Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let's talk about something else

Science Fiction.

The month of January is a hard one for me. I don't like the darkness; I don't like the weather. It's the waiting period of winter where we all just hunker down, worry about our bills and try not to drink too much, sleep too late or smoke too many cigarettes.

One of the ways I deal with Black January is to ignore it completely. To go out as little as possible, to avoid shops, to ignore the phone when it rings. I hibernate in January. (In Canada, I generally avoided February too.)

One of the ways I do that is to watch a lot of free internet TV. I have no idea if it is legal or not, but until these websites are shut down by the cops, I'm still going to use them. Internet telly is better by far than the ordinary kind. No ads and no annoying waiting until next year for the exciting conclusion of last season's cliff hanger. In fact, no annoying waiting until next week to watch the next episode. It helps the avoidance of Black January to just let your mind sink gratefully into some other world for hours at a time, and not have to put up with programmes you don't like, or pay the BBC for the privilege.

I have a guilty admission to make: I like trash tv. Especially science fiction. Before I left Canuckistan, I went through a long phase of watching gritty BBC crime dramas like Cracker, Life on Mars, The Lakes and State of Play (mostly on DVD). I also fell into a swoon over Doctor Who (both Eccleston and Tennant, although my loyalty is still to my childhood Doctah, John Pertwee).

In recent weeks, my online TV obsession has been with Stargate Atlantis.

In some ways, SGA is analagous to Star Trek, but it's way better. Better writing, less ideology and the situations the characters face often have to be overcome without a great deal of help from fancy schmancy technologies. It is more akin, I think, to Firefly, that way.

SGA is fun. And the resemblance to the old cliff hanger adventure cowboy radio programmes and films of the 30's, 40's and 50's is obviously not accidental. It's full of characters that don't take themselves or their ideologies too seriously either. There's loads of non-scary violence and almost no sex or even much inuendo, so I'd say its eminently suitable for kids, except those who are easily frightened by scary space monsters. The evil Wraith are pretty nightmarish, so, good on the writers for that too. I hate a show with non-scary or watered down villains. There's no way to like or feel sorry for the Wraith.

The show has one feature that makes it better than any of the Trek shows: it avoids political correctness like the plague. The heroes do all sorts of things out of necessity that would have the Federation and Star Fleet nellies quaking in their politically correct faux leather boots. They make loads of mistakes and face the consequences for them manfully.

And it's very pro-military too. I'll bet the guys in Afghanistan love it.

It is, in short, manly.

So, why do I apologize for liking it?

Y'see, I was raised on SF by my hippie mother, (which is almost reason enough). She gave me Ray Bradbury as soon as I could read on my own. I moved on to the harder stuff fairly soon, enjoying short story collections, usually published in the 50's, written by real scientists for the most part. (Anyone know how many math and science PhD's Azimov had? It was more than he ought to have been allowed to have, I'm sure.) I started writing it as soon as I was old enough to sit up at the kitchen table with the manual typewriter my mother bought me at a flea market. She showed me where to put my fingers on the keys and I was away.

But in my early 20's I stopped writing or reading fiction of any sort and plunged into philosophy and religion and since then have fallen in with a very bad crowd. I know a lot of rather snooty High Culture Catholics who I fear would not approve of my latent trash-loving tendencies.

The trouble is, that the tendencies are still there, just keep coming back, like malaria. And I've come up with a corker of an idea, or set of ideas, for a novel.

A question I put to Steve yesterday:

I can't remember what we decided.

Is science fiction stupid, culturally trivial and strictly for permanent adolescents or is it a useful tool to tell stories and reach a wide audience?

I know I can't see Jane Austen writing the script to a Stargate SG1 episode, but that doesn't mean that SF has no redeeming cultural value does it? I don't think it will ever be considered litritchah, but does that mean it shouldn't be used?

I think classic literature becomes so in spite of itself, not through the intention of its author. I also think a lot of classic literature is probably overrated. I even like pulp fiction - and I don't mean the Tarantino movie. Science fiction has likely not had sufficient time to become classic. Perhaps like the saints of old, it will require centuries before a great work of sci fi makes it into the canon of literature. Some are approaching this already - The Foundation Trilogy, the original Star Wars, some of Gibson's stuff, Shirow Masamune's cyberpunk work (like the later iterations of the Ghost in the Shell universe), the first Matrix film, Brian Henson's Farscape, etc. There are also probably notable contributions by Bradbury, Philp K. Dick, et al., though these may be more to the general conceptualizations in the sci fi universe than actual stories themselves. C.S. Lewis's space trilogy are classics, particularly the first two. Perelandra is my favorite book ever, hands down. Of course, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne have both shown up on the list of classic authors, so from the literati perspective there are precedents.

