It’s Called Science Fiction

October 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

For the most part, I gravitate towards hard science fiction. Maybe this is because when authors of science fiction don’t ground most of their story in science they inevitably ground it partially in science and partially in their ability to tell a story, and, unless they’re truly exceptional authors, that just makes a mess of things. Why don’t they perfect the science of the story first? Otherwise, they’re just writing bad fiction with uninteresting, unimportant, or undeveloped scientific elements.  Besides, if I wanted to read really good writing my first reaction would not be to read sci-fi. Maybe that’s unfair; but in the name, science comes first. I have a few examples in mind, but I don’t have the space to delve into what I think makes them bad. (Maybe that will be my next post.)

My provisional definition of a bad author is someone who attempts something in a story and can’t carry it out. I don’t ask everyone I read to write like Joseph Conrad, but I do expect them to follow through on their implicit promises—that they’re going to tell me a story that is interesting, plausible (within their universe), and written at least well enough to appear seamless on a first reading. The litmus test for this is if you reach the end of a story and find that the sum total of your appreciation for it is shouted down by some word, passage, or plot element that yelled literary obscenities at you and continues to do so at the end.

This is why I love Asimov’s work. He doesn’t have a spectacularly artistic style, but he knows how to say what he wants to say. He gets his point across, and he doesn’t clog up the warp nacelles trying to do it. And the science is, for the most part, handled well. It’s not implausible, he can actually—not partially—explain it, and he doesn’t spend pages doing so. At the same time, it’s not too simple and it’s not too normal. Take Nightfall for example. It may be unlikely that a planet would have multiple suns, but it could technically happen. And, although calculating the orbits of a multi-body system is not even in distant orbit around easy, Asimov doesn’t allow that to get in the way of things. He just tells it like it is—they line up sometimes, allowing for a lunar eclipse. The science (and its implications) are interesting, and the writing is seamless. A reader comes to the end and finds that he’s read a complete, polished work with no filler.

If Asimov wrote like Conrad, I would like his work even more. But he doesn’t, and that’s perfectly fine. Without tackling the question of whether or not sci-fi can be literature, I at least expect science fiction to be scientific, and to have that element under control before it attempts to boldly go somewhere else. And if an author wants to cross the literary neutral zone, he better have some serious firepower at hand.



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