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Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Lazy Problem In Science Fiction

Consider, for a moment, this quote.
"Let's gather up the bits and pieces and define the Simon-pure science fiction story: 1. The conditions must be, in some respect, different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the course of the story. 2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story. 3. The problem itself—the "plot"—must be a human problem. 4. The human problem must be one which is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions. 5. And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk. It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts, i.e., if you are going to assume that the human race descended from Martians, then you've got to explain our apparent close relationship to terrestrial anthropoid apes as well." - Robert A. Heinlein
What's your favourite science fiction story?

It is a highly debated genre, science fiction; totally ignoring the notion that literary fiction considers genre fiction to be unimportant, it is at war within itself. What counts as science fiction? What doesn't? There's several different definitions, assigned in different periods and by different individuals. The one I picked above - one by an author whose work I enjoy - is perhaps cherrypicked for purpose of the point of this blog.

Here's a selection of others:
"Fantasies are things that can't happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen." - Ray Bradbury

"I like to present my characters—whether they are in the past or in the future—with interesting moral choices, and it seems to me that science-fiction writers are, or should be, the prophets and moralists of today. I am fairly well up on the biological sciences, but I am deeply uninterested in gadgets. A writer's job is to write about people with sympathy and insight." - Naomi Mitchison

"Science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable." - Rod Sterling

"SF has never really aimed to tell us when we might reach other planets, or develop new technologies, or meet aliens. SF speculates about why we might want to do these things, and how their consequences might affect our lives and our planet." - John Clute

"The hardest theme in science fiction is that of the alien. The simplest solution of all is in fact quite profound — that the real difficulty lies not in understanding what is alien, but in understanding what is self. We are all aliens to each other, all different and divided. We are even aliens to ourselves at different stages of our lives. Do any of us remember precisely what it was like to be a baby?" - Greg Bear
I have used a lot of other people's words in this blog. A lot of good people up there. I hope I don't piss any of them off in spirit by using their words poorly.

Almost all good stories include a conflict. This conflict can take a great many forms, but if there isn't a conflict, then the story is probably going to be a bit tedious (and/or described as "fun and frothy" in the pages of Hello magazine). We can probably identify the central conflicts in our favourite stories, they are pivotal to character development and plot resolution.

See, wherein we accept that science fiction is about the consequences of some kind of scientific advance and the social and personal repercussions of them - and wherein we accept that conflict is central to any story - surely the conflict in question is the futuristic otherness that makes the story scifi?

The conflict in 2001 isn't between the humans aboard the Discovery One and the monolith - it's between Dr David Bowman and Hal 9000. The monolith, and the subsequent change that it puts Dr Bowman through - that is the future, the otherness. It's not the central source of conflict.

Alien - the conflict is between an alien creature that we couldn't conceive of. It's put on the ship by the manipulation of a company whose job is moving around heavy industrial goods through space, the first blue-collar sci fi movie. Now if it was simply a story of the workers not liking being bossed around - that would frankly be lazy.

To just have the thing that is different be the conflict each time is...well, it's not very likely, is it? Which is part of why I find Star Trek hard going most of the time. I like Deep Space 9 - wherein the Federation isn't perfect, and the constant tussles between two warring people and those trapped in between that conflict are the actual story. It's not about the wormhole - it's about the people.

Because in the end, while I do love the fascinating what-if stuff about cool tech and aliens and out-there goings-on - stories are about the people. They're not about what megacorporations did to the world, or how one travels from one place to another, or how creating too many robots fucks your life up. Sure, that's a thing in the background - but what effect that has on people is what the story is about.

So to all you writers: yes, your theory on how we can get to Mars is amazing. Yes, that alien species is wonderful. Yes, the concept of energy-based life is fascinating. But don't make it the conflict. That's the domain of cheap tricks - action movies with an element of the future in them, with a special effects budget of millions and zero scientific consultancy.

It's hard, but it's worth it.

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