Fantasy vs Science Fiction

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I read more science fiction than fantasy but write almost exclusively fantasy. The reason is embarrassing. At some point, I can’t say exactly when, I let hard SF—science fiction with a solid scientific basis—intimidate me.

When I first began to write as a young teenager, I was science fiction all the way. Isaac Asimov was my young self’s writing hero and I tried to emulate his style and approach in story after story without the slightest self-consciousness that he was a biochemist and the greatest science writer who ever lived and I was in high school and doing one science subject indifferently well. Not too many years later I was getting personal rejections from the major magazines and had a teenager’s perfect faith that it was only a matter of time until I was a fully fledged science fiction writer hammering on the door of the SFWA.

Three things then went “wrong” more or less simultaneously. I left school, got a job, and had less time and, I thought, inclination to write. My first two accepted stories were, by accident, fantasy. And the next time I paid much attention to the markets “the new space opera” had came along, your Stephen Baxters and Alastair Reynolds and Vernor Vinges and Greg Bears, telling Asimovian stories but with rigorously and brilliantly scientific cores that I didn’t believe for a moment I could emulate. My confidence went down like a ship’s sail in a gale and I never really got it back. But I did tell myself that those published fantasy stories meant that fantasy remained within my reach. Much easier to research how long it takes a horse to go from point A to point B than to suddenly realise an obscure chemical is as well-suited to be the foundation of life as carbon or that quantum physics implies a clever new space drive, I thought.

Thing is, I knew better. For some time my favourite science fiction author has been Ursula K. Leguin, whose work explores social themes rather than physics, and with luminous literary skill. But her work is often described as anthropological or sociological and I’d gotten so far inside my own head that I convinced myself that I was too ignorant of the social sciences to try that sort of thing, either.

Of course, somewhere in there I stopped writing for an eon. When I returned to it as I started university in 2014, I defaulted to fantasy as that was what I did. Only latterly have I been getting restless with my avoidance of my favourite genre. Possibly nearing graduation in a BA(sociology/criminology) has undermined my old conviction that I didn’t know enough to write science fiction. If I can’t bring the social sciences to a story by now then something has gone horribly wrong with my education!

Yet I’ve still been engaged in an anguished debate with myself. As if it were a purely binary decision, I’ve been dithering between fantasy (which I have still been writing, and was the genre of my last published story) and SF (beating myself up as too idiotic to try). My work has slowed to a crawl.

OK, obviously the lesson here is the extent to which a writer’s own fears are their worst obstacles. Do better than me.

Oddly, what broke the deadlock for me was the most recent episode of the world’s best writing podcast, Writing Excuses. In it, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Tananrive Due repeatedly asserted that writing short stories, even if it was no longer foundational to a genre writing career, is a great way to experiment with genres and styles that you might not normally attempt.

Yes, I know, obvious to everyone but me. Hush. Low confidence produces its own special flavour of stupid.

Long story short (too late), I’ve resolved to write an unequivocally, shamelessly, even brazenly science-y science fiction short story in order to settle the matter. Spent today putting together notes for a space opera background that seems good to me. Identified a plot with a nice built-in sociological theme. Began constructing a (I hope) scientifically plausible system of planets to orbit the star Epsilon Indi. When the background’s finished, I’m writing that sucker.

Take that self-doubt!

I’ll post here when it’s done.

Seven At One Blow

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Science fiction is a broad church and people who love it all love different things about it. Some go for realistic science. Some for aliens with bizarre forms and cultures. Others thrill to sprawling space opera or carefully worked out social speculation. For me, it’s planets.

I love worlds. Star Wars didn’t blow my mind because of Jedi or convincing aliens. As a kid, I sat in the cinema slack-jawed with wonder at Tatooine, Dagobah, Hoth, the Forest Moon of Endor. Doctor Who had me at Metebelis III, with its wind-swept mountains filled with blue crystals. Watching re-runs of original Star Trek, my young self considered the best part of each episode to be the moment the Enterprise slid into orbit above some new world or the first glitter of the transporter beaming Kirk and crew into a new landscape.

My point being, I’m thoroughly enraptured by NASA’s announcement today that it’s discovered not one but seven Earth-sized rocky planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, a red dwarf star in Aquarius, forty light years away.

