"How to Write a Science-Fiction Story" (1989)

from the collection Us and the Others (1989)

... is the opening piece of the collection Us and the Others (1989), the last stories Dilov would publish in the Communist-era. This 'introduction' might well have been called "Where Enemies Come From" or "How Facism Works" but it wouldn't be Lyuben Dilov without an allegory.


TRANSLATION NOTES:

  1. It's common in Bulgarian writing for 1st-person pronouns (us, we, ours) to refer to the Bulgarian nation. Since this piece also plays around with perspective, I put asterisks ( * ) when a pronoun refers to Bulgarians in general, as opposed to the collected readers or to all humankind, for example.

  2. Little Muck is a much translated German childrens story by Willhelm Hauff. The diacritics on the name reflect the Bulgarian pronunciation.


Why do we not accept the very creation of art as a work of art itself?

-Paul Valery



How do you write a science-fiction story?


When adults ask me about this at readers’ meetings, I usually escape with a joke, but with young people I typically try to illustrate my answer with some vague concept such as: What would happen if, instead of Lyuben Dilov who you were expecting at the meeting, a messenger from a foreign civilization suddenly arrived? What would you ask it, what would it answer, how would you understand each other at all, and the like. But since they will probably continue to torment me with this question in the future, I decided to demonstrate, just once, how the writing of a Lyuben Dilov science-fiction story is actually done.

An idea came to me during one of my lonely walks. Suddenly - the context escapes me, but in this case it’s not so important - I began to think about fascism. And for such a thought to come to me, of course, is not accidental. Six years of my childhood and adolescence were spent in Nazi Germany during World War II. But facism did not go away with the war: to this day, fascist regimes appear before our eyes here and there in this or that part of the world, so this phenomenon has not ceased to concern me.

You can encounter the fascist beginning anywhere. In some forms and to some extent, that which can, under certain conditions, develop into a fascist mental and socio-political formation lies in everyone, somewhere in the natural layers of our essence. It’s probably connected at the molecular level with the aggressiveness of our very protein, of every living form of matter. Therefore, this problem will not and should not disappear from literature as long as it is a means of studying humans.

But let’s try now to see what a science-fiction author can say about this topic - an inexhaustible one, like all major topics directly related to humankind and their society! And let’s see how the concept becomes concrete, based on the vague idea that was born during my walk. At first, it came up as a single, quite mundane thought, not at all my own, but confirmed by the entire history of humankind: When a government fails to unite the people in its proximity, also called the tribe, by any other means, it either creates or invents an enemy which threatens them.

This is one of the simplest and most effective mechanisms of power because it awakens the biological reflex of fear and the tribal-herd instinct firmly embedded in our genetic program. Fear not only divides people, it also unfailingly unites them once the threat is a common one. It was the same in the jungle, and it is the same in the most modern societies. (For decades, the United States has been waving the myth of the Soviet threat in front of Western Europe to keep it under control!) The leader knows that if there is no enemy near the border of the territory, then his people will stop feeling the need for leaders and may start looking for another type of management. That is why he must create an enemy and constantly bring its “beastly image” before the eyes of his subjects. On this basis, there are eternal enmities between neighboring, even fraternal peoples - especially neighboring, because the distant enemy doesn’t exert the same influence. This situation has long been well known to sane people, but they still remain a minority, and chiefs usually make sure they don’t spread their knowledge too much.

Here, I would like to note how suitable the specific means of science-fiction are for developing such topics and concepts. With its symbols, metaphors, parallel utopias, extrapolations and transfers of things to another time or to other territories, it allows us to talk to the reader on the chosen topic much more directly than other types of belletristics allow. The reader accepts this kind of conditionality very warmly and en masse, and this helps our ideas reach many more readers at the age when they are most perceptive

So, we have planned to write a story to warn, through our own voice, about the fascism of the world, which is conceivable, it’s happening today in dozens of places on different continents, whether on racial, religious or a political-economic basis. What are we obliged to do? First, let us acknowledge that we are writing a short work and won’t have the opportunity to show everything about fascism, like we would try to do in a novel. So we have to strive, with few characters and few events, to portray the most important things. And of course - some of the ways and means that lead to fascism, so we are suggesting to our readers what they should avoid when someone has decided to lead them.

Let’s not look for originality, whatever that is. That sometimes complicates the plot and obscures it, let's keep it simple: On a planet orbiting somewhere far from Earth - the farther, the better! - there once settled a group of people from Earth, either on purpose or because of a spacecraft crashing accidentally, the important thing is that their connection to Earth is difficult because of their remoteness, and Earth's civilization can no longer influence them. Over the centuries, these people have multiplied, become an entire nation, but its new generations do not know the past of their people very well, nor that of the other people on the planet where they are, because what they are taught in school is a meager and clichéd educational program. At the discretion of its chiefs, the colonial state has surrounded the nation with an impenetrable barrier - impenetrable on the outside and impenetrable on the inside, because beyond their borders lies the territory of their one and only enemy.

According to the school lessons, the enemy could be humanoid, they could also be some kind of socially organized alien monsters. More importantly, the newer generations of the Earth colony have never seen them, but children have practiced hating them, and they have been constantly told that those disgusting-looking creatures are relentlessly preparing to attack them. That is why the colonists must constantly arm themselves, fight in close ranks, obey the legal order and never, ever cross the border where a horrible death awaits them.

In the exposition of a futuristic story such as this, we naturally have to draw a border because it has already imperceptibly entered into our idea as a symbolic element - it’s like any border, it separates us from the world under the pretext that it protects our lives and rights. In accord with the imagination of the author and the dictionary of modern science-fiction, in this case the border can be a girdle of bastions with nukes and laser cannons with hypothetical power and energy barriers in front of it.

Now the hero must appear. If we make them a person who has seen the deception the dictator uses to subjugate his people, they would be unlikely to remain free for long and wouldn’t be able to spread their insights because dictators are very vigilant towards such people, and the bastions are always full of informers. We would be turning them into a tragic hero of the classic type, and, for us*, this kind of character has already passed away together with the classics; today they are seen more as characters in children’s literature, in which the happy ending is nearly obligatory.

More in the style of contemporary literature, of the modern type which started with Gogol’s “The Overcoat”, is to choose a boy from the bastions as the hero of the story. He is an excellent warrior, uniformed and trained in thousands of imaginary battles with the enemy, devoted to his leader, believing in the dominant ideas of his time and his country. And he has no concept of ​​the old truth, once uttered thousands of years ago on distant Mother Earth by a certain Marx, that “the ruling ideas are always the ideas of the ones who rule”. That is why our handsome and pleasant boy - we must portray him as such, otherwise we won’t win the sympathy of our readers, neither for the character nor the meaning of ​​the story - lies vigilantly on guard behind the laser cannon to protect family and homeland and faith. He, like his comrades, will never allow the terrible enemy, about which he has read so many books, whose repulsive image he has seen in so many caricatures, to get even within one meter of the border.

But time is running out, the term of our hero’s military service will soon expire, and still no enemy has appeared, nor anyone else, even through the powerful binoculars which the soldier uses to survey the enemy’s territory beyond the border. It is human for him to get weary in anticipation of his own great feat - the boy is very eager to show his courage in battle with the enemy. And it is no less human to get curious about why the hell this enemy constantly refuses to attack us after we’ve been persuaded since we were kids that they are preparing only for this? Are they not quite ready yet, or have they finally become too scared of our weapons?

The boy has become curious, and although curiosity is one of our seemingly innocuous qualities, it is the first instigator of sin. So in this respect, our hero is not exceptional. He is simply curious to see for himself how his enemy lives. Of course, he knows that it is strictly forbidden to cross the border, but that is why curiosity is so hated by dictators - because it always tries to peek at least one eye over the walls raised in front of it.

