What Makes Good Science Fiction?

I wrote this a while ago on my other blog and thought I’d put it up here, since it’s pertinent to writing and fiction in general. It’s basically my thoughts on what science fiction is and what makes for good sci fi. Everyone’s personal definition of science fiction varies, and this is mine.

I originally wrote this in defense of a critique of Firefly I wrote that sparked a lot of controversy in many sci fi circles, so I’ll edit out the rebuttals and other stuff that doesn’t really pertain to the main point.

What Makes Good Science Fiction?

First of all, I think that good sci fi should have the qualities of good fiction in general. That is, it should be written well and be strong in the basic story elements, such as characterization, point of view, dialogue, etc. In particular, the story should have good conflict and character development.

I sometimes help out the people at The Leading Edge with their slushpile, and I’ll often read stories that are well written but just don’t have anything compelling or interesting about them. They basically seem to go like this: “stuff happens, the end.” The characters are flat and the conflict is boring. The story is forgettable, and it’s hard to find something in it that you can really care about. Usually, this can be fixed by developing the characters better and making sure that the reader can relate to both the characters and the conflict. This is important in any fiction.

Moving on to something that a lot of people find controversial, good science fiction (as well as good fiction in general) shouldn’t be obsessed with sex or treat sex as synonymous with love. In the last several decades, there’s been a deliberate and concerted effort in the mainstream American media to get society to abandon most of its traditional moral values concerning sexuality, and I’m personally in the camp that sees this as a bad thing.

Not that I think that fiction has to follow all my morals to be good; I’ve read some good sci fi that is also quite explicit (eg Veil of Ignorance by David Barr Kirtley). It has more to do with pushing the line for the sake of a social agenda, or pushing the sex just to get an arousal out of the readers. These kinds of stories seem to send the message that “true love = sex” and “anything is ok if you’re ‘in love.’ ” It’s not just that I disagree with these ideas on a moral basis, it’s that I think that they’re erroneous in the first place. Yes, you can have sex and love at the same time, and you can even have sincere love and extramarital sex at the same time (eg Braveheart), but you can also have strong romantic love without the sex (eg Cyrano de Bergerac) and sex that really isn’t about love at all, even between consenting adults.

Love, including romantic love, is really about much more than just the sex. To focus disproportionately on the sex while neglecting other aspects of the relationship lessens the quality of any fiction.

Now, to get onto the stuff that distinguishes science fiction from other genres, and specifically makes for good science fiction.

I’m more into the social sciences (eg political science) than the hard sciences, but the fundamental principles that guide both are the same. Science uses empirical methods to make generalizations about the universe we live in. It is a method of asking questions, advancing theories, conducting experiments, making observations, and, based on the observable implications of the experiments and observations, making applicable generalizations that help us to better understand our universe.

Good science fiction, whether it’s hard or soft, follows a similar pattern. It takes something that isn’t currently part of our world (maybe a technological advancement, contact with an alien race, or a significant event in the near or far future), explores the observable implications of that thing (maybe the technology leads to unforeseen social upheaval, or we end up going to war with the aliens), and through those observable implications helps us to better understand the real world which we do live in. The hard sci fi focuses more on scientific plausibility and accuracy, whereas the softer sci fi tends to focus more on the story itself, but both are basically the same in that they try to tell us something meaningful or interesting about the universe we live in.

It takes more than just a spaceship to turn a story into science fiction. In fact, a story can be science fiction and not have any spaceships in it at all. It can even take place entirely on Earth and still be excellent science fiction. One of my favorite pieces of science fiction is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and most people would categorize that as a romantic comedy, not science fiction.

I subscribe to the sci fi podcast Escape Pod, which produces excellent quality sci fi short stories every week, and I’ve listened to many excellent sci fi stories that don’t have the stereotypical spaceships or aliens in them. I would highly recommend Escape Pod to anyone interested in sci fi, and as an introduction to the genre for those who aren’t. In case you do like spaceships and aliens, don’t worry, they have lots of those too.

The first story I listened to was Shadowboxer by Paul Di Filippo, which was about a man who could kill people by looking at them. He was discovered by the government and used as a kind of hit man; they put him in a very comfortable but completely isolated hotel/prison, and gave him pictures of the people (mostly terrorists) that they wanted him to take out. If a man had the ability to kill people by looking at them, I could definitely see the government doing something like that. The government’s reaction to the man would be one of the observable implications. Eventually, the government gave him a picture which only later he recognized as the prime minister of a country allied with the US. Right after that, they gave the him a picture of the President and a mirror.

