Tag Archives: Speculative Fiction

Science Fiction in the Doldrums

There has been a rash of New schools in SF recently: New Pulp, New Weird, Strange SF, Optimistic SF, and the grand daddy of them all (since it started up around a decade ago) Mundane SF. There are more of course, but these are the ones that spring directly into my mind. You could even argue that Steampunk and its progeny (Diesel Punk, Clock Punk, Bio Punk—yeah I know that is a more direct offshoot of Cyberpunk—et al.) are part of the same movement.

What is the movement?

To give Science Fiction a new course when the winds of change are disturbed, erratic, leaving the genre becalmed. SF relies on change, it needs to lift the seeing glass to its eye and look ahead to new lands, new ideas, new knowledge. But the doldrums have it now and the oars are out, pulling it towards cleaner winds.

The problem?

None of the oarsmen (writers, critics, fans, publishers) can agree on which direction to row, so the ship circles endlessly as people argue about definitions and directions.

Why has this come about?

The problem lies not within the writers or the fans or the publishers or the words written down upon a page. The problem lies within the stars, or rather within science itself.

Science is in a period of evidence gathering right now. Like Copernicus, scientists are amassing data. They are waiting on the next Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Everett, to come along and create a new paradigm. They know that the theories they have right now don’t work. They know that Dark Matter and Dark Energy are fudges; they hope that they exist, because it will make everything easier, but easy is not something the universe provides—as a general rule.

So they amass data. They find the Higgs particle, they map the heavens in greater and greater detail, they take little slivers of data and try to say, ‘this means this,’ without anything to really stand on.

This is not an attack on science. This has happened before, moving from the geocentric model to the heliocentric model happened because of the evidence amassed by Copernicus and Galileo, because of the elliptical orbits plotted by Kepler, which gave Newton all the data he required to come up with his theory. At least, this time, science doesn’t have to deal with the inquisition.

The same thing is happening in the biological sciences, the genome project, and its successors, is evidence gathering at its finest. They are mapping the genes of life on Earth and discovering that things don’t quite add up, which is where epigenetics comes lunging into the debate.

Scientists know this is true. They know that their models of the universe and life are incomplete, they know they are waiting on enough data, they know they are waiting on the next genius who can use that data to make sense of it all.

But this all leaves Science Fiction in irons, waiting for a theory to start up the wild speculation and considered extrapolation that defines the genre.

The first true Science Fiction novel is generally considered to be Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein‘, which was built on the discovery that dead flesh could be reanimated by electricity. Jules Verne built his stories on the technological advances of the 19th century, that onrushing wave of progress that changed the world forever. HG Well’s ‘Time Machine‘ was really about the new scientific theory of evolution as was ‘War of the Worlds‘.

Then came Einstein. EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s ‘Classic Lensman Series‘ (that was on the covers of the books I read as a kid and that is how I think of it) invented the Inertialess Drive so that his characters could travel faster than the speed of light. He also used antimatter and evolution in his stories, plus the—very popular but since happily discredited—science of eugenics. He also created Space Opera as a by-product of his musings.

Do you see it yet?

Science Fiction needs Science to advance, to come up with new theories, to provide the winds for its sails.

Golden Age Science Fiction surfed Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Evolution, with a large doses of Eugenics and Cloning thrown into the mix.

New Wave Science Fiction dived into the underbelly of Science Fiction, using the new ‘sciences’ (in quotes because a science without a paradigm is not a science IMHO) of psychology and sociology and so forth to allow them to breathe down there in the deeps.

Cyberpunk was built on the onrushing wave of progress in electronics that changed the world.

Each of these periods changed Science Fiction completely. The Golden Age created the majority of the tropes. The New Wave subverted most of the tropes. And Cyberpunk gave a whole viewpoint on the tropes.

The New (there’s that word again) Space Operas could not exist without cyberpunk. It informs all the Shipminds, and Zones, and so forth.

Something else to note.

Jules Verne wrote his stories around the 1870s (or thereabouts). HG Wells wrote his stories around the turn of the 20th century. The Golden Age ran from about the 1920s to 1940s (this is where I could really do with doing some serious research (which I didn’t have time for)—Pulp Era, Golden Age, to me they are the same thing, but not to Wiki. The New Wave ran from about the 1960s. And Cyberpunk began in the 1980s.