Here is the first subtext in our story: curiosity, the human nature of it and our duty to it, because without curiosity there is no thinking. It is the first thing that urges us to emerge from the strongholds of dogma on the thorny path to truth. So we could safely start by titling our story “The Curious”. Or we could add a name to it, like “The Curious Mūk”. In this way, we connect part of our* own ideas about art to the title. I say “part” because we still don't know what will become of this story after all, but with the addition of this name, again imperceptibly, we take on a certain tone - irony, parody. Let’s temporarily accept it and then later consider whether this tone is the best one for our design!

The name Mūk just came to my mind at the time of writing, apparently in association with the cliché “Little Mūk” in our* memory, and there was a good American movie “Cool Hand Luke” years ago. Let us quickly consider: science-fiction, and even all literature, often uses similar analogies from the classics, to be approachable to the reader, connecting the new with the familiar, parodies old patterns or fills them with other content, borrowing their external elements. So there is nothing reprehensible if we do the same. Let’s ask ourselves what our title can tell us!

By referring to the popular character from the popular fairy tale, we attract the reader’s attention more successfully than with some fictional, supposedly alien name that doesn’t tell them anything. We know Little Mūk, the reader will say to themself, let’s see what kind of bird the Curious Mūk could be! Second, Mūk is a boy of the people who is small but performs great deeds in the name of justice, this is how the tale inspires joy and hope to all the little ones in the world. However, our* Mūk will make them anticipate what this new Mūk will see and do as a result of his curiosity, and that provokes them to think about how they deal with their own ineradicable curiosity. So we may conclude that we have an intriguing beginning, even from our title.

But fiction, especially the one we call “scientific”, as paradoxical as it sounds, needs more “realistic” justification for the details. It doesn’t allow us to simply transfer a name known from the past to the future or to a planet light years away from the Earth. We need to explain its appearance there. We could mention that his parents loved the ancient tale and therefore named their little boy Mūk in the hope that he would also perform great feats in life, but this would be a weak move, as they say in chess, and the author's duty is to seek the most meaningfully loaded version of every detail they need. Such an explanation would not be compatible with science-fiction, it is not from its typical arsenal, and it doesn’t tell us anything significant. A conscientious author should never allow themself to use elements that are not telling or related to the central meaning, especially in the shorter forms of literature.

The name carries a certain comedy in itself, it makes the reader expect happy adventures and a happy ending for the character, but we are preparing something else - surprise is a good and useful technique for the craft. Our story, as you can see, has somehow gone off on its own in an ironic direction. We’re drawing a paramilitary, authoritarian society that we want to expose, so we can easily afford the grotesque - we have nothing to regret! Let us consider again: the military always requires brevity, shock and, above all, an initial depersonalization of the individual to make them obedient. And here is one detail that could rightly be accepted, at least by me, in the style of grotesque fiction. In the army of this fortress state, no one has the right to bear their real name, that name stays behind in civilian life. In the army, instead of ranks and titles, they are given different names. We come up with two options, but surely more could be found: a) Mūk, Dūk, Pūk, Gūk, etc. respectively correspond to a soldier,a corporal, a junior sergeant, a sergeant, etc., or option b) in the company in which our hero serves, all names end in “-ūk”: Mūk, Dūk, Pūk, Rūk… relying on the other letters to distinguish them from other divisions. Another company may be “-ok”, a third “-ik”, etc. I tend towards this second option. It’s more fantastic, more comical, and more sharply emphasizes the important idea that dictatorship needs to depersonalize the individual and push them into a smaller division of the mass to make them easier to command. And we also show the irony of the person’s supposed individuality, being defined only by one letter in front of the general suffix.

Let's see where the hero now leads us, having already identified his character and the situation!

