I experienced that repeatedly from 2014 – 2016 when I directed the Ashland Writers’ Group, which hit the Ashland library every other Sunday and is still going strong. My first readings went like this: I’d announce a new chapter in a science fiction novel I was developing, and often the readers would preface their critique by apologizing that they didn’t understand science fiction. This cut off a lot of discussion.
But when I announced that the novel was really a thriller set in the future, the genre-blindness and apologies went away, and I got helpful critique about the same material word for word.
So what is the problem with public perception of sci-fi? I’m not going to solve that one anytime soon, but I can talk about what the genre means to me, why I like to write it, and why I think science fiction matters as a literary genre.
The authors who got me rolling in sci-fi go back to Chad Oliver, Robert Heinlein and Fritz Leiber, R.A. Lafferty and Clifford D. Simak, James Tiptree Jr., Larry Niven, Arthur Clarke, Ray Bradbury… and on into the next couple of thousand names. You get the drift. Along with those, there are many literary authors whose work inspired me and gave me the dual pleasures of reading and writing. Barbara Kingsolver and Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley and Alice Hoffman, Ann Patchett, and more.
What I found in common among those authors is a decidedly literate capacity for expression, where thoughts are developed over paragraphs and pages and there are clear signals from the author as to what kind of story you can expect, who the story belongs to, and what are its social values.
Social values are key because our attraction to creating our own stories and hearing those of others is to share knowledge about the world. The best stories not only entertain, but help us think about how to survive strange situations, problem-solve, and pay close attention to detail. This last one is great when the reader gets the notion that the author might be trying to fool them. Kitchy-koo.
Here’s a writer’s trick to make your readers care about your protagonist. One simple way is to give your character the skills and strengths so she can take care of business, while handing her a peculiar and identifying weakness that she would rather hide. When the chips are down, she not only has to reveal that shortcoming to the world but reach down inside herself and overcome it. That is the point at which your reader will see most clearly into your character, and it is what they came to your book to know about.
The next character to put in your story world is the antagonist. In a thriller that person is labelled the villain, but ‘antagonist’ works too.
There’s a certain relationship between hero and villain and there are particular steps in using that relationship to its maximum as you develop tension in your story. Why is the villain the best person to torment the hero? Why is the hero so designed that the villain really, really, really bugs her?
It could be a hero who’s on parole after serving three years in federal lockup for a crime he definitely did not commit. And he can prove it. The villain could be his brand new deputy parole agent, in the form of a woman he’s not seen in twenty years, his vindictive and ambitious high school narcissist girlfriend. Of course, this pair still feels a certain gravity below the belt.
Or it could be a young woman grieving a mother who foolishly sparked a firefight with the cops and is no longer with us. Except spiritually, in the daughter’s belief. She therefore wants to talk to Mom one more time. When she turns to the occult for a mom-daughter smackdown, the thing she summons appears in a pentagram with flames from both nostrils, wings and clawed feet. It is not her mother.
Another trick that gets a story off the ground is to foreshadow the whole thing in one sentence. Here’s a first line from Ann Patchett:
BERNADETTE HAD BEEN DEAD TWO WEEKS WHEN HER SISTERS SHOWED UP IN DOYLE’S LIVING ROOM ASKING FOR THE STATUE BACK.
Of course this does not tell the whole story, but it lays down the major stakes and the characters who will war over those stakes. The rest of this paragraph, from Patchett’s novel Run, fleshes out these characters and the statue’s peculiar origin story. The first sentence is designed to make you read the rest of the paragraph; that paragraph is designed to tell you what the story is about. And make you turn the page.
But now back to science fiction, and my predilection for writing it.
I made a surprising discovery recently, looking back over the last seven years and my four-novels-with-one-on-the-way, that in my sci-fi adventures I’m always looking for a way to mend the world. Preposterous, right? But what better place to try that than in the future? We have certainly not achieved it in the past.
In my novel Next History, The Girl Who Hacked Tomorrow, the battle lines lie between the age-old patriarchy and a young woman who is decidedly special, a fact that would not surface without the special challenge which comes to her in the form of Lucifer himself. In my novel Halcyon Dreamworlds ~ Enslaved By The Future Of Desire, a woman is so addicted to her online existence with fame, money, and beautiful lovers that she accepts a wage-slave existence in real life to feed her habit. It is only intense grief at the loss of her last family member that wakes her to see that she’s made herself a pleasure-bot, and gives her enough fight to quit the addiction and battle back into normal life.
Fat chance, As if, and other derisive snorts from the author.
My aim in that story as in all stories is to give my hero tougher problems still, until she goes over the edge and reveals who she really is. When that happens, it also reveals things and possibilities many of us suspect about the future and gives form to them. Here are two: the Singularity has arrived and humanity is headed for a post-biological existence. Do we care? Can we stop it? It could happen so you better pay attention.
In Aliens Got My Sally, UFO Pulp Fiction for the Twisted Mind, the title character is whisked away by a lurking wormhole to the other side of the galaxy (bye, Sally!) and it’s left to her lifelong friend Anna to find her and bring her home. But it is Anna’s unique makeup and the implacable fears beneath her tough exterior which form the book’s central struggle… Anna versus her internal demons and terror of dying.
Star Trek was successful for many reasons, not least being the certainty, painted for us in every weekly episode, that a future for humankind does actually exist and will be waiting. In 1966 we were locked in a race to dominate a global thermonuclear war. Star Trek promised a future where things were clean, where technology was as simple and astonishing as magic, and the people of Earth were a force for good in the universe. That is, except for the occasional sociopath designed to bring out the best in everyone else for one more installment.
Science fiction for me is a belief that the universe, however deceptive and complex, is actually knowable to our sciences, if not directly by our senses. It’s been said that there are three kinds of possible universe: a loving universe, an impersonal universe, or a cruel universe. Everyone has their own basic beliefs about that question, but for myself I try to not choose Door A, B or C. Instead I postulate that the universe is conscious and go from there.
In my 2013 novel, Next History, an Air Force general discovers that subatomic particles have internal conscious lives. Others learned that the traditional Akasha of Indian philosophy holds the knowledge of all past and future events, the soul pathway of every flower, bee, human, star and microbe in the cosmos. A universe that is conscious on every level.
In Aliens Got My Sally (2017), I theorized an intelligent species as old as the galaxy that has one main goal: to make the universe survivable for itself until time stops working. This led them to seed colony worlds throughout the galaxy in the tens of billions, one of which is our teensy Earth. Needless to say, we fell off the galaxy’s A-list aeons ago. Anna thinks that is fixable.
Always trying to mend the world. But hark. In popular literature from YA and fantasy to speculative fiction, we’re in the Age of Dystopia, and many authors write extensively of terrible outcomes. Sure, there are counterexamples, but doom fuels our zeitgeist.
The way I choose to counter that is to show that the universe is actually set up for survival of many species, that none of them own it, and there is abundance which beggars our imagination.
My worlds develop from the latest physics I can find. When I read recently that the accretion disks of star formation contain the amino acids necessary to life as we know it, it solidified my conviction that the universe is designed for life, that it possesses a kind of consciousness, and while it loves us, is indifferent as to whether anyone or anything in particular will survive.
That part is up to our imagination.