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Cara Sposa woke me up to something I hadn't realized about my taste in SFF. See, we both have a soft spot for John Wyndham's cosy catastrophes. "The Kraken Awakes" is one of my favorite of his, whilst she read "The Chrysalids" early on and it influenced her views on SF.

But that's the exception, not the norm. I'm not really a fan of cowboys in space, or samuri in space, or exploring the hollow-earth, or space-creatures stealing our water, cows, women, etc. I like SF that's thick and rich with history. Dune, The New Sun, Foundation, that's my kind of bag. So far in the future that it requires intricate worldbuilding. In other words, I like fantasy, and I like SF that's really fantasy dressed up in SF clothing.

But an essential part of SF is not so much the Science (caps), but the scientific Attitude (caps). It's the use of the controlled experiment in fiction. SF, then, is about taking the current and changing one variable in order to see what the experiment results in. Then you trash the ones that don't produce interesting results and keep the remaining ones. The remaining ones get turned into stories.

So it's actually one of the fundamental qualities of SF that I've been unconsciously objecting to: the way that SF keeps everything the same but changes only one or two elements. In doing so, SF of this sort is more accessible, therefore more engaging, therefore more entertaining, therefore more "successful" than more complicated, hard-to-make-and-hard-to-sell SF. James Tiberius Kirk and Luke Skywalker trumps Severian the Lame and Paul M'uad Dib every time, because James and Luke grew up in the suburbs, going to the prom and dragracing, not practicing the art of excruciation and learning to control the muscles of the little toe.

The key, as my scientifically-trained wife pointed out is Ceteris Paribus: the principle that "all things being the same", which is an unspoken caveat to all scientific exploration via experiment.

One thing that defeats me in trying to write SF is that my mind always throws up a hand and talks about consequence. How the variable change will lead to another variable change, then another. Take for example, the theoretical enhancement and manipulation of brains. Degrees of Ceteris Paribus:

1. Algernon is given a drug that enhances his ability to think; we watch the results, which say something about intelligence and empathy. (One variable: mind manipulation.)

2. Douglas Quaid wakes up a previous manipulation of his brain or is it all a fantasy gone wrong, which makes us think about the manipulation of political realities. (Two variables: 1. mind manipulation and 2. a society that has adapted to it)

3. Paul Atreides becomes an infalliable oracle because the revolution against thinking machines required the manipulation of brains in order to handle the data overload of interstellar governance; which tells us something about big data and the role of planning beyond the capacity to reason. (Three variables: 1. mind manipulation, 2. the permanent establishment of a caste of human computers, 3. the ultimate hybridization of brain and Jungian race-memory).

But it's also the use of English by every race on the other side of the Stargates, the humanoid features of every race in Star Trek, the abysmally obsolete structure of the Intergalactic Empire and Federation. The quality of Ceteris Paribus is the "secret sauce", the MSG of SF, that makes it so tasty, and makes it so popular.

Ignore it at your peril, young Skywalker....


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 12th, 2013 03:12 pm (UTC)
Thinking about consequence in terms of interlocking demilitarized zones is what keeps me from writing short stories. If I can winnow down an idea simple enough for a short piece, I get bored. I wish I could write them.
May. 13th, 2013 12:55 pm (UTC)
DMZ is a good analogy. Labrea, I'd have termed it.

I don't have so much issue with the short pieces, though. But I recognize that they are usually based in some version of this world, with a fantastic/speculative element added, or they are completely flights of fancy for no purpose than wordplay.

That said, the part of the brain that does multi-POV novels is a different one from the short story brain, and different still from the poetry brain.
May. 12th, 2013 04:38 pm (UTC)
Yes, I don't think you can have just one little change. For anything that's different, there's the whys of how it came to be that way, and those whys and hows are likely to have had effects on other elements of life, too.
May. 13th, 2013 12:57 pm (UTC)
Ah, do you write stories like gardening, then?
May. 13th, 2013 04:34 pm (UTC)
Your question makes me smile because there are so many possible ways to answer!

I don't know... sometimes I like to work out problems, which is sort of like noodling around (a type of noodling around?) with the ramifications of a change; other times it's an image or thought that lodges in my head and then grows. So maybe that is kind of like gardening?

But what did *you* mean, when you mentioned gardening?
May. 13th, 2013 07:02 pm (UTC)
Gardening, at least the way I do it, involves finding spots for things to go. If you have a bed to plant, you know how much space you have, and you put together an idea of what you want in it. You plan some spacing, some mulch, and all that.

But when it comes to actually doing the planting, you find that things get put where you didn't expect to put them, stuff doesn't really work so you shift it around. Then there's a lot of weeding and pruning that goes on in the weeks afterwards.

Eventually, everything's grown up and it doesn't look at all like you imagined it, but you accept it for what it is and, often as not, like it better that way.
May. 14th, 2013 07:09 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, in that case my method often resembles gardening--that last sentence in particular.
May. 13th, 2013 08:08 am (UTC)
I really dislike the "one little change" stories. They seem completely unbelievable to me and, the very antithesis of what I consider to be SF. Most hardened SF readers would agree with me, I think, but non-hardened readers, are the mainstream anyway and don't consider themselves SF fans.
May. 13th, 2013 12:58 pm (UTC)
This is true. There is definitely a split market between the mainstream-that-likes-a-little-fantasmagorica and speculative-writers'-writers. (Is that an analogous role to "gentleman's gentleman?"
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )