Sunday, October 12, 2008

Definition of Science Fiction Explored

For the beginning writer, plucking stories out of the overly thick cranium is akin to one of two activities: violently puking up a midge-madge of unidentifiable contents or tediously tweezering out one cactus spine at a time, following a ballet-like splash into said cactus. Regardless of which path you choose, the resulting mess is pretty much the same, and, honestly, you're simply thankful or exultant or pumped that you actually got something down on paper.

After those first painful stories or novels, and after a suitable number of months, years, or decades have polished the rougher edges of your writerly self, you determine to focus not only on content but also on craft.

Easier said than done. So, as a science fiction writer, the focus must first be upon the elements of science fiction. Um. Right. That does seem rather self-evident, yes? So, what are these elements? Well, at first, the answer seems easy enough. A science fiction novel must have a plot revolving around both science and fiction. Thank you. And, to further substantiate that claim, Wikipedia, too, states that Science Fiction "involves speculations based on current or future science or technology."

Well, that wasn't good enough for me, either. I looked elsewhere. Science Fiction magazine, Analog, has the following advice listed under Submission Guidelines: Basically, we publish science fiction stories. That is, stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley's Frankenstein without the science and you'll see what I mean. No story! (Emphasis mine.)

In my search for further helpful definitions, I remembered a podcast I had listened to last Spring on the same subject. Odyssey, the Writing Workshop for Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror writers, has nineteen podcasts from their guest lecturers spanning the last eight or so years. One, in particular, discusses the Science Fiction element. Robert J. Sawyer has a thought-provoking lecture on the subject that I hope you'll download and listen to. He mentions both "Flowers for Algernon" and The Wizard of Oz as examples of stories that could not be told without the science fiction element.

So, ultimately, in order to be a true science fiction piece, the writing must include some sort of science or technology, without which the hub of the plot would splinter to pieces. This definition was all well & good until I applied it to my short story, "The Last Marine." It was then I realized that this story might be soft sci-fi or even science fantasy, since the hard science wasn't there. I am now exploring what Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog, meant when he wrote that "the science can be physical, sociological, psychological" and I am well into my second draft of the short story, with a more focused eye on the craft of science fiction.

Note: Colleen Lindsay, a literary agent with FinePrint Literary Management, has this to say about the Odyssey workshops: If you've attended the Odyssey workshop, say so...By far the best and most tightly-written queries I've seen this week are those from writers who identify as former...Odyssey students.