Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rights and Wrongs, by Brian K. Lowe

Sometimes when you speculate about the near future, events will overtake your story and render it irrelevant. So if you're going to write a story about the near future, write it fast.

"Rights and Wrongs," on the other hand, took five years. It startedrights-and-wrongs 9000 feet high in the New Mexico mountains, at the 2008 Taos Toolbox workshop, where Walter Jon Williams gave me some of the most valuable advice I've ever gotten: "Write what you care about."

What did I care about? I cared about being a writer. Why else was I spending two weeks at a ski lodge so high in the air it took two days before I could walk to my car in the parking lot? But stories about writers are a dime a dozen, so what else did I care about?

In 2008, the War on Terror was everywhere. Enemy combatants were being locked up for years without charges. Rumor was that the government might try to do the same with American citizens, shelving habeas corpus for the duration. And once the government can imprison you for anything, leaving you to rot without charges, democracy is dead.

Of course, it didn't happen, but that was my thinking when I sat down the next day and penned the first line of what you eventually read (or will read). When I was done, I had a story about an attorney for a shape-changing alien who might be a terrorist who had been given a sham trial and was about to be dragged off to be shot and/or rights-and-wrongsdissected. In desperation, he switches bodies with his lawyer and tries to escape. But the lawyer manages to alert the guards to the switch, and the alien is killed attempting to escape. The lawyer comes out okay, but feels bad about the whole thing.

   The story bombed. Sure it did--it was depressing with a capital D. But even then, it received just enough positive comments for me to try revamping it. I re-wrote the escape scene. Still depressing, I changed the ending to a courtroom drama with a 2000-word explanation by an anthropologist about how the alien wasn't responsible for his own actions because he was driven solely by biology. Very science fiction. Very dull. But the esteemed editor of this magazine, showing the kind of faith that moves mountains, thought he saw something in the story. All I had to do was re-write a small part--as in, the entire second half.

It took two years of re-visiting the story every few months, beating my head against a wall, before I finally realized that to re-write the second half, I had to re-write the first half, too. I started almost from scratch, filling in some characters, re-engineering the plot, struggling to find a way to present what I cared about without making judgments and without being boring. And I did.

       But the important thing isn't how I came to write this story. It's that this near-future story took me five years to write, and unfortunately, it's still relevant.

--Brian K. Lowe

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