Science Friction

My efforts to find an agent for my book continue to be unrewarded.  My friends tell me to hang in there, that it’s simply a matter of finding the right agent.  I suppose, but in the meantime it’s not inappropriate to try to consider reasons why I have so far been unsuccessful.  The query process is brutal, and there’s much to be said about that, but that’s for another day.  I can’t rule out the possibility that my word count is too high, at 100,000, although there have been quite a few very successful debuts higher than that.  I have to wonder how much the fact that I am a man trying to break into a genre that is overwhelmingly dominated by women plays into it.  All of these are considerations, but not what I want to examine today.

I want to look at genre.  I’m presenting my book as “young adult science fiction.”  I’ve not been reticent on my dissatisfaction with the young adult genre (and yes, it is a genre, not a “category”).  For starters, I’m increasingly of the opinion that it is arbitrary, irrelevant and ultimately counter-productive.  I’ve been going back and forth on whether I should even call my book “young adult.”  But, again, that’s for another day.  Instead I want to focus on the other side of the equation: science fiction.

I’ve always been a science fiction fan.  But the genre is amorphous and covers more ground than we might think, so it’s worth laying out how I see it.  And bear in mind that this is purely my take on it.  Any writer who talks about writing, or fiction genres, is merely giving his personal opinion and it should never, under any circumstances, be taken as authoritative.

To begin, what got me started thinking about this was a recent examination of a website where agents present their “wishlists,” the kinds of things they would love to get queries on.  Why they say they are looking for these things when they then turn around and reject them in favor of yet another cookie-cutter dystopian vampire romance is beyond me, but people rarely really want what they say they want.  I base this on the fact that I have investigated agents who say they are looking for books with such and so characteristics, and my book fits them perfectly.  Yet when I queried and specifically pointed out the ways my book was exactly like what they said they wanted, I got a form rejection within a day, noting that my book doesn’t fit with what they currently represent.  Uh, yeah, wasn’t that the point?  Weren’t they looking for something different?  The answer, of course, is “Not really.”  But it was illustrative (and discouraging) to see that none of them, by which I mean none at all, had science fiction on their wishlists.

Okay, that’s an oversimplification, and to understand it better, I went searching for examples of “young adult science fiction.”  Most of what I came up with fell into two categories.  First, there were recently published books called that.  Without exception, they were dystopias like Hunger Games and Divergent.  And dystopia is on the way out (they say, but I see no evidence of that actually being the case).  In other words, for agents and publishers, science fiction means dystopia, and, because they are tired of dystopia, they aren’t interested in science fiction.  Oh the humanity.

There is so much more to science fiction than dystopia.  I was reminded of that by the other type of works that turned up in my search.  All sorts of things.  And they, too, had something in common: they were published years ago.  One well established author, David Brin, offered a list of great science fiction for young adults (not “young adult science fiction”).  His list was heavily weighted toward older books, some going back as far as the 1950s.  And many of them would get laughed out of an agent’s office if you tried to pitch them as “young adult.”  Asimov’s Foundation series?  I don’t see any teens in there, David.  I’m not saying he’s wrong about the books he listed being great reads for teens (they were when I read them as a teen).  But it’s a mistake to try to connect them to a genre that didn’t exist when they were written.  This has been done to books like The Golden Compass and Ender’s Game, and it’s why the movies based on them did poorly; they were marketed as being something they are not.  Just call them science fiction.  And they are great reads.  For everyone, teens included.

When I was a teen, I took a class in high school called “speculative fiction.”  We read Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein, and Childhood’s End by Clarke, and many different short stories.  What we came away with was how diverse science fiction is.  So what is it?

If we focus on the “science” part, we see can conclude that there is some basis in scientific thinking to be found.  Okay, not a bad start, but limiting.  Some science fiction deals with the application of various scientific concepts, either real or projected.  Space flight, time travel, cybernetics, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, virtual reality, the list goes on.  A young man in my writers’ group writes what the rest of us have affectionately dubbed “techno porn,” which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with wallowing in hardware and physics concepts and the sort of stuff that makes most us have our eyes glaze over after a few pages.  But we all agree that he’s doing it well and there is most definitely an audience for it, even if most of us don’t fall in it.

