Messing About With Words
“Another nature, another universe, one that could only be reached by magic…” C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew.
Today I shall twirl my British Villian moustache and talk about Speculative Fiction. These musings come as I bang my ever-bruised forehead against the desk once again over my edits. Somehow, I fear the only way I will get to Worldcon is not as a guest speaker but as the vender of t-shirts bearing the legend “Fantasy Writers Do It In Circles.” Yes, we are a self confessed bunch of geeks and nerds, but underneath that, we’re actually completely obsessed with power.
SF (when I use the S, I mean “specualitve” and not “science”) encompasses science fiction and fantasy, and I take a very broad view of what constitutes a novel or a script in this genre. Essentially science, fantasy and paranormal fiction, work on a “what if” basis.
What if there was a world where magic ruled instead of science? What if there were other words and universes (The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire). What if there were aliens (Star Trek, Independence Day)? What if we used all the Earth’s resources and had to use technology to colonise new planets (Firefly)? What if there were monsters living among us (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, True Blood)? What if a virus turned everyone into a flesh-eating Zombie (The Walking Dead, I Am Legend)? What if we had to rebuilt civilisation after a war (The Hunger Games)?
I entered a recent dicussion with another writer of speculative fiction on the difficulty of making ones SF stand out from all the other SF novels, good and bad. Writer–Directors like Josh Whedon and authors like George RR Martin have lent a new lease of life to the genre, but this has also meant there’s a great deal deal of rubbish books about. So how do you stop your book from sucking worse than a blood-drunk sparkly Emo Vampire?
The key with SF is that you follow the general rules of good writing. Most spec fiction writers do not lack imagination. Fiction writers are, as a bunch, pretty good at speculation. We have no difficulty crafting our zombies or our magic rules or our new technologies. But having read and reviewed hundreds of SF novels (I lean more to fantasy rather than science fiction) I find myself coming accross the same issues over and over, especially with indepedent novels where its clear the author hasn’t put the work through critiquing, beta reading or third-party editing.
In short, for the most part, poorly written SF does not pay attention to the non-speculative side of the story, or follow the rules of good storytelling. Plots are underdeveloped with an over-focus on whatever the writer is interested in (eg magic, hot elf babes, weapons specifications, buff vampires, ripped werewolves) and not enough attention is given to developing characters the readers actually care about. The issue doesn’t just plague indie publishing. This, I believe, is why Holywood is having a hard time producing good speculative film as well. An overreliance on CGI and special effects, with the X-Box game being designed first, results in the storytelling and characterisation taking a backseat. A memorable film has characters you care about. In the end no one cares about the endless chase scenes or numerous explosions.
All science and fantasy fiction, stripped of the speculative elements, is essentially about us. The things that move us. The things that anger us. The things that turn us on. It’s no difference in essence then from any other kind of fiction. Some SF has a mystery or crime plot, some have a political thriller plot, some have a romance plot, some have a war-story plot, some deal with personal struggles and some with conflict on a national or international level, but fundementally, the core plot of an SF novel is no different. So if I write about a crime-solving elf, I must learn how to write a mystery, and if I write about forbidden love between a winsome vampire girl and a hot alpha werewolf, I better know how a romance plot works or I’m in trouble.
What is the essence, then to Speculative Fiction? What’s it all about really? Writers and readers whose focus lies in other genres might say “why not just write a ‘proper’ thriller, or romance, or mystery?” Because we deal with one very important additional dimension.
The answer to that is of course that at the heart of what we write lies a maniacal obsession with power. Who has it, who doesn’t, who wants it, what do you do with it once you get it, how do you keep it.
We live in a world where those that question Authority get a hard time of it. That’s always been the case since the time of Chaucer. Speculative Fiction allows us to warn, to imagine better, to inform. To make people think, at least a little.
And lest you think that’s poppycock, ask any little African American girl watching, in the 1960s, the first episode of Star Trek, where, for the first time ever, a black actress played a character who was something other than a servant. Lt Uhura was depicted as a professional, a military officer, in a major role. Her role broke ground—as did her kiss with white Captain Kirk in a later episode.
Speculative Fiction allows the exploration of the power dynamics in our present society more than any other genre.
Power is the single unifying them of all speculative fiction. From Naria, to Game of Thrones. It’s even true for paranormal romance and erotica, though in those the power plays may take a backseat to the relationship between the protagonists.
We create myths, and within those myths the speculative framing allows us a space space to explore difficult issues, the issues we must face every day.
Power, power, power. We’re all obsessed with power. Mwahahahahahahaha.
And inwardly, the soul of the speculative fiction writer speaks with a sinister British accent . . .