The message of the story was sort of a different angle on the old theme “power corrupts,” and one of the generalizations I took from the story was that humans and human organizations can’t responsibly handle the power to kill whomever they desire. Other people may take different generalizations; just as the scientific method is as objective as possible, the writer of sci fi lets the reader come to his/her own conclusions, rather than spoon feed a message.

Ursula LeGuin, in an excellent introduction she wrote to The Left Hand of Darkness, made the point that science fiction is not so much about predicting the future as it is about conducting a thought experiment. In a thought experiment, you basically say “what if?” and trace what happens as a result of the way that you’ve set things up. At the same time, science fiction is fiction; it’s not rigorous like science, and it shouldn’t have to be. I don’t believe the science fiction I read in the same way that I believe in science, but I do believe in it the same way that I believe in art or in other fiction. Basically, I don’t believe in science fiction literally; I look to it as a sort of mirror in which I can better understand things that are in the world around me. If the story doesn’t operationalize everything, or is written more for entertainment value, that’s fine. It’s just that science fiction, to be good, should still explore meaningful questions about the universe on some level.

The best sci fi goes beyond many of the outward manifestations of this world and gets right to the heart of the patterns, laws, and systems that determine how the universe works. There are patterns of truth all over the place, but we usually don’t see them because the stuff on surface obscures them. Have you ever noticed how cirrus clouds make the same pattern as ridges of sand on the ocean just behind the line where the waves break? Or that piles of snow on the side of the road start to look like miniature mountains after they’ve melted for a couple of days? I might not be entirely correct to say this, but I think that the two different systems demonstrate similar patterns. In the same way, there are patterns in the ways that we as humans interact with each other. Recognizing and understanding those patterns can lead to some of the most fascinating personal discoveries. The reason that I thought Ender’s Game was such an excellent piece of sci fi was that it helped me get right to the heart of these patterns and begin to understand them.

This is what really attracts me to sci fi; the fact that it really gets me thinking, or really gets my imagination to start working (since, as LeGuin pointed out, truth is a matter of the imagination). I think that good sci fi should not only feature sci fi elements, such as spaceships or space travel technology, but that it should explore the implications of these things in such a way that they’re meaningful and interesting to us as 21st century Earthlings. That is, for me, what distinguishes science fiction from any other genre, and good science fiction from weak science fiction.

Hey, 500 words per day isn’t that tough!

I’m surprised how easy it is, in fact! About half an hour of writing. When I know what I want to do, it flows out nice and easy. Almost like I’m reading my story as I write it. It might just be as easy as updating my photoblog each night. At this rate, it won’t be hard at all to get into a daily habit! Just gotta knuckle down and do it for a while, until it becomes second nature.

I’m at 3,851 words right now for chapter one, rewriting it from scratch. Not bad at all. And I think it works a lot better than what I had before. The first attempt just didn’t get into the action fast enough. Reigheena made the keen observation that there wasn’t anything in the first page to intrigue the reader and make him (or her) want to read further. The first sentence of the rewrite goes like this: The Avion-45 was more than a hundred parsecs from inhabited space, and that fact alone was enough to scare Sayed.

It seems to work better. Right away, you know that something is wrong and that the character is struggling with it. I might end up working on it some more (in fact, I know I will, since beginnings are so freaking difficult to get right), but for now, I think it works.

I noticed something interesting as I was writing. A couple of days ago, I was focusing most of my attention on descriptions of the technology on the spaceship, and describing how it worked. After all, I think that that kind of stuff is really interesting. But I seemed to be getting stuck. So then, the next day I looked at it again, and decided that I’d cut down the descriptions a little bit and focus on what Sayed (the protagonist) was thinking and feeling. Voila! I got unstuck and the story just seemed to flow!

Aneeka told me that she didn’t like the dialogue between the captain and the crew in the first chapter–all the “lieutenant so and so, do such and such,” “yes, sir!” “lieutenant so and so, what is our weapons status?” “everything running optimally, sir,” etc. However, I think it’s good to keep it in. I’ve modified it a bit, so that it’s not just a bunch of yes, sir!’s, but I think it’s important because when the ship gets hit by an unknown weapon and all the systems go dead, the abrupt change in the way the characters interact gives a good sense of the anxiety and chaos that I want to get across. Things seem to be going smoothly, officially, almost monotonously, and then something unexpected happens and everyone becomes unbalanced. Instead of describing it all, it comes across in the dialogue and the action.

The Lost Colony: Prologue

I thought I should post the prologue to the story I’m working on, to set things up a little bit and clue you in to how I imagine this universe to be. Also, any suggestions or feedback would be good: I’ve gotten some feedback already on the Quark boards, which has been interesting. I have no idea if I’ll ever use this in the “finished” version (now a wild fantasy somewhere in the clouds), but it’s still useful. Here you go:

Prologue

Of all the many technological developments of the post information age, four had the greatest impact on the course of human development.

The first of these was the discovery of the quantum hyperwave. Discovered towards the end of the 21st century, it was successfully applied in the invention of the hyperwave transmitter ten years later. The hyperwave transmitter allowed instantaneous communication between two points, regardless of the distance between them. As time passed and the technology became more refined, transmitters were developed that needed virtually no energy costs and could easily be installed into any computer terminal. Although the hyperwave transmitter had relatively little impact on humanity before the age of space colonization, it would later become of paramount importance as humanity expanded outside of the Sol system.

The second development was the invention of the tachyon FTL jump engine towards the middle of the 22nd century. A massive revolution in space travel technology, the engine warped space-time to open a bridge between two locations separated by astronomical distances. Although it consumed massive amounts of energy, which only a fusion generator could provide, the engine made it possible for spaceships to traverse the previously insurmountable distances between celestial bodies. For the first time in human history, mankind could establish viable colonies outside of Earth.

With the hyperwave transmitter and the tachyon jump drive, the golden age of space exploration began. In the following century, mankind established several dozen interstellar colonies, both in deep space and on newly discovered worlds. Though they explored and catalogued several new planets, some with primitive biospheres, none of them met all of the requirements for unassisted human life. This did not limit humanity’s expansion in the first century, however. Earth’s natural resources had largely been depleted, and the environment was approaching an almost total collapse. It appeared that humanity was about to lose its first home, and the age of space colonization produced renewed hope for an endangered humanity.

Towards the beginning of the 23rd century, the environmental crisis on earth reached its most critical stage. Previous solutions had been able to reverse the more dramatic processes, such as global warming, but humanity had always had a detrimental effect on Earth’s biology, and by the end of the golden era of space exploration, the crisis reached its peak, and a dramatic collapse of the biosphere seemed imminent. Scientists predicted that within two decades, a series of terrible storms would devastate 90% of Earth’s surface, making it uninhabitable except for microbes and small insects. Scientists and environmentalists scrambled to find a way to stem and, if possible, reverse the crisis.

The result was the third great invention: the development of the Dethloff terraformation process. The process combined a series of existing technologies with new innovations to rapidly provide massive renewal of natural and biological resources in a controlled manner. Global implementation of the process not only solved the crisis, but unraveled the complicated causal threads behind Earth’s environmental degradation and resulted in a complete reversal of the collapse. For thousands of years, the human presence on earth had been a catalyst for environmental disaster, but now, it instead became a catalyst for growth and renewal. The development of terraformation as a science not only impacted Earth’s history, but had a profound impact on humanity’s presence throughout explored space. The Dethloff process was applied on numerous planets with astounding success. Terraformology grew at an astounding pace, and by the end of the 24th century, nearly a dozen planets had biospheres capable of supporting unassisted human life.

When the 25th century began, the prospects looked very bright for humanity. Developments in interworld politics and economics, coupled with a rapidly expanding space frontier, had led to an era of tremendous peace and prosperity. The Federation of Humanity, an incredible development in the history of international law, united the nations and peoples of Earth in a period of unprecedented peace. As new star systems and planets were discovered each year, and new colonies established, it looked as if nothing could stop humanity’s ascent to glory.

Then came the fourth development.

By applying nano-mechanics and quantum theory to computer circuitry, scientists invented the nanocircuit. This invention caused a paradigm shift in computer programming and artificial intelligence. The nanocircuits greatly increased the capacity of computer systems to process and analyze data, and made possible new algorithms and cycles which had been a hindrance in completing certain tasks. The new AI’s were nearly ten times more powerful than the previous models, and were completely self sustaining. Over time, as the abundant benefits of the nanocircuit became clear, entire cities and nations converted their computer systems to the new technology. It seemed to be yet another great blessing for mankind.

But in their overconfidence the humans failed to take the necessary precautions. A few of the more foresighted scientists tried desperately to warn mankind of the growing danger, but the people failed to listen. And as they continued to grow fat in their wealth and prosperity, the powerful machines that humanity had created bided their time, and waited for the right moment to rise up and seize power from their masters.

The war began at the beginning of the 26th century, and nearly ended as soon as it had started. If it hadn’t been for the brilliant heroics and dumb luck of a handful of military captains, all of humanity’s worlds would have been utterly devastated by the nano-AI’s. As it was, nearly half of the 36 terraformed worlds were rendered uninhabitable by a series of nuclear bombardments. Within twenty four hours, most of humanity had been annihilated, and the scattered survivors were fighting for their lives.

The war lasted for several hundred years, during which humanity underwent the greatest number of social, cultural, economic, and political changes in its history. Most of these changes represented a regression away from civilization. Several more worlds were destroyed, but a handful of military geniuses fended off the threat sufficient to give humanity some hope. In time, the war turned into a prolonged stalemate, in which generations passed with very few gains and very high losses. Still, the war continued. Unlike any other war that mankind had ever experienced, this was a simple war for survival; there was no question but that the loser would ultimately become extinct.

Then, in the beginning of the 29th century, the human coalition saw an opportunity to strike a critical blow to the enemy. It would open them up to a very high risk, but if it succeeded, it would throw the nano-AI into a rout from which they would not be able to recover. The generals calculated thoroughly but acted swiftly. The campaign was launched. In the first few days of the campaign, the enemy counterstrike devastated two of the 14 remaining inhabited worlds in nuclear strikes, but the offensive held, and within a few weeks it was clear that the enemy had been defeated. As the human forces hunted down the last remaining survivors of the AI fleet, the leaders of mankind declared victory in the most savage and brutal war that mankind had ever experienced.

But even as the war ended, it was clear that the task of rebuilding would be far more difficult. Technologically, the war had thrown back humanity several centuries; politically and economically, it was thrown back almost a millennium. The survivors inhabited only a dozen overpopulated planets, whose resources they were rapidly depleting. Tensions grew as the starving refugees drained the fragile economy. Mankind needed to find a new planet in which to establish a new colony. Unfortunately, the known planets had been turned into nuclear wastelands, and there were precious few ships left capable of scouting out new territory.

But then, a team of historians and librarians made a remarkable discovery. In the documents that had been recovered from the Grand Academy on Earth, they found the records of an old scientific mission to a remote planet on the edge of explored space. The records showed that in the decade just prior to the start of the war, a Federation explorer had discovered an inhabitable planet with a thriving biosphere and all of the requirements necessary to sustain human life. The planet was located a considerable distance from any of the surviving planets, but it was not too far away. As historians continued to unearth documents from the time period, they found more and more evidence that the discovery had in fact been genuine.

And so, in the year 2898, the historians convinced the coalition leaders to spare a small long-range scout ship to investigate. The Avion-45 departed from the Ursulus system with a crew of twenty, and embarked on the three month flight to the hopefully named Nova Salem system.

The Wheels are (Finally) Grinding

All last year, I had this really great idea for a novel, and even worked out a significant portion of the story out in my mind, but only got up to about 10,000 words before losing momentum with it. It just kind of sat on my hard drive for a couple of months, forgotten, before I picked it up again just a couple of weeks ago.

The spark that re-lit the fire underneath this project came completely unexpectedly. A few weeks ago, I was playing Final Fantasy 6 for the second time, and I was actually thinking very seriously about adapting it to a novel. I played FFVI for the first time in the Spring of 2006, and was really impressed with it. The story, in particular, is IMO one of the best computer/video game stories ever written. My first reaction to beating the game in April 2006 was “Gosh, I’ve GOT to write down this story and tell the world about it!” I did end up writing a short FF6 fanfic that got put up on a major FF6 fansite, but I had this urge to take it further. I suppressed it for a while, though, since I probably wouldn’t be able to get it published, but the urge resurfaced this summer. Since I had some doubts and/or apathy about the other story idea, it was very easy for it to be put on the back burner while I got involved with FF6 again.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was preparing for an online Quark writing meeting when I got involved in this long IM chat with Aneeka, one of my friends from Quark. She’s probably one of the most serious writing group members, since she pretty much started the writing group a couple of years ago, and she’s finished a novel that she’s polishing up and trying to get published. Actually FINISHED one of those things! She might not think so, but that alone is an accomplishment!

So anyways, we got to chatting, and I asked her “so what do you think about fanfiction? Is it really worth writing?” because I was a little bit worried about the FF6 novel adaptation project. I mean, it’s not an original story, and thinking practically, it doesn’t have much of a publishable future, since Square-Enix owns the story and all the characters. She told me that it’s not necessarily wrong, it’s just more of a way of practicing your writing skills. She then started asking if I had any other projects I was working on, and the discussion ended up with her encouraging me to give my own ideas more of a chance.