So every 20 years or so Science Fiction has renewed itself.

It’s been 30 years since Cyberpunk, and no new thrust has appeared.

Steampunk looked backwards (and Jules Verne did not write Steampunk—just because you like his stories and try to recreate them with a more modern sensibility does not mean he was writing Steampunk 140 years ago. He was writing about the future. Steampunk isn’t. I like Steampunk, I like the sensibility of it, but this really irritates me).

Mundane Science Fiction takes the premise that Science Fiction should only use the known laws of the Universe. I can understand the reasoning. When people are out there calling Star Wars Science Fiction, you really want to stand up and say, ‘No, Science Fiction is based on scientific plausibility.’ Which means you need an answer when somebody says, ‘what about FTL, telepathy, parallel worlds etc, are they scientifically plausible?’ So Mundane Science Fiction is born. It would be an interesting challenge to write a story in that field, but it really isn’t the future of SF. It’s too limited.

But the new generation of Science Fiction fans and writers know that the field needs to renew itself. They understand that the clock is ticking. They want their new paradigm.

But Science is data gathering. All the current theories have been around for a while. None of them quite match the evidence and there are the fudgicles of, ‘the equations only work if we postulate that 90 plus percent of the universe is invisible’, ticking away like a time-bomb. The same is true in the biological science because they now have plenty of evidence that genetics is a hell of a lot stranger than they first thought. And the same is also true of the cognitive science (the grandchild of the ‘Soft’ sciences) because they are having a bit of difficulty defining consciousness.

The latest oarsmen calling out the stroke as ‘New Weird, New Pulp.’ ‘Same diff look at that unusual wave over there “Strange SF”.’ ‘Oh why can’t we be more optimistic?’ ‘Because the world is going to hell in a hand basket.’ ‘Pull this way.’ ‘No that way.’ ‘No over there.’ ‘Dammit I’m hungry.’ ‘I’m thirsty, any more of that “pan-galactic gargle blaster” left?” are all trying to spot the clouds building over the new lands, are trying to see the landlubber birds flying towards them, overheating the arguments as they try to see the surf crashing onto the beaches of the next reinvention of the genre.

It will arrive, we will get there, its only a matter of time. But really, Science, pull your bloody finger out, I’m getting heatstroke here.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Why Her World Shouldn’t Fall Apart

What makes Speculative Fiction (SF) — Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, or any of the many sub-genres — different from other forms of fiction?

Simple really: in SF the normal everyday experience of the reader and writer need not apply — the position’s already been taken by ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone. Weird stuff happens and as a writer you have to make sure that only the weird stuff you mean to happen…um…happens. You don’t want to add an entire other level of inadvertent weirdness through sloppy phrasing. Keep your weird under control with accuracy. And a bullwhip.  And maybe some cream puffs, because ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone are notoriously lactose intolerant.

Other genres (OG) have their own sweet irritations, but in SF you have to be precise, very precise.

In the OG the line, Her world fell apart, is a little melodramatic, maybe a little clichéd, possibly a little meh. Soap opera stuff, not a deal breaker with the reader, just a shrug of the shoulders and a “Come on, pal, entertain me since you can’t write a decent sentence. Full plot-speed ahead and damn the conjugations.”

But in SF you have to allow for the margin (as Samuel R Delaney put it) that her world might literally fall apart. Poof, Earth gone, everybody floating in space, wondering whose turn it is to put the cat out, where the cat is, and why exactly can they still breathe if the world is in tiny pebbles all around them?

Another classic example of this sort of line.

He threw his eyes down the road, remember Tom Cruise doing this in Minority Report?

Well, to be accurate, he dropped his old eyes down a concrete corridor, chased them as they bounced and skidded and squirted out of his clumsy hands until finally he just managed to catch one of them as it tumbled down a drain. Carefully scooping it up and then merrily using that very same eye to open a biometric lock. He must have corneas made of diamond — well, I suppose he is Tom Cruise after all.

You throw your *gaze* down the road (and that is still a dodgy line in any genre (AG)) not your eyes. And if you have delicate organs covered with a material, which can be scratched by a SPLINTER, and then proceed to play football with it, it is entirely possible that an extremely sensitive device that has to look through that self-same material to see either the iris (or worse the retina) might, just might, throw up a false negative, don’t you think?

Don’t write her fingers pierced his bicep, because they might if she has talons.

Don’t write he was overcome with the fragrance of the flowers unless you mean he passed out.

Don’t be sloppy.

Think about what you are saying, take each word literally and make sure they say precisely what you mean them to say.

This is of course good advice in OGs as well as in SF, but it is right up there with adverbs and said bookisms in the world of the weird. Getting this stuff wrong makes you look like an amateur, it means you haven’t thought it through.

Now, maybe editors don’t care these days, maybe this is considered pedantic, maybe the X-Factor is the finest TV programme ever produced.

But do you really want to take the chance of an editor sighing, hitting delete, and then the “Thank you…but…” lands in your inbox, just because you couldn’t be bothered to rephrase an already sloppy line?

Just saying.

Take it or leave it,

So sue me (no, please don’t do that, that’s not what I meant at all).

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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If the Story Requires It

As  a writer I have no real problem with heading straight for the dark-side. I’ll write a torture scene or a bloody fight scene or some nasty vicious bit of political chicanery without a qualm if the story requires it. But that’s the important bit, If the story requires it. I do not write torture porn because I don’t really see the point. A story with the single purpose of showing people being treated abominably is a story I really don’t want to read.

It’s writers missing the point. The point of blood and gore is not the blood and gore, it’s the story and the story can’t just be, ‘Here’s some blood and gore, aren’t my characters nasty pieces of work?’ It’s like they read Elric and identified with Stormbringer.

SF&F is my bailiwick, but you see it in thrillers and other genres too.

The important thing about brutality in a story is consequences. It’s always about the consequences. If something bad happens then it reverberates, it throws out ripples of cause and effect. Should bad guys always get their comeuppance? Not always. That sort of morality play is also boring because it takes away the tension. Should they lose something because of their vicious behaviour? Yes.

This isn’t the real world. This is fiction. If, as a writer, somebody decides (and it is a decision) that a brutal character should be written as somebody to admire, then I wonder about that writer’s morality. Not religious morality, not philosophical morality, but their common decency. There is nothing admirable about rape, or torture, or mass-murder. Characters who do this are not anti-heroes, they are villains.

And don’t tell me (in the case of fantasy) that this was the way it was back in the Middle-Ages, because you ain’t writing about the Middle-Ages. You’re writing about a world that you made-up; this is your world, your rules, your choice.

Besides, the strong-men of history, the nobles who went on Crusades and slaughtered entire cities, the Mongols who gave cities a choice, surrender or die, the Spartans who created a society based completely on war, and all others of that ilk. Yeah, they were the bad guys. They were not heroes.

They may have done heroic things on times, but they did that stuff by accident. If you have a society based on might is right, death before dishonour, and unthinking obedience to a leader, every so often you are going to find yourself doing something seemingly heroic because you can’t back down. Does that make you a hero? Well, if the rest of the time you are raping, pillaging, and slaughtering people by the gross, not so much.

This holds true at smaller scales too.

Bullies are weaklings. Always. If somebody has to damage somebody else either physically or emotionally to make themselves feel stronger, then they are by definition not strong. Unless of course they are psychopaths, who do things simply because they can, because they have no empathy. Psychopaths aren’t strong either, they are sick and lacking in humanity.

Therefore, there are consequences for bullies. They are weak and will break easily. And there are consequences for psychopaths. They will never know the simple joy of a smile reciprocated.

If a character is neither a bully or a psychopath, but are damaged by their upbringing, then they’re damaged. That’s a pretty big consequence and something worth exploring.

As far as I am concerned, morality is not about how you fight but why you fight. Once the gloves come off there are no rules, but there are rules about why the gloves come off. A character who uses violence simply to get their own way is weak.

There are of course a lot of nuances here. Is a soldier ordered into an immoral war, immoral? Is a law-keeper upholding an immoral law, immoral?  Is somebody raised in an immoral society, immoral? And so on. These are the juicy bits that every writer should want to sink their teeth into. And please remember when I talk about morality, I’m not talking about religious morality, but the morality of decency, fairness, and doing the right thing.