If you love your idea, go with it. Self-consciousness kills the artistic process.

there is one problem with me writing science fiction...

I don't know a thing about science.

For instance, assuming you have faster than light travel, and you are going to a planet in another star system. How far away does that have to be?


if you have a geological survey ship outfitted to do initial exploration of potentially colonizable planets, how much crew do you need? How big a ship in tonnes?

If you are doing this kind of survey, what do you need to look at? I can think of a few things. Pollen counts, airborne bacteria, viruses, atmospheric gas and particulate content, temperature, geothermal activity, ocean currents, size of ice caps, and general size and placement of continental land masses, the circumference of the planet, orbital distance and tilt affecting the length of day, year and season. But there must be a hell of a lot I'm missing, having looked out the window through most of my highschool science and math classes and never having gone near astronomy or physics.

Hell, I don't even know how my toaster works.

The thing that bothers me is falling back on the canon of SF cliches. Stuff like "subspace" messages, tractor beams and "universal translators". Obvious plot devices that seem to cheapen the whole undertaking.

One of the reasons I thought Firefly was one of the best things TV has ever produced was that there were no easy short cuts for anyone. And all the new Star Treks just make me nauseous.

But I'm faced with a big problem.

I have nothing but contempt for most sci-fi/fantasy crap churned out by women. Chicks, in my experience, are lousy at real science fiction for the same reason they are lousy at engineering and prefer the soft sciences like marine biology, so they can go and commune with the dolphins. And the only way they can write it is to bring in a lot of despicable chick stuff: dragons, sorcery ...

relationships ...


Its another reason I despised STNG. Every time there was something going on, there was some easy feminine solution. "Oh, captain, I feeeeel that these innocent rubberforehead people just want to be understood."


There's no mystery why women didn't start making it big in SF before the 60's.

Anyway, There's always google, I guess. And when I started writing about biotechnologies, I had to start with websites like the Journalists' Medical Science Dictionary and good old Wikipedia.

It's just that...I sooo hate to work.

I'm with you. Which is why I just cheat. Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. If you get bogged down in the technical details you'll never get anywhere and many of your readers will get bored. It's why I've never finished a Tom Clancy novel.

Of course, you can't please all the geeks.

Still, I think I'll do a little research. I really don't want to end up writing sword and sorcery stories about girls and their dolphins communing with elves in other universes with crystals.


I'm giving myself the creeps just mocking it.


Zach said...

Steve is wise, you should Just Do It.

You know the Rule of One for reasonable SF: you get one piece of "magic", then work out the rest. So, use "subspace" or "hyperspace gates" or what have you to make the story setup work, but then no more magic.

As for technical details after that ... besides Google, surely you have geeks you can ask? Not to mention beg on the blog. As the man sang - "Plagiarize! Let no one's work evade your eyes! But please to call it 'research.'"


Mark S. Abeln said...


There's no need to put in all of that technology stuff. Great literature is about great ideas and virtuous personalities.

Why can't your space ship's control room resemble a sitting room in an English country cottage, complete with fireplace? Why can't the Captain and First Mate drink tea in the afternoon, or attend daily Mass in the ship's chapel? Discuss Plato and Aquinas over supper? Shoot aliens with regular old handguns?

If you use technology, all of the geeks will pounce at the slightest error; if you ignore technology, everyone will understand that this is not what it's all about.

There perhaps is a distinction between metaphysical science fiction and naturalistic science fiction. Or rather, I say that there actually is a difference, and I'll write a column about it some day. I would bet that most or all of the really great science fiction is of the former type. For evidence, consider this list of top 50 science fiction films.

Anonymous said...

Hey now, Tanith Lee predicted social networking sites AND furries. Not bad for a chick.

Anonymous said...

