Monday, January 30, 2012

Why Julie Husband Hates Science Fiction (and why I hope she’ll read my book anyway)

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.


  1. In your estimation, how much world creation needs to be done up front? I know even writers who plan obsessively find themselves discovering new points of the world of the book as it goes along, but for a SF work with an entirely invented universe, to what point would you want to chart out the history?

    I ask because it seems like despite the joys of world discovery, I could see a stumbling block in the form of constantly having to invent new "historical" details for a SF as one writes, should the story be one that actively derives from such.

  2. Fifty pages away, huh? Do you need copies of Green and Blue Mars? I ask because you won't be able to just let it be after Red Mars!

    I didn't know Jameson was his thesis advisor. That is pretty cool!

    But if "world creation" is the hallmark of Sci-Fi, what about Fantasy Fiction? I might split hairs, but is it that Sci-Fi has to create a compelling future or alternate present whereas Fantasy, Steampunk, etc. create compelling pasts? Or is the temporality irrelevant and these genres are better defined in terms of technology v. magic? (Star Wars, after all was "a long, long time ago... - I know, I know, that is NOT sci-fi, but science fantasy...)

    And, given all that and even James' questions, aren't the best novels of whatever genre really a more ecological matter of the right characters inhabiting the right worlds?

  3. I just read William Gibson's early short story collection "Burning Chrome" and really loved the way he would just blow off the whole world defining thing or throw out acronyms that were explained at the end of the story in order to delve into character development. PLUS, it has my favorite trade paperback sci-fi cover that i've ever seen:

  4. Well, I might as well come out and admit to being the anti-sci-fi Julie. While lack of character development is at the heart of my aversion,there is also the sense that the writer is making up the rules as s/he goes. So in emergency x the main character suddenly extricates herself with an ability I didn't know she had or character y, who apparently dies in chapter 6, is revealed to be cryogenically frozen in chapter 9. It feels like cheating to me.

  5. I've always found this dichotomy between literary fiction v. sci-fi most perplexing when you throw in the possibility of the world being a character. I think it's a legitimate consideration when you into account how much an environment dictates the actions and abilities of the more typically recognizable character, aka humans, or humanoids.

    Timothy Morton says on Robinson's series, "In this sense, the background is never just a background. The very planet the humans terraform dictates what lives and what dies, shaping the forces of evolution. The planet itself is a "genetic engineer." It has as much input as any other actor, maybe more" (57).

    And if you consider the world to be a character, then certain traits that immediately define it as unique, or distinct need to be stated upfront, but other characteristics are going to be emergent as the novel progresses. I would think something like the leap second would emerge at the moment it appears.

  6. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I posted this on Facebook, but I thought I should offer up here this example of an excellent book with an awful cover. Robert Charles Wilson's Blind Lake is a great read, but almost the entire book takes place at a research facility in near-future Minnesota. But this is what the cover looks like:

  7. I can totally see Dr. Husband doing that!