Posts Tagged science fiction
If you read much fiction, especially science fiction or fantasy, you may have heard of the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It’s used to indicate a willingness on the part of a reader to accept as real the descriptions, the materiality, the phenomena and/or the validity of a world which does not exist in this universe, and in some cases, could not exist under any circumstances. You do it probably a lot more than you think. In some stories, for example, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, many things in the novel could be real, even though the characters aren’t. We know that Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and all the others don’t exist and have never lived, but everything about the town of Maycomb does seem real and could really be true. The lynching of a black man is real. It has happened. And it takes place in Alabama, a real state. But when we read the book or watch the movie, we are willing to put ourselves in that town in that era and accept what’s happening. It becomes real to us, if only for a short time.
On the other hand, what in the TV series Star Trek seems real? Only a few things, such as San Francisco, where Star Fleet headquarters is located, and some of the humanoid characters—James Kirk, Captain Picard, etc. But everything else in this series is so unlikely and non-real, especially a space vehicle that is capable of traveling many times faster than the speed of light. It’s so far out of touch with current concepts of space travel that it seems ridiculous just to think about. Yet we watch. We suspend our disbelief to a much greater degree than with Atticus Finch, but suspend it we do, and we enjoy the show.
The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was apparently coined by the British author and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1815. He used it to refer to the fiction of his day, which didn’t include science fiction, though there were some elements of fantasy in some works prior to that time. (For example, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.) After all, the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, didn’t appear until January, 1818, and Jules Verne, who published his groundbreaking sci-fi in the latter half of the 19th Century, hadn’t gotten started yet either. I doubt that Coleridge ever had any idea how far his phrase would be taken in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
But while the term refers to the acceptance of a fictional universe, it refers to what is, I believe, essentially a passive action. We simply let ourselves go and accept what the author has to offer. But I submit that there is really an active process in which we are engaged when reading science fiction. Especially good science fiction which fleshes out a non-real or fantastical world in so much detail we can actually see ourselves living there. Or at least visiting. A reader has to actively submit to the author’s world and allow him/herself to be transported there. We see and smell and taste and touch and hear things the author has not even suggested or described because we are so intensely embedded in that world we instinctively know more about it than the description has suggested. This is a much more active process than just accepting the non-real world for the duration of the novel or the movie. For example, can’t you just feel the heat and humidity of an Alabama summer without air-conditioning?
As a science fiction author, I became aware of this requirement of a sci-fi novel only slowly over a period of many years. (Too many years to list here.) To keep a reader’s attention, the world has to be believable, and well to the end of the novel. I’ve tried to set up the fictional worlds and characters in my novels to seem real, to draw the reader in and keep him/her there, but time will tell whether readers agree.
I just got back from the 2018 edition of the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference, (#PPWC2018) and had a great time. As usual. Lots of good sessions on many different aspects of writing, and had a chance to pitch my first sci-fi novel to an editor. He asked for the first 50 pages, which, by the time I write this, have already been sent. I met lots of good writer friends, and handed out business cards. Business cards are always good, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned veteran.
But what I want to consider in this blog post is one session in particular. It was titled “Fantasy and Sci Fi World Building: Writing Like an Anthropologist.” It was given by Darby Karchut, who’s written several sci-fi novels. The premise of the talk was a factor in world building that I had given some thought to as I wrote my trilogy, but hadn’t gone into in great detail. When building a new world for your characters, you have to supply them with all the intricate facets of life that we have here on Earth. It’s not enough to create a planet and populate it with aliens. They have a life. They have a history. They had to get on that planet somehow, and there may be a substantial number of details you haven’t thought of that play a role in your character’s daily life. (Assuming they have days and nights on their planet.)
Ms. Karchut listed eight factors that should be taken into account when worldbuilding. 1. What is the government like? Representative? Repressive? Dictatorial? 2. What is the economy like? What are the main driving forces in the economy? Science? Politics? Food? Beer? 3. Is there a religion? If so, how religious are your characters? 4. What is life like on your planet, and how do your characters spend their daily life? What dominates their daily life? 5. What are the arts like? Music? Movies? 6. What are the dominate social groups? To which group does your main character belong? Do you have rich and poor people? Or is everybody at the same social level? 7. History. Delve into the history of your planet. That one factor can shape the daily life of your characters in many different ways, especially ways you may not have thought about. 8. Language. What language do your characters speak? How did that language originate and how did it come down to them? If a visitor comes to your planet, how does that outsider know how to speak their language?
