Nailing my colours to the mast

By Charles Stross’s definition, I don’t write proper science fiction. He’s a writer I admire, and I think his argument is entirely fair and reasonable. My personal preference is for telling stories that are character, not idea, driven. That’s not to say I don’t want to explore ideas through my fiction; any writer who doesn’t is arguably doing the craft a disservice. And my stories, or elements within them, are often inspired by concepts from the realms of science or technology. But I’ve never been a professional scientist, and scientific extrapolation isn’t the main driver in my work; to be honest, I use it mainly to create interesting settings and situations for my characters to operate in.

I sometimes fret about my lack of scientific credentials and cautious use of science. I worry it gives me a lack of credibility amongst ‘real’ science fiction writers, and possibly some readers. However these day I try not to punish myself for other people’s (mis)perceptions. I enjoy reading about believable people in hard-to-believe situations more than I enjoy reading about hard-to-grasp ideas enacted by hard-to-believe-in people. And like many writers, I write what I like to read. 

I fully acknowledge that if the bright end of the spectrum of science fiction is where the wild ideas are, I’m fiddling in the dark. But that won’t change what I do, and there’s no point in trying to fake it when the real ideas-gurus like Stross or Baxter or Reynolds or Egan are doing fine work pushing the boundaries. I’ll keep writing stories that are a long way off the bleeding edge of science fiction, but until and unless a better term comes along, I’m going to continue to call myself a science fiction writer 

8 Responses to Nailing my colours to the mast

  1. Martin 12 April 2010 at 8:53 am #

    Speaking as a card carrying technophile, may I be permitted to make a succinct comment … b*llocks.

    To expand, I dispute the implications drawn from “My personal preference is for telling stories that are character, not idea, driven” and “I fully acknowledge that if the bright end of the spectrum of science fiction is where the wild ideas are …” that you do not write within the broad church that is SF.

    I’ve always understood that SF was a literature primarily of ideas being explored within (largely) rational extrapolations. I see no restriction on what those ideas should be (quite the contrary). I have no less respect for an extrapolation of cultural or social ideas than I do for the extrapolation from bow and arrow to Lewiston Mk 17 blaster.

    cheers, martin

    • JaineFenn 12 April 2010 at 2:31 pm #

      And I agree with you: all ideas *should* be welcome.

      But I do sometimes feel that there’s a perception in some corners of the SF world that stories which trace their genesis back to New Scientist (or, even better, Nature) carry more weight than ones where the inspiration came from, say, Radio Four or the writings of Jared Diamond.

      Also, though this isn’t as true as it once was, in SF a Really Neat Idea can be seen as more important than a coherent plot with well-rounded characters.

  2. Bob 12 April 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    Having actually done a science degree, I reckon that real science imposes so many rules on the world that any attempt to make a story conform to all of them would be both extremely difficult and wouldn’t necessarily make a very good story anyway.

    And, truth be told, FTL spaceships and telepathic humanoid aliens (or whatever those Sidhe are) might not be great science, but it makes for a good novel!

    • JaineFenn 12 April 2010 at 2:38 pm #

      Quite so: its very rigidity is one of the things that makes me leery of applying science too closely to my fiction. And what is ‘true’ now is only theory anyway; much of it will probably be be considered quaint and naive in fifty years time.

      I admire writers who can get mind-bending ideas into their fiction, and I sometimes read that sort of fiction because I like having my mind bent. But I also find it quite hard work.

  3. Jane Williams 12 April 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    I got into reading SF while doing a physics degree, and as a result, do rather enjoy the sort of SF that has big thick technical appendices (and have been known to tear Larry NIven to shreds for getting his astrophysics wrong). But what you write doesn’t try to give technical explanations (and risk getting them wrong), it just presents us with a fait accompli – FTL travel is there, everyone accepts it just as we accept British Rail today, now move on.

    What you seem to be playing with is new social and economic ideas rather than new technology – government by assassination? Mind-control? A literal under-class? Looking at the social sciences rather than the physical doesn’t make it any less SF.

    Anyway, why worry about a label? A rose by any other would smell as sweet, and I rather enjoy reading whatever it is that you write.

  4. bluebus 12 April 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    I’m worried there may be a spoiler towards the end of this comment:

    I’m also a fan of Charlie Stross, he does have some great ideas but sometimes I worry that he has written trendy scientific concepts onto some buckshot using nanotechnology and fired it at a first draft of his novel using a shotgun.

    Technology, without reference to people and society, is largely irrelevant; if the laser nasal hair trimmer has no impact on society it’s probably largely pointless writing about it in SF.

    Consorts was a important book to me because you dealt with the sexuality of one of the characters in such an enlightened way, without it being a major issue, or something abnormal. If we are looking at the future doing so without the perspective of a Victorian certainly will help make things more clear.

  5. JaineFenn 12 April 2010 at 9:40 pm #

    Thanks! I find that, when lacking the technical knowledge, there’s a lot to be said for not being too specific.

  6. JaineFenn 12 April 2010 at 9:42 pm #

    Mr Stross does love his tech. But then, he also knows a fair bit about it.

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