The nuances are the tension in a story and there should always be consequences.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

 

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Three Genres to Rile Them All

Ah genre, how I loathe thee. First we have to understand that the majority of subgenres, those hair-splitting, anal-retentive, formulaic, bollock-fests, are marketing tools. They should have no bearing at all on what you write or how you write it. You really shouldn’t write to a market, because the market is a moving target and your aim should be to hit the story not a demographic.

I think there are only three actual Genres.

  • Historical  — set in the past.
  • Mimetic* — set in the present.
  • Speculative — set in a world that does not exist.

Because the term genre has been muddied by marketing speak let us call them Super Genres (or Über if you prefer — I don’t). These are genres that hold all other genres within them. If you can think of a genre that doesn’t fit into one of these groups, don’t hesitate to tell me. I doubt you will, but if you do manage it I would be ecstatic — I did mention that I am not actually a fan of genres, didn’t I? Yup, there it is…loathe.

Historical Fiction is fiction set in the past. It is not fiction written in the past. Dickens did not write Historical Fiction (in much the same way that Jules Vern did not write Steampunk — he just didn’t so get over it. What’s that? He wrote about airships and steam-engines? Yes he did, but they were cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, technological wonders when he wrote about them. To a Steampunker, they are retro, nostalgic, technological curiosities. Spot the difference. Or can’t steampunk, which is a wonderful sub-genre in its own right, stand on it’s own two feet and instead needs to big itself up with great novels from the past. Throw off that inferiority complex, it makes your arse look so big it covers your mouth.)

Where was I? Oh right, yeah, Dickens didn’t write Historical Fiction (Okay, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’  was set in his past and I’m sure there are others, just like ‘A Christmas Carol’, which could be called Speculative Fiction…it’s got ghosts in it. What? How stupid… look do ghosts exist? Well? I don’t care about the grey blob you saw in a forest once while mushroom hunting, are ghosts a scientific certainty?…sigh…Yes, and the moon landings were faked too.)

Anyway…um…oh yeah. Most of Dickens’s stories were set in his present. They were Mimetic, not Historical, Fiction. Hilary Mantel’s ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ (which is brilliant by the way) is Historical Fiction because it is set during the French Revolution…yes, just like ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. What can I say? If you are inclined towards writing books set in the past then the French Revolution must be almost irresistible. All that lovely reportage, pamphlets, documentation, all that stuff you can use, plus beheadings, betrayal, and people who think cake is a substitute for bread (yeah, I’m aware she didn’t actually say that but it’s a good shorthand for the rich and powerful muppets without a clue. The 1% should take note.)

I quite like reading well-written Historical Fiction, but I’m not sure I’d actually want to try to write it. The constraints must be a nightmare. The writer is (IMHO) psychoanalysing figures out of history from their laundry bills. I think I’d rather sit in the corner going blah blah blah, but I am very glad that others don’t feel the same way.

Mimetic Fiction is fiction set in the present day. It is fiction that tries to imitate reality in prose. Some people seem to think that this is a higher calling and some writers (like Dickens) answer the call with powerful stories that help to change public opinion. Other writers however seem to think that readers are interested in a 2000 word scene about doing the washing-up, or the writer’s (barely-hidden) autobiographical, self-justifying, non-stories about their last divorce, or the writer’s pontificating drivel about a third-world country they visited once on a school trip.

It’s a difficult thing writing something set in your present, particularly when technology is advancing so quickly. The writer is plundering their own life for material (we all do that of course, but the rest of us can hide it a bit better — a Tudor baker or a green-skinned future-human automatically makes the character less like ourselves). If a mimetic writer needs to write about a character with the latest bit of technological kit they simply go out and buy it.

(BTW..Can you write that sort of stuff off against tax as research? If you can, then I may well write a techno-thriller set in the present that uses all sorts of technological wonders, and travels between all sorts of really cool places in the world that I have always wanted to visit. ‘It’s research, guv. Yeah, well the character stayed in a seven star hotel for four weeks so I had no choice but to do the same. Mimetic innit, guv?’ )

Mimetic Fiction can be wonderful and glorious but it is not inherently superior to the other Super Genres. That is where the trouble lies. People who, for whatever reason, have no sense of wonder, who think fiction should be a variation on a newspaper column, who, essentially, having no imagination, spout balderdash about the other super genres (usually Speculative Fiction if we’re honest. Historical Fiction allows them to nit-pick about the length of the teeth on a Victorian nit-picking comb, so they tolerate its imaginative use of historical fact in the pursuit of their insipid exercise in onanist one-upmanship. Whereas Speculative Fiction brings them out in apoplectic rage, and snobby sneering (they think it makes them cool — it doesn’t) about how none of this can really have happened. These creatures don’t exist. Those places don’t exist. This technology doesn’t exist. Strangely, most of these people seem to have studied classics at university.)