While all seven of these newly discovered worlds might have liquid water—and with it the possibility of life—the three outer worlds are all within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. Because the star is so small and the system so compact, NASA says the seven worlds will blaze in each other’s night skies with the brilliance of Earth’s moon.

However improbably, it is not impossible for this system to host three or more inhabited worlds, each plainly visible to all the others, for some Galileo there to turn a primitive telescope on the sky and see the lights of an alien city.

This is real life gifting us with the sense of wonder previously only available through science fiction. One of the things that I’ve loved about NASA’s exploration of the solar system, and now the wider universe, is that each time they look somewhere new they find such wondrous and unexpected things.

In dark times, NASA shines like a good deed in a naughty world.

(Edited to add: Nuts. TRAPPIST-1 may be only 500,000,000 years old, which is a bit young to warrant dreaming of multiple civilizations on its planets. But it’s still an astounding system, tantalizingly close…)

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Writing and the Sociological Imagination

Photo via Visual hunt

Sociology has a lot of treasures for writers of fantasy and science fiction. One of the most useful, helping with building both worlds and characters, is the way of looking at things known as the sociological imagination.

Students of sociology encounter the idea of the sociological imagination on day one. In his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, US sociologist C. Wright Mills asserted that sociology concerned all the ways in which humans lived in the world and therefore needed to focus more acutely on how history and social institutions impacted the daily reality of lived human experience (Dillon, 2013, p. 228). The sociological imagination was simply a way for sociologists to see and critically assess the world to help achieve this focus. In contrast to psychological approaches, which might attribute a person’s problems to behaviours originating in their mind, the sociological imagination makes an explicit link between personal problems and social structures (Eckstein, Schoenike, & Delaney, 1995, p. 335)

The sociological imagination sees a person with a problem and wonders what social structures or institutions, what histories, constrained their ability to act in order to bring them to their current straits.

A criminal might be in prison because they’re inherently criminal, because it’s the way the are. Or maybe poverty limited their legitimate opportunities. Maybe discrimination did. Maybe poor nutrition compromised their physical or mental development. Maybe they were raised with a cultural imperative to risky behaviour. The sociological imagination poses complicating questions about situations and then guides sociologists in discovering answers that illuminate the human social world.

It’s a perspective which can just as easily complicate a fantasy or science fiction writer’s worldbuilding, in a good way.

When populating a created world with social institutions—and in this context a social institution is any reasonably persistent element of social organisation that meets some need of the society, such ast family, the education system, or the system of government—the sociological imagination reminds that these institutions have context and inter-relate. It prompts you to look at your awesome invented society and ask how did things get this way? What keeps them this way? Who resists and how? A good example in fantasy is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The War of the Ring is greatly complicated by distrust between the races. And Tolkien’s world has a long and detailed history of betrayals, moral falls, wars— usually mediated by the treachery of Morgoth or Sauron—which gave rise to racial distrust. Gimli’s distress at being asked to enter Lothlorien blindfolded is a personal problem with roots in the First Age.

Societies tend to be self-maintaining. That is, their institutions support and perpetuate their belief systems. In Western society, the education system is prone to making students fit for employment. This is actually one of the ways that pervasive capitalism reproduces itself. Truly pervasive beliefs tend to fade into the background, becoming “common sense.” Victorian determination to separate the spheres of home and work put women in the home but by the 1950s they belonged there and always had. The social imagination makes common sense visible and subjects it to critical scrutiny, often revealing its role in enforcing normality. When worldbuilding, it can be useful to ask yourself what invisible, common sense normality your social institutions are selling and who in your society is most struggling to buy in, how they resist, and how the institutions apply pressure to quell resistance. Doing so can create a richer and more internally consistent world and identify areas of natural conflict that your characters need to confront.

Sociological imagination also provides a path to work backwards from some aspect of your character to the construction of a more detailed world.

If your character is ejected from society and must become a rebel, this can be considered their personal problem. Sociological imagination suggests asking, What structural issue explains this personal problem? After all, why a rebel? There are plenty of outsiders who eke out a non-rebellious existence within their community. Perhaps something disrupts the possibility of peaceful existence for your character? If the government regularly raids poor neighbourhoods to press gang idle young people into military service and if your character refuses to fight for a government they hate, then fleeing to the rebellion makes sense. Your world will grow as you determine why the government conducts these raids, how the social institution carrying them out functions and perpetuates itself, and what “common sense” beliefs makes this acceptable to most citizens.

Sociological imagination exists to shine a light on the way individuals and the social world relate. Used to develop worlds and characters for fiction, it helps to identify your world’s naturally plot-worthy characters and to ensure that they and their conflicts become real products of their milieu.
Dillon, M. (2013). Introduction to sociological theory: Theorists, concepts, and their applicability to the twenty-first century (2nd;Second;2; ed.). Hoboken: Wiley.

Eckstein, R., Schoenike, R., & Delaney, K. (1995). The voice of sociology: Obstacles to teaching and learning the sociological imagination. Teaching Sociology, 23(4), 353–363.

McCartan, L., & Gunnison, E. (2004). The IQ/crime relationship: An extension and replication of previous research. Journal of Crime and Justice, 27(1), 61-86.

We’re Having a Heat Wave…

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Australia’s ongoing heat wave passed by my neck of the woods today. Mercifully, the temperature only made it to 36.5 degrees celsius (though the apparent temperature reached 39.9 degrees, and it felt it).

Yesterday wasn’t much better. It’s the nature of heat waves that they continue for days without much relief at night and, as your basic poor full-time student, air conditioning is not within my budget. The resulting sleepless nights tend to gang up with the oppressive heat of the days to turn your brain to gruel. Basically, you end up like an extra from The Walking Dead, but instead of meaningless repetitive moaning you repetitively moan, “It’s sooo hot.”

Still, trying to write while sleepless did produce the typo of the day, when I realised (roughly the tenth time I re-read the sentence) that I’d typed Miss Garda stood behind a stool-lined dinette strewn with bowels and canisters, wiping her hands on her apron and regarding him through narrowed eyes… Certainly makes the scene more high-stakes than the bowls and canisters I’d meant to write…

Bah. It’s too hot to proofread.

Review: “The Massacre of Mankind” by Stephen Baxter

massacre-of-mankindThe iconic tripods rampaging across the cover tell you fairly succinctly that The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter is an authorised sequel to H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds. I’m normally indifferent to new authors revisiting old wells (pardon the pun). Moreover, The War of the Worlds is among the first science fiction novels I read and it so thoroughly blew my mind that I re-read it until my copy disintegrated. I expected to be disappointed by The Massacre of Mankind and I doubt that I’d have bought without Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover. As it turned out, I enjoyed Baxter’s sequel.

Briefly, the novel reports the events of the second Martian invasion of Earth thirteen years after the first. The narrator of Wells’s novel is reduced to a minor character named Oliver Jenkins, while the narrator of The Massacre of Mankind is his sister-in-law, the journalist Julie Elphinstone. When the Martians return, they have adapted their biology and technology based on their first experience with Earth and this time they have their sights set on the whole planet.

Baxter does an incredible job of building the post-Martian world as an alternate 1920s inflected by humanity’s first encounter with aliens and their efforts to adapt abandoned Martian technology. There are fun cultural details such as Charlie Chaplin’s being famous for his portrayal of a character based on Wells’s Artilleryman. And there are grim historical alterations such as World War I becoming Germany’s long solo war against Russia using Martian technology acquired from their increasingly militaristic allies, the British.

If the novel has a flaw, it would have to be pacing. The early part of the book moves quite slowly as it sets everything up. An exacerbating issue throughout the novel is its nature as journalistic memoir written after the fact by Miss Elphinstone so that even impactful scenes from which she’s absent are delivered as dry reportage.

But once the Martians put in appearance, the book becomes gripping. They’re portrayed as cunning and well-prepared conquerers and some of the set piece scenes of Martian attacks on cities around the world are marvellous—particularly, for me, Constantinople and Melbourne.

I suspect the ending will divide people, but I found it acceptable. In some respects, the ending isn’t the point. The point was to revisit for the twenty-first century Well’s critique of Imperialism—that just because you believe there’s a ladder of creation it doesn’t mean you’re standing on the top rung—and he does that skillfully.

In short, well worth a read.

