It’s good, Jim, but is it SF?

• September 22nd, 2012 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

In a previous post – in fact in more than one, if I’m honest – I bemoaned the fact that a large number of general readers of intelligent fiction will never look at my stuff simply because it’s science fiction.  The odd thing is that, more than once, I’ve seen reviews by people who do read SF saying that my books aren’t really SF at all.

Here’s an example.  I’m not complaining in any way about this kind and wonderfully positive review of Dark Eden (which I very much hope will tempt some of those non-SF readers to give the book a try.)   I’m also not saying the reviewer is wrong: there is no single straightforward definition, after all, of what is SF and what is not.  But I am genuinely curious to know why he/she thinks that Dark Eden ‘isn’t really science-fiction, although it is set on an alien planet’.

It is set on an alien planet, a planet with no sun, with an entire ecology of animal and plant-like lifeforms which have evolved to generate their own light and derive their energy from the planet’s own hot core.  And it deals with the descendants of two marooned astronauts, trying to come to terms with this world.   This is easily science-fictional enough, I’m pretty certain, to exclude the majority of non-SF  readers, so I wonder in what sense might the book be described as not really being SF?

I’m honestly not sure, but I think possibly what this and one or two other reviewers may mean is that, having established this world, I let it become the background to a human story, rather than the source, in itself, of the plot.   The story is about the lives of the people in Eden, their society, their emerging politics, rather than being based on a series of revelations about the nature of Eden itself.   Is that it, I wonder?

My personal feeling about those revelation-type plots is that they tend to spoil the fictional world.  Although in a way it is background, in another way the planet Eden is, to me, absolutely the core and heart of the book.  And I wanted the reader to experience Eden as we experience our own planet, as the foundation of the characters’ lives, rather than as a puzzle or a riddle to be unpicked and solved.   It’s a matter of personal taste, but, with one or two great exceptions, I’ve never been that keen on ‘mystery’ plots in general.   (I’ve never really taken to whodunits, for instance.)  I don’t feel that solving puzzles is fundamentally what life is about.

Does this way of using my science fictional backdrop means that the book as a whole ‘isn’t really SF’?  It’s not for me to say.  I aim to write a book that it would please me to read, and don’t consciously seek either to celebrate or to challenge the traditions and conventions of any particular genre.  I simply go with what seems to work.  And since what works for me always seems to involve alien planets, or robots, or time travel, or virtual reality, or parallel timelines, I’ve always assumed that it was SF.

2 comments on “It’s good, Jim, but is it SF?”

  1. Gary Gibson says:

    I’m tempted to just say most people are idiots, and there’s a sliver of truth in that statement, but to be less obtuse I’d be tempted to say part of the problem lies with what people have grown up with on TV: Doctor Who, Star Trek, and a lot of simplistic goodies vs. baddies stuff with bad effects and worse costumes ranging from V and way on down the scale. Essentially, they think what we write is that kind of thing, but with equations thrown in.

    I had a conversation in a bar the other day where myself and a fellow author got talking to this chap who wanted to tell us about his ‘zombie post-apocalypse’ novel. He mentioned that as he wrote, he found it was turning into…science fiction.

    Myself and Fellow Writer exchanged a glance. Really? I asked, carefully. Surely it was already science fiction?

    Oh no, the chap declared. Unlike sf, his science was real. He made a joke about fake moon landings, and I think he only held back on declaring this to be true because he saw the looks on our faces.

    So there you have it. I have to be honest and say a large number of people don’t get sf because they lack the independence of thought that might allow them to make up their own mind about something, without relying on an opinion derived from some red-top newspaper or from the even more profound ignorance of those around them.

    And when you consider that a large part of the population do believe – openly or otherwise – that there never was a moon landing, or that gravity only works on Earth (I’m not kidding – ask some people what happens to a football if you kick it while standing on the surface of the Moon, and they’ll tell you it falls back to the Earth), it’s no surprise to me there are a lot of people who don’t ‘get’ SF.

    Frankly, I think we’re doing just fine without them. They live in a universe where SF is a variation on Buck Rogers, and two-dimensional heroes ramp up the proton ray to save the space babe. They also live in a universe where planets wobble through space like apples in a dunking barrel, and where the notion of a moon landing is so patently ridiculous it must have been faked.

  2. Chris says:

    Yes, Gary, I think most people think of Star Wars or Star Trek when they hear ‘Science Fiction’. Which is a bit like thinking of TV series about Robin Hood or King Arthur when you hear the words ‘historical fiction’. (I doubt that, say, Hilary Mantel actually has this problem though).

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