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!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

They're Doing It Again!

This far into the adventure of fiction writing, it really shouldn’t surprise me any longer when my characters jump out of the tracks I had carved for them and start doing something completely unplanned. But it does.

Freedom’s Scion is coming along nicely, but it’s developed into a tale far distant, both in plot and themes, from what I’d originally envisioned. The principal source of deviation arises from my “antagonist” Marquee character and one Supporting Cast character. They have an essentially political conflict going on – on a planet populated entirely by anarchists, at that – and it’s risen to the forefront of the story, at least in the opening third.

Normally I wouldn’t view this as a problem, and perhaps I shouldn’t now. You have to let your characters do what they’re moved to do by their innate natures and drives. Characters who want to gain or hold power are going to pursue those ends; forcing them to slough their overriding priorities makes them unnatural and stiff. More, the themes that arise from the conflicts in progress and the way they’re likely to be resolved are good, meaty ones. The problem, if there is one, arises from the structural metaphor I’d chosen for this novel. It would have been fine for the plot I’d originally intended, but it clashes with the story that’s developed.

The source of this development appears to be an insufficient amount of time spent developing the backstory for the novel. Had I put more work into a backstory properly shaped to my original intention, and character sketches that would be compatible with my original plot, that plot and collection of associated themes might still be workable. However, it looks as if I’m going to have to put them aside and let these characters take the book where they will.

All the same, I must remember to be grateful for small blessings: fortunately, the title still works!