Yes Virginia: Pure Science Fiction Can Entertain
I recently read a rant about how Science Fiction shouldn't have or need the Gee Wiz science that pervade the modern era of such writing. The author bemoaned that it appeared today's readers prefer the Wiz Bang to real science. They stated: those who write Science Fiction with real science are writing to an elite audience of readers. I have doubts about this.
It was a comment meant to make me think. It did just that. I look into what is being proposed and tried to match that with what I look for myself and I saw some patterns; but not the ones being touted. It seems more a matter of one being more entertaining than the other and there is no good reason that they both shouldn't entertain the reader.
We as authors can take all of the stuff of science today and fill the stories with only that, which fulfills the notion of writing what we know. That would truly be Science and Fiction or maybe even Fact - depending on whether we depict fictional characters or real people and historically recognizable stories. Science - recognizable today (with physics as we understand it today) - turned to Fiction with the what if- that is common to Science Fiction - adding fictional and believable characters into the what if of speculation.
This reminds me of the old discussion about Sci-Fi not being Science Fiction and perhaps the above would be one of the delineating elements. In the article I read this was one distinction the writer was trying to make, though he called Sci-Fi Skiffy, because of a bad connotation put upon Skiffy as they call it. I actually hate that word Skiffy; so I’ll use Sci-Fi for the remainder of this article.
The issue I take is that for a reader it’s difficult to find and for the writer to write an as if without extrapolating the Science to some itchy limit, which runs the author head on into a bucket load of Sci-Fi. I'm not saying that that is bad or even wrong because some of the things Jules Verne wrote about seemed pretty fantastic at the time he wrote them, yet today there are parallels to the technology he imagined and what we have. What is interesting with an old classic such as that is that Jules Verne put some well defined characters into the story with all that fantastical science.
I look at what I like to read in both Science Fiction and Fantasy and try to discern what works and what doesn't: for me. I look at what is strict science and what looks like Gee Wiz or Wiz Bang; and I rediscover something that rises above the discussion about science and physics that we know.
That would be simple good story telling.
When objecting to all the special effects and strange (over- extrapolated) notions that appear to go too far (which all may ring true), is the focus so narrow that the narrative that surrounds it escapes us in our frustration? What I mean by that is that we sometimes labor under the misconception that the fantastic what if and derivative science we extrapolate from present understanding is the only element of the story that is important enough to define its quality, while overlooking skill in narrative and the well crafted stories with strong character development. The error lies in the belief that the science is the story and it doesn't matter how well we write or who we put into the story as long as the science is stunningly accurate and sounds plausible. So when people buy the story with inexplicable science, some camps are baffled that these readers can rave about the whole thing. We dismiss the idea that a well written story with strong believable characters the reader can relate to might be enough for many readers.
This is not to say we can't have both, but it also doesn't say that the stories with Simon Pure science fiction always naturally contains the elements of good fiction writing.
What I like in my fiction is stories driven about characters.(I look at the cover-read the blurb in back-if possible I read the first chapter or ten pages- then I decide if I’ll like it.) For me: if there are no stunning characters then the science must fill that void with science that becomes the missing element of character. Then we might have something like Anne McCaffrey's Ship Who Sang or perhaps Clark's Hal from 2001 Space Odyssey. And we are still very far away from those types of Artificial Intelligence that they could both be considered extrapolations that stretch the readers suspension of disbelief too far.
Any author who has mastered the ability to place a believable, likable character into whatever situation will get my full attention every time. For me good solid science becomes added value. The science becomes less necessary for me to enjoy and relate to the characters. Too often I've found novels that are mired in the science while they are peopled with one dimensional characters who could be interchanged with anyone and not change the story.
This underlines the most difficult problem encountered by new authors when they get caught up in the notion that they have the greatest new idea for a plot and they try to run with that, keeping it secret so that no one else will steal the idea, and then end up wondering how their idea can't catch on when they finish the piece. They don't recognize that their 'story' is not that great science woven into some fantastic notion that may in many cases turn out to be some combination of old tried and true plots such as blending Frankenstein with Sherlock Holmes and mixing them with Victorian fashion in a novel driven by the wonders of Steampunk with a mix of vampires and werewolves.Well that might be pure fantasy. But the point is that the reader has to see the human element in all of this and understand what drives the main character's story as it intersects with the myriad of ideas sprouting out of the authors mind.
For me plot's and themes and gadgets and fantastic scenes don't drive the story. The plots and themes keep it under control and help shape the story. The lands and technology are a backdrop to help keep the characters from becoming talking heads; but they still are nothing more than the props. Though I will grant that sometimes they are well crafted props.
Characters are what drive the type of fiction that I like. Believable people the reader can relate to and become sympathetic with. Their struggle or conflict and all the pitfalls and obstacles put in their path and how they deal with all of that while growing or maturing right there on the page. How they deal with and react to the science. This often rubs shoulders with what some define as the soft science fiction; the stories dealing with social, political or psychological sciences. It is when the Simon Purist try to avoid those three that they run afoul; because that distancing caused by the avoidance often rips at the heart of the story that I'm looking for.
Both the Pure and the Sci-Fi with Wiz Bang have to be balanced with good writing that engages the reader and if the author becomes enamored with the science or the special effects to the detriment of good character development then the story is lost. When the reader puts down one to pick up the other it is not a deficiency in the reader it is rather a disconnect of the story from the reader. They may not be abandoning the Wiz Bang in favor of real science or vice versa; but they are abandoning poor writing for something that is well crafted that grabs their attention and keeps them riveted to their seat while pages flow by. And it just might happen that those well crafted characters are surrounded by gardens of Wiz Bang.
There is no doubt that Pure Science can enhance a story as do a new and fresh plot or scene. But these cannot replace a well crafted story; they are the icing on the cake. They are the gift wrap under which awaits the surprise that is the author's skill at his craft of telling the story.