Thursday, December 15, 2005


Science Fiction for the Masses

This is apparently the week for other people to state my views on subjects better than I've managed to do myself. Earlier it was Paul McAuley on science fiction in general, and now it's John Scalzi responding to the whole "science fiction vs. fantasy" kerfuffle that won't seem to go away.

"What we need are people who are unapologetically writing science fiction -- and are unapologetically writing science fiction for people who have never read science fiction before. You want new people to read science fiction? You want SF books to matter to the masses? Then do some goddamned outreach, people. Write an intelligent, fascinating, moving piece of science fiction for the reader who has always thought science fiction was something that happened to other people."

I was talking about Scalzi's Old Man's War at WFC with someone (Tobias Buckell, maybe?) and we agreed that one of the greatest things about OMW is that it is a completely entry level book. You could hand that book to anyone capable of reading the English language, even if they had never before been exposed to any of the tropes of SF, and they could easily find their footing. The narrative eases the reader into the world of the book so gradually, starting from a place that is recognizably "our" world, that the reader doesn't snag on any sharp edges along the way. I know some sf readers have complained that John Perry's America looks so much like 21st Century America, but I think they're missing the point. The reason that the book works is that, for all intents and purposes, at least so far as the new reader is concerned, Perry's America is the same as ours.

I tried to do something similar with Here, There & Everywhere. I wanted to write a science fiction novel I could hand to my mother. There's all kinds of wacky quantum physics going on in the book, but by making the view point character a woman who we meet as a ten year old girl, I tried to ease the reader into the strangeness, starting at the shallow end of elementary school life, and slowly dragging them out into the depths of quantum foam and Tipler Cylinders and the Many Worlds Theorem. I don't know that I was as successful in my attempt as Scalzi was in his, but that was the intent, anyway.

My next project is a big, crazy space opera. Incomprehensibly far future, post-human, post-Singularity, with artificial intelligences and uplifted animal species and interstellar travel and such like. But, in order to keep the narrative grounded, the viewpoint character of the book is a timelost "modern" guy. (He's actually from the early 22nd Century, born in Bangalore and educated in Addis Ababa, the son of an American expat, but his worldview and, more importantly, his pop culture references are close enough to the contemporary American reader's as to make no difference.) This was an intentional choice, to provide just the kind of entree that John Perry provides for the reader of OMW (though, interesting, I hadn't read Scalzi's novel until after my space opera had been outlined). If my POV character didn't share some common cultural ground with the reader, it would be really difficult for someone like my mother to get a handle on what was going on; alternatively, if the character is able to say, "Wow, I just woke up, impossibly far in the future, surrounded by talking dogs; this is just like Planet of the Apes!", then a reader not familiar with the tropes of SF hopefully has a better chance of understanding what's going on.

I don't think that everything I do is this kind of "outreach." The Celestial Empire alternate history stories, for example, tend to ask a lot of the reader. I don't explain most of the sfnal stuff going on, but assume that the reader has some familiarity with the concepts of terraforming, and space elevators, and such like. In those stories, I'm more interested about the impact of the sfnal technology on the culture than the technology itself, and so concentrate more on the human level stuff, hoping that the average sf reader will come to the story with a basic familiarity with the tropes I'm invoking. But I don't want everything I do to be "preaching to the converted." I'd like to get out there and do some conversion for myself. Scalzi calls it outreach, and I think that's as good a name for it as any.

yeah that was me, Old Man's War is a perfect 'gateway' book.
Thought so!
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