I don't doubt I am part of that unfortunate snooty crowd, so I feel obligated to say something to defend both good and trashy literature.
I have a bad memory, but some one, some time, said some thing, some what like this: I have never read a book so bad that I couldn't get some good out of it.
The reason why good literature is good, and trash is what it is, I think, is not because one has something worthwhile to say, and the other doesn't, but that one has something so important, or so different, or so much to say, that it demands a greater concentration on our part, a keener insight, and a more generous application--in other words, more work.
We all know what we think of those kinds of people who are pushy, demanding, and want to make us work. We avoid them like the plague, are somewhat bitter toward them if not outright hostile, and run instead to our friends, who, because we have picked them, agree with us so cheerfully with all we think and do. They make no demands of us, and so it is with 'trash' literature.
As for SF, I have always thought the Foundation Trilogy to be a classic, one of the real kind I was talking about above. I do think, however, it is in part poorly writen, and I have always prefered to read it in a Spanish Translation I used to have that was very neat, very flowing, very eloquent. Not so with the original, in my opinion.
As for chick writers, I am currently reading one myself: Sigrid Undset. I had always been told Kristrin Lavransdatter was a classic by the right sort of people, and because of the sort of person I am, I always have a lot of respect for the opinion of that sort of people, especially all the ones who are now dead. (I suppose I am talking about the snooty crowd)
So when last week I was taking an afternoon walk near the Piazza Navona, I went into a used bookstore, that had a whole shelf of books for only 5 euros. One of the first things I saw was Kristin Lavransdatter, and as I am wont, the bit of my brain which always bows before the opinion of the dead and of the snooty clicked, and I said to myself, O, I must buy that. So I did. And I am very glad.
Rightly fearing that I might annoy present company, I have to say that if any of you have not read it yet, yes you should read it. Make sure you get the old fashioned translation by Archer and Scott. It is a delicious, slightly archaic English that suits the story very well. I have heard there is a new translation from the late 90s out there by some chick. I haven't seen it, but true to snooty form, I can confidently say it is without a doubt dreadful.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Well, one thing I do have a fairly good layman's grasp of is biotechnologies.

And that's more or less what the story's about.

this isn't the first time I've been advised to read Undset. And, although it has been a long time since I've read her, I recall that Ursula LeGuin was fairly respectable. Left Hand of Darkness is considered a classic, at least in genre. I also recall liking Kate Wilhelmson.

And I agree about the Foundation stories. In fact, I've always found Azimov to be one of those worth emulating. I liked Childhood's End, but always found Arthur C. Clark to be somewhat inhuman. Emotionally robotic. Might have been his Buddhism.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I meant "Kate Wilhelm"

Mark S. Abeln said...

Is your story about the technology itself or is it about the consequences of the technology?

Can the story be easily adapted to radio, the stage, or screen? If not, why not?

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

1) no such thing as a story about technology. Stories are about people.

2) I suppose so. A lot of it is in the form of field notes by an English anthropologist in first-person narrative,

so, come to think of it,

yeah. It would make a pretty good radio play, particularly.

I've always loved radio plays, esp. sci fi. There was a thing on Saturday mornings on the CBC when I was a kid. A modern version of the old Flash Gordon type thing called 'Johnny Chase; Adventures in Outer Space' that I loved. And we had The Shadow too. I think I even heard Orson Wells' classic radio version of the War of the Worlds.

Steve said...

I think I even heard Orson Wells' classic radio version of the War of the Worlds.

You think? This is canon. What a brilliant, brilliant piece of performance art that was. I think I heard it for the first time when I was about 12, and I was absolutely mesmerized by it. When I saw it on CD one day I had to buy it and add it to my collection.

I haven't listened to it in years, but that's how you tell a story.

Hopefully my kids will discover it some day as well.

Mark S. Abeln said...


How did I guess that you had an affinity for radio drama? While you write your story, keep in mind what particular actor you want to play your protagonist.

Anonymous said...

Tanith Lee is also splendid on the emotional effects of biotech and what real people will really do with it.

Anonymous said...

ah, yeah.

"Emotional effects" is kind of what I'm trying to avoid.

Chick stuff.

Anonymous said...

Chick stuff, like how a dominating mother will use biotech to keep her daughter fat, and therefore never a sexual threat - it would be chick stuff if that were the whole point of the book, but when it's just tossed off as characterization, I think that's *literature.*

Anonymous said...

come on now, you all know the tune: