Fantasy vs Science Fiction

sf
Photo credit: Tom Simpson via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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.

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