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  1. #1
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    Okay, letís get serious. I mean it. Really.

    front_business card.jpgIs there any purpose to writing, or any other art form, if nothing is illuminated? Can we be entertained and enlightened at the same time? Is it actually more entertaining to experience a story that allows us to look at things in a new way, from a different perspective? When do we want comfort food and when do we want to go on an adventure that will take us places weíve never been?

    I love science fiction that turns my head inside out. The Martian Chronicles, A Stranger in a Strange Land, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nova, Slaughter House 5, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Neuromancer, the list goes on. If a story is simply an expression of confirmation bias I get bored. ďMean people are mean.Ē ďItís nice to be nice!Ē Yawn.

    A good story is one that provokes a conversation. A good science fiction story takes what you think you know and turns it on itís head, letís you look at it from from a place you didnít know existed. It takes you home the short way by going the long way round. Sci-fi has unique tools, unique questions to examine us as we are now by looking at us as we might be or as we might have been. Scientific method applied to fiction: take the human race and change one thing. Then see what happens. A controlled experiment. What would a world without war look like? Or a world with nothing but war? The horrors of Orwellís 1984 or Huxleyís Brave New World offer dark mirrors, the possibilities of galactic civilizations in Herbertís Dune or Azimovís Foundation Trilogy offer brighter mirrors but theyíre mirrors just the same. The best sci-fi simply lets us know that weíre not alone, that weíre surrounded by human beings who are just as flawed and tragic and hilarious and triumphant as we are.

    If it doesnít do that itís just cops Ďní robbers, cowboys Ďní Indians, things going zap and pow and boom, or to put it another way: comfort food. Sometimes thereís nothing better than comfort food. But sometimes itís good to suit up, strap in and go for a real trip.

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    A good story is one that provokes a conversation.
    This is kind of an unnecessarily reductive statement, isn't it? Reading is intensely personal, and people read for vastly different reasons. I think a good story is one that you enjoy. We all like things for different reasons...

    I like The Stars My Destation because it was innovative and fearless.
    I like Ready Player One because it's exhilarating and relevant to the zeitgeist.
    I like Red Mars because it takes you somewhere else and shows you that place in incredible detail.
    I like Gateway because it's tense.
    I like Ringworld because it's outrageous.
    I like Snow Crash because it's hilarious and prescient.
    I like Anathem because it's uniquely framed and richly imagined.
    I like Cherryh... I don't even know. See in this case I can't even neatly sum up why I like something. Because she writes fear convincingly? Because she writes intrigue convincingly? Because she writes aliens convincingly?

    See what I'm saying? Some of these are conversation provokers, but at no time was that my primary criteria for judging their worth as a story. Different authors set out to do different things with their work; I really don't think there's anything wrong with that, and I think you can go for a "real trip" without something being super provocative.
    Last edited by Jussslic; May 6th, 2014 at 07:46 AM.

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    Love it!

    I love all those books, too! Except Cherryh, which I haven't read yet, but need to. All of them give me some new perspective I hadn't thought of before. That's what I love about science fiction - taking what is familiar and putting it in a completely different place. The conversation I was talking about (provocative or not) is always between the author and the reader. I agree that reading is an intensely personal activity and every book has its place in that. Every one of the books you mention and many others besides bring insight to whatever they're writing about. I also love books that are just fun, as I say, comfort food. As long as a book is well paced and well written it's a great ride.

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    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    I take your point, John, that SF is a medium for discussion and has a reputation for thinking big ideas, even though I'm with Jussslic in that it can be for entertainment as much as for education/making you think.

    The trick is to provide something that is entertaining at the same time as making you think, I guess - not as easy as you might think!

    But if we're all about the big idea in this thread, what are the big ideas we should be considering here?

    M.
    Mark

  5. #5
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    I agree with Hobbit; however, I will qualify it by saying the books that stick with me most have really made me think. The ones that are not only fun, but made me think. I think it comes down to getting the combination right, and sometimes it comes down to me thinking about how well the writer made the story. I have been a fan of Larry Niven for decades but I will admit that his characters are a little two dimensional. What I still enjoy is his inventiveness and ability to take an idea and run with it. The world he created in "The Integral Trees" was just too cool.