I appreciated this session because it brought up so many things I hadn’t thought about, or only briefly considered, about my characters and their home planet. If you write sci-fi, I strongly recommend you take these things into consideration. A reader will be more likely to keep reading if he/she understands that you’ve delved deeply into your imagination and taken the time to build a complete world. That’s what makes science fiction good: imagination. More so that most any other genre of writing. A well-thought out world may help fill plot holes, too, because if a difficult situation arises, you will have already developed a fully-functional economy that will give you a clue as to how your characters will act and how the difficulty will play out.
In this blog posting, I just want to make a few observations on a couple of aspects of writing. To wit:
First, I stopped at a local Barnes and Noble bookstore this afternoon to get another science fiction book. I wandered down the aisle where the sci-fi/fantasy books were shelved and, as usual, glanced briefly at the books that led to the sci-fi section. Those books consisted largely of classics and other fiction, not sci-fi. Then I hit the science fiction section, and the contrast was—as simply as I can put it—eye opening. The classics, all those non-sci-fi books were brilliantly colored: reds, yellows, and oranges seemed to dominate, though other colors were evident too. But the sci-fi books were almost uniformly black. Coal black, black as midnight in a coal mine, black as the ace of spades, to use several well-worn clichés. The actual dividing line was between the classics and the newest releases of sci-fi books, and certainly not all sci-fi books are released in blackened dust jackets. But in this particular case, almost all the new releases seem to have been painted with a brush dipped in India ink. Even a classic such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is in a deep blue, and it stuck out only because I was familiar with the name. I did see two or three books in much lighter colors, and I even bought one, an anthology of space opera and military sci-fi called Infinite Stars, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, published by Titan Books. It has a kind of light tannish-red grizzled cover, and it stood out from all the blackness like a sun in the midst of infinite darkness.
I’m not sure I can tell why so many sci-fi books are published in dark covers. Perhaps it’s a trend of the times. There seems a tendency toward dark plots nowadays, of heroes who are not what they seem to be, or who have to overcome vastly destructive personal demons before they can fulfill their destiny and rescue the damsel in distress (or whatever it is they have to do). There are, of course, many sci-fi books released in recent years that are not dark (Victor Milan’s Dinosaur series comes to mind), but there is a serious trend. I, personally, am not in favor of it. If I ever get any of my books published (the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise), I will certainly insist that the covers be lighter, even much lighter. Reds and yellows are common. Even a light blue would be good. What’s that you say? The author doesn’t have any control over the cover? We’ll find out.
Second, I want to comment briefly on one aspect of getting short stories published. I’ve written several short stories, mostly literary in character, and I’ve been trying to get some of them published in literary journals around the country for quite a number of years. Most of the journals state in their instructions to submitters something like: “read a back issue or two of our journal to get a feel of what kind of works we are looking for.” Okay, well said. Good idea. And I have been reading some of the journals I submit to, when I can get to them. But I’m becoming more and more convinced this advice is questionable at best. Several times (more than I can count on all fingers and toes) I’ve read a journal and said, “Aha! I have a short story that will fit well with this magazine. I will give them a try.” So I send in a story, wait a goodly number of weeks or months and, invariably, comes a rejection that says, “We did not feel this story was a good fit for our magazine.” So I wonder, what value is it to read the magazine beforehand if they’re going to reject something the author thinks will fit their editorial style? Granted, the whole process is subjective, and the editor’s decision is the last word, but if the author can’t make a good judgement on the “fit” of the story, that just makes it harder to get published in the first place.
A few days ago I watched the second half of a movie from 1974, called “The White Dawn,” about three whalers, two Caucasian and one African American (played by Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr.) who get trapped in the Arctic, and have to rely on the local Eskimos to survive. The movie takes place in the late 19th century, and the natives rescue them from a hunk of ice in the Arctic Ocean. They take them into their extended family and feed them, and generally keep them alive until, ostensibly, they can get back to the civilization they are more familiar with. I found it interesting to watch the use of Eskimo culture in the movie: life, fishing, killing seals, building igloos, etc. The terrain was fascinating too, especially the way the ice, snow, rock, and water came together to produce a real otherworldly—and in a color movie an almost black-and-white—landscape. From the list of names that scrolled across the screen at the end of the movie, it appears that real Eskimo people were used as actors in the movie, not Caucasians made up to look like them (as so often happens in American western and Indian movies). The outsiders bring to the Eskimo culture some of their own culture such as booze, sex, and a sort of “me-first” attitude that the Eskimos don’t have. Eskimos live in a severe environment and depend on one another for survival. A “lone wolf” or “loose cannon” type of person could jeopardize the entire extended family. Eventually the outsiders make some home brew and get some of the Eskimos inebriated. One young woman gets so warm from drinking the concoction that she strips to the waist and goes outside the igloo, but collapses in the snow and eventually freezes to death. The outsiders are subsequently either run off or killed, and the movie ends.
