Begging to differ II

A while ago, I wrote a post on George R.R. Martin’s advice to new authors – my conclusion being that while there is much good stuff in there, I feel Martin’s views are grounded in a 1970s view of the genre. Basically, short stories are no longer the gateway he suggests.

The other day, I ran across another essay by author Robert Sawyer. And, well, I’ll have to disagree with this too. There’s the caveat that Sawyer’s essay was written in 2003 – some fourteen years ago – but I think the viewpoint it expresses needs commented on anyway.

So here we go:

Science fiction is a genre in which Canadian writers are having international success, but unless you follow the rules, you’re doomed to failure.

Sawyer is basically telling budding writers that unless they write in a particular way, they’re doomed. Which is an incredibly misleading line – yes, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t follow individual agent or publisher guidelines, but that’s a very different thing from requiring authors to follow rules of content.

First, SF literature has nothing to do with what you see on TV and in the movies. For one thing, printed SF is a largely character-driven genre, devoid of the simplistic heroes and villains of Star Wars. For another, SF is a literature of ideas. Although there is a place for mindless action-adventure, good SF is usually about something (and often something very profound, such as whether or not God exists).

I think Sawyer and I have different views on what constitutes character-driven. In many cases, science-fiction simply uses characters to explore ideas. That’s fine (Isaac Asimov does it all the time), but it isn’t character-driven writing. Character-driven science-fiction is something like Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series, where the setting exists to explore the likes of Angus, et al. You can also see this distinction within fantasy – between, say, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (character-driven) and R. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse (idea-driven).

Moreover, setting up a dichotomy between Deep and Meaningful works and Candyfloss works isn’t a division of medium (TV/movies vs books), or a dichotomy between genres, it’s a dichotomy within the genre itself. Candyfloss science-fiction is just as much science-fiction as anything else, and if someone wants to write that, good on them. After all, even the cheesiest action-adventure Space Opera is about something. Star Wars (which I personally consider fantasy, but we’ll ignore that) is about something.

Second, science fiction and fantasy are radically different — indeed, antithetical — genres. There is always a way to get from our here and now to the setting of any science-fiction story (usually by making reasonable advances in science and technology as time marches on); there is never a way to get from our real world to the setting of a fantasy story (magic simply doesn’t work in our universe).

Oh dear. There is indeed a distinction between science-fiction (possible, with varying degrees of handwaving), and fantasy (impossible), but the distinction cannot be pushed too far – the reason both genres exist under the broad heading of Speculative Fiction is because weird stuff is happening that falls outside the scope of mundane setting. Moreover, if science-fiction and fantasy are so antithetical, what to make of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light? Science-fantasy is a thing: does it really matter whether those demons are beings of pure energy, or whether they are more conventional fantasy demons? For the purposes of Zelazny’s story, it makes no difference – Arthur C. Clarke’s old line about technology and magic applies.

Third, science fiction is a largely pro-science genre. Although Vancouver’s William Gibson is right when he says the job of the SF writer is to be “profoundly ambivalent about changes in science and technology,” printed SF rarely takes the anti-science stance of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Nor does it embrace the paranoia and credulous acceptance of the supernatural that underlies The X-Files.

It’s rather like Sawyer is cherry-picking works he doesn’t like, and is using them as straw-men (if you aren’t writing a work with a pro-science stance, you’re just like Michael Crichton and the X-files). In actuality, science-fiction being wary of science is as old as the genre itself – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, being the case in point. And while H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are less about the science than about the class-system and colonialism respectively, many of his other works can hardly be considered pro-science (The Island of Doctor Moreau? The Invisible Man? Even a more silly work like The First Men in the Moon takes a sceptical view of science-for-the-sake-of-science).

Don’t get me wrong: one thing I loathe about Stephen King’s The Stand (with which I have a love/hate relationship) is the underlying anti-science message. It is, however, a matter of execution more than anything else – what is H.P. Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror but the comment that for all our scientific endeavours, we humans are nothing beside the might of a terrifying cosmos?

Fourth, the science in printed SF must be accurate. In Star Wars, Han Solo could talk about parsecs as a unit of time (rather than distance), and about “making the jump to light-speed” (the one thing Einstein prohibits is traveling at the speed of light); those gaffes would spell instant rejection from a print SF market.

OK, so apparently all science-fiction needs to be hard science-fiction. There is a place for science-fiction where science drives the story, but to assert that we must always cling to reality in a speculative fiction context is ridiculous. By Sawyers’ reasoning, Wells’ Time Machine must be discarded (time travel is impossible), and Donaldson’s Gap series must be rejected because of its goofs with the singularity grenades. We couldn’t have Space Opera at all, in any real sense. I won’t even touch E.R. Burroughs’ old Planetary Romance stuff.

Fifth, science fiction, although sometimes a medium of stylistic experimentation, is usually told in either third-person limited narration (following the point of view, and knowing the thoughts of, one character per scene), or first-person (unlike some fields, there is no taboo in SF against first-person narrative).

Which is to say that science-fiction is like nearly every other form of literature – Third Person Limited and First Person being easily the most common points of view, since the decline of the Omniscient narrator. I have no idea why Sawyer has this set out as a rule.

The essay then goes on to advocate short fiction as a means of breaking in (i.e. Martin’s viewpoint), and a seriously outdated dismissal of e-publishing. I’ve dealt with the former elsewhere, and the latter does not need addressing in 2017.

In summation, Sawyer is basically saying that you are doomed as a SF writer unless you write Deep and Meaningful Hard Science-fiction that is broadly pro-science, and certainly not in the least bit like that dirty, dirty Fantasy. This would be less annoying (everyone has their individual tastes and preferences), were it not for his misplaced insistence that these are the “rules”.

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