How to write science fiction

This message is brought to you by the vagaries of packet-switching communication. It started life as a comment on the blog of Charlie Stross, an eminent science-fiction writer from Scotland, but network problems gave me enough time to think of posting it here instead.

Charlie wrote:

“to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of […] SF.”

That is the core opportunity right there. I have elided the words “cyberpunk dystopian”, because that’s just one sensibility, and many sensibilities coexist on the planet, as Dirk Bruere (comment #83) points out.

But the proof that there’s still work to be done in SF, is that, even before we consider all the other options for literature, you can always make literature just out of representing reality well. And representing contemporary reality accurately is already enough to produce SF.

And then think five years, ten years, fifty years ahead. The future will happen, just as “today” and “this year” in your own life are happening, when once they were imaginary unknowns. Most people who talk about the future and write about the future may just be using it as a stage on which to project their hopes and fears, but that doesn’t mean that the real future, that will one day arrive, is itself just the product of overheated imagination.

The principle that simply depicting the present accurately and well is enough to generate SF, applies even more to the real future. I don’t care how boring or depressing the future you think might really be coming looks to you; if it’s described well, it can still make for worthy literature. I certainly don’t believe that SF has already depicted all the basic possibilities about the future that ought to be taken seriously. On the contrary, the present moment is absolutely full of novel developments that have not been properly assimilated and analyzed and their consequences deduced. An intelligent worldly person, who sits down and thinks about the present and its implications for the future, without hope or fear or other egocentric distortions, should be capable of having new insights and new ideas which, in the hands of someone who can write, would make for good literature.

For a futurist living in a society of future shock, there’s always something to be found by totally starting over, dumping every idea about the future you ever had before this moment as just a fact about your own past psychology, and looking out on the world afresh.

And this is only what’s possible even if you confine yourself to representational realism. If we consider the various ways in which literature may consciously stray from adherence to reality or likely-reality – for the sake of entertainment, edification, symbolism, exploration… – the possibilities of the present moment are even greater.

Here, however, there is a special trap. Let me group together all the disparate genres that aren’t just 100% factual transcription of how you think things are going to be, or could be, as “non-realist”. Because non-realism is not completely tethered to the evolving reality of the world, it doesn’t face the same imperative to keep changing that realism does. Non-realist SF, therefore, faces a particular species of risk – that it will just recycle yesterday’s non-realisms. This is where awareness of the reality surrounding previous non-realism can help: the historical and cultural context, the lives and psychologies of the authors. Understanding how non-reality has its roots in reality is the best prescription for doing it yourself and doing it differently.

And this advice is relevant even for those who might aspire to write realist SF. After all, we don’t actually know the future, and even the steeliest attempt to discipline one’s imaginings in the light of past historical experience, is still basically an act of imagination, not of knowledge. So even the realists ought to spend some time understanding the historical context of their realist precursors.

I learnt a lot of this from Bruce Sterling, by the way.

I’ll say one more thing about historical context. People in the “West” or the “developed world” know by now that they are living cheek by jowl in a world with other peoples who have other histories. Their histories are part of our historical context, now. So the idealized version of this quest for historical knowledge, in preparation for writing good new SF of a sort that has never been written before, would not just involve reviewing the precursors and cultural context of western SF. It would involve some sort of survey of all those other cultures which maybe didn’t produce Amazing Stories and OMNI magazine, but who in the real world are now making rockets and robots and genetics labs anyway. That’s just reality, now, and there must be at least as much conceptual mileage to be obtained by investigating how, in reality, that situation came to pass, as there is to be obtained by reflecting on the wisdom and folly of those who produced the western SF canon, old and new.

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