. Why would people do this? I mean, I see Congressman so-and-so said this-and-such about so-and-so. I know what the whole political party line is, but I don't understand why. My next step is not to drill down and try to figure out why. My next step is to say, "You know what. In my own work, I allowed to have a character be he or she hero, villain, whatever do a thing that seems on the surface... I mean, sensible along one track but maybe unmotivated on another, because we don't understand the motivation, we don't have the whole story." I'm not saying that this would be a main character. This would be something that's happening in the background. A political shift, a war, or whatever. What's fun for me is, and when I know I'm getting it right, is the arguments on the forum when people are saying, "Oh, Howard is clearly modeling the UNS after the old Ottoman Empire." I'm like, "Ottoman what? There was a what?"
[Mary] [garbled] of footstools?
[Howard] Yes. Exactly. I look at these arguments and they look exactly like the comments that you might see to an opinion column in a newspaper website. I know I've gotten it right, because they're arguing about the hidden motivations, that in many cases I don't yet know.
[Mary] Well, this is one of the things that I've really discovered with the writing of historical fiction is that there are patterns that we go through over and over and over again. If you look for those, you can kind of start to predict what the fut... Not, you can't predict the future, but you can predict some future patterns.
[Brandon] Right. Psychohistory, right?
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. Exactly. One thing that you can look at is the... And I think I've talked about this on the podcast before, there's a swing that we tend to do from a fascination with nature to a fascination with artifice. It goes back and forth like that. So you can say... It's a 20 to 60 year cycle, this swing. So you can say, "Well, if I want..." It's usually about a 20 year. But so it's like if I'm looking at something that's 60 years in the future, then I can predict whether we're going to be in a nature fascination or an artifice fascination. Then recognizing that, know that that means you're going to have conflict between the two, the establishment and the new form.
[Howard] I'm actually live, so...
[Brandon] Sorry. We just had someone sneak up on Howard at the front. We are live at GenCon, so yeah...
[Mary] Great.
[Brandon] Let's go ahead... Yeah?
[Howard] No, I was... Thought's gone. Never mind. Go.

[Brandon] Okay. I want to ask if people want to investigate the actual science of all of these things, do you have some resources, Joel, that you can point them toward? Say they wanted to start getting interested in sociology and things like this as writers. Are there any favorite works or any favorite topics that you would send them to... Or even a famous conflict that you think is really interesting in history?
[Joel] Well, there's one that I've come across in my PhD that I would recommend especially to Americans just for a basic interest in political theory. It's called The Essence of Decision. It's by a couple of guys called Allison and Zelikow. It's about the Cuban missile crisis. They look at the Cuban missile crisis in a traditional international relations way to start with. The way international relations, they tend to view countries as singular entities. Then they look at it from a different angle. They say you can draw a whole range of conclusions about what happened in the Cuban missile crisis by looking at it in the first way. Then you look at it in the second way which is an institutional model and you look at the way institutions work.
[Brandon] That's great.
[Joel] And that comes you to completely different conclusions about how that works. Then you got the third model as well, which runs off the top of my head at the moment. That is again completely different conclusions again. So depending on which way you look at it, you can arrive... In which prism you get to look at it through... You can arrive at completely different conclusions.

[Brandon] Excellent. Well. This has been a wonderful podcast. It's time for a writing prompt. I am going to suggest that what you should do is you should pick two people on the same side of a conflict of some sort. But make their view of that conflict different. Not two opposing people. People on the same side. To force you to stretch a little bit further, to have more dynamic, more sides to your conflict, have two people striving for the same thing with a completely different view of why they're struggling for it. All right. Thank you so much, Joel. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Joel] Thank you very much.

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