But as I watched the movie, I began to take it in as a writer would, and I realized there are things in this movie I can use in my next novel. I have in the back of my mind an idea for a science-fiction novel, and I’ve begun to make notes about plot, characters, terrain on a far distant planet, the natives, and so on. But within that movie, details of Eskimo culture could be adapted to my fictional characters. I would never transfer Eskimo culture directly to a made-up culture, of course, but broad concepts such as dance, sex, life in general, hunting, terrain, housing, and so forth, could form the basis for the fictional culture’s life. And I certainly don’t mean to pick on Eskimo culture alone here either; far from it. There are many different cultures around this blue and brown and green and white globe we live on that ideas about culture can be gleaned from many, many different areas. It’s just that I happened to be watching an Eskimo movie at the time.
Some non-writers ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s especially true of sci-fi writers. Well, here’s one answer: the movies. (I’ve heard that some people get their ideas at Sears, but I never have.) Ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re all around us. Some good ideas come from the movies, some appear in the newspaper, some from politics or science, or whatever—you name it. This one movie I watched just goes to show you (pun intended) that ideas can come anytime, anywhere. Just keep your mind open.
In this blog post I want to talk a little about putting tension and conflict into story telling. I’ve just completed reading two science fiction novels (written by the same author) in which I believe the concept of tension was handled badly. I’m not identifying the novels or the author for two reasons. One, this is not a book review, and two, I’m not trying to cut down or disparage the books (you may actually like them); I’m only trying to make a point. The problem with the books as I see them is that the author placed both protagonists in a state of high tension and internal conflict, and kept the unfortunate person in that state for virtually the entire book. I found this situation almost unreadable. Trying to read through this, page after page, chapter after chapter, was emotionally taxing on me as well. Many times I wanted to toss the books away and not finish them. (I did finish them, however, because I figured if I wanted to critique them, I’d better read the entire book.) In short, that’s a terrible thing to do to your protagonist as well as to your reader.
Placing a novel character in such a state is so grossly unrealistic and unbelievable I find myself wondering how it got past the agency and the editor in the first place. I’m surprised someone didn’t stop it before publication, or at least question it. I certainly would never put one of my characters in such a desperate situation. I might put them in that plight for a chapter or two, or three, but not for the whole book. Tension and conflict are essential in a novel, of that there is no doubt, and it may be true that I don’t have enough of either in my books. But tension and conflict should rise and fall like the tides. Keeping a character in eternal tension is unrealistic, and even science fiction has to be “realistic,” at least to a certain degree. Raise the tension occasionally; keep your characters sane (unless insanity is a part of the story). If this is what it takes to get published in this day and age, I don’t want to have any part of it.
As a good example of the variation of tension, I offer the Alfred Hitchcock movie “To Catch A Thief.” Not because it’s such a great example, but merely because I watched portions of it last night. In the movie, a cat burglar has been retired for fifteen years, but now a copycat has started burglarizing the homes of the wealthy, and the retired burglar has to clear his name and prove to the police the break-ins weren’t his doing, or go to jail. In his words “they’ll throw away the key.” (Yes, even Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t above using a cliché.) High stakes, no doubt. But Hitchcock intersperses humor and lightheartedness throughout the movie, even though it takes the main character most of the movie to identify the real burglar. I think that’s one thing that makes Hitchcock such a movie favorite; he knew how to handle tension.
As an unpublished author, perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe lack of conflict and tension are my problem. But I do know what I felt when I read the books, and I didn’t like it at all. And that’s enough for me.
Over the past eighteen years, I’ve written three science fiction novels, each about 125,000 words. That’s just the word count of each of the manuscripts as they exist today, and doesn’t take into account all the re-writing and revisions I’ve made over the years, especially to the first. The total number of different words I’ve put into those books, and taken out and moved around and cut-up and redistributed and so forth, must total over five hundred thousand.
Currently, I’m finishing the third in the trilogy, but I’m still trying to sell the first. Over the past sixteen years I’ve sent query letters to well over a hundred agents about that first book, but haven’t had a taker. I’ve met with agents and editors at meetings, but no one has yet agreed to represent it. In the meantime, I still work at writing on the trilogy, mostly on the third, but occasionally I go back and make changes and revisions to books one and two. I also write short stories and blog posts. Writing keeps me busy.
The most common question I get asked about all this is, have you considered self-publishing? The answer is yes, I’ve considered it, but I have, at least for now, rejected it. Those who have self-published a book say it’s a wonderful experience. You get a book out there on Amazon and other places, without going to the trouble of having to find an agent and a publisher.* Just do it, they say. No, I say.
Why not? My usual response is that I would prefer to write and leave the publishing details to those better prepared to deal with them. Sure, I could go ahead and find an editor and a cover artist and a printer and all that, and put the book out there. That could be done. It wouldn’t go into many bookstores, though. The most important question I ask myself about this process is: would the book be any good? There’s a lot of self-published stuff out there that isn’t. I’m sure an editor, especially an editor who looks at content, could give me his/her opinion about the whole matter, and manuscript reviewers (that is, beta readers) could give me feedback too, but the ultimate decider of whether a book is any good is the reading public, and I wouldn’t want them to read a half-ass book. Or a three-quarter ass book. Or even a seven-eighths ass book. I want to put out only my best work. I’d rather go through the regular old-fashioned process of getting an agent and publisher and let them decide if the book warrants publishing. So far, that hasn’t happened, and leads me to wonder if my first book is really good enough to be published yet. More revisions loom. And if it’s not good enough to be published through the traditional route, it certainly isn’t good enough to be self-published.
*Sometimes I get the feeling that some people self-publish because they know their book(s) isn’t/aren’t good enough for the traditional method in the first place anyway.
Several weeks ago I chanced to see a Facebook post about some predictions an artist had made in the early 20th Century of what life would be like a hundred years later, i.e., in the early 21st Century. (I’m talking about the time around 1910, here.) The predictions were interesting, but what came through for me was that the predictions seemed to be limited to devising objects and machines that would make life easier. Household items that did the work for you, and so on. Nowhere was there any prediction of major advances in health, communications, travel, and what have you. No mention of television, organ transplantation, computers, even the telephone. Those, of course, are much harder to predict. It has always been difficult to predict new technology, and much easier to merely extrapolate from what we know into the future. For example, computers, cell phones, electronic tablets and so forth have made communications much easier and more widespread than even twenty years ago. But what is the future of the cell phone? Will it just get faster and faster? Or smaller and smaller? So small it will fit on our fingernail? Or will there be another revolution in the way we communicate, a revolution that will make a cell phone look like the telegraph looked in 1910?
Advances in most areas of technology and science are slow in coming and hard to predict. When I started out in microbiology in the 1960’s, I couldn’t have foreseen the revolution in the handling of DNA that led to advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, not to mention the treatment of many other diseases, or the ability to detect incomprehensibly tiny amounts of DNA on environmental surfaces that has transformed forensics and genealogy. There was something on the horizon, to be sure, and we all knew that sometime, someone will break through and change the way we look at disease. But it’s hard to look too far ahead. All we can do is take research one small step at a time, and do the best we can.
So, what are your predictions for the next 100 or 200 years? One thing that helps us in our attempt to look ahead is science fiction. Back in 1910, very little science fiction had been written, and it wasn’t anywhere nearly as popular as it is now. To be sure, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had published what we now term science fiction, but it had limited impact on the population. Nowadays, we see sci-fi in so many places: television, movies, books, comics, etc. We’re used to looking at spaceships that travel faster than light, or time machines that transport fictional characters to unknown and unlikely places. Faster than light travel and time travel—if they ever come to exist—could be considered game changers in the same way jet aircraft changed the world for a 1910 person. (The Wright Brothers had barely gotten off the ground in 1910.) But now, let’s push the boundaries of life of an early twenty-first person. What’s coming by 2110? By 2210? For a person born in 2010, what will they see in 2100? They’ll be 90 years old, so that’s not unrealistic. Can you get out of the rut of merely extending what is known now and make real substantial predictions? I’m not sure I can.
Here’s a couple of my predictions, not necessarily game changers, though. (I’m a life scientist, it should be noted.) 1. Surgery will be non-existent. Cancer will be gone, and any necessary surgery (by 2000 standards) will be taken care of by non-invasive procedures. Nanobots may be a part of this. 2. Pollution will be gone. That’s just a decision we have to make, not a technological advance. Stopping climate change is a different matter. Even if we made the decision world-wide right now, some climate change is inevitable, though it is possible someone, somewhere will find a way to halt climate change in its tracks. 3. I don’t foresee Star Trek-style transporters, though I could be wrong. Travel is travel. You have to expend a certain amount of energy to move an object a given distance. But what the hell, let’s go for it. 4. Life span will be around 100 years, maybe even more. I’m not expecting a fountain of youth, but advances in aging will be substantial.
That’s enough for now. Got any other predictions?