Spinrad, while writing about China Mieville’s ‘Iron Council’, happened to mention the idea that for him, at least, science fiction was largely about writing stories that in some sense were believable, in the sense that they reflected, at least on some level, something that could actually happen.
Now, this is a very particular form of the genre, and one that is deliberately self-limiting. No magic, no woolly pseudo science. It also means, in the strictest sense, no wormholes, a common enough conceit that I use at length in Angel Stations. There’s no evidence that any such thing would be scientifically possible or – depending on which magazines or online articles you read - if not impossible, then probably unachievable. (But maybe…)
A lot of this stick-to-the-known-rules sf (or, more commonly, ‘nuts and bolts’ sf), by limiting itself to the quantifiable limits within which reality appears to function, leads to narratives which are either ‘ideas-driven’ – where the central conceit is as important, or sometimes even more important, than the human characters who are witnesses and participants in the narrative (Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward) – or are instead an exploration of the social, political and cultural effects of living in an increasingly technologised environment (say, Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge).
On the other hand, it might be argued that to be ‘self-limiting’ in a way that modern fantasy, currently in the midst of a self-driven reinvention, perhaps isn’t, is actually a step backwards: that maybe it’s better to ignore certain rules in favour of a freewheeling narrative freedom perhaps best personified in sf by the new-wave, amongst whose number Spinrad is frequently included.
I find myself stuck in the middle of these opposing arguments, primarily because one of my lasting ambitions has always been not only to write and publish science fiction novels (achieved), but to write books which are, in the sense I think Spinrad means, achievable.
Now, I’m going to have to stop here and make it clear exactly what I mean by ‘achievable’.
In his ‘On Books’ article in Asimov’s, Spinrad suggests that:
‘… while the game of fantasy is to play with the impossible, the game of SF, even post-modern space opera, is to at least pretend the story takes place sometime somewhen within our own universe. Therefore, if literarily successful, it does more to inspire the reader with the subversive notion that what is advocated is possible and thus can aid in calling it into being …
… Deeper even than the scientific method is the conviction that reality has a knowable nature, that all of creation is of a consistent pattern, that it is all interrelated, that what is is real, and what is real is ultimately knowable, and that the supernatural is therefore a contradiction in terms.
This, I am now prepared to contend, is the root metaphysical assumption of all true science fiction. And in literary terms, it means that all true science fiction is centered on the interaction of the external surround–physical, political, cultural, linguistic, anything and everything–with the lives and consciousness of the characters.
If it does this, and there is any speculative element in the externals of the fictional universe at all, it is true science fiction, and if it does not, it is not true science fiction. Period.’
Cheney’s reply, in part, is that
‘…If you think that most of even the famous and inarguably canonical science fiction stories "could in the future or far away or even right now be contiguous with the reality that the reader inhabits", then you are probably deluded and bordering on schizophrenia.’
Which I can’t argue with: but there’s more to the desire to write something which appears ‘achievable’, and it comes down to this:
I know, as do most people, that when they write something, it’s not true. Doesn’t matter if it’s starkly realistic and set in known historical times or takes place on some dragonworld flight of fantasy, it’s not true. Even if it’s the fictionalized account of the life of someone living or recently deceased, it’s still not really true, because the only person who can ever really know what happened or what was said is that person; and even if they write the book themselves, about themselves, it’s not automatically strictly ‘true’, due to the vast subjectivity of memory.
When someone uses a story element which is manifestly not possible within the limits of known science, whether it’s wormholes or magic books, on some level it’s because such elements allow certain fictional situations to come about. It can allow an author to say something (hopefully) which might not easily or as effectively be said otherwise. The wormhole allows the hero to get to some place where something Really Interesting is happening: without the wormhole they’d never get there, and there would be no story.
In Angel Stations, someone eats a ‘book’, or rather, memories chemically encoded in something you swallow. Is this possible? I don’t think it’s particularly likely, but here’s my reasons for using it anyway: 1 – how memories actually work, along with vast swathes of the wet grey stuff between our ears, isn’t known, so it’s a free field. 2 – I liked the surreal image of someone ‘eating a book’ and seeing through someone else’s eyes and ears, not unlike (but also very different from) picking up a paper book and reading it. 3 – it allowed me to explore the psyche of one character in particular, in a way that felt more interesting and dramatic than simply describing her internal conflicts. You get to see her, seeing herself, through someone else’s eyes.
