When I start a new piece my first consideration is theme. If it’s not SF I generally launch straight into it, knowing it’ll be out of the way in a day or two.
SF poses additional considerations, for example what, exactly, is it going to be about? Have I read anything similar or, if not, am I drawing from general wells of inspiration provided by works such as Billion Year Spree, Hell’s Cartographers, Visual Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, New Maps of Hell, Who’s Who in Science Fiction…
Like many teenagers, my youth was marred by lack of money and even less wisdom. When I could I bought anything to do with SF, including the above. In his introductions to the Spectrum Collections, Robert Conquest makes the point that as the genre deals with areas outside the scope of conventional fiction, the literary conventions for normal fiction should not apply. This poses the question: what is the legitimate purpose of the genre. The answer to that changes, depending on what’s in vogue – SF is no less prone to fashion that other genres.
To go back to ‘legitimate purpose’ I find it instructive to revisit those long ago surveys of the genre and I am currently dipping into Billion Year Spree
First UK paperback publication: Corgi SF Collector’s Library, 1975.
Tolkien is contrasted with Peake with an extract from each.
Peake says little, filling his character with the self-regard so prevalent in the literary outputs of yesteryear.
Tolkien progresses the action and briefly dwells the resonance through dream.
Tolkien is more direct whereas you feel Peake is close to breaking into a paean of all the words he knows on a theme. In many works this is a sign of all too prevalent Thesaurus Gambit; the writer throws a list of everything that could be found in say An Exotic Market, in hope of conveying Exotic to the reader. This tendency isn’t confined to the genre; attendees of Writing Groups pay heed please.
The critique of Heinlein is hilarious – “(an adroit way of dropping in) a telling detail” err Brian, that’s writing in the here and now; Dickens detailed characterisations, with high wordage levels splayed out over pages and pages have their market – most of which has long since passed beyond the pale.
What’s more important, character tick boxes or action? It’s a matter of taste.
That’s not to say that Billion Year Spree has no value – indeed for the purposes of orienting, one considers the editorial pitch, looks at the array of books considered, assimilates and moves on. It’s worth, however, taking a shot at books you’ve already read and this is where it gets easy to pick holes in Aldiss’ Spree. It’s almost too easy. You have to remember we each climb the mountain by using the endeavours of others.
Note on Corgi SF Collector’s Library
The Library was in limited to works published by Corgi so in an irony of ironies: no Philip K Dick, Ursula K Le Guin, J. G. Ballard or other luminaries of the time.
William Burroughs once said, “If writers are to describe the advanced techniques of the Space Age, they must invent writing techniques equally advanced in order properly to deal with them.”
Back then, 60 years ago, SF was still emerging from its ghetto; characterisation was wooden, moral choices were cartoonishly portrayed; one universe shattering threat replaced each other with monotonous regularity. The only thing it did do was provide pat answers to questions proposed by the plot: a magic bullet that kills all bad, a magic device that right wrong, a special word that banishes the bad parts of dream…….
The medium has progressed, though some (including me) take the view that progress has been patchy. Wooden characterisation has evolved to a point where it could be called mechanical – virtually formulaic. There are plenty of clunky stories out there. This isn’t surprising as our knowledge of important aspects of the subject matter: the future / outer space / aliens etc, is a big fat unknown. We are midgets writing on the high perches created by the giants of the Golden Age.
What could be improved?
The limiting factor is story design. It’s fair to say that most genre novels slavishly stick to linear plots because that’s how it’s driven by traditional publishing. The key here is a potted answer for every story question.
But in SF (& Fantasy) the BIG question: Have you made the reader think? Not forced, but given him / her the opportunity.
Pat answers are a fail; they are a mere side-step from information dump. A universe with smoothly defined edges holds no mystery yet the one we inhabit keeps changing; sometimes radically. How long is it since we had nine planets? What happened to Pluto? How long since the accepted view that only our solar system had planets? There are big changes all the time – I have a Teach Yourself Geology book from the 1970s where Plate Tectonics barely gets a mention; then the idea was still radical. Yet pat answers are necessary for the biggest market of all: Detective Fiction. However, SF & Fantasy need different rule books. Robert Conquest argued this in Spectrum and it still holds true.
Aristototle makes the case for works to be plausible and authentic¹. That’s the prompt to go back to the real world and note how new belief systems take hold as new discoveries displace the old; all in accord with what better fits our observations. The biggest discovery is life out there. We know from what drifts to Earth that there must be plenty of the building blocks of life, hanging about. Worldbuild that!