We started with curiosity and we should keep growing it. It becomes so unstoppable in our little brave Mūk that it cannot fail to mislead him into committing the first transgression of his life. One night, hidden from his comrades who would not approve of this, he puts on a battle suit, hangs a laser pistol on his belt, and finds a way to sneak through the force fields to step into enemy territory (The force fields could also be imaginary, to scare the inhabitants of the fortress). Mūk starts on his way, not only from his curiosity for intel from behind enemy lines but also from his natural youthful thirst for achievement, to escape anonymity and earn a more remarkable name in front of his superiors - perhaps another letter added to the collective three. He walks through this territory, crawls, hides, runs, but doesn’t find, and still doesn’t find, any living soul. The first settlement that he gets to turns out to be long abandoned by its inhabitants, the second - the same… And here we are almost obliged by the laws of the genre to allow space to create what the settlement of a foreign civilization might look like. And this, of course, must comply with our central idea and further the intrigue which should have already taken shape in our heads. We have already agreed that there should be nothing accidental in our story.

We could depict quite primitive aboriginal settlements that had been abandoned at the threat of a foreign colony. But then our story would almost end here; its meaning would remain limited and unambiguous, and this is not desirable for a work that claims higher qualities. The reader will immediately understand that the enemy does not exist, that they were specially invented by the dictator to keep his people in subjection. But this goal could be achieved even more grotesquely without any settlements - there could simply be no other beings on the planet and humans might have invented the enemy because they needed it.

Such an option is also acceptable, but it turns our story into a story-anecdote, so we set ourselves the task of digging deeper into fascism’s roots which, after all, do feed on some real threat. Also, there wouldn’t be much for our hero to do next, after he has satisfied his curiosity and been robbed of the hope for great feats. Therefore, I would prefer the “enemy” to be an equal, so that it socio-psychologically motivates the emergence of military dictatorship in the colony. It seems to me that this makes the intrigue more interesting. In this situation, I would have the Curious Mūk be confronted with another mystery: these abandoned settlements are remnants of an unusually developed civilization - beautiful homes, automation, magnificent parks… “But where the hell have these strange beasts gone?” Curious Mūk will ask, and his and the reader’s curiosity will become even stronger.

The author could wait and satisfy the reader when Mūk arrives in the third settlement - this results in a second reference to folk tales, where things are usually arranged in threes. And the parody of our story is emphasized once again, which is sometimes necessary so that the reader doesn’t think that the first element is accidental, without relevance. But this is a secondary issue for the case and we won’t dwell on it again; we decide that Mūk will come across the necessary explanation in any of the subsequent settlements. And it will come from some of its inhabitants.

What will they be and what will they tell him? The image of the remnants of their civilization informs what else we need to compose. And in my imagination, almost naturally, a few old persons come to life, necessarily of the humanoid type. Because if we create beings completely different from us, they would be only our physical enemies, according to the laws of nature our enemies, like tigers, and not our spiritual enemies. And this would devalue our central idea, take away its contemporary focus. So: even if they have three hands, or four eyes, or any other fantastic distinction, these old men will be more or less like us, they’ve even learned the language of the Earth colony, so they are able to tell Curious Mūk what happened to their civilization.

If we write that they’ve all died - an epidemic unknown or brought by the Earth colonists, historical degradation, etc. - again, we would weaken our enemy as an important character in the story and as a symbol. Therefore, true to the grotesque line, we can also grotesquely elevate this. The Curious Mūk is very surprised to learn, from the old people who had stayed there to spend their last days or to maintain the settlements, that their compatriots were extremely peaceful and humane. Centuries ago, when the Earthlings arrived on their planet, they welcomed them with joy, gave them land to settle on, wanted to live with them in peace and friendship, but the few Earthlings were suddenly afraid of melting into this alien civilization, to disappear as a race. This caused them to close their colony and gradually sever all ties with the indigenous people of the planet. And to make the breakup more effective, they turned this danger into a myth and declared their hosts horrible beasts, attributing to them the intention to enslave them. They also started to build their fortifications. In this way, they themselves became a real threat to a peaceful civilization, possessing almost nothing to serve as a weapon. Because when someone is constantly arming themself and there is no other enemy in front of them, they will inevitably one day go against you. The indigenous civilization, however, had long since reached such a stage of development that the enmity between the various kinds of reason in the Galaxy was organically alien to it, and it simply could not return to it. Therefore, after trying in vain to assure the newcomers that they would not interfere in their affairs and did not want conflicts, they preferred to voluntarily cede the entire planet to them and settle elsewhere. They had enough equipment to carry all their inhabitants, along with the luggage they needed, somewhere farther away from these unspeakable brothers of theirs, to whom they left as a gift their magnificent settlements.

