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Posts Tagged Bob Shaw
Worldbuilding for SF and other fiction, reimagined for roleplayers. And pony books. Podcast at Fictoplasm
How do you create a world for a science fiction novel or a slipstream element for a more contemporary story? I’ve done both with my two fiction outings, My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three. So Ralph Lovegrove invited me to guest on Fictoplasm, his podcast for roleplayers.
You probably know I’m fond of stories that flirt with the edges of SF and fable, and we discussed quite a few, some of which are in this thumbnail above. And Ralph has made detailed show notes with the titles and a time stamp so you can jump to exactly the bits that interest you.
Ralph’s podcast likes to explore unconventional inspirations for roleplayers, so I offered him a challenge. Could I convince him that the pony story, beloved of horse-mad kids (and grown-up kids) was worth a look? He was more than game – and it gave me a grand excuse to revisit some old, old friends. Do I get away with it? There’s only one way to know. Trot over for a look.
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I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.
I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.
It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)
But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?
Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.
He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.
One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.
Take, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.
We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.
The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.
Science fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.
We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.
Science fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.
So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange … Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?
POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.
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I’ve just finished writing my first novel. I want to get published but I can’t pay for an editor. What can I do? Edith
Every week I get emails from writers who want help but can’t afford the cost of an editor. And I can see why. Good editors cost a big chunk of money and the job can’t be done cheaply. I don’t think seriously committed writers assume anything otherwise.
But sometimes, the writing world can seem like those schools where rich parents hothouse their kids by hiring personal tutors. If you don’t have the spare dollars, will you be left behind?
Not necessarily. Many of the writers I know never hired editors, yet we earned our spurs somehow. And you can still learn the way we did. It still works.
I probably sound like I’m doing myself out of a job here. Certainly a good editor will zoom in on your individual weaknesses (and strengths), and will improve all the novels you write, not just the one they assess. Also I’ll state that I’ve learned heaps from the agents and editors I’ve worked with. But the bulk of my learning came from elsewhere.
It wasn’t all free, but it was considerably cheaper than hiring an editor.
1 Find a good evening class
For two years I went to a novel-writing course at an adult education college. This was fantastic – an intensive two hours each week in which we’d critique a couple of works in progress, guided by a tutor who was also a literary agent. In case you’re in London, it was Morley College in Waterloo. Almost any well-populated area should have adult education facilities, and you can probably access them online too.
Intensive weekend courses are also useful (in the UK Arvon is well regarded), though the cost is getting on for the price of an editor, but there’s definitely something to be said for a regular dose of writing tuition every week to realign your awareness. Writing minds are trained gradually, so hothousing doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage.
Cost: Evening classes at Morley College about £130 per term
2 Find a critique group
Your evening class might fulfil this function, as mine did. But if it doesn’t, find a critique group or a clan of beta readers you can trust with your WIP. They may not be as expert as tutor-level critics, but can still be very valuable as they will react to your work as real readers.
Make sure you pick people who read your type of book (I hesitate to use the word ‘genre’ after last week’s discussion 🙂 ) and who come together with the intent to help each other improve. You don’t want a mutual stroking society, you want people who’ll stop you making mistakes.
How expert do they have to be? Almost anybody can tell you the places where the book bored them, interested them, confused them, stretched their credibility or kept them up well past their bedtime. If they give you solutions as well, ignore them (diplomatically) unless they have reason to know what they’re doing. You find your solutions from your other experts.
A word of caution: although the participants don’t have to be expert, you need to make sure the group is moderated by someone with nous who can recognise when personality clashes or personal issues are interfering with the group’s criticism.
If you can’t find a group in the corporeal world, there’s nothing to stop you assembling a brief email list of trusted early readers.
Cost: Wine, cake and other standard bribes
3 Read craft books
For years I mainlined writing craft books. I gobbled up so many I can’t remember all the titles, and I gave loads away to friends, but the ones I still have are by Robert McKee, Jordan Rosenfeld, Stephen King, Dianne Doubtfire , James Wood, David Lodge, Bob Shaw, Syd Field and Blake Snyder.
And of course, I’m now adding to the writers’ reading burden with tomes of my own, distilled into practical tutorials based on the advice I regularly give when I critique. Hence the characters book.
Cost: the price of a book (or several)
4 Read like a writer
This is what I have always done. Each time I read something that impresses me, I stop and examine how it was done. This means I dither through books, often trapped by a sentence, a description or a wrenching twist. This extreme predisposition to wonder is what made me write in the first place and it’s what inspires and teaches me still.
Cost: what price can you put on pleasure?
The long and the short
It can’t be denied that an editor is a fast track to proficiency. But some of the necessary lessons can’t be learned in a hurry. We need time for unfamiliar concepts to become habit, to make the knowledge our own and to put it to full imaginative use. That isn’t bought with money. It’s earned with time and dedication.
Thanks for the money-burning pic Jurvetson Just for the record, the lady in the pic is not a financially challenged – or blessed – writer, but an entrepreneur making a point about energy wastage. But we’re both talking about money that may not need to be spent 🙂
Where are you in your writing journey? How did you learn and how are you learning still? Is there anything you’d tell Edith?
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