Monday, August 24, 2015

Using the Technology of Science Fiction to Write

Sorry for the slight delay with the post. Last week was a big one. I had family up from Fresno and we had a great time. I had to make a few sacrifices such as give up chunks of writing time, but since I don’t see my family from Fresno everyday those are sacrifices I’m willing to make. But one of the best things that happened to me over the week was that my parents brought the new laptop they bought for me. It’s an HP Pavilion 11-k013cl that came with Windows 8 but since my parents bought it during a special deal period it allowed me to download the new Windows 10 for free.

A laptop sits open on a stool.
My new HP Pavilion 11-k013cl laptop.
Photo Credit: Steven Rose, Jr.

Word Processor Not Included

So far the new laptop has worked really good and the OS has all the necessary tools and apps that Windows 7 on my desktop has. The only drawback is that it doesn’t come with Microsoft Office and so doesn't have Word. This wasn’t a shock to me because I learned early on that most Windows computers no longer come with Office. But, as a writer, I can’t be without a word processor. So I searched the web for the best free office software out there and found LibreOffice which includes Writer, an MS Word alternative. A new computer device is always an exciting occasion for a science fiction writer, whether world-known or very, uh, obscure (like me) especially if it’s a writing tool, which is my case with Writer.

Science Fiction Becoming Science Fact

Almost any kind of technological innovation is an exciting event for a science fiction writer since it’s science fiction becoming science fact. This goes for computer technology, both hardware and software. But I think what’s been most exciting for many science fiction writers are new innovations in writing technology such as the word processor. Many of the writers who used the early word processors of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were science fiction authors such as Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Michael Crichton, and Barry Longyear. Then Isaac Asimov published an article by Pournelle and Longyear who argued with each other over whether a general computer or a stand-alone word processor was more efficient to write with (Pournelle argued the former). 

Writers such as these are both in love with the word and the technology that produces it especially if that technology is just making its transition from science fiction to science fact which was not only the case with word processors but desktop computers in general during that late ‘70s/early ‘80s period. Jerry Pournelle was one of the first sci fi authors to write a full novel (Oath of Fealty),with Larry Niven, on a word processing program. Pournelle himself actually says, in an article at his website,, that he was the first science fiction author to write a novel on a computer. As much as I’d like to believe him, wouldn’t all science fiction writers like to have been the first?

Well, maybe not quite all. Harlan Ellison has always used a manual typewriter to write his stories (according to a note in his short fiction collection, Slippage). Even though Cory Doctorow is with it in much of today's computer technology, he prefers using a text editor instead of a word processor. The reason, he says, is that he finds a word processor’s formatting tools distracting in that he feel’s tempted to format as he writes.  

In Search of Free Software

When I found out that I couldn’t get Word on my new laptop even with the Microsoft Office software disc I already had since the HP Pavilion doesn’t have an external disc drive, I was thinking about using Windows 10’s text editor myself. I wasn’t about to purchase downloadable word processing software. I mean, I’m not a best-selling or award-winning author like Pournelle and Niven are and so don’t make that kind of money. But I decided to look for free software on the ‘net first because I knew how much of a pain in the ass it could be having to format everything after I would transfer my stories from a text editor to MS Word on my desktop. This would likely be especially hell when I have to format my upcoming book, currently entitled The Hidden, when it comes time to self-publish it through Amazon’s Create Space (through which I self-published my first book, The Fool’sIllusion). Create Space provides Microsoft Word templates but how well that would work with Windows' text editor (Note Pad) I don't know and don’t want to find out the hard way.

Libre Office Writer

So I did my research and discovered that Libre Office’s Writer appeared to have the highest ratings for free, open source word processing software and so I went with that. So far it works good enough; it converts the text well between itself and Word although I just now found out that some of the stylistic features, such as the highlighting tool, may get lost in the conversion. It has all the essential tools Word has, even more in some respects.

One of these extra tools is word suggestion that suggests the word you’re trying to type and will finish typing it for you if you press the Enter key. This is really nice, especially if you’re trying to write a word that’s spelling you’re unsure of. This would be really helpful to a lot of users, especially if they’re not avid writers like many of us and are just using the software to do a paper in school or a technical report for a job. But, even though it’s no big deal, I find it a little distracting since I believe that as professional writers it’s our job to know how to spell and we should not have to depend on automatic help that shows us the correct spelling. If we have trouble spelling something that’s what the spell check is for, which Writer also has. 

For me, using a new computer tool is not only a learning experience but also a partaking in transferring science fiction to science fact. Every invention starts out as an idea, and so even if it’s not used in science fiction story telling it’s, in a sense, still a fiction. But once it becomes tangible it’s fact. And even though both commercial word processing software like MS Word and open source software like Libre Office has been around for a long time and is technology we now take for granted, it started off once as an idea in science fiction and its on-going innovations continue growing out of those science fiction roots. So I’m glad to partake in the use of new innovated computer technology such as Microsoft Windows 10, the HP Pavilion--which is new to me at least since it’s a big upgrade from my old laptop (a Toshiba)-- and function-specific software such as Libre’s Writer.

Do you think ever advancing word processing software such as Libre Office’s Writer with its word suggestion tool is making writing too easy? Are machines beginning to write for us to the extent that us writers, God forbid, will go extinct someday? Please feel free to leave your comments in the box below.

Until next time . . .

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