“Where did they go?” our Mūk will ask impulsively, because he will be sad for this good and virtuous civilization. “Look, we won't tell you that,” the old men will rightfully answer. “You might drag us there too…”

Of course, other options can be made here as well, but let's see what benefit this one gives us - 1. We stayed true to the grotesque line with its typical fantastic hyperbole. 2. We have inserted a contemporary moral and the philosophical problem of cosmogony: cosmic law, interference and non-interference in the development of other worlds, the morals of Earth’s people which they will take with them into space - whether we will be conquistadors or true brothers in mind, which we are so greatly seeking to go with us against the mysteries of the universe. And with this new element, our story ceases to be abstractly fantastic. Without it, our artistic conception could even be conditionally realized on Earth - on an island where there are aborigines and colonizers. But with it, it becomes a genre in what is now understood as not quite accurate, and the definition of “science fiction” prevails. And third: We offered the reader a, albeit humorous, but full of meaningful and multifaceted subtext symbol of sensible behavior in the modern world, which may make them think more seriously or at least dream about what to do to also avoid conflicts on our own planet.

Once again, the story could end here, leaving the reader to look for its sequel, but we will not have exhausted our task. And again we would be stopping at the anecdotal form, we would be showing these aggressive-earthly beginnings as one-sided and two-dimensionally flat. And that is one of the main drivers that lead us, under certain conditions, to fascism and can always throw us disarmed and helpless into tragedies known to us from Earth history - individual and social. Therefore, it seems that we should not leave out the tragic side. Moreover, when you mix the tragic with the comic, the suggestion sometimes becomes stronger. And the reader, who may have been trusting our imagination up until now, will probably want to know what else we will do with our Mūk.

Brave Mūk will naturally go back - now calmly standing tall and happy, because he brings great news: the enemy does not exist, the whole planet is ours and we can leave the prison of our own fortress, to finally live in peace and freedom…

Yes, this has been humankind’s inner dream since Adam’s time, but why does it not come true, why does humankind still prefer, like their cave ancestors, to wallow in the darkness of the fortresses? What prevents us from finally realizing that those terrible beasts that once pushed us into caves have long since disappeared from Earth, and from rejecting our genetically inherited fear? I do not think we have the right to avoid this issue. At least subtextually, it should be heard in our story, and it will direct us to the finale, where we are obliged to achieve the full breadth and depth of the message we’ve decided to deliver the reader.

Let’s take a look first at the easiest option for the finale: Mūk manages to return to his bastion in the same unnoticed way. He announces his joyous discovery to Gūk, Gūk will tell Dūk, he will tell Pūk… (Again the fabulous enumeration to three and again an association with something from folklore is born - the word “na-Pūk”! (contrary)) or he will unknowingly become a traitor and the dictator will order Mūk to be arrested for corrupting the spirit of the army by spreading malicious rumors. A shooting and… the end! The reader will have understood that the dictator does not want the people to live “in peace and freedom” simply because then they will not need him. And the reader will only have to learn from the tragic fate of the hero, to eventually come to the conclusion that dictators should not be underestimated, but to act against them cautiously and in an organized manner. This finale is tragic, but also optimistic. There is a hope in it that at least Gūk and Dūk will have made this Conclusion, will live with the truth, will spread it secretly and one day will gather the strength to overthrow the dictator, to lead the people out of the fortress, to let freedom reign of the planet.