Speculative Fiction (Full disclosure: this is my genre, this is where I live, breathe, and exist. I read it, I write it, and I would roll around in it naked if I could) is fiction set in a place that doesn’t exist. That sounds simple doesn’t it?

But

Does the place not exist, because it is in the future and therefore it doesn’t exist…yet? Or does the place not exist, because it is set on an alternate (secondary) world and therefore it doesn’t exist…at all? Or does the place not exist, because it places things in our reality that don’t actually exist in our reality and therefore it might exist…if the world is really really crazy.  

Or to put it another way is it Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror?

None of this matters when defining the Super Genre of Speculative Fiction, what matters is the non-existence of the universe.

Ah yes I used the term defining in relation to genre, which is always a call for a flame war on Speculative Fiction sites. You can quite easily make yourself troll-bait by engaging in the deviant behaviour known as “Is this Science Fiction or Fantasy?” To which the only sane answer is “Dunno, bruv, is it any good?”

Yes, Science Fiction has to be scientifically plausible, absolutely (though the dogma style mania for Mundane Science Fiction is a little OTT. It is a lovely writing challenge to write something where all the science is theoretically possible at our present level of scientific knowledge (No FTL [Faster than Light] drives for instance) but it is not inherently better than some mad-arse Space Opera with galaxy spanning empires crumbling slowly away at the edges. If you think it is then you are, not to put to fine a point on it, no better than the other fashionistas who witter on about Literary Fiction all the time. You are putting limits on the imagination of authors because of your fetishist tendencies. Do you really want to be classed alongside the dinner-party set who think reading should be a difficult thing only to be undertaken by trained professionals? Seriously? So Mundane SF is a cracker of an idea, but it is not the only form of SF that deserves to use the name).

And yes, in Fantasy anything goes, but it kinda has to be consistent. (Non-consistent fantasy novels are called magic realism and written by literary writers slumming. That is a bit harsh on Magic Realism of course, but don’t blame me I didn’t nick the entire genre for the purposes of strip-mining Carroll, Blake, and Milton. Blame the literary establishment’s snobbery towards Speculative Fiction in general and Fantasy in particular. (They dismiss the Fantasy elements of Pratchett’s work with a sneer and a snigger then go all “So is this werewolf motif a reference to the beast that lies within all men.” “Um…She’s a woman.” “So it’s about the feminising of the male psyche then? Or are you references Medea? Or…” “It’s fantasy, pal.” (I doubt the good Terry, says pal much, but he should.) So when a writer they admire (for his magnum opus on fairy liquid) writes Fantasy badly, they call it Magic Realism, which is a shame because that is a grand genre now ruined by stupid white males educated past their level of intelligence.)

I find Horror the most difficult part of this triumvirate, mainly because I can never quite make up my mind if Horror is a stylistic genre rather than a setting genre. Horror can take place anywhere, it can cross all the boundaries (Yes, all genres can mash with all others, Mimetic and Historical is a stretch but it can be done with parallel storylines) and still remain Horror first and foremost. Horror is about dread, which does not rely on setting — which is my main point of reference to defining Super Genres. But hark what light of wisdom falls soft upon this aged pate? Oh yeah, I forgot, Horror is part of the Super Genre of Speculative Fiction, therefore it doesn’t matter if it is a setting based genre or a stylistic one. Problem solved.

*Mimetic is a way around using the word ‘Contemporary’, which is a little too ambiguous; contemporary could mean ‘written in the last ten years’ as well as ‘set in the present’. Mimesis means imitation, which in literature is used to mean a ‘representation of reality’. Not a great fan of the term because it is something the literati probably debate on the dinner party circuit** but there no real way around it. Clarity is all; which is why vocabulary is really quite important to a writer.

** Dinner party circuit, where the pretentious go to use their expensive education to hide their limited intellect.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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