But that’s only one angle.  There’s a scale of science fiction, ranging from “hard” to “soft.”  His work is “hard.”  I will illustrate using the example of a time machine.

Hard science fiction:

Stan:  I have invented a time machine.

Bob:  Interesting.  How does it work?

Stan:  It’s complicated.  Please have a seat while I bring you up to speed on the current understanding of quantum mechanics.  Then, in the next chapter, I’ll discuss the theoretical ways that quantum entanglement can be postulated to allow the manufacture of artificial singularities by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow.

Soft science fiction:

Bob:  I have invented a time machine.

Stan:  Cool!  How does it work?

Bob:  It’s simple.  You sit in this chair, enter the date on that dial, pull the lever, and off you go.

My work definitely leans in the latter direction, although I have managed to work cosmology and quantum theory into it, sort of.  Indeed, I play so fast and loose with the science that my book could well be called “science fantasy.”  I’m okay with that.  The issue is what you are reading for.  People who read hard science fiction want to be blown away by amazing concepts, and in fact will be riveted by a book that consists of little more than two people sitting in a nondescript room talking about stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in a graduate seminar at Cornell University.  Believe it or not, that’s the gist of Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” widely considered the best science fiction story of all time.

On the other hand, people who read soft science fiction want a ripping story and enjoy when it’s dressed up with a few sciencey trappings.  A lot of science fiction is barely scientific.  Consider Ray Bradbury, who only grudgingly accepted the classification for his stories, which were about the human condition and just happened to take place on a planet that bore no resemblance to the real Mars.  I’ve mentioned Star Trek before, and I value Gene Rodenberry’s dictum that they would never explain how things work.  Later incarnations of the franchise lost sight of this and had an unfortunately tendency to engage in “technobabble,” stuff that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything.  I say, either get the science right, or else don’t try to make it anything more than background.

Both angles are valid, and the best works combine both, but there’s nothing wrong with ones that lean one way or the other.  Some classic science fiction has generic plots and cardboard characters, while other equally great science fiction has embarrassingly bad science.  It’s not worth arguing about which is “better.”  Great stories are just that: stories.  This is true in any genre.  When writers forget this, and just offer books that focus on a setting through which the characters bounce like pinballs, or offer non-stop scenes of action and barbarism, the results should be disappointing for them.  Alas, this is not the case, not with the way the publishing industry has been made an arm of the film industry, which has learned that you fill theater seats by offering mindless spectacle.

But great stories are about people, dealing with ideas.  More to the point, they are about us, dealing with ideas that are relevent today.  I don’t mean they are specifically about teens navigating the perilous world of hormones and peer pressure, or teen girls in the bloom of first love, or whatever limited characterizations are now required in the young adult genre.  I mean that they are characters who would fit in our world.  This is true in historical fiction, which fails when it presents historically accurate characters with motives and experiences we can’t connect to.  That’s why a western created in 1950 is markedly different from one created in 1990.  They are products of the time in which they were written and have little to do with the real “Old West.”

The same holds for science fiction, which may pretend to be about the future but is really about the present.  It says a lot about the time in which it was produced.  Authors use it to comment on some element of today that should be examined in a new way.  It reinforces our values and ideals, while at the same time interrogating and challenging them.  That’s why the preponderance of depressing, dystopian crap makes me so sad.  I don’t like what it’s saying about who we are today.  I don’t think it reflects reality in any way that’s healthy.  That’s why I want so badly for my story, which is hopeful and optimistic, to get out there, and why I feel even worse that it’s being blocked at every turn, as though people don’t want hope and optimism.

I am sad at the way hopelessness has become so pervasive that it’s colored the ability of people in the publishing industry to see science fiction as anything else, at least in the young adult genre..  It’s limited thinking.

Mind you, when has that ever stopped anyone?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Science Friction

  1. i was told that agents won’t look at you unless they know they can make money off your writing; while even at the odds of 3000 to 1 against, querying publishers gives you a better chance. good luck, in any case!
    i don’t know very much about science ficiton, but i believe it deals with “what if”: what if there were time machines, what if there were androids, etc.? or even more esoteric: what if time machines only went backwards in time; what if androids started to cry? how does this “what if” impact upon humans (or any other intelligent beings)? how much science should you put in your story? how much drama? if i understand you correctly, i too agree that the mass-media (including many print books) has crippled science fiction, whether soft or hard.

    • Thanks for your response. I really like your definition. “What if..” pretty well sums up science fiction. And you are very right that the real question is, “What would be the effect on humanity?”

      As for querying publishers vs agents, there are definite advantages and disadvantages to using an agent, and no one right answer. I know people who have a very idealistic (and unrealistic) attitude about what agents do. To be sure, they aren’t collaborators, dedicated to making your book wonderful. They don’t work for you, they get paid a percentage of your roayalty from the publisher. And I know people who have had nightmare relationships with agents who placed insane demands on them. If you are unable or unwilling to do what they demand, there are plenty of other clients waiting in their inbox and they won’t hesitate to kick you to the curb. And once you had a bad relationship with an agent, word gets around…

      But going to publishers directly has its own problems. For one thing, many won’t even look at unagented submissions (though I have a friend who tells me that that’s not necessarily a hard and fast rule and I have nothing to lose by trying). And publishers’ turnaround time to get back to you is much longer than an agent’s, and can be upwards of a year, and, because they often want an exclusive, you can’t be submitting to anyone else during that time. Agents can cut through a lot of that and speed the process. Assuming you can find one. Right now, with the current state of things, that’s looking dicey for me, and I am getting ready to hit a couple of publishers directly. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for an interesting post. I have to be honest, I haven’t read a SF novel for a very long time, although I used to read a few as a teenager (that’s in the days when they weren’t called ‘young adults’). But my favourite TV show is still Doctor Who so I guess I’m not totally lost.

    Good luck with your ongoing search for an agent or publisher. It sounds like you’ve decided against self publishing? That’s the route I’ve taken (after a short-lived, and to be honest slightly half-hearted attempt to find an agent early last year – and, yes I know, you really don’t stand a chance unless you really go for it). But of course there’s no easy way. Self-publishing dodges the gate-keepers but plunges your little book into a very big ocean, and although much of it is no doubt very good (I’ve just finished a pretty good self-published novel, written by someone with obvious talent), to be frank a lot of it isn’t, because it doesn’t have to be.

    We seem to be stuck with two ways of getting published – one so absurdly difficult that hardly anyone can get through (unless they’re already famous – don’t get me started on that, I hate celebrity cash-in novels), and the other so ridiculously easy and free of any quality control whatsoever that everything gets in, with predictable consequences for its general quality and inevitably meaning that anything that is halfway good gets drowned out. What the answer? I wish I knew …

    • Thanks for your response. You’ve pretty much summed up the essential conundrum of current publishing. I had largely ruled out self-publishing for the reasons you list, and because I don’t think I’d be up to doing the kind of self-promotion required. I have no head for business or anything like that, and the key to successful self-publishing lies less in the quality of your writing than your marketing/networking skills. But, while everyone tells me I have not pursued the traditional route nearly aggressively enough and have gotten discouraged way too soon, I’m now starting to consider the alternative. Some of the people in my writers’ group are putting together a sort of self-publishers’ collective, which would bestow some major advantages. We’ll see what happens.

      • Author collectives are an interesting response to this problem, and seem as if they could combine some of the advantages of self-publishing whilst mitigating some of the drawbacks. I wonder how successful current or previous attempts have been; would be worth doing some research on that.

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