Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

A quick look at strange sci-fi

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Short Fiction in Theory and Practice coverIssue 1 of a new journal, Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, has been published and includes an interesting article by the co-editor of Interzone, Andy Hedgecock, on a perceived new wave of SF called “Sci-fi Strange“.

While I’m not sure about the movement – and I’m really not sure about the name, because there’s not necessarily anything strange about it – I certainly think the stated features of Strange stories sound like good things to be aiming for.

The article starts with an interesting discussion of New Worlds, a sci-fi magazine that, in the late 60s and under the editorship of Michael Moorcock, set out to redefine SF. To quote Hedgecock directly:

The transformative editorial policycame to be characterized as a shift from outer space to inner space – a rejectionof space travel in favour of insight into contemporary psychology andexperience. At the same time, writers were encouraged to experiment in termsof imagery, narrative technique and form.

Between this New Wave and the current day, Hedgecock explains that the market focus moved to “Hard SF”; fiction more about technological process and less about psychology, character or setting. In my mind, I think of Hard SF as the work of Stephen Baxter, or the Red Mars trilogy.

(Red Mars is only book I’ve ever read where character A says to character B at a moment of high drama, “But that means a lot of complex third-order differential equations to solve!” I’d like to add that, as a mathematician, I’ve solved third-order differential equations and really, as differential equations go, they’re not that bad. The context was a space elevator falling to earth. Had it been falling through a viscous fluid of non-zero vorticity, then they would have been in trouble. Anyway.)

I’ve always found Hard SF a difficult sub-genre to get on with. I’m always get stumped by the question, “Why am I reading this?” I struggle to read non-fiction anyway, so fictional non-fiction, in which the net result is no more knowledge than I started with, seems a difficult proposition. I suppose the draw is clever and ingenious ideas: for me, though, the ideas I like are those in the narrative structure – the telling and showing of the story – rather than in, say, the quantum states or neutrons in the protagonist’s lab.

Which leads us, possibly, to “Sci-fi Strange”, a term coined by writer Jason Sanford in this blog post. SFS runs about as far opposite Hard SF as one might want to. Its stated features are as follows:

  • Stories which set high literary standards
  • Stories which experiment with style
  • Stories imbued with the sense of wonder associated with traditional SF and fantasy (the term ‘sensawunda’ is used by many SF critics)
  • Stories which accept diverse sexual expression without foregrounding it as a theme
  • Stories which accept diverse views on drug use without foregrounding it as a theme
  • Stories which accept diversity and difference and explore the basic human values and needs
  • Stories which explore the boundaries of reality and experience through philosophical speculation (this may involve the application of scientific knowledge and concepts, but is not tied to technological development or the rigorous application of scientific analysis)

Some of these seem overly specific, of course: accepting diverse views on drug use, for example. That’s only separated in the list because so much 60s sci-fi used to be about drugs (or sexuality, for that matter). The important point is “Stories which accept diverse lifestyles without needing to foreground them.”

Is this strange? I’d argue not. More like, it’s a consequence of sci-fi’s constant battle with suspension of disbelief. We create unreal circumstances and then try – because we’re not writing fantasy – to make them just plausible enough for a reader to feel amazed but still believe this is, or could be, “reality”. (Like a good magician,  who makes it just plausible enough that the coin has genuinely moved from one cup to another. If he tells us the coin has now turned into a Fiat Punto, we won’t buy it.)

To build plausibility, we can’t afford to include too many obvious simplifications, or too much that’s inessential but contradictory with the real world. So the idea of not including, referencing or at least accepting multi-ethnic characters with diverse sexualities would be an obvious oversight (unless, of course, their very absence is part of the point of the story.) No-one would believe in a lab staffed by all-white scientists. No-one would accept a nightclub scene with no [possibility of] homosexual couples.

The rest of the list points towards a philosophical focus coupled with a sense of wonder. That makes me think of Ursula Le Guin’s superlative The Lathe of Heaven, a book written in 1971 which, despite some overwrought prose at times, is inventive and clever and weird and firmly about being human. Does that fit our current model?

I’m not sure. For me, the first question in reading an SF story, and by extension, in writing one, is always “If this story isn’t about [insert the story’s key SF concept here], then what is it about?” That’s the line of discussion that makes Twilight a story about abusive partners and Blade Runner a story about the challenges of post-colonial multiculturalism. For me, if a story has no coherent answer to this question, then it’s like a detective novel which doesn’t make sense at the end: possibly genius, probably a failure.

To put it another way, I like SF which has the capability to appeal to people who aren’t interested in SF. I like the way SF allows us to talk about things which normal fiction is often too bogged down in reality to touch. The most obvious example of this is near-future fiction that extrapolates and investigates some aspect of modern-day society. (The impact of mobile communications on our sense of place, say.)

But straight fiction can often play that game, and I think where SF really starts to shine is when the key subject is something abstract, or low-level, like, say, the human animal’s capacity for empathy. In a real-world story it would be hard to pinpoint this aspect of being human because it’s knitted into everything we do. You’d probably have write a story about an autistic protagonist or a internet friendship, and both of those would then get misinterpreted as being specific stories about specific topics.

Whereas a sci-fi story can take the general quality of empathy, abstract it, and so foreground it – just as Blade Runner does, for example.

So is this what Sci-fi Strange is? Again, I’m not sure. From the stories Sanford quotes as examples, I think he might put more emphasis on out-there, unconservative world-building, the use of ideas with broad sweep and scope, a relishing of science that looks like magic: in short, on the conceptual landscape of the story.

But if we’re talking about my preferred kind of story – the kind where some key real human element is abstracted and foregrounded via a sci-fi mechanic – the kind that might mean something to a non-genre reader willing to take a punt on it – then I think this might be a maturation of sci-fi and a more tenable artistic direction.

But then I’d also think that “Sci-fi Strange” is the wrong name. This is sci-fi that doesn’t require the reader to know about particle physics, or care about bioengineering methodology.

This is “Sci-fi Approachable”.

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Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

4 thoughts on “A quick look at strange sci-fi

  1. I wonder if William Gibson’s most recent triology would fit into this “Sci-fi strange”.

    • Good call; I think it might. They certainly have that mixture of strong SF concepts casually buried in a story about diverse people — assuming their not just “literature”, since these days, a fair chunk of Gibson’s ideas are real.

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  3. That looks like “speculative fiction” (ie not speculative fiction in the overarching general term for SF, fantasy, horror, the gothic, etc, but what literary writers label their SF work that they want to be palatable to the general public and awards panels (I’m looking at you Margaret Atwood). If you can’t tell I have a deep aversion to the label being appropriated in this way. I’d be happy for these writers to have their own label rather than pinching ours, though I think they’d have a problem with calling their stuff ‘science-fiction’ anything.

    That’s not to say the writing is bad though – they’re just coming at it from a different direction. It’s just when people infer that science-fiction is inferior, or doesn’t explore deep themes (ie is about “squids in space”) that I get grumpy.

    Sadly, much as I want to hold Atwood in contempt, her work in this field is brilliant. I just read Oryx and Crake for a Uni topic – and it’s awesome! Thought provoking and powerful. Steven Amsterdam’s “Things we didn’t see coming” was awesome too.

    China Mieville is a SF writer who’s stuff has been labelled “SF-Strange” – another great writer. He ticks all the boxes above for certain. I’ve only gotten a couple of chapters in and the way he uses (other intelligent) species to look at race, and social strata, would make my head spin if I didn’t have an awesome story to be concentrating on. =)

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