Monday, December 19, 2011

Such A Lovely Topic

By Kathleen Bradean

Such a lovely topic, but where to begin?

"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop." The King of Hearts to the White Rabbit

Solid advice indeed.

In grade school, our assigned reading included short stories of travel to the moon or mars, none of which interested me too much. I loved Disney's version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea though so I borrowed every Jules Vernes novel I could from the library. It never occurred to me that they were science fiction though because most of what he'd written about was, by then, technological fact. The book that made me realize I was a science fiction fan was Frank Herbert's Dune. Asimov's Caves of Steel sealed the deal.

I could make long lists of science fiction books that keep me enthralled: David Brin's Kiln People. Gordon Dahlquist's Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Liz Williams The Poison Master. Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. Richard K Morgan's Altered Carbon. The manga series Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. Everything by Lois McMaster Bujold and Octavia Butler. But lists don't explain why these stories creep into my brain and wrap themselves comfortably around my imagination. They don't explain why I'm so sad to leave those worlds when I've read the last page of the story.

A solid world-builder makes such a difference. I have to feel as if I could peek around the fa├žade where the action is taking place and see everyday people living everyday lives in a complete, full-functioning world. It has to seem as if there are other stories waiting to be told. After all, there isn't just one story about earth! If I sense an unsustainable economy or rules of magic that defy physics or anything that can't continue to work in the long run, the story will disappoint me.

What matters the most though, as with any genre, are the characters. Even if it's an alien species, there has to be a sense of humanity. I want to feel that the heroine or hero has bad days, family pressures, obligations that s/he'd rather not have to deal with, enjoys friendships, loves, cries, and even on occasion enjoys beauty in silent awe. It's wonderful when the villains show some of that too. Dual-natured characters are like complete worlds instead of decorative facades.

While I get why, given the current state of the world economy, dystopian futures are all the rage right now, I like a sense of hope. I'd like to think that trying to change things for the better isn't an entirely futile effort. A scientist once said that the reason people like Star Trek is that it depicts the universe as full of interesting places to see and people to meet, while in reality, it's vast nothingness. Yes, I get the reality, but there's nothing wrong with hoping that out there somewhere there's something to reach for. Science Fiction promises that there is.


  1. Hi Kathleen!

    It IS a great subject. Did you ever read Octavia Butler's "Fledgling"? I thought that was one of the most interesting vampire novels ever written.

    I think the long lasting appeal of Star Trek was that it was so un-dystopian. You had this spaceship with black officers and white officers and half-alien, and Russian and Japanese officers and they were all working together. even the Klingons eventually came around. It was a very optimistic show. It gave you the feeling that the future would be all right someday. There's a wonderful moment in the movie "The Voyage Home" when Bones and Scotty go to an engineering firm to get a tank made of transparent aluminum, and Scotty just happens to know the entire molecular structure on demand and lays it out on a computer. Bones objects and says "This hasn't been invented yet! You could be changing history." And like an old Vaudeville team, Scotty snaps right back "Well, how do you know these guys didn't invent it?" Which is a wonderful paradox.


  2. Garce - it's funny that I don't mind science fact telling us we have to stop polluting the planet or using DDT or killing bees and painting a rather dismal future if we don't change our ways, in a story, I have to see that glimmer of something good coming from us. Even Star Trek points out that there are rough days between current days and a brighter future, but it promises that future if we collectively work for it.

  3. Ah, Kathleen! I think you've gotten to the core of the issue with your comment about "peaking around the corner" in the fictional world. There has to be that level of continuity and plausibility, depth and breadth. When I was growing up, the scifi worlds seemed more real and compelling than my daily life.

    I enjoyed Star Trek as a kid but I had the sense that every episode was essentially the same. I guess I'll never be a real Trekkie. Now, "Firefly" was a different beast. You never knew what would happen!

    (I've got to check out your list of favorites, btw. Some of them I've never heard of!)

  4. Everyone loves Firefly. I watch so little tv that I miss a lot of good series.

    Don't get me started listing books. I don't think it would ever end.

  5. Great summary of interesting titles, Kathleen. Some critics say that Frankenstein was the first sci-fi novel, and written by a young woman at that. I suppose it depends on exactly how sci-fi is distinguished from fantasy, which seems to have existed as long as humans could dream stuff up.

  6. Jean - I'm a member of Broad Universe (a group by and for women science fiction writers) and we have Mary Shelley "Who's Your Momma?" t-shirts. (And it truly irks me that astronomers had to prove that she wasn't lying when she talked about waking from a dream about the story by the brightness of the moon. If a male writer had talked about that, everyone else would say "wow. cool background story" but since she was female, for years people said she made it up until just this year someone proved her right - and since it was a man, they believed him)


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