Friday, February 2, 2007

Sci-fi Do’s and Don’ts Part I

While writing reviews of science-fiction novels, I naturally notice certain trends in what I like and dislike about sci-fi books. Beyond that, I’ve discovered that there are some reoccurring types of “mistakes.” These aren’t just subgenres or archetypes I dislike, but unintentional errors that strike me as just plain poor writing.

I’m not particularly keen on “rules” for artistic expressions (they always beg to be broken in creative ways), but I’d like to open some discussion on suggestions for the genre. Sort of “Sci-fi Do’s and Don’ts.”

To start off, I’d like to stamp a big “DON’T” onto the idea of writing about the future through a narrow and overly-specific lens of one’s own time. This goes beyond scientific or technical limitations like Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis describing the canals on Mars.

For example: Why would any author think that the slang in their own period would exist 500 years or even 10 years into the future? Painfully dating too much sci-fi literature are words and phrases like “You dig?”, “Gee whiz”, “Foxy”, “Groovy” and worse. You still see it happening today in literature (“Cool”) that will be dated within a decade. It is fine in books set in the very near future or when there is a specific reason (a regressed community, a future society with a craze or fetish for a “classic” era of the past, a linguistic theme, etc). An excellent solution is the development of an original fictional slang. “Clockwork Orange” does this to great effect but less extreme examples or common.

Similarly, fashions change. I think authors should consider that everything from clothing to architecture changes significantly with time and that they should not expect their contemporary taste to be an eternal constant. Bad examples of this include the way spaceships conceived in the 1950’s are modeled explicitly on 50’s cars, complete with fenders, fins and ultra-sleek designs. These visions of future ships fail to take into account either functionality (For instance, spaceships that never enter atmosphere and aren’t worried about radar don’t need to be aerodynamic or sleek. Army camouflage designs would be unlikely, while pure black paint would be considerably more effective for stealth. Stationary guns and view-screens that are locked into place facing “forward” doesn’t make sense for a ship in 3D space where direction is arbitrary) or changing taste (Extraneous fins are not likely to stay in style. Egg chairs are not space efficient or particularly comfortable. Space outfits do not look good with flaring collars nor do they need them in the absence of wind.).

I get frustrated when characters in far-flung futuristic worlds just happens to be listening to the same music the author enjoys from his or her own time. This is possible but pretty unlikely. We tend to fall into the trap of thinking the music/TV/fashion/etc of our own time is the best, most enduring or never-to-be-rivaled “Golden Era”.

This is perhaps the most common “narrow lens” problem in futuristic literature. References, descriptors, quotes and metaphors from our present or recent past would probably not be used in great quantity in the distant future (and especially not in an alternative or alien civilization). It destroys the illusion of a vivid reality for the reader, a reality where the book is just one cross-section of fully functional independent universe. This doesn’t apply to books narrated for an audience explicitly in the present day (H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” as one example) but it applies doubly for first-person narrations by futuristic characters and omniscient third-person glimpses in the thoughts of such characters. A solution, in my opinion, is to make a statistically proportional number of fictional references to made-up people, organizations, places and events. You can always footnote them or add a glossary to explain them in detailed terms. This provides a chance to flesh out the context of the history leading up to the novel and culture of the contemporary happenings.

Other qualities tend to lose their sheen with time as well, and the author might want to keep that in mind. Shock value especially fades quickly. Imagine what your novel will be like if the topic you consider controversial and shocking becomes commonplace in the real world? Or a cliché in literature? Will your novel still be as powerful? Will it still have merit as a story, a work of art or social critique? It’s something to think about.


Patrick said...

Jeez, Brian, why would I ever want to read a sci-fi book again? Or write one, if I'm not allowed for the characters to only listen to Radiohead and The Smiths? Just kidding. I see you've already been quite productive here in a short amount of time. No schoolwork to bog you down? Well, that's cool I guess. I've added a few of the books you reviewed to my list, so there you go. Already making a difference. Keep it up. And what you say in the post does make sense to me. I mean, who listens to music make 40 years ago? The Beatles? The Doors? No one. And who listens to the 200+ year old stuff? What was that one guy? Mozart? No Philharmonic Orchestra dares play that old trash anymore.

Just kidding. But you do make a good point. The average listener cares mostly about music of the last five (or fewer) years, and most of the high-society people at the Vienna Philharmonic aren't likely to be the characters of a sci-fi novel. But they could be. After all, the orchestra did perform the debut performance of a rather (post?)modernist work. Anyhow. Good stuff.

Walrus said...

Your point is well taken patrick. To formulate the music issue more clearly I'd like to identify the three most common uses I've seen of music in sci-fi literature.
1) Characterization - to establish the personality or taste for a character.
2) Atmosphere - to create a certain feel or mood by evoking music in the reader's mind.
3) Culture construction - to add details and background about the culture of the fictional universe.

In the first and second case, it is almost always necessary to use a peice of music that already exists so that the proper meaning can be conveyed to the reader. In both cases, if the reader (who may be reading the book long after the music has gone out of style) does not recognize the tune, the meaning is lost. Also, music in both these cases is being used as a shortcut (as it is often used in movies) to establish pre-concieved associations, emotions, moods, etc. To my mind, better than naming specific titles would be to describe the music in detail. This brings us to the third use.

When music is literature is invented, the author is forced to describe it and find words that convey the sounds. This can be hard but it is more creative and universal. It also helps distinguish how a culture in a far-flung future may differ from ours in terms of musical taste (as opposed to the nearly ubiquitous assumption that it is the same as today).

An example: Early cyberpunk literature almost always involves character or bands that fit into punk or noise when one would think synthesized or digital music would be more thematically relevant. Perhaps neither would be popular and we would have something entirely new (rarely postulated).

I feel that futuristic stories that reference only pre-existing music have to be regarded with suspicion. Do they mean to imply that no one, not a single character, cafe or vehicle plays the popular music of the current time? Are we suppose to think that there has been no new music? That what we regard as the 'golden age' or current best remains the eternal taste. Our own history would seem to show trends that are just the opposite. New tastes, styles, bands, countries, hybrids, instruments and ideas seem to be only increasing in acceleration. Consider the way that online music stores and ipods have changed the industry in recent times. I rarely see that type of innovation thought about in books. In Burgess, Dick and Heinlein novels characters still buy records at stores to play in their spaceships. I think authors should think about the way music production, popularity, format, marketing, social impact, volume, duration, etc might change.

As I mentioned in my essay, I do think some references to the presence can be justified especially if they are proportionally weighted or have a specific plot motivation. My problem is with books that show a consistant lack of vision for the way culture changes dynamically and rapidly.

Patrick said...

Haha, well put. I think if the author really wants to mention a particular artist, he or she better not rely too much on the recognition thereof. I think classical music is in a general sense widely understood, but I agree that conveying the mood or what-have-you through more well-described thoughts is better. And it is laughable to think of playing a full 12" record in a spaceship - what a joke. I'm sure those 60s punks would have a hard time imagining an iPod, but that was their job to imagine that sort of thing. Maybe mentioning the "classic" bands alongside the futuristic-contemporary bands and describing those would get the same idea across, sort of as you mentioned. I think you make good sense here.

jim vacek said...

good initial topic, and i enjoyed the back and forth. the challenge is how far does the author go in creating an entirely new setting for his story. i guess a really good writer does all the things to develop a believable world/universe view such that the reader gets immersed and is not jarred with echos of the writers present.