But… this is the only thing the reader will have understood, only this banal truth we will have offered them in the end. And that is not enough. It still diminishes the problem of fascism, presents the dictator as a phenomenon detached from the people, and distances him from the reader; such a finale will radiate the naive belief that it’s enough to be convinced of the selfish motives of the power-hungry dictator for the dictators of the Earth to cease to exist. Okay, but they don't stop appearing and you need to understand why. But the blade of the artistic meaning must finally be directed at the reader if we are to make them really think. That is why the reader must learn in some way that it is not the dictator's fault for everything, that if he has come to power somewhere nowadays, it has happened with the help of people like our reader, no matter how innocent they think they are. Because the dictator is not born and does not sit on his throne only on his own whim, but also on the still unknown need of those on whose shoulders he rests. Of course, we will not do a comprehensive study of the problem, but in order for our story to be conceptually and compositionally complete, we must show how and what the dictator is based on.

Let's go back to the topic of fear, because the main culprit for dictators and fortresses is our unquenchable, genetically programmed fear in our cells. When once a person from an impersonal tribal unit has become an individual, the conflict between the instinct of belonging to the community, to the tribe and the need of the individual to separate and self-determine immediately erupts inside them. This need, however, confronts them as a difficult-to-understand entity, and the inherited tribal instinct continues to threaten them with rejection and loneliness.

It still scares us. It warns us not to look too much into our own souls, so that we don’t get dizzy from its abyss. It exhorts us that only in the tribe will we find support and security. It makes us prefer our ignorance, to refuse to understand the behaviour of ourselves and others on this Earth, to shut the mouth of the mind that is always calling out “I object”, to sometimes give up our individuality altogether, because individuality really does always cause you to feel alone and threatened. The savage who lost his tribe in the middle of the jungle fell into horror and passed this down to us. It makes it easy for us to rejoin the crowd, to worship its totems and gods which unite it in a tribe, because inside the tribe really is calmer and more cozy than outside.

That is why Mūk shouldn’t be killed by the dictator, he will be killed by someone like our reader, who also has a living tribal instinct, so that hopefully the reader will feel their own guilt for the existence of dictators.

Mūk will return just as proud and happy with his good news… Here we can reinforce the situation with additional details: he returns during the day because he no longer needs to hide, and he has learned that no force fields threaten him. Near the fortress he will see here and there long-decomposed corpses of his own kind. Who killed them? The creatures that left the planet were not able to kill, so… their own! So there were others curious before him! But why did they kill them? Yes, the statute strictly commands to shoot immediately against everything that approaches the fortress, no matter what it is or with what intentions! The enemy, the statute explains, is very clever and so insidious that it can hide in our spacesuits, wave supposedly peaceful flags, and so on. But Mūk won't worry much because he has reckoned that his friends Gūk and Dūk were on duty at this hour and at this part of the fortress. In any case, he will make something like a white flag and will continue joyfully and calmly to the fortress. He will wave the flag, he will shout on his headset, “Gūk, Dūk, it's me, don't shoot, I bring you good news..!”

But Gūk and Dūk have long taken aim with their laser rifles. True, their friend Mūk has been gone for three days. True, this figure there does resemble him, and the spacesuit is like his, and his name is written in large letters on the spacesuit, just as their names are written on spacesuits, and the voice does resemble his, but their friend wouldn’t violate the order not to cross the border, and after all, the enemy is so cunning that he might have kidnapped Mūk and is now pretending to be him to infiltrate the fortress. More importantly, however, an order is an order, and if everyone starts breaking those as they please, chaos would ensue. And it’s always easier and calmer for your conscience to carry out an order, rather than not carrying it out - it releases you from any responsibility in advance. That’s why, at the end of their conscientious reasonings, dear Gūk and Dūk will pull the trigger. And having only fulfilled the task assigned to them from above, they remain innocent and honorable in the eyes of the tribe…

As honest and innocent as most of the readers we have seen fit to entertain with this fictional fantasy story.