Friday, December 28, 2012

Reinforcing The Strangeness

Just yesterday, I received a note from a "test reader:" one of a small group that's helping me with first-draft criticisms and suggestions about Freedom's Scion, the sequel to Which Art In Hope. She had some interesting things to say, among which I found the following both heartening and slightly worrying:

I have to admit, your new direction is something that I have always wanted from various Sci-Fi stories. That glimpse of every day life in a new and different environment that gives a sense of place, a sense of time, of being transported to a real place. Fantasy delivers this far more often than the Sci-Fi crowd. This is strange, because Sci-Fi more often tries to account for reality in their musings. Honestly, I am more fascinated by it in Sci-Fi settings. But it also explains why I like Sarah Hoyt, and Eric Flint, and others who like to bring the reader down to eye level with a citizen, and not just an adventurer passing through.

Now I, too, like the sense of "eye-level" immersion in a setting of which my reader speaks -- obviously, or I wouldn't write that way -- but it trades off against one of science fiction's other virtues: the detachment of the reader from his sense of what's normal and customary. Both should be present in a good piece of SF.

The point of all fiction, once the requirement to divert and entertain is satisfied, is to illuminate aspects of human nature by depicting people coping with challenges and changes. Science fiction is valuable because of the power it has to test people against challenges and changes that don't exist in present-day reality. Thus, the writer should never permit either aspect of the adventure to overwhelm the other: the sense of displacement from present-day reality must be continuously present, albeit not annoyingly obtrusive, while the reader is kept aware that what really matter are the lives of the Marquee characters and the changes they must undergo in the course of the story.

I recall reading, long ago, a piece written by a professional editor about half-clever attempts to penetrate the SF genre by writers who really want to write Westerns, or pink-and-purple romances, or whatnot. He mentioned one particular submission, in which the hero belted on a "proton blaster" and rocketed away to cut off the bad guys at the Horsehead Nebula. This is plainly the opposite of what an SF writer should be trying to do...but I have no doubt that a significant number of aspirants tried it, back when SF's popularity exploded and it became newly respectable.

To return to the main thread, if a story or novel in a speculative genre begins to seem as if it could take place in Peoria, it's short-changed one of the desiderata of that genre. The aspects of the thing that distinguish it from present-day reality haven't been adequately reinforced; the writer should give some hard thought to them before they disappear into the sauce. After all, we already have Peoria; why take a story that would fit there comfortably and drag it kicking and screaming across the light-years for no good reason? Don't we have Real Housewives of New Jersey for just that purpose?

Oh, by the way, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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