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Posts Tagged how to write science fiction
Do androids dream of electric horses? Creating the future – interview about Lifeform Three at @AuthorsElectric @AuthorKatherine
In 2013, I designed the future for my novel Lifeform Three. I wrote about robots that were more human than people, people who were slaves of their devices, and creatures who wanted to escape the algorithms and find real connection and meaningful lives.
Today I’m at the Authors Electric blog, talking to fantasy and historical fiction author Katherine Roberts about the making of Lifeform Three. (Katherine guested on my Undercover Soundtrack series a while back – ‘A ballad of fairyland, but not sweet and innocent’. Find it here.)
Katherine and I discuss key fundamentals of writing a futuristic, science fiction, dystopia or speculative novel: creating a viewpoint character who is non-human yet relatable; designing a world with plausible social systems by figuring out the priorities of the rule makers; choosing names that reinforce the story’s themes and resonance; and lacing the text with warnings that are subtle and not preachy.
So, do androids dream of electric horses? We also discuss homage to favourite books – Lifeform Three is, in part, a love letter to the pony stories I devoured as a kid. (Apologies; I’m bringing you horses for the second time this month. The next post won’t be horsey.)
Do come over.
And here’s a bonus! A bit of bookish chat with Tim Lewis on his channel Book Chat Live. He asked me to make an Amazon wishlist with favourite books that have influenced my own writing. That’s quite a wide brief because I’ve written memoirs, contemporary fiction, SF and writing craft books, but there are literary touchstones for each of those, which you might like if you like my kind of book. Tim has a wildcard question at the end – choose anything you like from the Amazon store and say why you’d like someone to buy it for you. Ever since, I’ve been bombarded with adverts for the thing I chose. People, the algorithms are watching.
Find the show here.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
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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 think this is the first interview I’ve done about Lifeform Three. I’m at the blog of Chele Cooke, whose name you may recognise because she was an Undercover Soundtrack guest a week or so ago. Chele is holding a sci-fi festival at her blog this month, and has invited along a number of authors who’ve written in the genre, from epic fantasy to chrome-plated mind-voyages. The awesome Hugh Howey is coming tomorrow, so I must be warm-up for him!
Chele made us all answer the same questions. How we developed our stories, what our distinctive takes are and who we’ve been influenced by. Personally, I think of SF as the classic genre of the imagination, one of the finest ways to ask questions about humanity that can’t be asked any other way. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Come over for the rest.
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