Tag Archives: optimism

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?


Filed under Uncategorized

What Did You Expect?

Something currently burning up the internet is the tremendous, and quite passionate, response of viewers of the Game of Thrones series to the events of the most recent episode.  This had taken on the name “Red Wedding,” and I’ll leave it to you to look it up.  Or not.  The point is that the episode features a wedding which turns into a brutal bloodbath in which numerous characters are mercilessly murdered.  This has, for some reason, outraged viewers.

I can only scratch my head.  Let me make clear that I am not a fan, and have no interest whatsoever in Game of Thrones, having not read a single page or watched a single frame.  But I know what it’s about, and it’s best summed up as “horrible people doing horrible things to each other.”  There isn’t a single upright character in the thing.  The closest the series had was a main character who was executed early on in the saga.  Perhaps that was making the point clear: no good guys wanted.

The series positively celebrates brutal carnage.  Characters are assassinated, executed, tortured with abandon, in graphic ways.  Many of the victims, and perpetrators, are children, including a nine-year-old girl who is a remorseless assassin.  That’s the case in the books; in the series she’s been aged up to around thirteen, although this was not actually done because a preteen assassin was unacceptable.  They aged up all the characters because the producers knew people would freak out at a sexually active thirteen-year-old, so they made her seventeen.  Mind you, the sexually active thirteen-year-olds in our society outnumber the thirteen-year-old assassins – at least, I hope they do – but that doesn’t keep people from freaking out about sex.  But that’s for another day.

On the other hand, the violence, even involving children, is just fine.  Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s the whole point.  It’s why people watch.  They want to see it.  People are entertained by watching other people die.  Sure, they might say (as some of you are thinking right now) that the real appeal is the nuanced characters, the amazingly complex storylines and, in the case of the books, the clear, evocative prose.  Uh huh.  Tell me, you who are saying this, if you took away the violence, didn’t have a single murder, would you still watch?  Didn’t think so. 

So this recent fan reaction facinates me.  That I would find the very idea of a wedding massacre scene repulsive, nauseating and soul-crushing is of no significance.  That fans would is another matter.  The question is, why are they reacting so negatively to something that surely cannot have come as a surprise?  Were they expecting a fairy tale happy ending?  As the Player says in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, “You call that an ending?  With everyone still on their feet?  Over your dead body!”

Not that this sequence is without precedent.  The Godfather famously ends with a montage of brutal murders intercut with a baptism.  But this was very clearly to indicate the main character’s final slide into total darkness.  And it didn’t outrage people because we ultimately knew that this character was going to go that way, even if we hoped maybe he could be redeemed.  In the end, it became Greek tragedy.  The “Red Wedding,” on the other hand, was simply Grand Guignol.  And which would be more likely to draw an audience?

So the question remains, why did viewers, who watch the show specifically to see the carnage, react with such anger to actually seeing it?  The answer is intriguing.  As one person (a reader who knew about this sequence from when he read the book thirteen years ago) told me, “George R. R. Martin is really good at creating characters you care about, and then brutally slaughtering them.”  And that’s the key.  It’s characters the viewers cared about.  Well, that just changes everything, doesn’t it?  Death and violence are fine when I don’t actually care about the victims.  Bring it on!  But not when it’s someone I connect to.  How dare you depict such awful violence, you terrible author!  Shame on you! 

Um, I’ve been saying that all along.  I didn’t need to relate to the victim to understand that violence is sickening, not entertaining.  I guess the series’ fans did.  And they’re angry because they’ve actually come face to face with the reality of the depraved spectacle they love so much.

Is that why Martin writes such violent fare, to make a statement about our taste for death?  I doubt it.  He wrote it because it sells, and, I’m guessing, he wrote it because it appeals to him.  That’s true for all writers; we write what we like.  While it’s tempting to believe he’s trying to make a statement about pervasive violence in society, there’s no reason to believe that, any more than we should believe other authors when they say they are making a statement about how bad violence is by giving us copious amounts of it.  And, indeed, even if that’s the message, people aren’t going to get it anyway.  Otherwise they would have complained long before the recent episode.  If people actually bought the message that, “violence is bad,” then they would turn off the TV at the first violent scene.  They would walk out of the theater (as I have actually done).  No, the fact is, authors like Martin are making their message very clear: watching people die is awesome.  And readers and viewers whole-heartedly agree.

There’s another possibility, of course.  Perhaps the writers of such dark, nihilistic stories are just that cynical, that discouraged with humanity, that convinced that we are all monsters and there’s no hope for us.  Really, how misanthropic does someone have to be to make a movie as pessimistic as The Purge?  But that’s the norm now.  And that makes me sad.  This despite the fact that it doesn’t surprise me.  I’m a reluctant cynic.  I have often said that, given the opportunity, human beings will be horrible to each other.  Alas, it’s human nature.  So how can I fault things like Game of Thrones for reflecting that?  Because I don’t want to be a cynic.  I’m very sad that I have been made one by what I see.  I really want to believe in something better.  I want to believe that mankind is something loftier, that there is greatness in us, and that we should be striving for that within ourselves and each other.

This is reflected in my writing.  My characters are good people, trying to be the best they can.  That doesn’t mean they are perfect pollyannas.  They make mistakes and do the wrong thing.  And it has terrible consequences when they do.  But they keep trying to be better.  They don’t accept their dark sides, because neither do I.  Maybe I’m living in a fantasy world.  If so, it’s ironic, because most fantasy is like Game of Thrones, dark, violent, cynical, depressing, saying the worst about mankind.  You have to look far for something better.

I, for one, find myself looking some fifty years back to a little TV show called Star Trek.  To this day, it stands out for its positive attitude. Series creator Gene Roddenberry believed in the greatness of humanity, and made his show reflect that.  It’s a stark contrast to most science fiction.  True, the later series became much darker, but there was still that essential optimism.  I believe in that.

I confess I’ve put a few Star Trek references in my book, ones most of my target audience won’t get at all.  I also reference throughout the book a song by a mid-seventies progressive rock band that is also tremendously hopeful and positive.  Do I have these outdated references because I’m out-of-touch and clueless?  Probably.  But still they speak to something very important, something hard to find today.  A young friend recommended at one point a different, much more current song that expressed the same message.  But, while I liked the song (my musical tastes are extremely diverse), I found it musically too dark, too heavy.  Not what I want to reflect.

I believe we can be better, that we can aspire, that we are basically good, and that, given the opportunity, we’ll be good to each other.  I want to believe that, even though it’s hard.  So that’s what I’m writing.  There will be moments in the trilogy that will greatly sadden readers, maybe even anger them.  There will be times when, out of desperation and despair, my characters will do horrible things.  But they will feel the weight of their actions.  And they will find redemption.  Because if we don’t have that, then what’s the point of anything?  We may as well all be mass-murder victims at a wedding.


Filed under Uncategorized