Shedding the Sharkskin

I’ve loved science fiction since the missionary school I attended in Northern Thailand received a boatload of books from a nearby U.S. Air Force installation. One of those books was Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I had already graduated from horse books to Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I knew deep in my bones that this book was different. The Heinlein had some realism attached to it, some small level of plausibility. It intersected with my world. It could, anyway. It really could. The book orders to my parents whenever they went to Bangkok switched from ERB to RAH. I loved the nobility, the heroism, and the love of the human race. I relished the observations about people and the world. And I read with grim determination the tutorials on orbital mechanics.

So, of course, I became a lawyer.

Fast forward a few decades to my decision to stop being a dilettante about my desire to write. I wanted to produce a book, one that I’d finish. It took a few years, but I did it. They say you should write what you know, so my first book was full of lawyers. Also, and some may find this sad, the stories running in my head always had lawyers. Additionally, as a space lawyer, I have notions about stuff, and I wanted to explore some of those notions, which was fun and amusing, for me, at the very least. My next book was about space debris, and the main character is an engineer; but, again, it was clear to me she needed a lawyer. After all, how else was I to dispense—in a blithe aside—with the issue of intellectual property rights in a satellite design if there wasn’t a lawyer lying around? (I’m kind of keen on the commercialization of space, so the private sector was taking care of cleaning up the orbital domain in my version of reality.) And if he wasn’t really good looking, what was wrong with me?

All this focusing on lawyers helped me work out a nagging question that I’ve faced during my many years of reading Bujold, Cherryh, Heinlein, and others. That question was always—after thrilling to the amazing things happening in a space story—what were they doing on Earth? Did they really mobilize that fast? Didn’t they all squabble with each other first? Drag their feet? Get it wrong? I have trouble envisioning us getting our act together in the face of an alien invasion. We would, but, first, bureaucracy had to happen. I worked at the FAA for a couple decades, so I know bureaucracy and the first two books have plenty of it.

But there’s more to science fiction than lawyers, and we can look for the pause that refreshes. So, what about lost colonies, humanity spreading to the stars, not keeping all our eggs in one basket, and finding a fresh start. That is still the pull of space. There have to be more worlds out there. Maybe I could visit one. Maybe I could visit one and leave my own kind behind. Maybe I could imagine a world with no lawyers. So I wrote Sleeping Duty, a story of a space marine trapped in a medieval lost colony. He isn’t awakened until three centuries after the lost starship limped to a reasonably Earth-like planet. There were reasons for that, but they are lost in the past, and his main problem is that the people who want him awake won’t let him wake up his wife.

This was a lot of fun. I wrote the first draft in a month. There’s only one lawyer, and he’s only in one scene. Really. But there was a glitch.

One of my beta readers pointed out that soldiers aren’t so unclear in their objectives. He’s not unclear, I protested. He’s thoughtful. He’s thinking things through. Then I stopped. I realized I had written another damn lawyer. The authorial indecision about certain aspects of the plot while I was making up my mind, which were fine to load onto a lawyer, were not good for a soldier. Who knew? As soon as she said it, I recognized what I had done. So I removed that excess of contemplation, the superfluous weighing of variables, and the whole on-the-other hand shenanigans with which I had weighted down poor Gilead regarding his goals. And he came back to life. All was good.

But it was a growth experience, and I do still like my sharks. They’ll be back.

My books: The Sky Suspended (which has an abundance of lawyers), Manx Prize (which has a lot less although there are still several), Sleeping Duty (which has only one and only briefly), and Out of the Dell (which has zero lawyers). No lawyers have appeared in the current work in progress, although there’s a bunch in the half-finished sequel to The Sky Suspended.

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