It’s true. My wife, Julie, hates science fiction. A few nights ago, we were reading side by side in bed and she looked over to see what book I had. When she saw the cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (which admittedly has a pretty cheesy illustration with amirrorshade-helmeted astronaut and all) she said with a harrumph, “science fiction, huh.”
I can’t really blame her. If you judge books by their covers, then most science fiction would seem to be modified superhero comics in space. And if you want to read something with characters more complex than your average issue of Superman, you are likely to turn elsewhere. As Julie does.
But I do the same thing. I was browsing the SF shelves of the bookstore yesterday, and I soon realized there was no way I was going to take a chance on a random book. Though I’m sure there were some decent books to be found there, who could randomly pick one out among the requisite suitable-for-air-spraying-on-your-van cover designs?
While I love great science fiction, I find average science fiction not worth my time (the way that just average literary fiction still keeps me reading through the end). However, now that I’m working an SF novel, I’m coming to appreciate why it is difficult to write great science fiction.
When you pick up a piece of literary fiction, you can generally assume that it is taking place in the world as we know it, unless you are told otherwise. That means most writers of literary fiction get to focus immediately on crafting intriguing and complex characters. However, in science fiction the act of “world creation” has to come first. Any SF piece has to posit a unique world (even if that world is Earth) with its own set of rules, technologies, and history. The best SF develops fascinating worlds that compel readers to reconsider basic assumptions about how things work and how they might work differently.
As important as world creation is (and it is, I would argue, the defining act of science fiction) world creation by itself doesn’t make for great fiction. In fact, world creation often gets in the way of the kinds of things, particularly the development of unique characters, that otherwise make for good literary fiction. That’s why there are plenty of science fiction books (and here, let me pick on Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise again) that get so caught up in their own world creation that they don’t bother to develop characters that are interesting or even meaningfully distinguished from one another.
As it turns out, Red Mars, despite its cover, is a good book that not only creates a unique world but populates it with compelling, emotionally complicated characters (interesting factoid: Frederic Jameson was Robinson’s thesis advisor). It has a little more SF-as-engineering-thought-project than suits me, but I’m 50 pages away from the end of this long book and eager to see what will happen to the characters I’ve been following over several hundred pages.
Science fiction involves a unique act of juggling. In one hand, there’s world creation. In the other, there’s characterization. And in the other (but wait, I only have two hands!), there’s the plot. Ah, there’s the problem. All three of these balls need to be kept in the air simultaneously, advancing a narrative that can develop in multiple directions.
The hardest part of my writing process has been trying to figure out how much world creation has to be explained up front and how much can come out over the course of the narrative (allowing me to develop characters and plot in the meantime). I’ve struggled on a section that covers the concept of the leap second. I could easily write several pages on the debates over this concept and how it plays out within the divide between the space elevator station and the Earth in my novel, but to do so I would completely lose both the plot and the development of my protagonist. Once two balls fall to the ground, that’s no longer juggling, it’s just a toss.
So my hope is that I can keep all these balls in the air. If it works out, I’ll have a work with a unique and compelling world with plausible and complex characters that will even appeal to Julie. That is, if I can persuade her to look past the cover.