Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 11th, 2013

Is this really science fiction?

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Illustration for "The Whale God" by Vincent DiFate

Like most writers, I take an interest in the responses to my work. Since “The Whale God” was published this month in Analog, it’s been reviewed at a handful of professional or semiprofessional review sites, as well as on a number of blogs written by fans. Most of the reviews have been respectful and positive, but I’ve also seen a familiar theme recur even in the ones that liked the story, and especially in the ones that didn’t: they don’t think “The Whale God” is really science fiction, or if it is, it just barely qualifies. At this point, I’m no longer surprised by the reaction, which I’ve seen for every short story I’ve published in the last few years. I don’t agree with the assessment, but it does give me pause. I’ve said more than once that I try to write stories that other readers will enjoy, but it looks increasingly as if my work doesn’t quite fit with what many Analog subscribers are expecting. And it isn’t because I’m pushing the boundaries of the medium: there are countless other writers whose work is more innovative and challenging than what I happen to write.

First, let’s deal with the question of whether these stories are science fiction at all. In the past, I’ve tried to come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to encompass my work, but the best is probably the one in Analog’s own guidelines for submission:

Basically, we publish science fiction stories. That is, stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein without the science and you’ll see what I mean. No story!

In most respects, my stories fit comfortably within that rubric, except for one sticking point: the word “future.” All of my stories take place in the present, or in the recent past, and they’re often less about future science than about speculative combinations or consequences of the science we know now. In my story “Kawataro,” for instance, I introduce what seems like a mythical creature in a village of the deaf in Japan, and I then suggest that both the creature and the deafness might have arisen from a previously undiagnosed genetic syndrome. Each piece is real, but combined in a highly speculative way, and the result is pure fiction.

"Kawataro" in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (June 2011)

That’s where the “future” element subtly comes into play: these stories all describe something that hasn’t happened yet, but could, as long as reader is willing to grant a few basic assumptions. The same is true of “The Whale God,” despite its period setting. The psy-ops program I describe never really existed, although it’s in line with similar research that was being done at the time, and although its effects on whales—and humans—are grounded in science, the specifics are entirely speculative. Part of me would like to believe that the result doesn’t seem like science fiction to some readers because the details are convincing, or at least presented with a straight face, which disguises how big of a conceptual jump I’m actually taking. I try to write stories in which the speculative elements shade imperceptibly into the real world, and the division between the two isn’t always clear. This is as much a strategic choice as an artistic one: I’m always concerned that scientifically literate readers will object to my leaps of logic—as many of them did with “The Boneless One”—so I try to disguise the gaps as well as I can. If it works, it’s often because I’ve nudged the odds in my favor, baking the least plausible elements into the premise of the story itself.

And as much as I’d like to write stories that have the look and feel of more traditional science fiction, I’m not sure I can. Science fiction is an incredibly rich field, crammed with talented writers who are better at that kind of story than I could ever be, and I’m happy to stick to my own peculiar niche while leaving the future to others. The few attempts I’ve made at dealing with aliens, for instance, haven’t been all that successful, and whenever I try something more conceptually ambitious, I start to feel a little like the Dean on Community: “Time travel is really hard to write about!” But I know that I can write pretty good stories in my own vein, and a fair number of readers seem to enjoy them. For me, that’s more than enough. I’m writing for others in the only way I know how: by telling stories that have a reasonable hope of living up to my own standards, in as engaging a fashion as I can. The result may look a little strange—or not strange enough—but believe me, they’re better than anything I could cook up if I forced myself to write in a mode that didn’t fit my own tastes and interests. And if readers could tell how speculative these stories really were, I’m not sure they would have gotten published in the first place.

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July 11, 2013 at 9:11 am

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July 11, 2013 at 7:30 am

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