Climbing the Wrong Ladder: The Worst Mistake A Writer Can Make

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I’m probably a little early in my mastery of writing to be doling out much in the way of advice. Yet I’m also an experienced human, and that can teach the odd lesson worth sharing. And my experience includes the worst mistake someone who longs to write can possibly make: I stopped.

I started writing as a young teenager and I was quite earnest about it. I read all the books. Did writing exercises. Read and re-read positive exemplars both literary and genre. Studied the markets. Got all the newbie mistakes out of my system. From eighteen I was getting the odd personal rejection from the major SF magazines, and that year was inordinately cheered to receive an honourable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. Then I sold my first two stories, to the Australian SF magazine Aurealis, and began to grow some confidence.

Prior to that I’d not been over-endowed with confidence. Writing was not well-regarded or well-understood in my family. My father once sat me down to gravely explain that writing was lying and real men didn’t lie. He was suspicious of all the reading involved and saw education as the root of all sorts of degeneracy. I was stubborn and refused to believe him, but that sort of thing seeps in. My writing dreams far outstripped my cultural capital and my cultural competence in the literary domain, and that is not a recipe for confidence.

When, not long after my first sales, I got a job that pleased me in an organisation that suited me, it seemed to me that writing couldn’t come to much anyway and I’d be better off putting my energies into the job. Practical, secure, well within my capabilities.

I stopped. For years.

Everyone’s heard some variant of the axiom Stephen R. Covey rendered as: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” It could not be truer if it were uttered by a burning bush.

For many years I felt an almost constant itch to write and just as constantly I forced it down and poured my energy into my job. Sometimes I essayed a little writing at night, but I was usually exhausted and unmotivated and it was exceedingly rare for anything to result. To evade the resulting cognitive dissonance I assured myself that the time for writing would come. My writing resided in a perpetually shifting future: when things settle down at work, after I finish this training course, after the next busy period, when I get well—always the day after tomorrow and never today.

And then, after many years, the organisation decided it had no further use for me and my job was gone. I’d climbed the wrong ladder and then discovered it has been an imaginary ladder all along.

Suddenly unemployed, it became achingly clear to me that I’d allowed self-doubt and social convention projected through the skewed lens of my father’s fear, exacerbated by years of my own diligent excuse-making, to take me far from the thing that I actually loved doing. When I returned to writing and found all my old skills rusted and my old knowledge redundant and the time left in my life for achieving dreams so foreshortened, I realised the awful magnitude of the mistake I’d made. Oh, I rolled my sleeves up, recommitted to my writing, and got to work, and I’ve managed to sell a story since and that is magnificently heartening. Nevertheless, I am never far from regret.

I’ve since enrolled at university, studying towards a BA (sociology/criminology), and I’m doing very well, thank you. But I’ve kept writing. A portion of each morning is allotted to writing and I defend that time. I’ve found ways to incorporate writing into my study. I do what I can to make sure that writing stays with me in the now and never drifts off into some soft-lit future that never comes.

And, when people ask me for writing advice as they do from time to time, I’ve urged only that they tolerate no delay from themselves. There is a need to work day jobs to house, feed, and clothe yourself, yes. But never let life’s sleight of hand make your dreams disappear while your eyes are elsewhere. Do what you have to do. But do it on the right ladder.

Ignition: First Post

Photo credit: NASA Johnson via VisualHunt/CC BY-NC

Welcome to the inaugural post of my newborn writing blog. While it might credibly be argued that the world does not absolutely need another writing blog, that countless thronging thousands of them are enough, I feel the twenty-first century empowers me to dismiss that as h8ter talk and blithely press on. I begin it on my birthday. For purely imaginary magical thinking reasons, this feels auspicious.

Primarily, this is my blog and my posts here will be whatever I want them to be. But the focus will be writing, particularly from the perspective of someone who is returning to it after a long break and is trying to shake the rust off and make progress. I certainly understand the persistence that writing can require! I’m also a mature-age student of sociology and criminology, and hope to post about how those disciplines intersect with writing. And there’ll be the usual freight of personal posts. The world needs to know what I had for lunch! (Pizza today, for the historical record, but it’s my birthday so the excursion into saturated fat is permitted.)

All that said, the blog is still very much under construction, so while this post will sit here quietly marking the inception, regular posting may not begin for a little while. If you do pass through during the construction phase, do please check back soon…