I was stunned the other day that someone who is well-versed in fantasy themes and ideas did not understand a reasonably common idea in science fiction. Yet so many fantasy writers expect science fiction writers to understand their tropes – high magic, low magic, in between magic, gobbledygook magic… yes that’s what it sounds like to me when they go on about different types of magic. And what the heck is urban fantasy? Ordinary fantasy or fantasy set in a housing estate?
I’m a science fiction reader and writer, and I have enough on my plate to keep up with new ideas and worlds of science fiction and science without being expected to keep up with fantasy as well.
When it comes to story appeal to the general population (by they I mean people who are not genre aficionados), it is important to explain the terms in their story, or even better, just show us the impact of whatever gizmo or spell the protagonists use. Or at least have a non-knowledgeable sidekick to whom a necessary explanation has to be given when required (like Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories).
Ben Aaronovitch tells a delightful anecdote. He gave his friend a review copy of Rivers of London. After a reasonable length of time, he asked for his friend’s comments. This friend replied he had not been able to read it because he had loaned his copy to his grandmother who did not want to return because she had been enjoying so much.
His publishers, as you would expect, analysed the sales markets. They found Rivers of London sold across all sections of society, young and old, men and women, you name it in more or less equal measures. In other words, his novel had a broad appeal across society. That can only happen if the author does not assume people with know specialist genre terms.
There is a flip side to this good quality. When there is something unusual in the story, it has to be explained, which in turn slows the story down. It is therefore not surprising that many stories in science fiction and indeed fantasy are about coming of age in understanding the world they live in (e.g. Harry Potter).
In the process of writing two of my three novels (we won’t talk about the first one as it has all the ‘beginner’s mistakes’ in it), is that the first draft was written from the point of view of someone who was learning about their world. The trouble with these learner characters was they were so drab, dull and boring. In both cases, another main protagonist eventually took over. I’ve now rewritten number two novel from the new protagonist’s viewpoint and have started a similar process with number three novel.
But we are back to issue of explaining the background unusualness of the world…
For those of you who were forced to read the classic novels by the likes of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, you will probably remember the lengthy descriptions of places. Today’s modern novels still have the descriptions of places, but not at the same rambling wandering meandering length. They are cut back to the bare minimum to give a sense of atmosphere of the place combined with those details that are necessary to the story. Here the emphasis is sense of atmosphere.
We can have the same in science fiction. Who can forget the first line of Neuromancer: ‘The sky about the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ You immediately get the sense of grim tech surrounding the story.
A lot of science fiction, can and does take place in nature’s surroundings e.g. forests, deserts, at sea. Here the authors can rely on the common understanding of readers to get away with sub-minimal explanations of the world. This works equally well for man-made and tech surroundings that are famous beyond the science fiction community (e.g. Star Trek).
What about tech surroundings that are the author’s invention and are too different from what I call trope surroundings? See the author has to do real work, the cut it down to the minimum to give the atmosphere plus the necessary details for the story, just like what we do with descriptions.
There is one way around this, which should be seldom used. Have the point of view be fascinated by an aspect of the world. You can then ‘wallow’ for a short time in describing the view. And I do mean short. It adds to the character and the atmosphere of the story.
An example of an unusual ‘world’ can be found later on in my Guard Cat story (‘in’ the Mahilani geyser) if you want to see what I am getting at.
The unusual worlds on science fiction include those that can be seen from space i.e. off-world, ice-worlds (sorry but Star Wars depicts a snow world, not a true ice world), cloud worlds and techie surroundings. (Oops… I’ve got all of these in number two novel – maybe it’s too exotic to ever get published).
The only advice, based on experience, I can give is keep editing your descriptions until they kind of resonate with you.