Thursday, June 05, 2008

What makes Compelling Science Fiction?

I wanted to take the blog back to the point. What makes compelling science fiction? Certainly many aspects are the same as in other genres. Characters you can cheer for, an interesting setting, and a fast-paced story are all factors that can contribute to a compelling story.

So what sets science fiction apart from the rest of literature? In some ways, there is no difference. A story is a story is a story. In other ways, the differences are enormous. Science fiction is, and always has been the genre of ideas. For instance, communications satellites were predicted by science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke.

It might be a mistake to lump all of science fiction into one basket, so we'll see where this impromptu essay ends up. The genre is just so vast and varied. Some of the stories can hardly be called SF.

So, let's discuss the taproot of the genre, hard SF. This is really the core of SF, and it's probably the most different from the rest of the literary world. Only the techno-thriller comes close.

In hard SF, characters aren't necessarily compelling. It's generally an idea or a milieu that drives the story. An excellent example of an idea story is the book I just finished, Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg. For the milieu novel, look at Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama.

In Dragon's Egg, the idea is simple: what if life evolved on a neutron star? In Rama, we spend the novel exploring only a small portion of an apparently deserted alien spacecraft of enormous size. Both of these novels are exceptional and highly recommended.

For Dragon's Egg, the compelling thread is following the evolution of the creatues, the Cheela. In Rama, we are fascinated by by the environment. Neither story hinges upon the characters. The humans are cardboard, there only because somebody has to be there. In Egg, the Cheela live so fast we hardly get to know an individual before the next generation shows up.

But, we don't care. We are so taken by the cool idea that both novels have become classics. They don't need the character.

Tomorrow, some discussion on Asimov.


Today's yard plant is a Chilean Mesquite tree. For some reason, this one has struggled for years. It constantly gets sunburned and I lose branches every year. I've been trying to train it, but it's difficult with this one. These trees usually do well in the desert, as you'll see when we get to my other mesquites.


Karen said...

Interesting view from a practioner of the art. forum has several on-going threads on the subject (SF forum).

I'd argue that the characters in hard SF aren't necessarily 'cardboard'. Rather, they are (or can be) icons. Both authors you mentioned (and the upcoming Dr. A) have roots in the pulp magazine, SF Leagues, ghettoized community of SF. They knew who their readers were and that those readers wouldn't need to have specific detail about the 'intrepid astronaut' or 'research scientist's beautiful daughter' filled in for them.

Rick Novy said...

I can't argue with that, and cardboard is an over-generic term. Different hard SF writers have different ways of story-telling. Ben Bova writes good character stories in the context of a hard SF adventure.

In the case of Rama, it doesn't really matter who the characters are because the story isn't about them. There are a few adventures, but the characters are nowhere near as memorable as, say, Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandrey.