Friday, March 30, 2012

The House of Grammar Part 9: I, The House of Grammar

It's been a few days since I made a post, mainly because I've been thinking about this one for a while. Having been on a bit of a tangent in respect to sci fi recently, I was thinking about a conversation that D and I had about a novel she wrote a long time which is set in a sci fi world. Now, I respect D's talents as a writer probably more than I do my own, mainly because she's actually capable of finishing a work of fiction, whereas my "current" novel has been on the back burner for almost a year. She is excellent at coming up with an idea, and regardless of any hurdles she may come across she damn well finishes it. While nothing is published, she's got about four novels finished to my zero. That's an accomplishment in and of itself. That's saying nothing about the quality of her ideas, which are typically excellent, as I've found myself inspired and engaged by them consistently (And I'd love to take some of them and rework them for my own purpose, but they're not mine to play with).
What she is not, and this is not necessarily a failing, is a reader of sci fi. This becomes a problem when trying to write in that genre.
Why is hard to explain (and not necessarily a good thing, but keep reading), but I'll try. Science fiction has come a long way since the days of Jules Verne, Heinlein, Orson Welles, even Bradbury and L. Ron Hubbard (shudder). What I mean by a long way is that if Verne had tried to use the word "quantum" (assuming it was even a word back in the day) in any work of his, his readership would have looked at it, frowned, and probably used the book as tinder while they drank their evening tea. These days a science fiction writer can bandy about words like "quantum", "string theory", "fraction of c", "electromagnetic pulse", "gravity well", etc... and their readership not only will not bat an eye but will immediately grasp the concepts described with almost no need for extrapolation of the concepts.
Now, this is not something that's developed in a vacuum.  It's not like all of a sudden people decided "I'm going to bone up on my science talk so that I can understand this new book that's just come out." No, it's precisely because of the work done by the fathers, and mothers I presume, of science fiction that we have such an intelligent readership to work with. People like Verne and Heinlein created a baseline, a starting point from which any new reader can work their way into more advanced concepts to the point where it is not only easy to make logical leaps from one precept to another, but to accept things at face value and grant the author the chance to suspend disbelief through the use of principles they may not fully understand themselves. Authors like Bradbury, Huxley, John Wyndham, even William Gibson (who coined the term "Cyberpunk") helped form the core principle that defines beyond the science what sort of tool science fiction really is. And, as a result, the genre has helped teach generations not only accept but to hold with healthy respect and even suspicion the very changes in technology and society predicted in the works created by those authors, to experience how those very changes have made the world in which we now live the place it is today, and has taught us to be naturally critical of new advances and how they might change the future of our children. As a side benefit, I think that the people who have witnessed firsthand the truth of what these past writers envisioned have, perhaps unknowingly, forced themselves to be educated to a certain degree in principles that might otherwise be beyond their ken when confined to the text of a scientific journal, or a mathematical textbook. Science fiction, in my opinion, is a filter between those who want to know more about what the future may hold, and those whose livelihood it is to create that future. There may be problems with that filter, though.
Even having thought about this in advance, this post has already gone places I did not intend. Just putting that out there.
To get back to my conversation with D, we were discussing the novel she is editing currently, one she wrote a long time back but has started to edit again, and we were talking about technologies one of her cultures might possess, assuming they had traveled across the stars from Earth to the planet on which her story is set. It's when I started asking her questions about how they had gotten there that I started to realize the gulf between us when it came to a basic grasp of science fiction principles. This is not a criticism: all I read is science fiction and fantasy. D has read Andre Dumas, and Hemingway, and Kazuo Ishigiru, and Ian Rankin, and Rose Tremain, and Kathy Reichs and practically everything she can get her hands on that isn't science fiction. She's an accomplished reader and will challenge herself with new genres whenever she can. But she doesn't read science fiction.
So when I asked her how her colonists from Earth reached this planet, it's not like she drew a blank, but she could not articulate the process involved. So I bore down. Did they travel at sub-light speeds, which would mean cryogenic sleep or generational ships (the latter of which itself would imply a disconnect from the culture of origin that would not fit her story) and also imply that any colony ships would have to possess not only all the rudimentary technologies necessary to not only terraform the destination planet but also to rebuild the industrial base required to rebuild any part of their technology that failed. Or did they travel at faster than light speeds, of which a variety of theoretical options are available to choose from, but all of which would indicate her colonists would have if not easy, at least ready access to help from home, which has its own ramifications.
And those are basic questions. I didn't even think about them. To me, if I'm conceiving a science fiction universe that happens to include space travel, it's an either/or decision. In my mind the choices and potential ramifications of either choice are clearly delineated and readily accessible, and if I find my initial choice does not fit later thematic decisions, I am not only able to rework my story accordingly but I've usually already done so in my head to fit the basic parameters of my plot, so going back and changing things would be almost effortless. And this is purely because choosing FTL or Sublight is as basic a decision for me when coming up with a plot as picking the colour of a character's hair.
But as I asked the questions and posed theoretical consequences to her involved in either decision, it started to become apparent to me that what I took for granted, any educated reader of science fiction (by which I mean educated BY sci fi to READ sci fi) would also take for granted. Where I have a working understanding of "quantum entanglement", and could probably rhyme off for her some of the basic theories involved, and can actually get the humour of "When we observe them, they become amber particles of grain", someone who does not read science fiction, and who did not spend their formative years devouring every piece of it they could find, these things I take for granted because I have effectively (there I go again) been training in this discipline my entire life, and which are trivial knowledge for me, may as well be, for lack of a better term, theoretical physics to them. (That felt like a run on sentence, but I think I may have actually pulled it off.)
All this is really meant to pose the question: Has science fiction become so rarified that it can now only be understood by people who read science fiction, and is that not a recipe for disaster? If those of us who read and enjoy science fiction assume that everyone has the same understanding we have developed over years, sometimes decades of reading in this genre, are we not effectively writing for ourselves and those like us, rather than trying to draw in new readers, new audiences? Are we trying to engage people to question their futures, or are we condemning our potential audiences to be educated by movies like "Armageddon" and "2012" and the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still?"
I think that may something worth questioning.
In support of this argument, read (or recall your impressions of) Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." Then read Adam Roberts' "Gradisil".
Understand before you do that I personally think both novels are phenomenal and read them cover to cover without pause. I wonder how many people would agree with my assessment of the second, however. That's not speaking to its quality, which I defend, but its accessibility, which I do question. If you have thoughts, please post them.  I'd be interested to hear.


cdnkaro said...

Just catching up on blogs, sorry for the late response! I think the question you pose regarding readership is an important one, and it's one of the things that keeps me away from science fiction. Many a time I am told by friends and siblings that I should read a certain book (sci-fi), but this is always immediately followed by "But you should read this or that book first. Actually wait, have you read book X? You won't get it unless you start there." I usually just give up at that point because I have so little free time for 'fun reading'. Maybe that will be changing soon, though. One can hope.

Jeremy said...

Interestingly enough if someone asks me for a recommendation when it comes to science fiction I will typically ask how much of it they've read. If relatively little, I'll always throw out Heinlein as my first suggestion. Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, even Stranger in a Strange Land are all good starting points.
Then I'll usually suggest John Ringo. My primary reason for doing so is that Ringo is without a doubt a consummate writer, but he is very much at heart a military man and his writing reflects this. Which does not mean it lacks intelligence. Far from it. There's a degree of subtlety in his work that is difficult to find elsewhere. However, what he does VERY well is speak plainly, and when he comes to a point of technical gobbledegook, he quite dynamically breaks down what he is trying to explain into first its technicalities, then what those technicalities actually mean to a layman. Very good introductory science fiction, and when you've then read enough, great to go back to and read over for some of the things you may have missed or perhaps just not appreciated.