Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘science fiction

Norman Spinrad on the rules of imaginary science

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1. Be internally consistent, no matter how much or how little you explain.
2. Any fake fact must be planted in the reader’s mind early in the story, well before it surfaces as the means to solve an important problem.
3. Know when to stop explaining.
4. Pay attention to how real science evolves.

Norman Spinrad, in The Craft of Science Fiction

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January 1, 2012 at 10:00 am

Peter Thiel on the state of modern science fiction

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One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, “Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,” and in 2008 it was, like, “The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.”

Peter Thiel, quoted in The New Yorker

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December 17, 2011 at 10:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2011 at 7:23 am

Freeman Dyson and the closing of the science-fictional mind

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Arthur C. Clarke famously argued that our politicians should read science fiction, instead of westerns and detective stories, and Isaac Asimov, as we’ve seen, thought that an early interest in good science fiction was the best predictor of children who would become the great scientists of tomorrow. As I look around the world today, though, I worry that we’re suffering from a lack of science-fictional thinking. And it isn’t just the fact that America can no longer go into space. It’s that our dreams have grown smaller, and the most ambitious visions are greeted with a dismissive tweet. George W. Bush’s proposal to go to Mars was admittedly hard to take seriously, given its complete lack of specifics, but when the timeline of DARPA’s 100-year Starship Study makes it clear that nobody expects to go to the stars within the next century, I have to wonder what happened to the national will that put a man on the moon using computers like this. And my greatest fear is that we’ve lost the ability to even talk about such issues in suitably cosmic terms.

These days, only a handful of public intellectuals seem willing to talk about the future in ways designed to expand our sense of the possible. One is Ray Kurzweil, whose concept of the singularity, perhaps the most exciting—and lunatic—of all forms of futurism, has finally crossed over into the mainstream. Another is Freeman Dyson, the legendary physicist and mathematician who made several practical, lasting contributions to speculative fiction, notably the concept of the Dyson sphere, almost in passing. Both men are geniuses, and both are willing to take outlandish positions. As a result, both often seem faintly ridiculous themselves. Kurzweil, with his line of longevity supplements and obsession with the idea of his own immortality, can occasionally come off as a snake oil salesman, while Dyson has been roundly attacked as a global warming skeptic. And although Dyson’s arguments deserve to be taken seriously, there doesn’t seem to be a place for them in the mainstream dialogue on climate change, which reflects less on his ideas themselves than on the limitations we’ve subconsciously imposed on the debate.

Dyson’s treatment in the media has been particularly sobering. He doesn’t deny that global warming exists, or that it’s primarily caused by human activity, but questions whether it’s possible to predict the consequences using existing models of climate change, and believes that the danger is overblown compared to other risks, such as global poverty and disease. Dyson also argues that the problem of climate change isn’t social or political, but scientific, and has proposed a number of seemingly farfetched solutions, such as planting a trillion trees to absorb excess carbon dioxide. Perhaps most notoriously, he believes that global warming itself might not be entirely a bad thing. Rather, it will be good for some species and bad for others, a general “evening out” of the climate in a post-Darwinian world driven less by natural selection than by human activity. As a result, he has been widely accused of being oblivious, uncaring, or demented, notably in a fascinating but profoundly disingenuous piece by Kenneth Brower in the Atlantic.

Many of Dyson’s ideas are impractical, or simply incorrect, but it doesn’t seem wise to dismiss a scientist universally regarded by his colleagues as one of the smartest men in the world. And the more one looks at Dyson’s opinions, the more obvious it becomes that they need to be part of the conversation. This isn’t a politically motivated “skeptic” whose ideas are so far off the map that they don’t even deserve refutation; it’s a profoundly original mind approaching the problem from a novel perspective, drawing conclusions that have the power to shake us into new ways of thinking, and as such, he deserves to be celebrated—and, when necessary, refuted, but only by critics willing to meet him on equal terms. He may come up with outlandish proposals, but that’s what science-fictional minds do. Dyson may not have the answers, but only a system of public discussion capable of engaging his ideas will result in the answers we need. And if we can’t talk about his ideas at all, it’s our loss.

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2011 at 9:42 am

Asimov’s Sword, or the intelligent twelve-year-old

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For my twelfth birthday, my parents must have given me a few good presents, but the only one I still vividly remember, close to two decades later, is the June 1992 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I’m not sure what inspired them to pick it up—it’s the only time they ever got me a copy—but I read it cover to cover, and still remember many of the stories, including “The Big Splash” by L. Sprague de Camp, “Grownups” by Ian R. MacLeod, and “Monsters” by James Patrick Kelly. (The latter two novelettes, incidentally, benefited from excellent artwork, which I can still picture to this day, by Laurie Harden, who nineteen years later would go on to illustrate my story “The Boneless One.”) And I have to admit that whenever I get a story into Analog, I secretly hope that among the magazine’s declining but faithful band of readers, there’s at least one twelve-year-old boy or girl on whose imagination I’ll make a similarly lasting impression.

