Tag: Science Fiction

C Stuart Hardwick’s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” and a Narrative that Skips Like a Stone

C Stuart Hardwick‘s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” tells the story of Jimmy, a man who looks back on his youth and his relationship with Mr. Coanda, an older gent who enjoyed building rockets.  The story appeared in the September 2016 issue of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, one of the top three SF/F magazines out there.  Mr. Hardwick is kind enough to offer the story on his web site; check it out!

The piece is an interesting example of a story whose narrator looks back and skips through time like a stone on the surface of a lake.  By design, these kinds of stories don’t spend much time in any one scene and don’t delve particularly deeply into any one moment.  Lots of work is structured in this manner; one of these is my short story, “Masher Doyle.”  Unfortunately, no one has ever read that one.  Here are some real examples:

That’s all I can think of at the moment.  (Feel free to add other suggestions in the comments!)

What Mr. Hardwick loses in depth of scene by employing this structure, he makes up for in the scope of his story.  By taking a look from a distance and zooming along to focus on the important bits, the author is able to chronicle a wide swath of Jimmy’s life.

Come to think of it, a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s work operates in the same kind of way.  The “narrator” of The Shining takes a long-distance look at the Torrance family’s fateful winter and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of Full Metal Jacket takes a long-distance look at Private Joker’s Vietnam experience and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of 2001: A Space Odyssey takes a long-distance look at humanity’s relationship with the universe and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (developed by Kubrick, though directed by Spielberg) takes a long-distance look at David’s life over the millenia and skips along to feature the important bits.

(Hmm…I’ll bet someone has written a paper about Kubrick and narrative structure.)

The protagonist is a young man (then a grown man) who loves rocketry.  As a result, Mr. Hardwick has a duty to depict this love in a realistic way.  The story must have verisimilitude: the appearance of reality in fiction.  Mr. Coanda and Jimmy must sound as though they know a lot about rocketry or readers might bail, having had the magic spell broken.  Let’s look at how Mr. Hardwick handles some of the “smart person rocket stuff.”

He said that in space travel, the cost of a launch is determined by all kinds of things, not just the weight of machinery, fuel, and oxidizer, but also the aerodynamics and trajectory which control how much air resistance and gravity a rocket must fight before it reaches orbit.

I knew all that stuff!  The sentence is also a nice summary of some of the most important basic principles of rocketry.

As it staged and staged again, the ground slowly warped into a fisheye ball. When the propellant finally ran out, the Earth was just an azure band beneath the inky black of space.

Mr. Coanda let a handful of popcorn fall back into the bowl. “Holy hell,” he said, “if that ain’t a beautiful sight.”

I was similarly entranced. “How high do you figure we went?”

“I don’t have to figure. I have data. Ah…63,000 feet.”

“Wow! That’s almost in space!”

“Not quite. Minimum orbit’s eight times higher, and then you have to accelerate to orbital velocity in order to stay there.”

I stared at the glowing earthscape. “Still…”

Isn’t the “azure band” part pretty?  I love how this bit evokes the kind of awe that we should all have for this kind of science and the author also reinforces that Mr. Coanda knows his stuff and that little Jimmy is very bright, but still learning.  The part about the orbit and orbital velocity isn’t totally necessary, but it adds credence to the characters and their milieu.

“And it works terrific,” he said, “It’ll never produce enough LOX to do the whole job alone, but that’s another trade-off. If it can do much better than pay its own way, then–“

Lox?  Is Mr. Hardwick trying to get us hungry for breakfast?  No, he means “liquid oxygen.”  As an enthusiast of Gemini/Mercury/Apollo-era spaceflight, I knew the character didn’t mean salmon.  You’ll also note that Mr. Hardwick includes the phrase “liquid oxygen” to give the reader a hint, but it’s not wholly necessary.  If the reader doesn’t know the terms, they will just gloss over them while understanding that the characters know what they’re talking about.

I could never, ever pass a calculus class and Dr. William Widnall loses me when he talks about smart people stuff, but he, like Mr. Hardwick, convince me that they know what they’re talking about.

SPOILER ALERT!  Just read the piece if you didn’t.  Here are the last few sentences of the piece:

I’ve run the camp now for longer than I worked in engineering, but to these kids and the world, I’ll always be the Rocket Man, a mythological hero from a golden age. And that’s fine by me. I’ll proudly wear that title while I fan the flames, till the next bearer comes along to change up the world behind me. It’s not the adventure I imagined for my life, but you never quite know where dreams will lead.