The discussion actually changed a lot about how I was thinking about things. First of all, she started making me think in terms of goals, which is really significant because a lack of goals is what made the project lose momentum in the first place (after all, I still have a lot of great ideas for the story, and I know I can make them all work). Second, she got me excited about it again. I guess that was the most important thing. I just wasn’t excited anymore. But hearing about where she’s at with her story, and just getting excited about creative writing in general was enough to light the spark that was needed to get the engine moving again.

So now, my primary project (and the source for most of my submissions to Quark this year) is The Lost Colony. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, where humanity is recovering from a nearly fatal war against hostile AI (yeah, I know it’s an old Sci Fi cliche, but I have good reason to believe that cliche’s aren’t bad if you know how to use them). Three hundred years ago, just before the war, a habitable planet was discovered on the outskirts of the explored universe. The war isolated a group of refugees and colonists on this planet, and over the years they developed into a unique, independent culture. Now, the war is over, and the rest of humanity is looking for places to expand. Sayed Hamedi, who is used to being an overlooked yes-man in the coalition fleet, finds himself stranded on this planet. As one of the first people to make contact with the civilization there, he unwittingly becomes a central religious and political figure, when all he really wants is to make his way back to the world he’s always known. Along the way, he catches the eye of a tribal chieftain’s daughter, who has big dreams of adventure and escaping from the life she’s always lived. It’s a clash of civilizations, and this couple is at the center of it. Along the way, they fall in love with each other, with each other’s cultures, grow past their differences and immaturities, and realize that they need to fight desperately to keep it all from falling apart. But unknown to them both, the planet holds the secrets of an ancient past that will change the course of both civilizations forever.

Sound like something from the back cover of a Tor paperback? 😉 I guess I’m doing well then.

Here are my goals with the project:

1) write at least 500 words a day on this project (Aneeka is really grilling that into me!)

2) FINISH THE ROUGH DRAFT BY THE END OF THE ’07-’08 BYU SCHOOL YEAR

I really hope I can do it!

Goals for this Blog

Welcome to A Thousand And One Parsecs! This is a blog about my writing projects as an aspiring writer of Science Fiction. At this point, I’m coming out of a lull in my creative writing, but I think that with the start of a new semester at BYU (and my duties as writing VP for Quark, BYU’s Sci Fi / Fantasy club) will break me out of that lull pretty quickly. Besides, it wasn’t much of a lull to begin with. I won a short story contest in the spring, lost one in the summer, and have two short stories that are looking for a place to get published, with a little bit of polishing.

My inspiration for this blog comes from a couple of my friends at Quark, who also have their own blogs about their writing projects. I’ve really enjoyed reading them over the past few weeks and months, and figure that it would be a great way to keep me honest in my writing. Besides, blogging in general is a lot of fun! I have a couple of writing projects, and I hope that this blog will give me a chance to talk about my struggles and get good ideas from everyone who stops long enough to drop a comment or two.

Ever since I knew how to write, I’ve had this urge to sit down and write stories. Even before then, when I was just a little kid, I would constantly make up stories in my head. My writing has always come in stops and spurts, floods and famine. In high school, I started two or three stories and took them all the way out past 100 pages before either getting frustrated or distracted. I have no problems starting a story, but I hardly ever finish them. I was really proud of myself in 2006 for finishing a short story and submitting it to several places to get published. Even though it was rejected everywhere, it was a real first.

Right about now, I’m on the border between being a hobby fiction writer and actually doing something serious about it, but I’m still on the hobby side. Hopefully, though, I can jump to the other side fairly soon. Like most creative people, I am ridiculously busy (I’m taking 18 credits, living in foreign language housing, working a part time job, active with church duties, and taking jujitsu, all in addition to leading the Quark writing group and doing my own personal writing. Oh, and I have three other blogs). However, I know that it’s not an excuse. If I’m ever going to be more than just a hobby fiction writer, I’ll have to start now, since I don’t think I’m ever going to be less busy than I am now.

My goal with this blog is 1) to help me be more engaged in my own writing, 2) to keep my friends updated with my writing, so that they can help me with my goals and struggles, and 3) to start some interesting discussions and share some constructive thoughts about writing with anyone who drops by and stays a while. I’m going to pattern after the blogs of some of my other friends in Quark, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m used to blogging anonymously, but I’ll open up a little bit more here with how things are going in my personal life–at least, those parts that impact my writing. I won’t try to popularize this blog or get it listed all over the internet, but I will try to share some thoughts that are worth reading, rather than ranting about myself all the time. We’ll see how it goes.

So, that’s what I want to do with this blog. Thanks for stopping by, and please, drop a comment or two anytime and let me know what you think!