Science Fiction Repair Shop: An Amiable Chaos

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-02-12 12:00:00 No comments

I spent most of this week at work dodging cars (metaphorically speaking) and trying not to get flattened (again, metaphorically speaking). Left me in a state of blear, which in turn made it hard to concentrate on anything creative. Just as well, as right now Unmortal has some "blocking issues" that need shaking out before I can continue. Nothing major, and nothing I haven't faced before, so it's something I recognize when I see it. I know it well enough to know it isn't the enemy, no more than a red traffic light is the enemy. Amiable chaos, but still chaos.

Science fiction and fantasy stories live and die by their technical details, for both better and worse. Better, meaning SF&F, when you turn the keys right and unlock it correctly, can unleash things conventional fiction does not. Worse, meaning sometimes it's hard to do that without getting bogged down in a welter of technical details exclusive to that story. You want to tell a great story, one that adds up and goes somewhere, and then you find yourself sitting on the floor of your room surrounded by twenty thousand moving parts that don't fit together. Or that have a screw missing. Or that have a screw left over that you have the bad feeling you'll need to tear the whole thing apart to re-insert correctly. The chaos is no longer quite so amiable.

The technical details of fantasy tend to be about things like purportedly ingenious magic systems or the convoluted histories of nations. The former bore me (I'd rather just play tabletop RPGs than read what amounts to a transcript of one), and the latter too often turn into everything we hated about history lessons in high school: names and dates and places, instead of ideas and identities and movements. In SF, it's a what-if technology or a what-if tweak of time or space. But again, too often those things become just cleverness and clutter for their own sake -- convolution and complication, not complexity or depth.

Unmortal started with an idea, essentially fantasy-themed, for which I wrote a great deal of backstory and detail. The idea involves the interactions of some specific mechanical details, and I resented the way I tried to make the story not depend on them, only to have the same damn details elbow their way back into the room and take up space on the couch. Finally I made a rule: I didn't want to have more than three or four variations of complexity on the core idea, and every single one of them had to be delivered to the reader through some kind of character-centric embodiment. If I couldn't show that stuff in the story, then I had no business explaining it until the reader nodded off and dropped their Kindle in their cereal. Show how the rules work in a few vigorous ways, and don't drown in their implications if you can help it.

I guess my beef with a lot of other SF&F revolves around some variation on this problem. If someone says they need six books to tell their story, my takeaway is that they either have no idea what story they're really telling, or they have no idea what part of the story they are telling is most worth the trouble. The work doesn't become about the implications, but about the drowning. The trap is to assume the justification of the story is only in the explaining of things or their demonstration, instead of in embodying their implications.

And the creations of genius are not a good model to emulate either: it's fine to read Proust and dive deeply into Combray, but it's unwise to assume the highest work (why the ranking? even popular art's not about tiers) is to be modeled after that. My high school creative writing teacher once said something to the effect that every "serious" writer goes through a Bad Hemingway period (or a Bad Joyce period), but the best ones shrug it off like a cold and get on with the real business of this work: finding out what it is only they can deliver.

Anyway, with SF&F, there's so much that can be done, but the trappings of the genre are only the jumping-off point, not the destination. And it's hard to see how to make good on that understanding when you're halfway through a manuscript and surrounded by what feel like too many moving parts that all seem hell-bent on justifying their existence in your story. But I've prevailed before, and by gum I'mma do it again.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop Unmortal fantasy science fiction writing