Looking Landwards has landed — have a look…
Looking Landwards is, in its own words, ‘a collection of original short stories based around agricultural engineering and farming in the future’. It is published by NewCon press under the auspices of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers. It is now available from one of the usual culprits and from the IAgrE itself and probably elsewhere. There is an e-book, a paperback and a signed hardback. Given that the authors are spread around the world, shuttling the author signing sheets back and forth was a major exercise in itself…
For me, one of the most exciting parts of being involved was that my contribution was written (a) relatively quickly and (b) to the brief outlined in the call for submissions. That I was able to ‘turn out’ a successful (hey, it was accepted!) piece of fiction through a somewhat mechanical process is actually very satisfying.
I am not going to describe the writing process in detail, since I do not think I am good enough at it for my advice to be much use, but I am going to outline it because…uh…it makes good fodder for a blog post.
So step one was read the brief. Namely: ‘original science fiction stories that speculate on what the future might hold for agricultural engineering, farming and food production over the next century.’
This gives the subject and the time-frame (relatively near future). Length was up to around 4.5k words.
That was then followed by some gazing into space. I had to work out some large-scale parameters. 20 years ahead or 100? I went for more like 20. Optimistic or pessimistic? I am pessimistic by nature, so I went for optimistic. Realistic or idealistic? Realistic. Tone?
I have published a small handful of pieces of fiction over the last (say it quietly) two decades. Rarely more than one or two a year. Apart from some rather earnest early pieces, nearly all of them are essentially what I like to think of in my more cheerful moments as ‘amusing’. Perhaps I have a problem dealing with serious issues, perhaps I am a thwarted comic, perhaps I just can’t take life seriously, but I have tried to write serious and it does not seem to work for me. I have not given up on it, but in this case I decided on a light tone, which does not preclude a carefully thought out scenario and a ‘real’ problem to solve in the story.
One thing we are going to need if we are to keep doing the things we like to do into the future is food. I am in Australia, where we have lots of desert, lots of space, lots of expensive metal buried in the ground, and not much rain. So I imagined a big project, out on the arid coast of South Australia (it might have been Western Australia, but the plot demanded S.A.), where we co-locate a desalination plant, a big electrical power station (possibly nuclear, possibly solar, possibly something else) and a big project to green the desert. You can do anything if you have enough energy.
The bigger picture was the kind of ‘if I were dictator of Australia’ thing. If I were, and I was looking at the climate situation and the need for energy, what would I do (if I did not have to worry about winning elections)? Probably buy myself a big yacht. But apart from self-aggrandisement, it seems to me that there is a path to a truly sustainable yet comfortable future. Australia is the perfect nation to host the complete nuclear fuel cycle, from digging it up to burying the leftovers in some of the most stable geology in the world. We also have buckets of sunshine. So I imagined a nuclear power station dedicated to (1) powering s desalination plant and (2) running a factory that produces vast quantities of solar panels by turning sand into silicon (and running the townships built to house the people on these projects, of course). Fossil fuel is a bridging technology — it cannot last forever (nor should it). In my background I see nuclear as the same. The solar panels are made rapidly and sold at cost price or below, installed by the hectare in the sunny, dry parts of Australia, fitted to roofs of schools and houses all over the place as a routine part of the construction process, and eventually form the majority of our electricity supply. Not sure what we use at night time, but I don’t need to think of everything — it’s a story, not an election platform. Eventually all or most of the nuclear can be decommissioned, having done its job of moving us on to the next generation of technology without a crash in standard of living, and without excessive carbon emission.
All this power, nuclear or solar, solves our water problem — desalination is energy-expensive, but that is OK if energy is cheap. If we have loads of power and water, we can turn the desert into farmland, and that is the scenario into which my location for the story fits. Virtually none of this thinking makes it directly into the story. Further, I assume for the sake of argument that I am not Dictator for Life of Australia, and so the realities of funding of science become part of the story.
Why? Because I need conflict. Ideally, both without (the whole project is threatened!) and within (I can’t trust the people I work with). Settings are easy. A global scenario is easy. Figuring out an entertaining story that uses it is what I find hard.
After a couple of false starts I figured out what the story was about. I figured out an ending, which is for me the most important step, and then wrote the story from a list of scenes that I needed to get me from one end to the other. I used a word processor from the 1980s, which for some reasons works with my brain. I have to translate the resulting file through two or three other programs to get it into a modern format, but that is OK. Whatever works. Then I applied the relevant bits of this blog post. Then I printed it out, corrected it, cut some more paragraphs out (always cut and never explain overmuch), reorganised, wrote some extra bits, did several more spell-checks, then another one, then printed it out again and did some more edits, and it was done.
And it got accepted. All to plan. Made me feel like I knew what I was doing. Until the next rejection rolled in, anyway…