    I remember a scene in "Protector" where the Protector suits up and takes a gun outside just as their ship was on a slingshot course around a neutron star. He fires several bullets at the enemy following them. His partner thought he had lost his mind. What the Protector had actually done was aim and time the shots so that the mass of bullets struck the neutron star just when the enemy was on their closest approach. This had no grand statement, but it made me think beyond the normal, how everyday items can be used in uncommon circumstances to create results.

    He has also been very visionary. He has written stories about organ-legging (stealing or harvesting organs for transplant from victims) and flash mobs both of which are beginning to rear their ugly heads in our modern society. On the other hand, I also enjoyed the Han Solo Trilogy by Brian Daley because it was some of the best written Star Wars stories that captured the feel of the first movies. Surprisingly, it may even have been a little visionary too. In one of the books, Han Solo uses a drinking can or bottle, which lights up with advertising when it is opened, as a distraction in a fight. I have since then seen tech stories showing the ability to place thin sheets of LED screens onto objects. I have yet to see it used in such a way, but I see the possibility of it happening.

    In the end I agree with both sides with the respect that Science Fiction is a playground for the mind, either in entertainment or thought provocation.
    Last edited by Gkarlives; May 8th, 2014 at 02:29 AM.

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    Great conversation!

    Right! The question always comes down to the quality of the writing: how well does the author know the material being written about. The most complex subject matter any author tackles is human beings and human behavior. Human behavior makes quantum physics look simple.

    Let's take a well-worn scifi trope: alien invasion. H. G. Wells did it first in War of the Worlds. What was he writing about and why was he writing about it? Just scary monsters from another planet? He lived in a time of incredible technological innovation. As a matter of fact, he lived pretty much at the very beginning of the age of ever accelerating technological innovation. For the first time in human history one could ask the question, "How would a navy from forty years ago fair against a modern navy?" The term 'modern' had been coined. And the answer to the question was: the dreadnoughts and battleships of the turn of the century would have completely annihilated the sail-powered frigates and ships-of-the-line of only a half-century earlier. Standing in England at the end of three and a half centuries of imperial expansion, Wells could not help but see that the expansion was possible because Europeans had made a little technological jump. Gunpowder, muskets and canon simply overmatched the technology of the people the Europeans met as they explored the planet. At the same time, Louis Pasteur had developed his germ theory of infectious disease. While Europeans were subjugating all kinds of people, it turned out that tiny little life forms were killing human beings by the millions. Then add that Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on Mars, evidence of an advanced civilization.

    Questions start bubbling up: what if people met a species as advanced over us as Europeans were over Pacific Islanders or Native Americans? Would that species treat us any better than we had treated Native Americans? Or Africans? The great thing about the story Wells crafted was that we couldn't stand up to the Martians any better than Africans or Native Americans or Asians had been able to stand up to European canon and muskets. Europeans weren't superior to these other people, only their weapons were. And if we met a species with better weapons we would suffer the same fate as the fate we had doled out to others. The final irony is that what saved us was what was killing us: microbial life. The Martians got sick and died because they had no immunity to our diseases.

    War of the Worlds is a great adventure story, a war story. Invisible heat rays and weird alien beings and all civilization crumbling under the onslaught. But at the center of the story is a question aimed straight at human behavior, at how we treat each other, at our arrogance and our assumption that human beings have a special right to dominate anyone they can, human or animal. Wells asked, what if we were the animals?

    This is the great thing about scifi. No other form of literature could ask that question. The trick about writing really riveting scifi is coming up with a really good question about our behavior. Then throw in some rockets and ray guns to make it exciting.

  7. #7
    Live Long & Suffer psikeyhackr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by johnpatricklowr View Post
    Right! The question always comes down to the quality of the writing: how well does the author know the material being written about. The most complex subject matter any author tackles is human beings and human behavior. Human behavior makes quantum physics look simple.

