I overheard a conversation the other day while waiting in line that set me to a bit of self-examination. A person waiting beside me made a face when asked if he had read any of a certain series of fantasy novels recently adapted for a popular cable television series.
“That stuff is for the people who played Dungeons & Dragons in high school and go to Star Trek conventions. I can’t get into science-fiction at all.”
Once I got over the feeling that someone had just slapped my Mama, I asked myself what it is about speculative fiction that so captivates me. Is the genre like PH paper, bitter to some and not to others, or could I be the kind of writer to show that guy what sensawunda is all about?
(For the record, there may be somebody alive who would testify to having seen me play D&D back in the ‘80s, but I never attended a Star Trek convention.)
I think my taste for fantastic fiction began with reading epic fantasy as a kid. Besides the obligatory Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, I remember reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane books and Michael Moorcock’s Elric series at a younger age than I’d recommend today for such spicy fare. Stephen R. Donaldson held me in thrall with his Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogy. These stories gave me my first taste of the darker side of fantasy.
Some of the first sci-fi I read leapt from the pages of Asimov’s, Analog, and Omni magazines, and I devoured any Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Robert Silverberg I could find. I enjoyed authors with what seemed to me an anything-goes attitude toward subject matter and how it’s presented. I’m sure these literary giants were following guidelines set by their publishers, but to my young mind it seemed there were no rules and no limits to where imagination could take a story.
So if there are certain blocks that must be checked for speculative fiction to appeal to me, what are they? I’m not certain it’s that easy to quantify my love for the genre, so let’s focus on science-fiction, which is what I write. Here are a few elements of science-fiction that blow me away when done well.
“Immersiveness.” I want to feel as though I’ve been plucked up between the fingers of God and dropped into the story as a participant. My childhood held much that I wanted to escape, and speculative fiction provided that escape when I needed it most. The escape was temporary, but the influence of these writers has proven persistent. My tastes have changed over the years after exposure to many writers and genres, but some of the delights that appealed to my teenage mind still apply. Adults have their various escape mechanisms as well, and speculative fiction is a much less self-destructive option than others I’ve sampled.
Characters. They should be people with desires and flaws. I want characters so real that it’s possible to fall in love with them or genuinely fear them. I want to miss them when the book is finished.
Scale. No genre can match the cosmic immensity of good space opera. If interstellar politics, interspecies diplomacy and strategy, and the cool factor of civilizations colliding in wars that span galaxies aren’t enough to make a guy’s mouth hang open while he reads, I don’t know what is.
Technology. For some, this is what science-fiction is all about—the gadgets and gizmos that make life in the future different than today. Whether it’s jet packs and atomic cars or nanotechnology that prevents aging, this is one element I crave in science fiction. The most awesome example I can think of for speculative technology in fiction is yours for the reading in Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age. I want to live in that world. My copy of Diamond Age is one of the books I don’t lend.
Space Combat. The awesomeness of this is self-evident. The physics of space travel and the tactics of three-dimensional combat in a vacuum are endlessly fascinating. Despite some gaping flaws, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap series of novels gets this part right. Donaldson’s ships don’t zoom about like airplanes because spacecraft don’t move like that. His characters take into account acceleration, deceleration, and how to orient their vessels, no matter how massive, to get the desired effect. He describes combat at relativistic speeds like no one I’ve read before. C.J. Cheryh’s Chanur Saga and Iain Bank’s Culture novels stand out in my mind as examples full of compelling action, characters I care about, and political intrigue.
Something New. Does it exist? Maybe not under our sun, but there is a new take on everything, a different angle from which to squint at an old trope that reveals new colors. Revised fairy tales and adaptations of myths and legends often turn an old tale into a new experience. This is art.
Thinking about all this inspires me to try it out. So, enough blogging. (aka procrastinating) I should be writing. You know, really writing.
Any thoughts on this stuff? Leave a comment.