Will we meet aliens in our lifetimes? The odds are low unless they’re more advanced than us (another building block). Intelligent aliens, by definition, ought to be light years ahead of us in intellect etc. There’s a whole series of consequences inherent to such a situation that are begging to be explored – which I did in A Guide to First Contact ² – but, taking in the way our scientific beliefs have changed and, going back to William Burroughs point, the genre should develop ways to deal with ideas that lie beyond our ability to grasp, whether or not they are too alien or complex.
This isn’t a new concept; it’s a core part of the Sufi function – dealing with ossified belief systems. I’m not advocating Sufism (though I’ve followed it for 30+ years) – the point is: the universe is not only stranger than you think, it’s stranger than you can think; a point well made before.
Back to advanced aliens. They’ll have better technology as well as more sophisticated ways of handling complex matters. They ought to be able to handle us like rats in a maze. Maybe they do. Secrets and conspiracies. Mmmm.
And give the reader some mental exercise. Bring the aliens to life – layer them and their schemes – more advanced intelligences should find it convenient to conceal themselves from run of the mill space faring species. Why? Because they handle stuff that answers questions that the movers and shakers don’t want answering.
Anything else? Complexity suitable for big, brain-box aliens. Enough complexity to hide what’s going on in plain starlight. And of course a design so that what might look a random walk makes sense once the larger picture is grasped. Naqshbandia we say for the People of the Path. I prefer Design, the larger, the better.
The hard shiny edges of world building need fuzzy areas from which new challenges and threats (i.e. new ideas) can emerge, otherwise the whole set up will become sterile. There’s a lot more that can be said but who will listen?
¹ my blog notes
• invariably the best results are bad stuff happening in a plausible way
Poetics 7) The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot | 7.2 First Deduction
• In all things: is this plausible? probable?
Poetics 8) Other Aspects of Tragedy | 8.1 Character
My book A Guide to First Contact is self-published on Kindle and Lulu.
Kindle edition – ebook
Standard paperback – Print on Demand only
Large paperback edition – Print on Demand only
Hardcover edition – Print on Demand only
Like a good little Earthling I hope it presents a challenge to all, whether human, post-human, alien or merely god-like being of the Great Out There
Really belongs here
Written in 1958, this 1976 reissue of Brian Aldiss’ first novel shows him at his best. The action pulls the reader through what we would now consider technical implausibilities, with the inventive zest of a fresh writer making his mark on the genre.
The protagonist, Roy, leaves a brutish, inward-looking existence of his tribe. In doing so he is thrown into a series of events that paint a strange picture of the world about him; not one would would readily recognise. He encounters different human tribes, some are more advanced. There are puzzles, however; why do some grow to a great size? Others are suspected of being aliens, can that be true? Who are all these tribes? The answers connect to a central mystery that Roy begins to unravel.
What he discovers changes his view of everything he believed…
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Really belongs here
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The 1970s. Too little is written about the mechanics of the genre at that time. This collection is short bios and essays by well-regarded writers of the past. Regardless of whether I liked the outputs of the writers, I found this good, informative stuff. There were six contributors. For the benefit of readers of today, with the hindsight of many years, I have included (in parentheses) a representative work. Go check out SF writing as it was.
• Alfred Bester (Tiger! Tiger!
• Damon Knight (best known as a critic and editor, e.g. Orbit 1)
• Frederik Pohl (Gateway)
• Robert Silverberg (Dying Inside)
• Harry Harrison (The Stainless Steel Rat)
• Brian W Aldiss (Non-Stop is worth checking, also well-known as a critic)
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Really belongs here
Since pulp days, the primary publishing organ for SF ahd been the monthly magazines: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Astounding / Analog, Galaxy, New Worlds, Worlds of If. By the 1950s, the SF genre was in the throes of change, authors were starting to land publishing deals that took them outside the orbit of the SF magazines. Not everyone could land deals, such as Robert A. Heinlein, but publishers like Ace Books (once the biggest US paperback publisher for SF) offered outlets for new novels to the likes of Philip Dick and Andre Norton. Clearly the market was growing. What of the authors who neither wrote novels nor had a publishing deal?
Robert Conquest, a respected historian, and Kingsley Amis, an English novelist & critic…
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My review, as a Science Fiction aficionado, of what could and should have been a better film.
I went to see the Force Awakens yesterday. There’s some good in the tale but in important ways it’s a retrograde step. Like the Hobbit, this seems more an attempt to mimic what has gone before, and in so doing, invokes the curse of poor imitation. At least in the Hobbit, they had the excuse of a well known story to stick to (the real failing of that trilogy was mish-mash of director style). To go back to the Force Awakens, it was possible to do something different with all the available elements but this doesn’t happen. Instead its deliberate mimicry of what went before is hammered home, piece by piece. Reworking themes from earlier films is the essence of sequels: set up your premise and crank out product. Bucks per bang. This may be what Disney wants for Star Wars but it doesn’t work. The storytelling device is, at…
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