Some questions and answers on Science Fiction
A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I would do a short interview for a university project on Science Fiction. Unfortunately, it fell through, but not before I'd done some preparatory work and had, what I think are, some interesting points I wanted to make. So now I'm going to inflict them all on you. Aren't you lucky 8-)
The bits that I really ended up thinking about are numbers X and X, so if you want to avoid too much of my rambling, you can skip ahead. But I think there's interesting stuff in the other questions too.
How long have you been interested in Science Fiction Literature?
I have always loved reading. My parents tell of me reading the backs of cereal packets because the books that school were making me read (Peter and Jane if any of you have the misfortune of also having those tragedies of "literature"). I remember being lent David Copperfield by my headteacher - in (a different) Primary School. I was that sort of child. I remember Goosebumps and Point Horror as the earliest forays into what I would now term "genre" fiction (I don't like defining too tightly with Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror), but I don't recall particularly seeing them as something different to The Famous Five or Swallows and Amazons (a series which is as amazing now as it was when I first encountered it).
At some point, in high school, I remember coming across John Wyndham. I remember one of the books the school library had was The Kraken Wakes (which I didn't particularly like), but I did like the other one the library had - it was either The Chrysalids or Day of the Triffids. They also had some Discworld novels. That's where I think I started seeing Science Fiction and Fantasy as something distinct. Around the same time, my Dad was introducing me to Monty Python and The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I had also read Lois Lowry's The Giver for English and had really enjoyed that, seeing it's place in this newly distinct place of Science Fiction.
And I found Games Workshop (Necromunda! Tyranids! Dwarves!). And then The Internet happened. And I found myself becoming a fully fledged geek.
And if I can get geeky - I started using GNU/Linux (Slackware 96) which came with a programme called Fortune. This printed out a random quote whenever you asked it to (usually when you logged on). Some of the sources became holy relics - particularly Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad. Books which were not available in your W H Smiths or even the Waterstones in Nottingham. So when Amazon came along, and my student loan, and a bank card...
What is it about Science Fiction Literature that is compelling to you?
On the one hand, Science Fiction is this big comfortable snuggly blanket. I know the language, know the conversations, the rules. I'm embedded in it.
But there's got to be something else to it. In 2014, Ursula Le Guin was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation. In her acceptance speech (go and watch, I can wait), she said many important things. The quote which sums up what I find compelling though is "we live in capitalism; it's power seems inescapable - so too did the divine right of kings". Science Fiction is, at it's heart, trying to answer the question of "what if". I need to see those answers - the scary answers, which act more as warnings, provided by Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the more positive, hopeful, aspirational answers from Becky Chamber's The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - all inspire in different ways.
Science Fiction gives us the alternatives to the divine right of kings, to capitalism, in a way that academic text books just cannot on their own. It looks at societies and technology and rules and the impacts all of these have on each other. Incidentally, that's why I argue that Terry Pratchett's The Truth is closer to Science Fiction despite its Fantasy setting (and why I avoid artificial distinctions within "genre").
How has Science Fiction changed over the years
I think this is one of those stock answers that gets given whenever this question comes up, but I'll say it anyway: Science Fictions reflects the society it's written in. Sometimes it will take the mores of that society and reflect them (see the racism and sexism which is especially prevalent in early Science Fiction) or directly challenge them (typical of Soviet Science Fiction where Science Fiction could hide critiques of the ruling parties).
And to go back to the big comfortable snuggly blanket from earlier. You see something like Ian McEwan's recent book Machines Like Us and the rather odd publicity which came with it - a mainstream writer turning to Science Fiction and arguing it had never been done before. Any Science Fiction fan worth their salt is able to rattle off at least one or two occasions where it had - Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or Channel 4's Humans being the most obvious examples. And even though we can mock his lack of understanding, we have to be careful - it is important to remember there is not one single monolith of Science Fiction, but many traditions across time and space. "The West" is my starting point and, I think, for example, is only just starting to wake up to Chinese Science Fiction.
I grew up with "the western canon" as books I sought out and read - Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and, ye gods, I wouldn't recommend them to anybody unless you are looking for the foundations of what we have now - The Three Laws of Robotics (and the "Asimov Chip"), or time travel paradoxes (for example) barely need explaining in modern Science Fiction because of the work set down by those early authors.
I think one important change in "Western Science Fiction" more recently is the inclusion of more and more queer characters. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness is often trotted out as the first genderqueer representation (although it has its faults, as the author admits), and for a long time it felt all alone out there. But now these things are being explored more and more. Ann Leckie's Imperial Raadch series asks all sorts of questions about identity, Becky Chamber's work is packed full of different relationship structures and queer representation. We've had excellent TV drama like In The Flesh and Sense8. This is all amazing and a huge change from Asmiov's future without women or Clarke's captain commenting on how women shouldn't be in space because their breasts are distracting.
And a massive change for the better.
Has technology changed how Science Fiction is written
My first though here was no. It's still words, on a page. New technological ideas will enter the zeitgeist, but they always have and Science Fiction will always be there to discuss them. But they're not fundementally changing how Science Fiction is written.
But then I remembered a little story from R. M. Kehrli - Help Fund my Robot Army - a short story written as a Kickstarter pitch, updates and comments. Could this be new? And then I remembered Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (arguably the first Science Fiction novel). And then I looked up the word I thought described this style to check I had it right, and I do - epistolary. Stories told through in-universe documents - typically letters. This is something which Science Fiction we're starting to see in Science Fiction more and more. Amal El Mohtar and Max Gladstone's recent novella How to Lose the Time War is a beautiful example.
And that's when my brain went oooooh. Because it's not just epistolary that's coming back, but also serialised fiction - especially through Podcasts. Welcome to Night Vale is epistolary and serialised to an extent, but many podcasts are explicitly serialised and some mix the two much more - Wolf 395, for example, or Zombies Run! which takes the serialised storytelling and places it around fitness gamification (that wasn't part of my earlier thinking by the way, just come out as I was writing this now).
And so I was happy, I'd reached a conclusion. Technology wasn't necessarily changing how Science Fiction was written, but it was bringing back old forms of storytelling.
And then my brain went "But what about that story... you know, the one about football in the future?" And I went "damn you brain". The story, 17776 by Jon Bois used an epistolary, serialised form of storytelling. But it didn't just use words on the page. It used calendars. It used fades. It used video. It used The Web. It used the possibilities open to it by not existing solely as something which could be printed.
And Kickstarter, as a technology, I think it's led to an expansion in anthologies. It's not particularly new to write short stories in Science Fiction (our short story magazine market is ridiculously strong and accessible), but it's a lot easier to do specific themed anthologies and know that the market is there for them.
And then Twitter. It's given us some fun roleplay accounts. It's also given us Microfiction (i.e. @MicroSFF) - a story told in 280 characters. There can hardly be a market for these as paid for, printed materials, but as a little thing on Twitter to help market your other sellable work, and maybe as a bonus a pay-what-you-want or Patreon campaign to help fund it it becomes feasible.
So yes, Technology has opened up some new possiblities and brought back some older forms of storytelling, but still, for now, escaping the limitations imposed by the printed page is a rare, and beautiful, thing.
There was another question listed here about "what influences Science Fiction in terms of themes, ideas etc." but, I think that's already been answered by the questions above so I'm not going to write it all out again.
What is your favourite Science Fiction novel and why?
The first thing to do is define "favourite", "science fiction" and "novel". This is actually a really difficult question because of those words.
- do you mean that I can return to again and again? Do you mean a book I return to infrequently but savour and sink into every time I take it off the shelf? Do you mean a book I would unhesitatingly give as a recommendation? A book which makes me think? A book which makes me feel? A book which makes me happy?
- "Science Fiction"
- I've hinted a number of times that I cast the net quite wide with Science Fiction. How tightly should my favourite Science Fiction novel be to the centre of mass which represents Science Fiction as distinct from Fantasy?Can I claim The Truth or does it need to have aliens, spaceships or laser guns?
- Science Fiction celebrate novels, novellas, novelettes and short stories. Science Fiction includes visual (i.e. comics, film, TV) and audio (podcasts, audio dramas). Are any of them excluded from "novel"? Is a Series a "novel" - does it make a difference whether how serialised it is?
Yeah, I'm that type of adult too.
I've mentioned numerous things throughout this blog post, but the one I think I'm going to hold up as my "favourite science fiction novel" right now is drumroll please - Flatland by Edwin A Abbott.
This was the first book I suggested to the Manchester Science Fiction Book Group. We'd done introductions earlier in the session and I'd identified myself as preferring the softer side of Science Fiction (there's a distinction to run a mile away from) and more modern stuff. And then I went and recommended this book of Maths Fiction - the hardest of hard sciences - in a book published in 1884. What can I say, I contain multitudes.
Why? I don't know really. I think it's cute. I think it shows a lot of what I've been saying above. It has characters (despite them being just shapes) and satire of the Victorian society. It has hubris. It's fun.
But that's my answer today, sticking to a tighter definition of Science Fiction and a traditional understanding of novel and a completely unintelligible definition of Favourite.