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Thursday, 9 June 2011

How easy should Science fiction be to read? Resisting the urge to explain...

A science fiction author usually aims to transport the reader to another world, universe, dimension, etc. - to cause wonder or at least fascination with the world the author has created. The way to give that world credibility, is to have the characters act as if it is normal. For example, twenty years ago an I-Phone would have been science fiction. Today it is commonplace and young toddlers learn how to use them before they can write. But what if the reader, instead of being dazzled by the author's ingenuity, is instead confused, and doesn't understand what is going on?

There is actually a thin line between achieving this science fictional 'sleight of hand', and confusing the reader to the point they put the book down.

Try this:

Greg's espersense perceived Edwards hovering indecisively on the step...

Now, what is espersense? It doesn't exist, but you get it, right? Some kind of heightened perceptual state. That was Peter F. Hamilton, Mindstar Rising - great book by the way. You learn more about espersense as the first chapter continues.

Now try this one:

'Sally sipped her ultresso, drumming her fingers, waiting outside the Eggshell. She focused inwardly and glanded her own personal cocktail of clarity and cogspeed; the other participants in these meetings were usually slick operators.'

Now, you're wondering what the Eggshell is, right? What about 'glanded'? Some of you probably got it, some are saying "she what-ed?" So, how to give a small hint without killing the tension with a tedious information dump?' The answer is of course in that writer's phrase I hate, but which is correct, namely 'show don't tell':

The hormone-drugs kicked in, her senses heightening: clinically white room, muffled sounds somewhere down a corridor – alien workers. Cassiopea Alpha’s ruby sunlight strained through shades behind the inter-stellar meeting device that was shaped like a giant egg, creating a lattice of rainbows on its underside. She felt a little dazed at first from the mental rush, then her mind stilled like a lake at dawn. She was ready.

So, the Eggshell is a meeting device, and she can control her glands (pituitary and hypothalamus in case you're interested) to affect her cognitive performance. But imagine it read what I just wrote in the previous sentence. It would be informative, sure, but dull, dull, dull.

You can also read Greg Egan to see how he does this type of writing well, and of course Iain Banks and a bunch of others (try also Gary Gibson and the legendary William Gibson who kicked a lot of stuff off with Neuromancer). But it's not for everyone. You have to like this type of thing, and the author has to tread that fine line, intriguing the reader, and giving little details later on (usually within a page) which clarify what is going on. The reader has to work harder, but gets rewarded because they interact with the writing and its scenery, unravelling the code the author has created.

Once you've crafted it, you have to take it to your readers and see how many get it, and how many go (as Orson Scott Card says) "huh?" Then you send it to lit mag editors and they sometimes say "got it on page 2, sorry" or else " read it three times now, still don't know what is going on." So you tinker with it until you get it just right, and then it gets published.

So, that's where I am with Sally in the excerpt above. We'll see if and when I get it exactly right this time. But for examples where I have apparently, see 'Looking for Hell' and 'Galactic Barrier' under Stories on this website, and the sequel 'Escape from Hell' coming out on Monday evening in Piker Press. And of course my novel The Eden Paradox, where wristcoms, optrons and nodes are just matter of fact items in 2065, pretty much like I-Phones are today, and if you could afford one, you'd wear a nannite jacket...

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