Monday, January 15, 2007

How Science Fiction Applies to Literature

Step with me into the way back machine, if you would.

During one of my many creative writing classes (The one held by an amazing teacher. Of course, they usually were. Guess I just got lucky because I was usually just filling out some requirements and wasting my time in an interesting way.) the teacher had just one unbreakable rule: no science fiction. Which, well, shocked me when those words first crossed her lips. She had, after all, just gotten finished telling us how we were free to write in whatever genre or style we wanted. That her class was about exploring the art of writing not creating great works of literature. To that end, she wanted us to experiment and try to stretch ourselves. And in the very next breath she'd closed the door on a whole avenue of exploration.

Well, if I'd been a bit more bold at the time I might have said something. I'd like to think that in a similar circumstance today that I would. But, you know, at the time I usually kept my thoughts to myself especially when I was in class. Not just because I was shy – although that's always a factor, I'm sure – but because as you might have noticed I can ramble on when the spirit moves me. And, well, I had too much respect for my teachers and my fellow students to take up four or five minutes of their time just to get my unimportant thoughts out. Ah, youth – because if I'd been thinking important thoughts I might have realized that I should work on expressing myself more easily rather than pulling back into my shell. That's, obviously, something I'm working on. You just probably can't tell because I can type so fast. Anyway, at the time I kept my mouth shut and brooded on the matter while she continued with her introduction.

See, although I don't tend to write a lot of it, I love science fiction. Always have. I am, after all, a huuuuuuge geek. Again, you might not have picked up on that but, trust me, it's there. And if you presented me with a pile of every book ever written and said I could only have the books of one genre in particular, well, sci-fi's my choice. I'd want it all from H.G. Wells to Gibson and beyond. And it's the beyond that would be the real reason. Other genres are locked into themselves, circling around the same conventions and formulas with only the flickering illusions of change. The classics have been written and everyone's trying to rewrite them. But science fiction isn't about the past, it's about the future. And because at its core it's looking ahead, science fiction's never trapped in a rut for very long. Sci-fi is always moving forward and pushing the boundaries. It's really avante garde. Not the insipid prose that gets passed off for great modern literature – overly concerned with formalism and the craft of writing rather than using those tools to actually do anything. That stuff's boring. Not sci-fi. Science fiction's, it's... It's, well, look: on my hardcover copy of Accelerando (By Charles Stross, check out my review here for a link. And definitely check out the link because it points to a freely available copy of the book on the web.) there's a quote. “The new brand of science fiction, like all the best SF before it, is not just about predicting the future or pushing an agenda or even plain old enteratining techno-fun. It is all that, but it's also about expanding the boundaries of the possible, building far-out worlds and then populating them with the characters who bring the big ideas down to Earth.” ~Popular Science

And while that sentiment was printed well after I was sitting in this class it's one I would readily have agreed with at the time. See, I'd tried my hand at writing science fiction or at the very least science fictiony things and come to the conclusion that it was hard. Really, really hard. To do well, anyway. And, at that point, I didn't see any reason to do things if they couldn't be done well. Writing about the world around me, that was easy, everyone reading it would have common experiences to draw on (I've since come to learn that this was a completely wrong way of looking at things but, well, again I was young). But were I to create some fantastical and far-flung future world then I'd have to figure out how to explain to anyone reading just what the differences were. Then figure out how to use those differences to highlight something about the modern world. Then, of course, still try and tell a good story with it. That would be a lot of work for a ten page short story – but science fiction writers did it all the time.

They could tell a story about a place beyond the stars and make it so it still resonated with me. Characters that could walk down the street and bump into me unnoticed put into situations that beggared the imagination. I'd read science fiction and wept or I'd read it and smile. I'd read it and respond the same way I did to any of the so-called classics that had been pushed under my nose. At its best it held up a mirror to the world and it did so without getting too preachy about it. The science fiction writers I liked were good. What I'm getting at is that I respected them. And I respected the genre.

Sitting there these thoughts raced through my mind getting firmer and fiercer as they fought over for dominance in my mindscape. No, I had to speak up, had to correct this teacher, had to fall on my sword, if need be, because there was no way that a room of people that smart could hear her say something like that and nod along. They– at least a few of them – were the reason I was in that class, after all. We'd taken an earlier writing class together and had become friends and they, being English majors, wanted to take another one. I wasn't exactly an English major myself but, well, they seemed to like what I'd done and I did need another class for the credits. So, when they signed up for that class with that teacher, I wasn't far behind. They were smart and interesting and that creative writing class had been a lot of fun because of them. But, well, they were English majors and I'm sure you konw how those people get. But I wasn't about to let them just agree with anything the teacher said. No way. Not while I was sitting there. You know, sulking. So, I started piecing together the magnificently phrased response that would put that poor, misguided teacher in her place and spare the rest of the class from her drivel. The words died on the blackboard in my head, though because it was at that point that the part of me that had been listening to the ongoing lecture piped up.

As it turned out all my angst was misplaced. The teacher went on to explain that what she wanted to avoid were stories about robots clanking around the place. Their bolts rattling, their thoughts cold and mechanic. They weren't, after all, human. And we were there, in her class, to tell stories to one another. The stories that we all wanted to hear were the ones that had something to say about, well, us. Humans. The human condition. The way we think and feel and act and everything else that singers try to put into songs, painters try to put on canvas, and writers try to put into words. And in her opinion and in her experience stories about rocket ships and talking robots were anything but. She'd been teaching for years and years at that point and while she had nothing against the genre it was just hard to pull off. And the odds were against anyone writing a science fiction story well.

My English major friends, veterans of many a writing course already knew that, of course. But me, as someone who was only there by, more or less accident, was a bit clueless. Probably why that class was so fun, now that I think of it.

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