Saturday, 7 September 2013

Science fiction

My proof-reader, @amyunchained told me that she doesn't normally read science fiction, but she quite enjoyed my stories. It made me think about the nature of science fiction, and about what I write. My writing is SF without a doubt, but it is in truth about real people. The core of good SF is that it asks the question "What If?" and explores this in some depth, dealing with the human implication of the change. This change can be small or it can be huge. A book like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel starts from the premise "what if magic was real?", and explores the implications in a historical setting. Iain M Banks Culture series starts from the premise that unlimited free energy is available, and scientific progress takes off. The novels then explore certain implications of this - in a universe that is radically different from ours.

There are, I think three main streams of science fiction work. A lot of people who are not familiar with the broader range may only see the first two, not least because these are the ones that get most of the film and TV time. That is unfortunate, because there is a whole lot of really good material that people would enjoy in the third category, people who do not normally like science fiction.

First category: fan-sci-fi. This is the broad area that covers anything Star Trek or Star Wars related, or draws from any other popular genre (Buffy is another core genre here - covering anything to do with vampires etc.). This is not to be critical of them, but just to acknowledge that they are not always original in concept, even if they are in execution. I would even include Firefly in this category, despite the fact that it was quite unique in concept, and is still the best SF series ever, cruelly cut short before it had a chance (not that I am bitter or anything). These stories have the advantage of being set in a universe that the reader or viewer already accepts, and so there is a lot that does not have to be defined or built. It means that the writers can explore new and challenging ideas - but it also means that they are restricted by the history of that particular genre.

Second category: apocalyptic sci-fi. This is the stuff that the sci-fi channel fills its days with - end-of-the-world scenario films. Personally, I enjoy them, even though they are usually very stylistic. In fact, I have sat at my desk at work, and realised that the group I work with is actually the cast of an apocalyptic film: The geek who is the first to die; the old embittered man who will eventually be reconcilled with his ex-wife; the underachieving manager, who will show what he is really made of, and get; the girl, who will start off being all girly, and end up showing how mentally and emotionally strong she is. They are all the same plot, they are all highly unlikely, they are usually shot on a budget rather less than my weekly fuel bill and they are fun and entertaining.

You are allowed to despise me for enjoying them. I am not by any means alone - this is why they are a staple of the sci-fi channel. I will fully acknowledge that they are not the best representation of sci-fi, but they are not intended to be. And one of the best sci-fi films ever - The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 version, of course, not the appalling Keanu Reeves remake) - comes under an apocalyptic theme.

Third cateogry: human sci-fi. This includes my recent book Bubbles, and my next one Ideocide, out soon. It is the area of sci-fi that I find most engaging as far as stories go, because it is about real people, about our world, but with some change. The settings may be different (Ideocide is set in the future), but the real stories are asking "what if" about here on earth, today. John Wyndham - famous for the Triffids - wrote a lot in this sort of way, asking what if parallel universes existed; what if some people had telepathy or other curiosities; what if spiders were to organise themselves like ants (this is Web, a good example of this approach). The core point is that we can look at other people, in other situations, with some significant change, and apply the lessons and the insights to ourselves. They are people stories, just alike any other fiction, but are classified as "science fiction" because there is some technological abstraction.

Well that is science fiction for you. If you thought you might not enjoy it, then maybe you have been looking in the wrong categories. Maybe you need to read my books, my stories, and find something different.

Theological insight? Simply that stories are at the core of our  understanding of truth. We need to read good stories, including the ones in the bible, because good stories lead us to truth.

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