The Problem of Plot by Bob Tippee

by Bob Tippee

Years ago, I attended a geophysical society’s convention with a smart, amiable guy who had moved to Texas from the East Coast to run business operations for the trade magazine I edited. Because the convention addressed oil and gas exploration, my colleague, as most newcomers would, expected the event to feature the metal and muscle of drilling, the clattering work with which most people are at least vaguely familiar. It was amusing to watch his preconceptions implode as we cruised exhibit-area displays of humming supercomputers, colorful seismic records, three-dimensional earth models, and demonstrations of virtual-reality and visualization technologies then in their infancy–with nary a drill bit or hardhat in sight.

The memory of this awakening of the uninitiated helped me contrive “Imperfect Data.” I wanted to write a story of detection to prove I still could do it. I had succeeded with that type of story once before with “Intensity” in the May 1994 issue of AHMM. Since then, however, I have avoided writing traditional whodunits, much as I enjoy reading them. The subgenre’s prominence of plot discourages me. When I conjure stories, plot tries to overpower the process. If I let that happen, overdeveloped problems strangle underdeveloped characters and everything stalls. I have to force myself to concentrate on characterization, conflict, and consequences and let plot simply evolve. For stories of detection, that approach doesn’t work.

With “Imperfect Data,” I uncharacteristically free-reined plot and encountered another hurdle. I knew my sleuths and had invented a hybrid investigative role for them. I knew I wanted them to grapple with corporate espionage leading to murder. I knew how and why the crimes would occur. But the elements needed a framework within which to interact and come alive.

An exotic setting, I knew, can lend structure and energy to otherwise disparate story fragments. Yet corporate espionage inescapably occurs in, well, corporations, stereotypically uncolorful palaces of cautious uniformity. How could I make a corporate setting exotic?

It was while struggling with that question that I recalled the way my colleague brightened in his first brush with the multihued electro-abstraction of modern geoscience. Like him, most mystery readers probably lack exposure to the arcane world of exploration geophysics and its principal tool: the seismic survey. In simplest possible terms, seismic surveys use reflected sound to make pictures of the dark, complicated realm deep below our feet. The collection and interpretation of seismic data are intricate, computationally intensive activities conducted by powerfully degreed scientists, mathematicians, and computer wizards. Much of the interpretive work occurs in “visualization centers” able to simulate immersion in the underground–or “subsurface” as the pros prefer. To readers in an electrifying culture lately reverential of all things STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), a geophysical corporation centered on a high-tech visualization center might, I thought, feel exotic.

A geophysical setting further helped by fortifying an analogy already shaping my ideas about the story. Deciding where and where not to drill oil and gas wells is much like investigating crimes. Both activities attempt to solve inaccessible puzzles. Criminal investigations use physical evidence at hand to formulate hypotheses about phenomena inaccessible in time. Geophysical methods use indirect observations to analyze rock layers inaccessible in visual space. Criminal investigations recreate the past. Geophysical methods depict the unseeable.

I worked some of this high-wire comparison into “Imperfect Data” but tried not to get carried away with it. The story does not (I think) depend on it. The creation of the story, though, most certainly did. An undergirding analogy, I have found many times, can leverage ideas and illuminate meanings. I’ll squeeze this detection-geophysics analogy for one more confession about the making of “Imperfect Data.” Detection and exploration geophysics both must accommodate uncertainty and approximation. Typical crime-scene evidence is haphazardly distributed and physically disturbed. Geophysical recordings are scrambled by subsurface irregularities and limited in precision by length of the foremost assessment mechanism: a sound wave. For these and other reasons, detectives and geophysicists alike must be comfortable with sparse information and flawed measurement. My title pays homage to the courage of anyone who acts decisively–in criminal investigations, in geophysical evaluations, or in life–while acknowledging that decision parameters sometimes are wrong.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s