Identifying the genesis of a story isn’t always possible, but sometimes it is clear as day. I’ve been in the mood lately to acknowledge influences to my creative process. Those of you who’ve been keeping up with my recent blogs may have noticed that. Sometimes the influence is a locale. Sometimes it’s a feeling. Sometimes it’s an experience I went through — becoming a father being the most recent example I shared here. But sometimes it’s a person. Goodness knows that’s the sort of acknowledgment I shouldn’t neglect to remark upon.

One of the clearest instances of person-as-influencer arose when I came up with the story “Termites.” The individual in the Credit Where Credit Is Due position is none other than Bob Fleming, the guy I mentioned just two weeks ago in my blog installment about my first computer. If you read that one, you know he and his wife Cherie Kushner are not only friends but true patrons of the arts.

Bob and Cherie are retired now, but it is an incontrovertible fact that while they were active, they worked at the bleeding edge of technology. They persuaded chips, boards, optical circuits, and non-sinusoidal wave generators do things that only a handful of people on the planet could have made them do. I wish I could properly convey what it was like to look over their shoulders as they made improbabilities into reality. Perhaps the process is best typified by one of Bob’s stock explanations: When it looks like you’re up against a problem with no solution, you pull a miracle out of your ass.

For Bob, one of the downsides of being so creative and so busy as an engineer has been that even though he would have loved to write some science fiction, he had too many other things to do. That was a source of frustration. Time after time he would come across something that made him think, “What a story that would make.” Sometimes he would jot down some quick notes. But he would produce no actual prose. No narrative passages. No actual line-by-line bits of fiction.

And so he settled upon a possible solution. If he had no time — and perhaps no ability — to write fiction that would extrapolate his ideas, perhaps he would get other people to do it.

I was one of those people, but I was not the only one. Before I go on, I should cite what is easily the prime example of Bob’s (and Cherie’s) influence upon a writer of science fiction, and that was in the form of the input they gave to Vernor Vinge. It’s particularly apropos to mention it at this time, considering that it is only a few months since Vernor passed away.

A suite of Bob and Cherie’s most ingenious patents involved technology that would allow the manufacture of tiny ultrawideband-radar transmission nodes that they called localizers. I won’t go into all the applications localizers are suited to, but let me put it this way — think how our lives have changed in the past three decades as a result of the development of the cellphone. The broadscale deployment of localizers would be a comparable shift. Everyday life would be transformed in a similar convenient, handy, versatile fashion.

Bob and Cherie described localizers to Vernor Vinge, and he understood not only the real-world potential they represented, but the fictional-world potential as well. That’s why you’ll find considerable mention in A Deepness in the Sky and “Fast Times at Fairmont High” of localizers. For that matter, if you read other works by Vernor, Bob and Cherie’s input is reflected in other small ways; the pair served as two of Vernor’s main beta readers for decades, often hosting him at their home for multi-day visits to go over his works-in-progress.

Me, Bob, and Cherie at a gathering in the summer of 1985 to celebrate the publication of my novel The Sorcery Within.

I myself used localizers as a key component in a story called “The Cookie Jar,” but that’s an anecdote for some other occasion. It is “Termites” I want to talk about, most particularly because its development shows the other side of the coin. Yes, Bob had ideas for stories. The problem was, most of them were in fact quite hard to make use of in fiction. That’s because fiction is dependent upon conflict. Bob’s ideas too often were extrapolations of the wonderful things that would take place when new technologies came to fruition. Science fiction — and here I’m referring to truly “hard” sf of the most rigorous sort, not space opera — is more suited to stories of how things go wrong.

One day in early 1986 while I was at Bob’s home so that he could customize the computer he was giving me, he brought out a list of story ideas. Nearly all were as I just described. They were fabulous scenarios of how things could go right if only certain engineering developments happened, but did not contain the essential antagonistic scenarios that would drive a plotline.

Except one that almost did. Bob called the idea “Bookworm.”

The real science goes like this: We have a common bacterium in our gut called E. coli. It’s most often mentioned when it escapes the digestive system and wreaks havoc in parts of the body it doesn’t belong in, but when it behaves itself it is benign. It happens that this little critter almost allows us to digest cellulose, as termites do. What if something happened and E. coli changed just enough to get rid of the limitation? What if, say, someone did so deliberately as a potential solution to famine? Faced with potential starvation, people might find it advantageous to be able to convert cellulose into edible sugars.

For “Bookworm,” Bob imagined a future in which books made of paper have long since fallen out of fashion, and precious archival volumes are kept in a place where oxygen, dust, and light will not decompose them: a space station. One day a chunk of errant space debris appears at high velocity and kills everyone aboard with the exception of the head librarian, but even he may become a victim, because the impact has eliminated the station’s food supply. And due to a tense political situation, a rescue party may not arrive for weeks.

All is not lost. Because in the future the librarian inhaibts, E. coli has undergone the conversion I’ve described, and is present in the intestines of every human being, whether said human beings are on Earth or in orbit above it. So the protagonist has no need to worry. The books around him are full of cellulose. He has shelf after shelf of sustenance. Never mind that each volume is the last physical manifestation of a work of classic literature in its original publication medium.

How to weigh the choices. Shall he sacrifice Keats, or Shelley? Should he bother with Harold Robbins? No, probably not very fulfilling. Ah, but Thoreau, now there’s a rich meal. Dostoyevsky might present a little trouble going down, but surely the Betty Crocker Tenth Edition would provide a remedy.

A new form of literary criticism is born. And it used to be no more than metaphor to say that bad writing produces indigestion.

I never wrote “Bookworm.” That is to say, I never made use of the plot or the milieu as Bob presented them. But the scientific underpinning, the bit about what could happen should E. coli evolve ever so slightly in the wrong direction? That struck me as a solid real-life fact upon which to base a science fiction story. Because, of course, so much could go wrong, and if it did, the effects would be felt across the human race, and matter to far more than just one person stuck up on a space station.

I don’t often come up with hard-sf premises. I’ve only written about twenty sf pieces, as opposed to fantasy, in my entire career. Accordingly, almost as soon as I got home from that trip to Bob’s house, I began typing. Over the next day or so I came up with the plot, the characters, and the futuristic version of Africa in which it’s set, and over the next couple of weeks, I wrote the text itself. Things came together well. “Termites” was my first sale to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, appearing in the May, 1987 issue. By the time it was finished there was too little of Bob’s part left to put his name on the byline, but I know he was the one who gave me the nudge, and I want to be sure you do, too. Thanks, Bob. One more thing, and it’s kinda eerie. About the time the story saw print, I read an account of a biologist who actually created the very type of E. coli I described in “Termites.” He had invented it in 1981, let it sit in his lab for a year, and when he realized what could happen if his sample were ever inadvertently released, he destroyed it. To which I say, whew.

“Termites” is included in the collection Futures Near and Far.

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

Why Do Genealogy?

The reason I got involved in family history research was the standard reason. I wanted to know more about not just the forebears I personally knew, i.e. my parents and grandparents, but those who had lived in earlier times, before I was born. I was particularly curious to learn more […]

Dave Smeds

A Death at the Dojo

On the night of January 19, 1979, Jerry Honda was feeling good. He was saying good-by to workout rust. He had, as so many karate students before him, let his foot off the gas after achieving his initial black belt rank. That was understandable. His wife and kids had claims […]

Dave Smeds