Now I find myself in a situation where I’m working on a particular book outline, and wondering if I can indeed create something that adheres to the known physical qualities of the universe as we understand it - while at the same time, thinking up relevant plot elements that don’t adhere strictly to The Rules: and trying to make up my mind which way I really want to go.
The fiction I favoured the most as a kid was the relatively hard stuff (as well as, yes, Dick and Bester and Ellison and Moorcock and Ballard, and all the new wavers and experimentalists). Sometimes the quality of the prose got sacrificed along the way, but I often found something alluring about fiction which stuck with The Rules. I find myself still wanting to do the same thing.
The story I’m currently thinking of developing a full outline for is set on another planet: we know there are other planets. The characters get there with some form of achievable space travel, moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light, but never surpassing it. They would get there by reasonably predictable means (I might allow fusion technology, which is still strictly speculative at the moment). There would be life on the planet: but beyond the nuts and bolts, the story would be about human nature, and why people are the way they are, and why history will continue to repeat itself.
Then I thought: wouldn’t it be really cool if … and suddenly I saw a plot device that would make the story work in a way that involved, unfortunately, something which according to the world as it is understood in our post-Enlightenment era of science, to be utterly impossible pseudo-magical flummery.
A plot device which would nonetheless create (I hoped) a narrative tension that might not otherwise exist. But the story wouldn’t be ‘possible’ in the way I might otherwise have intended . It would be manifestly more untrue than the story I’d originally been considering. It would become a work of science fantasy, rather than science fiction.
The thing is, until a book is actually written, ideas are very fluid things. Storylines, characters and ideas come and go at a whim. The story as I currently imagine it might be very different from the story as a finished manuscript. As it currently exists in my head, it’s been transformed in a way that might be better for the story, but less good for my ‘pure and untarnished work of hard science fiction’ idea.
So why the obsession with The Rules? It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I never got on too well with fantasy. I’ve never read a fat fantasy trilogy. Dragons, lost magical rings, they all bore the hell out of me. Plus, the whole notion of a ‘magical universe’ always appeared to me – but most particularly, during my formative years – to be an approach that allowed the possibility of absolutely anything to happen; that all the author needed to do to fix a particular dilemma or scene was to wave a metaphorical wand in the form of some fictional spell and, bang, the story moved on.
And besides, I was always a technologist at heart – what the hell did I want to read about some freaking magical kingdom for? That seemed to me a desire for some unbelievable pre-technological utopia I wanted no part of. I tried reading Lord of the Rings and gave up after five pages. I watched the movies for the hell of it, but still kept wondering: so where the hell is this place?
But the line isn’t firm: Lucius Shepard gets to walk around inside my head any time he feels like it. So does Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (although I contend it’s a work of science fantasy, not fantasy per se). Some stuff engages me, a lot doesn’t.
But then again, it's worth remembering that what’s really important is the way the characters in a story interact: more perhaps than the technology or the feasibility or unfeasibility of various plot devices, what matters to the reader is how realistically the fictional people they’re reading about react to a given situation, or interact with each other. Richard Morgan’s Market Forces posits a near-future which is extravagantly unlikely, as Cheney points out in an earlier Mumpsimus entry. We are never going to see, as he says, a world where a combination of Mad Max and The Contender is a daily part of life. But the important thing about Market Forces is that it has ‘something to say’ about the feral, primitive nature of modern capitalism, its strict rules of winners and losers, massive profits and unacceptable losses. In that light, a book like Market Forces makes sense, and suspension of disbelief (for this reader, anyway) becomes achievable.
So I got to thinking about this particular book idea I mentioned above. So maybe I allow a plot device to be used, which would make The Rules warp to breaking point. It still may allow me – if I decide to take that marginally more fantastical than strictly scientifically rational route – to make the point I want to make. Perhaps I’m worrying too much, and all that really matters is telling the story in the way it demands to be told. But I know for all that, I’ll keep worrying about Those Rules.