Because smart twelve-year-olds are the best audience in the world. Asimov himself realized this, almost fifty years ago, when he wrote his famous editorial “The Sword of Achilles” for the November 1963 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Asimov notes that it’s important to be able to identify young children who will go on to be creative scientists, in order to foster their talents from an early age, and that the best predictor for such gifts is an interest in what he calls “good science fiction.” He then lists a few authors who might qualify, such as Clarke, Pohl, and de Camp, and also the science fiction magazines “universally acknowledged to be of highest quality,” including, of course, Analog. Asimov concludes: “It is youngsters who are interested in these authors and these magazines, then, that we seek for.” And while the list itself has certainly evolved over the past fifty years, the underlying point remains true: one of the greatest functions of quality fiction lies in encouraging the imaginations of intelligent teens and preteens.

But the real takeaway here is that none of these authors was writing for children. They were writing for adults, and the kids found them anyway. This is one of the reasons why I have mixed feelings about the increasing dominance of young adult fiction. (Part of me suspects that these novels are really intended for adults who just want to read children’s books, but that’s another issue entirely.) At first glance, it seems like a positive development: teens and preteens have more books targeted at them than ever before, many of them thinly disguised versions of adult genres, and some are very good. But it isn’t enough to read books targeted at your own level: you need to read slightly above it. When I was growing up, there weren’t many options for young adults once I’d graduated past the likes of Zilpha Keatley Snyder, so I had no choice to plunge into Animal Farm and 1984, at which point there was no turning back. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of millions of teens who read Stephen King long before the appropriate age, which is exactly the right time to read him. But I’m not sure how many kids are doing this today.

As I see it, Asimov’s Sword needs to be slightly revised. If an interest in good science fiction is a predictor of scientific creativity, an early interest in good—or even bad—adult fiction is a predictor for creativity in general. Smart kids are always going to read things that are slightly inappropriate, and we need to encourage this, both actively, by giving them access to books beyond those available in the young adult section at Barnes & Noble, and passively, by looking the other way when they show up with the inevitable battered paperback copy of The Stand. My own novels are meant for adults, but I’d be thrilled to see them in the hands of sixth-graders. Because as Asimov points out, these books aren’t just predictors, but active influences in their own right. “Interest in science is stimulated by the reading,” he notes, “rather than the reverse.” And that’s true of most fiction—but only when written for adults. Because the smart kids will find it on their own.

So what is science fiction?

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Like most authors, although I don’t always like to admit it, I’m very interested in other people’s reactions to my work. One of the singular things about being a writer these days is that one has access to a huge range of opinions about one’s writing: on review sites, blogs, discussion boards, and all the other venues for talking about fiction that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. As a result, every few days I’ll snoop around the web to see what people are saying. (One of my few disappointments following the publication of “Kawataro” was that it coincided with the demise of the Analog readers’ forum, where I had once been able to count on a spirited discussion—or at least a ruthless nitpicking—of my stories.)

For the most part, readers seem to enjoy my stuff well enough, and it’s always gratifying to find a positive review online. Over time, though, I’ve noticed a particular theme being struck repeatedly even by people who like my work: they don’t think it’s science fiction at all. Now, I’m pretty sure that my novelettes and short stories are science fiction—if they weren’t, they  wouldn’t be published in Analog, which doesn’t have much interest in anything else—but I can understand the source of the confusion. Thanks mostly to my X-Files roots, my stories are set in the present day. They all take place on this planet. I don’t do aliens or robots. And while the plots do turn on science, they’re more often structured as contemporary mysteries where the solution depends on scientific information, which I gather is fairly uncommon.

It’s worth asking, then, whether we can come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to include both my work and, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s. (Or even L. Ron Hubbard’s.) TV Tropes, usually a good starting point for this sort of thing, despite its sometimes breathless fangirl tone, argues that science fiction hinges on technology:

The one defining(-ish, definitions differ) trait of Science Fiction is that there is technology that doesn’t exist in the time period the story is written in.

Which automatically disqualifies most of my stories, since I don’t have much interest in technology for its own sake, at least not as a narrative device. I’m also not especially interested in world-building, another hallmark of conventional science fiction, if only because so many other writers are better at it than I am.

So if my stories don’t include technology or alien worlds, where does that leave me? Wikipedia comes to the rescue, defining science fiction as dealing with “imagined innovations in science or technology,” including one particular subcategory:

Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots.

