Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Hard science fiction, harder reading

with 2 comments


Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What story concept or premise do you wish wasn’t explored by the person that did something with it?”

If there’s one barrier lying between most readers and an appreciation of hard science fiction, it’s that its great ideas and visionary conceptions are so often channeled through mediocre writing. I’ve tried multiple times to read Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, for instance, which has a sensational premise—the first contact between humans and a race of intelligent microorganisms living on a neutron star with billions of times Earth’s gravity—but maddeningly pedestrian prose. Here’s a representative paragraph from early in the novel:

Jacqueline Carnot strode over to a long table in the data processing lab in the CCCP-NASA-ESA Deep Space Research Center at CalTech. A frown clouded her pretty face. The cut of her shoulder-length brown hair and her careful choice of tailored clothing stamped her at once as “European.”

I don’t mean to pick on Forward in particular, and I have huge affection for hard science fiction in general. Yet in many cases, whenever I pick up a new story, I get the sense that it would be just as satisfying to read a five-paragraph summary that dropped any pretense of drama and focused on its central big idea. (To be fair, I often feel the same way with mystery fiction, especially of the locked-room variety, which I also love.)

It isn’t hard to see why the narrative element is often lacking. Many of the masters of science fiction were scientists first and writers afterward, and the idea frequently takes precedence over the plot and characters—which might serve as a definition for hard science fiction as a whole. This may be why I’ve always felt a bit out of place in the pages of Analog, which has been kind enough to publish several of my own stories. I think of myself as a writer first, and the ideas in most of my stories are good but not especially great. They’re really there mostly to make the story possible, rather than the other way around. This isn’t an aesthetic judgment; it’s more a reflection of my own background, ability, and tastes, and while it results in the kinds of stories I personally like to read, it also limits me to a particular narrow range. I don’t necessarily have the temperament to write a story that encompasses the entire universe, and I take comfort in the fact that there are other writers more able and inclined to do so. But I imagine that even devoted fans of the genre have to admit that it’s rare to find a writer who can marry ambitious conceptions on the grandest scale with a style that carries you along for its own sake.

Michael Crichton

That’s even true of authors who have proven themselves to be capable writers in other contexts. I’ve always found Asimov’s nonfiction more engaging than his stories—although at his best, as in “The Last Question,” he can be stunning. And I don’t think I’ve ever been as let down by a novel as by Carl Sagan’s Contact. Sagan was a peerless essayist and popularizer, and the scope of the story is as big as it gets, but Gregory Benford’s original review in the New York Times accurately sums up its faults:

Unfortunately, the reader will reach the novel’s enjoyable last third only if drawn by strong curiosity and buffered by tolerance for many first-novelist vices. Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajoles us into finding this person interesting.

For what it’s worth, the movie version solves a lot of these problems, mostly by focusing on Jodie Foster’s Ellie at the expense of the others, and at its best, it offers the sense of awe that the novel only sporadically delivers—and which I’m hoping to see again in Chris Nolan’s Interstellar.

In fact, while it might sound strange to say it, I often find myself wishing that many of the great ideas in science fiction had been tackled by the likes of Michael Crichton. No one will ever hold Crichton up as a paragon of style, and it’s true that many of his most famous novels repurpose ideas that had been developed earlier by other writers, but at his peak, he was a superb craftsman who knew how to keep the pages turning. (Crichton was also a writer first: he published many paperback thrillers while still in medical school, and if he stuck largely to science fiction after The Andromeda Strain, it was mostly because he was so good at it.) Near the end, as I’ve said before, he was seduced by his own tools, like many of the characters in his cautionary tales, and began to put dubious messages before story, or even his own spectacular ability with facts. Even at his worst, though, he retained a relentless focus on capturing and attaining a wide popular audience, and that kind of professional, even mercenary approach is one that more writers in the genre could stand to imitate. Science fiction has countless visionaries, but what we really need are more brilliant hacks.

2 Responses

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  1. FWIW my wife hated Contact the movie because she found McConaughey’s
    character so annoying, and every word he said so badly thought out, she
    could not believe Foster’s character would even look at him twice. In
    fact, she has been unable to watch a movie with McConaughey in it ever
    since. She just refers to him as ‘that guy from Contact’ and changes
    channel. Since their relationship is crucial to the
    whole story, I would say the novel’s weaknesses are pretty bad, but the
    movie was even worse.

    I think Asimov’s non-fiction is partly so enjoyable because we see more
    of him and he, or the Asimov we think we know through his
    autobiographical snippets, is such congenial company. The Early Asimov
    is a pretty ordinary bunch of stories, but who cares when the teller is
    so friendly and and ‘Candy Store’ where he worked as a lad so well

    Having said that, Asimov was at least never hard to read; his prose
    style was so seamless and well-judged it has to be consciously looked at
    while reading to appreciate. It flows so easily. He may have been
    trained as a a scientist but he was a writer first.

    Practitioners of hard SF can be forgiven for apologising for it. A
    really good novel in the field needs a PhD thesis of thinking before the
    writer can begin work. Historically, I think we have allowed strength
    in one area to counterweight weakness in another, and I think that is reasonable.
    50 years ago Clarke and Hal Clement we probably the key figures of really hard, possible,
    SF. Needle and Mission of Gravity should still be read, in my opinion.


    June 8, 2014 at 5:49 am

  2. Contact is an odd movie for me: I find about half of it insufferable—mostly the stuff involving McConaughey—and the other half totally transcendent.

    Asimov looms large in my own life, but it’s mostly because of his nonfiction, particularly his memoirs, which I seem to reread every couple of years. And Clarke probably comes as close as any writer ever has with marrying hard SF to genuinely good prose.


    June 11, 2014 at 9:02 pm

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