How to write a generic SF novel

Paul Raven @ 05-04-2011

Paul McAuley runs you through the basics:

Traditionally, SF heroes solved problems by application of intelligence and scientific knowledge. These days, you can substitute lasers or AK-47s for scientific knowledge. Or swords. The equivalent of the internet or mobile phones are used only when the hero needs to find something out. Usually someone else does the actual typing. Don’t include any science that might frighten the readers.  Anything found in SF written before the 1980s is usually okay. Nanotechnology is basically magic. So is genetic engineering. Also quantum mechanics. Virtual reality is more or less the same as a video game. Planets can be treated as a single country, with uniform climate and culture, and no more than three unique features that distinguish them from Earth.

Very funny, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

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3 Responses to “How to write a generic SF novel”

  1. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with McAuley (though I’m not sure that things were *so* much better in the past). Recently I have read things from current SF writers that had left me wondering if they were actually targeted to “young adults” (and, I should add, particularly stupid ones).
    The problem is exactly the one that McAuley points out. Complexity is not managed poorly (as it always has happened with bad SF): it is obliterated. Conflicting views of the same issue, in particular, are strictly forbidden.
    I have been especially appalled by John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”, which I later found out to be (apparently) a well-regarded book. Many times through the book, the author presents an interesting concept (well, not astoundingly interesting, but reasonably so) and then accurately avoids to explore it at all, limiting himself (and the reader) to the very surface. Everything is caricature, sketch, outline: nothing more. All this, and a level of social/political analysis that positively makes Robert Heinlein (Robert Heinlein!) appear a deep social thinker.
    An example? Ok. Humanity discovers that the cosmos is full of other beings who are interested in the same things that we like (such as Earth-like planets). What to do? Well, that’s obvious: we go out there, loaded with weapons, and kill them. Then we get the loot for ourselves. These are not the exact words that Scalzi uses, but I assure you that they’re very very near.
    The horrible thing is not that the author says that this is a good way to manage relations with intelligent aliens (this is hardly the first time that a writer presents such a point of view). It’s the fact that he wrote the whole book without feeling the need to explain why it should be so, and without ever thinking that some explanation could be needed (or useful or interesting) for any of the things he writes about. Needless to say, no consideration at all is given to how a cosmos where this is the way things go can work or evolve; nor are explored the potential consequences on humanity, or even on the book’s characters, of such a state of affairs. All characters go where they are told to, and kill whomever/whatever they are told to kill (and occasionally die) without the shadow of a doubt. For the whole damn book. I still have difficulties to believe that a work of such monumental superficiality has been published at all, let alone by a major publisher. This is maybe the first book in my life that I have thrown away after reading it.
    It’s not that there are not good writers and books, or even excellent ones, around: but it seems as if the threshold level of intellectual engagement required from SF books is falling.

  2. Chad says:

    It has always been hard to find good SF authors/books. Though, it does seem to be harder now than it used to be. Maybe because there isn’t as much SF published (there may be good stuff that is only digital, but I don’t have an ereader yet).

  3. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    Perhaps the problem is that many SF typical tropes have become commonplace in the last, say, 20 years. And through this process they have been distilled, simplified and popularized to the point that only the simplest version of each of them survives. Nowadays, most people think that they already know what SF-nal scenario X is and how it works (where X can be, say: the aftermath of civilization-collapse; a society where time travel is possible; a world where aliens coexist, or battle, with humans; the result of widespread genetic engineering technology; and so on).
    So maybe (I’m just conjecturing) writers are led to think that: (i) any explanation will be perceived as pedantic by the reader, so that the use of complex scenarios or concepts which would *need* explanations has to be avoided; (ii) readers will become upset if the book does not comply with their expectations about the features of scenario X, or even suggests that they have a far too simple mental model of it.
    Of course, there’s still plenty of room for writers to explore new concepts, or even new nuances or facets of established ones: but this requires much more skill and effort (and entails a bigger commercial risk) than going with the “SF mainstream” that simply did not exist 30 years ago.