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.