Archive for September, 2019

What Should Science Fiction Do?

I’m a science fiction writer.  While only a very few people have read any of my works, (mainly editors and critique group members), I do have wide-ranging opinions on the subject and have presented them in this forum occasionally over the past several years.  Science fiction can be a powerful medium for examining the human condition, for teaching us about ourselves as human beings and as stewards of the land and water on this blue and green and white and brown planet we live on.  I believe it should be used largely in that way.  Most sci-fi does that.

But sometimes sci-fi presents works that seem to defy that concept.  Not that that’s inherently bad, but that it goes against my grain when sci-fi runs off the deep end and simply blathers on about nothing in particular.  The most particular example of this is the character of “Q” in the Star Trek universe.

“Q” is an all-powerful character, capable of doing anything “he” wants.  (“Q” is played by a male actor, but there’s nothing about “him” that insists he has to be male.)  And I mean “anything” in the most literal sense of the word.  He could change the gravitational constant of the universe if he chose.  Can you imagine?  What power!  What immense omnipotence!  Such vast strength!  While the episodes in which “Q” appears have been well-written and are actually quite entertaining (“Q” does bring a little humor to the otherwise staid bridge crew on the Enterprise), I wonder if “Q” really serves a purpose in science fiction.  He’s waaay too powerful.  Like a god that could strike down anyone he/she wanted at any time.  I suspect he was devised to show how we humans would react to being put in the presence of such a powerful being, of such an all-powerful entity.  In the first episode in which he appears, he puts the entire human race on trial for crimes against—well, I’ve never been sure against what—but is eventually persuaded not to obliterate all humans by Captain Picard and the others.

“To obliterate all humans.”  Does this serve the basic interests of science fiction?  What do we learn from this?  Were there a real entity such as “Q” in the universe, it’s likely we’d all be dead by now.  “Q” is so far above all the known physical laws and concepts of this universe that his existence is inherently impossible.

I suppose “Q” does play a role in teaching us about how it is possible for an individual or small group to go up against a larger organization and still win, (“you can fight city hall”)  but in terms of the broader science fiction universe, “Q” is so unwieldly as to be almost unworkable.  And unimportant.  I suggest we keep our characters more modest.  Let us invent characters we can relate to.  Characters like ourselves.  Characters who show us the way, rather than running so far ahead we can’t keep up.

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All The People

One of the most interesting words in the English language is “people.”  It can have several meanings.  My dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition) has several definitions, leading with “human beings making up a group or assembly or linked by a common interest.”  Fair enough.  Basically, it refers to a group of “persons” who have something in common.  That definition can be further broken down into specific groups like “all the people at the football game,” as opposed to “all the people who aren’t at the football game.”  Or “all the people in the United States,” to be distinguished from “all the people in Great Britain.”

The biggest group is, of course, “all the people in the world,” which just illustrates the somewhat flexible usage of the word, because “people” can be used to include all those the speaker wants, and exclude those he/she doesn’t.  Current events show this quite well.

But as a science fiction writer who has developed other worlds with suitable inhabitants living thereon, I find myself wondering if the word “people” can be used to include beings who aren’t of this world.  Will we ever come to the point where we need to refer to the “people” of another planet?  Since we’ve never seen or heard from beings from outer space, we have to look at fiction to draw comparison.  Were there “people” on Mars who invaded Earth in H.G. Wells’ novel, War of the Worlds?  Are there “people” who inhabit Middle Earth?  Are Klingons “people”?  I suppose that is more a matter of how the author(s) views his/her fictional characters, but I’m using the term outside the author’s intent and looking at them in a broader context.  What are they?  Really.

It’s certainly very likely that we on Earth may be called on to use a word, whether “people” or some other, to refer to the real, non-fictional beings we find on another planet.  (If we ever do, of course.)  That may be a long time coming, but what if we do?  Will they really be “people”?  Do we have within us the wherewithal, or even the chutzpah, to call them a term that we have thus far used to refer only to ourselves, in part or whole?  Since the word has such a flexible meaning, calling them “people” doesn’t necessarily include them as part of us, other than the fact that they exist in the same galaxy, the same universe, the same time continuum as we.  But let us step back and examine ourselves in this matter.  How will we view them?  How we use the word will be, without a doubt, a reflection of how we really view them.  It will be a testament of our regard for them, of what we can distinguish about them.  Come to think of it, that’s how we use the word today anyway.

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Where Do All The Writers Go?

I’ve been an aspiring writer of fiction (largely science fiction novels) for over twenty years now, and have yet to publish a book-length work.  I have published a few short works, including one poem (free style), but nothing—short or long form—to a paying market.  Not a particularly auspicious beginning to a writing career, especially when I read every now and then about someone who writes a book, never having written a book before, and sends it to an agent or two, and they love it right off, and it sells to a publisher in a preempt for 6 or 7 figures and now they’re really well known, and accolades and awards and prizes pour in, and all’s well that ends well.  The writing magazines love to do interviews with them.  And seriously, my hat’s off to them.

But—and I put myself in this category—for every successful author like that, indeed for any successful author regardless of how long it took him/her to get there, there must be hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands of unsuccessful authors who write and write, but whose work is not deemed worthy of publication by agents, editors, publishers and the like.  It’s not good enough, they say, or it doesn’t meet our needs at the present time, or we just published/handled/represented that type of story recently, or it needs work/editing/cutting/revision, or nobody’s buying that type of work any more, or it doesn’t have zombies in it, or the undead or Abraham Lincoln, or it’s just plain lousy, or—and this is my favorite—we just couldn’t get past the writing (?).  There are a zillion reasons writers don’t get published.  Perhaps a different reason for each author.

Only a small number of writers get to the stage where an agent/publisher will pick up their work and decide to give it a go to the extent of a book or series of books; I suppose the vast majority of those who submit are never picked up.  What happens to them?

I’ve been to a number of writer’s conferences in my attempts to learn enough about writing to get published the traditional way, and at those conferences I’ve seen many who could be classified as The Great Unpublished.  They, like me, submit and submit, but nothing ever comes of it.  Some may get a book deal, but I suppose most don’t.  I don’t know of any statistics on the subject, so I find myself wondering: what happens to them?  Do they eventually quit?  Do they go on and on, endlessly submitting and getting rejected?  How many unpublished novels are out there that are eventually self-published because no one will take them?  In other words, and to put it a little more scientifically, for how many novels, is KDP an endpoint?

I’ve heard it said, and I’ve read it in magazines, that no matter what you write, someone, somewhere out there, wants your work.  This is supposed to get you to keep submitting.  You’ll find someone somewhere sometime.  Don’t give up, they say.  Granted, that’s sound advice, but personally, I’ve had little success with it.  KDP is looking better and better.

Does anybody know of any statistics about how many writers quit after giving the publishing game the old college try?  (Sorry about that.)

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