Okay, so Mr. Hardwick is in the same place I was when I wrote “Masher Doyle.”  We both told the narrator’s story from childhood to adulthood.  Both of us wrote about mentor figures who helped our narrators build themselves up from childhood problems.  So what to do with the conclusion of the story?

The last paragraph can be your opportunity to unspool poetry for poetry’s sake.  The storytelling is largely over, so why not tip the scales in favor of aesthetic beauty over plot?

What Can We Steal From Isaac Asimov’s I. Asimov?

Title of Work and its Form: I. Asimov, memoir
Author: Isaac Asimov
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be found in countless independent bookstores across the country or even on those great big megawebsites that don’t need your money quite as much.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure


Ken’s note: This post is going live on January 2, 2013, which would have been Isaac’s 93rd birthday.  Although the Good Doctor is gone, here’s hoping that his countless fans take this opportunity to celebrate his memory and his massive body of work.

Who knows why, but Isaac Asimov is one of the first few authors with whom I fell in love.  I was in awe of the fact that he published such a wide range of books…and so many of them!  Science fiction was one of my first loves; Asimov was one of the Big Three and even had a magazine named after him.  I remember reading my first copy of I. Asimov to tatters even though, as Asimov admitted, his life was not the most exciting ever.

I. Asimov is the man’s third autobiography.  In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt are thick monsters that recount the entertaining minutiae of Asimov’s life through the late 1970s.  With a decade having passed (and illness clearly becoming more of a concern), Asimov acceded to those who insisted that he fill in the remaining blanks of his life story.  In his introduction, Asimov describes the book’s form:

So what I intend to do is describe my whole life as a way of presenting my thoughts and make it an independent autobiography standing on its own feet.  I won’t go into the kind of detail I went into the first two volumes.  What I intend to do is to break the book into numerous sections, each dealing with some different phase of my life or some different person who affected me, and follow it as far as necessary–to the very present, if need be.

Instead of following a strict chronology and describing the life as it was lived, Asimov presents 166 vignettes of varying length.  Sure, the first few stories are about his upbringing and his parents, but isn’t this a logical place to start for anyone seeking to tell their story?  It’s also fitting that the last few vignettes describe his struggle to remain healthy and to work in the face of increasing infirmity.  (The illness was far worse than the public understood, of course.  Asimov had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during a 1983 heart bypass operation.)

What are we, Asimov suggests with his structure, but the sum of the people we have loved and the passions we have fostered?  In the 90th section, Asimov describes how much he loves the busywork of creating indexes for his books.  In the 104th section, he pays tribute to Judy-Lynn del Rey, a friend who died very young.  A hundred pages later, he recounts the vacations he took at a favorite resort and how he came to have a science fiction magazine named for him.

I. Asimov benefits from the variety granted by the book’s form.  If you don’t want to read about the fear of travel that kept Asimov largely bound to the Northeast, no worries.  Just skip a few pages and read about his friendship with Hugh Downs.  Not interested in Hugh Downs?  Turn the page and read about how it felt to discover one of his books had become a best-seller.

The book takes on a stream-of-consciousness feel because of its structure.  In a way, you feel as though you are sitting down with Isaac, having a beer.  (Well, he would have a coffee or something because he was a teetotaler for most of his life.)  If you could still chat up Asimov, he would only tell you the parts of his life that he felt were most interesting, an effect that is maintained in the book.

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider the use of connected vignettes to eliminate dead weight.  Have you ever been trapped at a party with the most boringest guy in the world?  You ask him about his day, and he says, “Well, I woke up and I needed to get out of bed so I rotated my body ninety degrees and put my feet on the floor.  But I did so slowly because I wasn’t sure how cold the floor was.  But the floor wasn’t cold.  I put my full weight on my feet and walked to the bathroom, alternating steps between my right foot and my left foot.  I had to take a shower, so I started the water, making sure there I turned the left-hand spigot to make the water warm enough…”  Vignettes let you get to the important part!
  • Consider the use of connected vignettes to simulate the feel of a conversation.  Let’s say you could have dinner with Thomas Jefferson.  You would want TJ to do the same thing Asimov did: tell you interesting stories that span the whole of his lifetime.  Not only would he focus on some of the more interesting stories, but you would also gain insight into the man’s mind based upon what he tells you and when.