Wednesday, 29 August 2012

"One Armed Scissor": A lesson In Writing SF Imagery

One of the greatest strengths of science fiction, Phillip K. Dick once wrote, lays in the reader's brain as they consider the ramifications of any one idea. I'm unwillingly paraphrasing here (because I can't find the original quote on the world wide meme-splurge, dammit), but the essence of Uncle Phil's message has never left me.

Consider China Mieville's slake moths a moment: In what hellish ecology do these soul-eating horrors live? What beasties there do Slake's prey on and somehow not manage to send extinct? By Jove; what hunts them? Mieville never tells us. And he's right to do that, because it would slow the book down and, besides, it's far more effective to let his reader's brain spark and whirl with the possibilities. There's a tired cliche involving 'less' and 'more', but it's staggeringly true here none the less.

Of course plot and theme and character are vital, of course. But imagery is what keeps that strange creature, the Spec-fic reader, bouncing joyously from sentence to sentence. And if it produces more questions than answers, so much the better.

The band At The Drive In's single 'One Armed Scissor' is a masterpiece of sheer science fiction imagery, or what SF author Rudy Rucker might call a series of 'eye-ball kicks' (I love that term). Anyone interested in writing SF can learn a lot from this 2000 Alt-rock classic.

The fact their singer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, says it was influenced by their experiences on tour is beside the point (He admits that his lyrics, generally, are permeated by the band's love of televisual Sci-Fi, such as episodes of original Dr Who). Here is verse chock-full of surrealistic, other-worldly, even horrific, imagery. As you read, or listen, to them, a world emerges- but yours will be different from mine and anyone else.

Yes this is the campaign
Slithered entrails
In the cargo bay
A neutered is the vastness
Hallow vacuum check the
Oxygen tanks
They hibernate
But have they kissed the ground
Pucker up and kiss the asphalt now
Tease this amputation
Splintered larynx
It has access now

Cut away, cut away

Send transmission from
The one armed scissor [Repeat x3]
Cut away, cut away

Banked on memory

Mummified circuitry
Skin graft machinery
Sputnik sicklese found in the seats

Self-destruct sequence

This station is non-operational
Species growing
Bubbles in an IV loitering
Unknown origin
Is this the comfort of being afraid
Solar eclipsed
Black out the vultures
As they wait
Unknown, unknown
Unknown, unknown, yeah

Cut away, cut away

Send transmission from
The one armed scissor [Repeat x3]
Cut away, cut away

Dissect a trillion sighs away

Will you get this letter
Jagged pulp sliced in my veins
I write to remember
Cause I'm a million miles away
Will you get this letter
Jagged pulp sliced in my veins
I write to remember [Repeat x3]

Cut away, cut away

Send transmission from
The one armed scissor [Repeat x3]
Cut away, cut away

Cut away, cut away [Repeat x2] 
One can infer a deep space setting ('neutered is the vastness' 'million miles away'), bio-tech body-horror ('species growing', 'jagged pulp sliced in my veins') merging with, or threatening, ancient dessicated hardware ('mummified circuitry') and the sense of some desperate emergency ('check the oxygen tanks', 'This station is non-operational'). Wow. Simply wow.

Personally, I get the image of an astronaut (for lack of a better word) in some future where the means of space travel is dehumanizing and invasive in the extreme, and that this has been the way of things for centuries, perhaps millenia. Now endangered, he, she--hell, it, even--finds a sliver of lost humanity and dignity in writing home to those they love. All that story from imagery alone!

(Actually, reading back, my personal take does read like a feverish metaphor for being on a rock tour!)
I wonder what world these images fired up in your head. It'll be different to mine, doubtless, perhaps remarkably so. And that's the power of not being specific, of flashing the narrative's eye at something odd and immediately darting away before it comes into perfect focus. It's one of speculative fiction's greatest assets. We'd be fools not to use it.

Anyhoo, if you ain't heard these lyrics on what is arguably one of the best rock songs ever, you're doing yourself a real injustice. Take it away, boys:


  1. An afterthought: The musical structure of 'One Armed...', I believe, would also make a good template for a spec-fic story structure.

    It's a 4 minuteish stomper, but it feels like an epic. Why? Because, fascinatingly, though the chorus is the same all the way through, each verse is utterly different. It's a different riff each time.

    Imagine a story like that; a main story (chorus), interspersed with scenes of a wildly different stamp from each other (verses). I'd wager that'd produce a 3,000 word story that feels like a 6,000er- and in a good way.

    Hmm... time to peruse my notebooks...

  2. I am a very big fan of Warhammer 40k, and I have always loved this song for the coincidental sci-fy theme and for example the lines below hint at "chaos mutations" in my mind.
    "Tease this amputation
    Splintered larynx
    It has access now"

    Just paints such an awesome story of this Imperial trade ship or something being cut off from everyone except one transmission telling everyone to get the hell away from their ship, which by the description is being torn apart by a chaos/"xenos" infestation. Que the Space Marine strike team ;).

    In other words, I really like what you wrote as yes, no matter what genre, or specific imagery it invokes this song is either way a catalyst for triggering that euphoric day dreaming sci-fy is all about imo.

    1. It is very 40k isn't it? Can totally see where you're coming from, Nomad. Used to play it in my teens so that may well be an influence in what got me thinking in these terms. Thanks f

    2. Oops! Thanks for commenting!