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