    This is the great thing about scifi. No other form of literature could ask that question. The trick about writing really riveting scifi is coming up with a really good question about our behavior. Then throw in some rockets and ray guns to make it exciting.
    I think there is plenty of stuff called science fiction that is entertaining but has no interesting ideas. Andre Norton is probably a better writer than Mack Reynolds but I would rather read Reynolds. Star Man's Son is as good as Norton ever got in my opinion. I liked her when I was young but she got boring. It was just the same old stuff with different characters in a different setting. Reynolds supplied different ideas even if the characters were cardboard.

    psik

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    Andre Norton is probably a better writer than Mack Reynolds but I would rather read Reynolds.
    Of course now we're comparing comfort foods. I love Doc Smith, but he wasn't much of a writer. Same could be said of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But they're lots of fun. I think Andre Norton was purposefully writing young adult fiction so it isn't surprising to me that she doesn't hold up when her readers become adults. She certainly was prolific, but she did tend to write the same story over and over. Kind of like Haydn symphonies: there are a lot of them, but they all kind of sound the same.

  9. #9
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    what if people met a species as advanced over us as Europeans were over Pacific Islanders or Native Americans? Would that species treat us any better than we had treated Native Americans? Or Africans? The great thing about the story Wells crafted was that we couldn't stand up to the Martians any better than Africans or Native Americans or Asians had been able to stand up to European canon and muskets. Europeans weren't superior to these other people, only their weapons were.
    I'm sure I've read a view (possibly Aldiss & Wingrove's Billion/Trillion Year Spree) that states that's what HG was trying to examine/warn people of. In the days when the British Empire seemed to reign supreme, the original idea was how would the Empire cope with something even bigger and better than it was at the time.

    Even if I've remembered it wrong, it's a fair idea.

    Right. In my role as self-appointed Devil's Advocate here, let's push a little more. Thinking your idea through then, John, if the writer has to have a fair grasp of the big ideas in order to write about them, does that mean that SF writers have to be scientists, or at least work with scientists to communicate that big idea? (I await psik's comments here - I know he has views on this!)

    I can think of 'good' scientists writing bad novels, and non-scientists writing 'great' novels...

    Of course, I could be reading what you're thinking/saying totally wrongly....

    M.
    Mark

  10. #10
    Live Long & Suffer psikeyhackr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hobbit View Post
    ...HG was trying to examine/warn people of. In the days when the British Empire seemed to reign supreme, the original idea was how would the Empire cope with something even bigger and better than it was at the time.

    ...Thinking your idea through then, John, if the writer has to have a fair grasp of the big ideas in order to write about them, does that mean that SF writers have to be scientists, or at least work with scientists to communicate that big idea? (I await psik's comments here - I know he has views on this!)

    I can think of 'good' scientists writing bad novels, and non-scientists writing 'great' novels...
    I think H. G. Wells is a good example to study in trying to examine the relationship between science, science fiction and SF readers and society. I would suggest reading about Wells' early life. If he had been from a wealthier family in England at the time I think it is quite likely that he would have become a scientist. But he had a disrupted education and became a teacher with strong scientific leanings instead until his success as a writer.

    But he did hang out with scientists and read a great deal of scientific literature and thus it was that "scientists" told him that not much would come of the radioactive materials they were studying at the time. But Wells did not believe them or he had more imagination. So he wrote The World Set Free in 1913 which was published in 1914. Thus he gave mankind the first use of the phrase "atomic bomb". Of course Wells' atomic bomb did not work like the real thing decades later. The neutron was not discovered until 18 years after Wells published. But Leo Szilard admits reading The World Set Free in 1932. And it was after that he conceived the idea of an atomic chain reaction based on neutrons.

    Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Pushing back the boundaries of knowledge means having the imagination to think beyond what is known. But without some knowledge of what is known the imagination can come up with complete nonsense. The nonsense may be fun as literature but it is still nonsense.

    So it becomes a matter of what the readers want. I think there is plenty of stuff which I will admit fits into the category of science fiction but is really no better than Harry Potter scientifically. I tend to call it sci-trope fiction. It contains the science fiction tropes but not science. Artificial gravity is a science fiction trope. The kind that does not use rotation. It is in Larry Niven's Ringworld which is commonly regarded as hard SF. But the Ring uses rotation to produce its artificial gravity.

    There is what I regard as a spectrum in these genres, Hard SF at one end, techno-fantasy in the middle and fantasy at the other end.

    But the importance of science fiction lies in the fact that we live in a real world with evolving technologies that have consequences and side effects. Some of those consequences don't show up for months and others do not manifest themselves for decades.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-15536544

    We cannot afford to be a culture of scientific illiterates even if we are not all scientists.

    http://www.motherjones.com/environme...-link-gasoline

    The Global Warming debate may be the biggest and most grotesque example of this gone wrong to date. I consider scientifically accurate SF to be important for grade school education to help create a scientifically literate culture. I would say it is better than most science teachers I had. They were not like H. G. Wells. They demonstrated the knowledge but no imagination and never mentioned science fiction.

    Our schools talk about kids being the future and then give them literature to have them fixated on the past. Wells was a Futurist in addition to being an SF writer. Lots of SF is just adventure stories based on SF tropes.

    Joanna Russ made some interesting comments:

    http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/6/russ6art.htm

    psik
    Last edited by psikeyhackr; May 8th, 2014 at 07:39 PM.

  11. #11
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    Nice post, psik: I think you've explained yourself well there.

    Lots of points for debate here.

    If we accept that there's a spectrum of SF/Fantasy - and it's a commonly given view here at SFFWorld - and that SF can educate enlighten, entertain - and excite - I don't think we'll find too many objecting.

    But the importance of science fiction lies in the fact that we live in a real world with evolving technologies that have consequences and side effects. Some of those consequences don't show up for months and others do not manifest themselves for decades.
    So how can we get this across? Is there any SF out there that already does this?

    Or how about the point that although living in a real world is important, it is also what SF (and Fantasy writers) readers want to get away from? By reading something exciting it takes them away from the mundane, and that's what most readers want?

    Or, pushing it even further, is 'real' science too boring for SF readers?

    M.
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  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hobbit View Post
    Thinking your idea through then, John, if the writer has to have a fair grasp of the big ideas in order to write about them, does that mean that SF writers have to be scientists, or at least work with scientists to communicate that big idea? (I await psik's comments here - I know he has views on this!)

    I can think of 'good' scientists writing bad novels, and non-scientists writing 'great' novels...

    Of course, I could be reading what you're thinking/saying totally wrongly....

    M.
    The challenge of writing great science fiction is that you have to have a real working knowledge of science and a real empathic understanding of how people work. It's very difficult to write really good fiction without understanding people. It's certainly possible to write entertaining comic book-like stories with heroes jumping around saving people, but scifi at it's best is always about how technology and science interacts with real people. In Dancing With Eternity I explore how the total lack of death would effect people, social structures, political structures, religion, families, everything, and hopefully wrap that exploration around an engaging, exciting human adventure. I create fictional future science and future technology, but do my level best not to break any known physical laws doing it. How well I do any of this is up to the reader to decide, of course, but I set out to do these things. There's lots of entertaining stories out there that don't, but I think the best ones do.

    Then there's the understanding of story structure and whether or not the author has anything important to say. All subjective, of course, but important, nonetheless.
    Last edited by johnpatricklowr; May 10th, 2014 at 07:14 PM.

  13. #13
    Live Long & Suffer psikeyhackr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by johnpatricklowr View Post
    Is there any purpose to writing, or any other art form, if nothing is illuminated? Can we be entertained and enlightened at the same time? Is it actually more entertaining to experience a story that allows us to look at things in a new way, from a different perspective? When do we want comfort food and when do we want to go on an adventure that will take us places weíve never been?
    Should the age of the reader be taken into account or the book specified as being for some age range?

    What was enlightening at one age might not be at another. Should writers be deliberately trying to hook grade school kids or maybe they should be recommending old SF to newbies to encourage future sales.

    psik

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    Quote Originally Posted by psikeyhackr View Post
    Should the age of the reader be taken into account or the book specified as being for some age range?
    I think all books should be age specific. Young adult scifi got me hooked when I was in fifth grade. The Heinlein and Norton juveniles were great for me when I was a kid. And just about every Ace Double ever published.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jussslic View Post
    I like The Stars My Destation because it was innovative and fearless.
    Lord is that a true statement. To this day it is my favorite and nothing has ever come close to the ingenuity Bester showed in this book.
    Last edited by Hobbit; May 15th, 2014 at 06:36 PM.

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