Which is basically where I fit in, as long as you stretch the definition to include connections between previously unrelated scientific principles. “Inversus,” my first published novelette, is basically about psionics, but links it to a number of existing phenomena, like situs inversus. “The Last Resort” takes a known phenomenon—limnic eruptions—and transfers it to a novel part of the world, with a speculative explanation of how it might be caused by human activity. “Kawataro” fictionalizes the case of the Al-Sayyid Bedouin, moves it to Japan, and connects it to another medical mystery. And my upcoming “The Boneless One” begins with a real scientific project, the effort to sample genetic diversity in the world’s oceans, and speculates as to how it might lead to unexpected—and murderous—consequences.

Much of my favorite fiction is about such connections, whether it’s the paranoid synthetic vision of Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the constructive impulse of the great science fiction novels. (Dune, for instance, gains much of its fascination from the variety of Frank Herbert’s interests—ecology, energy policy, the Bedouin, the story of T.E. Lawrence—and from how he juxtaposes them in astonishing ways.) My love of connections is what led me to focus on my two genres of choice, science fiction and suspense, both of which reward the ability to see connections that haven’t been noticed in print. And the ultimate playground for ideas is science. The science is real; the connections are plausible, but fictional. Put them together, and you get science fiction. Or something like it, anyway.

Why science fiction?

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When I look at my writing from the past few years, I’m struck by a sharp division in my work, which sometimes resembles the output of two different authors. On the novel side, I’ve focused almost exclusively on suspense fiction, with the occasional literary touch: The Icon Thief is basically my take on the paranoid conspiracy novel, while its sequel—once called Midrash, currently untitled—is even more of a straight thriller. I love writing books like this, and one of the great pleasures of my recent life has been exploring the genre’s conventions and learning what makes such novels tick. But at the same time, I’ve been living an alternate, almost entirely separate life as a writer of short science fiction. And now that my novelette “Kawataro” is in stores, it’s probably worth asking why I write this stuff in the first place.

Because it certainly isn’t for the money. Analog‘s payment rate is pretty modest—at the moment, for a novelette, it’s between five and six cents a word—and while it still pays better than most other magazines, where payment can consist of nothing but a few contributors’ copies, devoting two or more weeks to writing a 12,000-word novelette isn’t an especially lucrative way of spending one’s time. And while I’m always immensely gratified to read reviews of my short fiction online, the fact remains that a writer can make a bigger impression with a single novel than with a dozen short stories. There doesn’t seem to be any rational reason, then, why I should spend my time writing stuff for Analog. And yet I still try to write at least a couple of short stories a year, and whenever I’m not writing one, I really miss it.

So why is that? The real question, I suppose, is why I write science fiction at all, instead of some other genre. (Mystery fiction, for one, has an honorable history, and there are still a couple of good genre magazines on the market.) Writers, not surprisingly, are drawn to science fiction for all sorts of reasons. Many of the writers in Analog, which remains the leading voice of hard science fiction, seem to have been brought to it by a deep love of science itself, with stories that methodically work out the details of a particular scientific problem. Other authors write science fiction because it gives them the opportunity to discuss major issues involving humanity’s future, to build entire worlds, or to allegorize a contemporary issue (as in Children of Men, which takes our reluctance to plan for the future and turns it into a world in which there is no future). Others, maybe most, are drawn to science fiction simply because it was the kind of fiction they loved best growing up.

This last reason comes fairly close for me, although it isn’t the whole story. Growing up, one of my favorite books was the wonderful anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I highly recommend if you can track down a copy. Reading these and similar stories—many of which I still know practically by heart—I was deeply impressed by their clarity, their precision, and above all their ingenuity. On the cinematic side, my favorite movie for many years was 2001, which, in turn, served as a gateway to such authors as Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, and Robert Anton Wilson—the last of whom, in particular, remains one of my intellectual heroes. And I’ve already spoken of my love for The X-Files, which has given my stories much of their overall tone and shape.

Above all else, though, I love science fiction because it gives me a chance to make beautiful toys. The toymaking aspect of fiction has always been important to me, and hopefully this comes through in my novels, which I like to think of as intricate games between myself and the reader. And the science fiction short story—because of its love of ideas, its range of possible subjects, and the rewards it offers to ingenuity—has always been an ideal medium for play. While my stories occasionally tackle larger social themes, the motivation for writing them in the first place is always one of playfulness: I have an idea, an image, a twist, and want to see how far I can mislead the reader while still making the story an exciting one.  Writing novels is joyous work, but it’s still work. Writing short fiction, especially science fiction, is closer to a game. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest game in the world.

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