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On Writing SF
tech failure
catvalente
Over the weekend, my second SF story, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, was published at Clarkesworld Magazine.

Oh, I know. It's not hard SF. Somehow we'll all survive. But it's been quite a journey this year, learning to change over my thought processes to SF even for those two short stories. Reader, I won't lie, it was hard. Not because SF is inherently more difficult or brainier, but because when one has practiced and worked at writing one kind of literature until you were reasonably good at it, launching into a new kind sort of spins you around and knocks you for three kinds of loops. I've been trying to think, since about January, when I wrote Golubash for the Federations anthology, of a good analogy. A swimmer competing in the long jump, or an equestrienne suddenly riding an elephant. But in the end, the best way I can think of to tell you about switching from fantasy to SF is...

It's like switching to Vista.

Look, I know how a computer works, basically. I can make things happen more or less the way I want them to on any platform. But all of the sudden, things aren't where I left them. The things I need to accomplish are pretty much the same, but now all the menus are mixed up and the options are hiding behind new and futuristic displays. Soothing sounds emanate to calm any incipient panic.

And worst of all, every five minutes, I have to pause and ask myself: Do you really want to do this?

Yes, in the end, the aims of every story, no matter the genre, are the same. Characters one cares about, interesting plots and locales, emotional moments and climaxes, all that jazz. But while I've gotten very used to inventing on the folkloric level, to creating fantasy worlds and situations, it really is a different thing to suddenly apply that skill set to SF, which has a whole other set of reader demands and expectations.

Part of this comes from SF itself being a fairly sub-divided genre. You can't just write a short story with interstellar travel. You have to suggest which school of interstellar travel this story subscribes to: gates, warp-style drive, generation ship, etc. To locate the reader in the story you cannot just start talking about rusalka and allow the reader to figure out slowly whether the real world changed only subtly to have a rusalka in it or a magical world changed only subtly to have medical students in it. SF assumes this is all the real world, and it is up to the author to identify fairly quickly which technological tack this real world has taken to arrive at the potential future world of the story. (Of course, I say can and cannot and what I mean is that I feel one can and cannot, which is to say I feel I can and cannot. Do you really want to do this?)

As a side note, a Clarkesworld Magazine story has a hard limit of 4,000 words. This is a pretty short short story, and an incredible challenge for me, to set up an entire SF universe and then make something happen in it in 4,000 words. But this is in part because I can't just let myself churn out a story in Ye Olde Standarde SFnal Universe What Has Ray Guns. Can't do it. Just like I can't write Ye Olde Vampyre Story. I have this bizarre compulsion to only write stories I'm passionate about, that add something if not to the genre itself, to my understanding of the genre. I know, it's crazy. And not very economically smart. And yet, here we are.

The thing is, at this point, inventing in a fantasy milieu is pretty easy. The stuff that's still difficult has to do with prose and structure and clarity. Sheer, raw inventing of awesome beasties? Not an issue. I have lists of ideas.

None of those ideas are SF ideas. Or can really be changed to become them, though it's certainly possible to retell fairy tales and such in an SF universe. Somehow I'm not actually all that interested in doing that.

So, in both of my SF stories, I found myself sitting at the computer and having to invent furiously, meticulously, with every sentence, to establish the world, the technology, the characters relationship to the technology, some shadow of the history of the gap between our world and this one. No one sentence can serve one master. It has to serve both the world and the story. And to come up with with ideas about space and science and planets and such is...well, al my screens are messed up and hidden and I can't just pull down the protagonist menu, I have to go hunting for it. The magic tab is just completely gone. All my tools are there, I've just forgotten where I put them all, and fuck, the system is really slowing my machine down.

Not a sentence in either story went written without stopping for research. Because research is cumulative. Each bit I learn in one story I can use in any later story, and after writing fantasy stories for 5 years, I need to do research on the specific subject matter of the story I'm writing, but not on a mass of other things that are now part of my arsenal.

I suddenly felt, writing SF, that I had no arsenal. That I'd wandered into a boss fight with no potions or ammo.

I also feel, mostly because for me SF is the Mysterious Other, that it's much harder to do something new over in that camp. It's like vampires or elves. So much has been done and redone well or badly. How can you add to that unless you're like a mad SF genius, which I am not? Plus the whole need to be in conversation to some extent with the whole of the genre, to be more hardcore and gritty and monochrome meathook future BSG OMGREALZ, or alternately, the most hardcore imitation of previous generations of shiny, bobbing futures where money is no longer an issue. The thing is, the future will get here when it gets here. I have no horse to whip in the race to the singularity. Mostly, I just want to tell a story about things I love, future, past, present, alternate reality.

For a long time I refused to write SF because I claimed not to know enough about science. This is actually patently ridiculous, but there is this cult of All SF Is ZOMG Real Science of Awesome Realness and Genius and people love to point out the Real Science degrees their favorite SF authors have, because this makes them more hardcore. And I do not have a degree in Real Science. So I convinced myself I couldn't write SF, being Not and Astrophysicist. This is really mostly my head playing games with itself.

Once, I ran into a high school friend of mine in Kyoto. (This world is small like whoa) He was a math grad student visiting the university. I asked him what he was working on and he asked if I knew much about quantum physics. Reader, despite having written an entire book dealing with it, I smiled and said no, and he explained it to me. I did it out of some weird combination of internalizing a bunch of sexist assumptions about my brain that had been leveled at me of late and wanting to give him the pleasure of explaining it and trying not to be a know it all. Finally, I did stop him and say "I don't know why I'm pretending like I don't know what you're talking about. I'm sorry, I'm being weird."

It was entirely unnecessary. I did it voluntarily--as voluntarily as that kind of thing ever is, that women so often do and men so rarely. And I voluntarily, as voluntarily as it ever is given the attitude towards fantasy authors I've talked about so very recently. But I blocked off the world of SF from myself, telling myself that SF doesn't want my pretty words (I'm still not sure it does) and Classics brain, and I can't bring anything to the SF table. I told myself that for years. I still feel guilty that I'm not writing hard SF, so far have I internalized that inane fandom prejudice. To be honest, I still question whether I am qualified to write SF. And this is stupid because I firmly believe that fantasy takes some incredible intellectual chops to write well. But everything in my life came together to prepare me to write fantasy. My yearning toward and reading of SF is a smaller, shadow history, and it's very much like working out another half of my body that never did any lifting before.

I do suspect it would be the same for an SF writer coming over into fantasy for the first time. Unless you started out writing both, and followed two learning curves from the beginning. The UI is just different. It takes awhile to calibrate.

But unlike Vista, I do rather like renting a flat in SF Towne. I love The Radiant Car. I desperately want you all to rush over and read it--even more, to comment, since it is a Scary Thing to leave one's comfort zone this way. But for me, the story is so shiny. I rub my face on it like a cat. I love it so much I'm quietly starting to take notes for a novel drawn from the story. I'm scared of that novel. I don't think I'm qualified to write it. But I love it anyway. And maybe love is enough to excuse my bumbling footsteps into what is still, for me, a new world.

This was a fascinating read. Thanks :)

N.

Sweet pea? Ursula K. Le Guin. SF author, classics brain. ;-)

Also: The bizarre compulsion to write only stories you're passionate about?
You would still be a good writer if you were churning out Ye Oldes all over the place. You'd probably be a go-to-gal for reliably good stories in any fantasy sub-genre one could name. A different kind of good reputation, if you will.
But your passion and your love for the story you're telling comes through in your writing. It's part of what makes it so thick and so good.
Be glad of it. :-)

(Also: The story about the Rusalka? Sad and sweet and hopeful. Just what I needed this morning. :-)

I think LeGuin has a Masters in Anthropology. Of course, there are plenty of chemists, mathmaticians and physicists who poo-pooh Anthro as a science.

LeGuin's one of my favorite writers of ALL time. I adore her SF. Furthermore, she was one of the few writers that could get me to read fantasy. Because of her I figured out why I didn't like a lot of the rest of the genre, which led me to being able to find fantasy that I could read happily.

LE GUIN FOR THE WIN.

But yes - a classics brain and she also has a science background.

N.

Oh, honey, Anthro!Geeks FTW! :-D

I love-love-love her essays! :-D

Wow. What a great primer on making the jump to the other. I'll remember it when and if I ever attempt to write some F instead of SF.

I got an idea for you: C3PO & R2D2. In Palimpsest. On Acid. Lucas would eat that tie-in shit up!

Ahem. I will go back to hashing out payroll now.

I find it so incredibly interesting to read what other writers think of their work, and of crossing genres, and writing on certain themes and such. Thank you for writing this!

I'm tempted to metaquotes the part about Vista. XD

So does that mean Windows 7 is ... steampunk?

that was a great short story. loved the tone, perfect. please write the book!

Since I have an intimate acquaintance with gymnastics, and diving, I'd use the analogy 'like going from gymnastics to diving.' The twists and rolls are all done in the same way, but you have to get that 'land on your feet and stick it!' mentality switched to 'land on your head, be straight and clean going in.'

Great essay - totally enjoyed reading it, as I do any of your writing.

i had trouble getting into this...because i always find exerpts distracting and hard to move my brain around, and the beginning had several, but once you got to the callowhales, my attention was captured.
i enjoyed it. it seems like the kind of thing that could be a much bigger story if it tried(and there was no word-limit). i liked being left wondering about what happened next. i liked all the questions it raised. i liked the sense of it being a small fragment of a much bigger, more complete, not-fully-explained world.

also. i believe dan simmons is PROOF that a classics brain goes quite well with science fiction.


I'll second Le Guin and Simmons, and raise you one Sam Delaney for the awesomest, pretty-wordiest poetic SF evah.

In hard SF the specifics of the tech may matter but a lot of my favorite SF is way more like fantasy in it's handling of the world details. Like Gene Wolfe who's also the awesomest evah.

Wow. You pretty much explained why I've always shied away from trying to write science fiction as well. I love it, but I've always felt somehow unworthy asnd not smart enough and not sciencey enough to play in that field.

If I rise to the challenge and write something with a science fiction flavor, I'm going to credit and blame you. Because if someone as awesome as you can have trouble with SF and still overcome those doubts, then surely I've no reason not to try.

I will happily take the blame.

I would love to read a novel grown out of that story!

Incidentally, this is my favoritest alt/retro-future story ever invented.

I don't know if you'd read Michael Moorcocks Blood trilogy, but I think you would enjoy it. It has pirates and a multiverse and a long running space opera comic/tv show.

I say this because "Thy Radiant Car" was more like that than any other SF I've read, while being entirely it's own.

(I've been reading this blog on your site so I didn't realize there was commenting capability. Hi!)

I left a comment on Clarkesworld, but I wanted to come over here to say again how much I loved the story. It is indeed very shiny. And please don't be afraid of writing a novel in that world, I'm sure I'm not the only one who would love to read it.

I have this bizarre compulsion to only write stories I'm passionate about, that add something if not to the genre itself, to my understanding of the genre. I know, it's crazy. And not very economically smart. And yet, here we are.

And yet, I'm glad you do it, knowing that it makes you write the tales that you have, which I love.

Interesting essay, amazing story. I loved, loved, loved it. Such a perfect marriage of elements! And the descriptions of the cinema, and cinematic elements, were amazing, to say nothing of the rest of it.

Congrats on the World Fantasy Award nomination!

Agreeing with everyone who's said Classics brain can = great at SF. I have a friend who wrote her Classics dissertation on the classical roots of SF and it was awesome talking about it with her; the tradition of Utopias, and subsequently dystopias, is a clear progression, and there are plenty other fun thematic overlaps. Also there are totally robots in the Iliad.

This was a great read, thanks - shall read the story now.

Fantastic points on both scifi and fantasy writing. I lean more toward the scifi genre in my writing, but I've had my head in both since the beginning. It's not a deathly struggle to switch between for me, but each most definitely requires a different mindset to approach.

I *do* have a degree in some type of Real Science, and even *work* in Real Science, and it's *still* hard for me to wrap my head around some of the things I want to put in my stories. :P I've been researching my current WIP fiendishly lately, and it's a bit daunting to see how much material is out there just begging to be used, yet I hesitate because I feel my understanding of it isn't what it should be to write about it.

And yet, I try. I guess I'll see how well it pays off eventually...

Best of luck in your own SF adventures, I can't wait to read all of that too! Also, your comment about rubbing your face on the story like a cat made me ROTFL! :D

Besides Le Guin who is a true master of everything (prose, poetry, essays, SF, F, mainstream), there was Zelazny, who cheerfully and seamlessly fused SF and F in his works.

Among online venues, Crossed Genres explicitly focuses on works that don't fit specific subgenres.

The less we insist on distinctions, the less ghettoized the genre and its practitioners will be.