The Trouble With Sci-Fi

I picked up a book this week, I won’t say what it was because it was by a writer who, to his fans, is quite loved and I can’t be bothered with the ‘You know nothing… It’s brilliant and this is bullshit’ comments right now. And then there would be less chance that those people would actually see my forthcoming arguments as anything but a slight against their favourite author. It was sci-fi, a book I’d had on my list for a while but not yet got around to reading. So I did start to read it and I got most of the way down the first page before I figured it was probably a pile of rubbish. Now it isn’t good form to stop reading on the first page… The book might get better once it gets going. So I carried on to the end of the first chapter and then I threw it away. Turns out it didn’t get better. It was dull, plodding, pedestrian- The most egregious examples of science fiction clichés were there: An alien world, no context to what was going on, unpronounceable names, the apocalypse coming, some sort of saviour… And worse, it read like something that a third rate creative writing student would come out with. It was not good at all.

A large majority of agents and publishers state, quite categorically and firmly, that they will not accept sci-fi. Part of the reason behind this is because every Tom and Jerry who’s ever seen a couple of Star Trek episodes thinks they can write the best sci-fi space opera there has ever been and the rest is because sci-fi is notoriously difficult to write to a decent standard. It is probably more difficult to be unique and original with sci-fi than any other genre, fantasy perhaps coming close behind it. We’ve all seen alien invasions and space battles and robot uprisings a million times before and it takes a good deal of ingenuity to come up with a new twist on that. And because we’ve all seen it a million times before there is an awful lot of pressure, moreso than with any other genre excepting fantasy, to be original and unique. With other genres you can get away with unoriginality and a little bit of cliché to a limited extent but with sci-fi there is no chance of it. You have to be original or you’re going to stand a good chance of being sunk in the harbour.

Then there is the scrutiny. Sci fi is subjected to almost ridiculous amounts of it. If you’re not original you’ll be sunk right off but also, if there even a small, minor insignificant problem with your plot or one of your characters, you’ll be ripped apart. It doesn’t matter how good your actual writing is or how small the issue, you’ll be taken to task if anything is wrong- You can write the best sci-fi story ever but if just one character is a bit of a Mary Sue for less than a page, for example, then that’s it. You are done, finished For some reason sci-fi is expected be absolutely perfect or it’s immediately brandished as second rate. As a population our expectations regarding sci-fi are phenomenally high, ridiculously high. The new Star Wars movie will have to be the best thing ever released or the backlash against it will be worse than anything we saw with the prequel trilogy. Even if it wasn’t Star Wars, if it was something entirely new- like, I don’t know, something with a suspiciously similar plot where instead of being about a bunch of rebels fighting the Empire it was about a bunch of intergalactic pirates fighting an interplanetary federation, it would still have to be the greatest thing since sliced bread or it would get dumped and kicked down, provided we ignore the fact that it was an incredibly unoriginal idea to begin with. For some reason we hold sci-fi in such esteem that if it is anything less than brilliant we kick it down to the dirt.

The other problem is in the way a lot of sci-fi is written. All the same basic writing rules apply as to any other genre- You still need a good plot, good characters, good story structure and the prose needs to be accessible to the reader. But most of them aren’t accessible. An awful lot of sci-fi books start out in a contextless clump, expecting the reader to just understand it with no attempt to ease them into the story or inform them of what is actually going on. In many cases you, the reader, is just expected to know what is going on. This is especially true of hard sci fi, like the book I tried to read-These books take place beyond our realms of experience, beyond reality, so we need to know, we need the context or else the chances of us ending up addled are high. With any story you need context to understand it, you need to know where you are, but writers seem to treat Sci-Fi as being separate from the rest of literature- It is as though they think they don’t need the context or the accessibility. If anything it is more imperative that you stick to the basic rules. All writing needs the good plot and the character but more than anything else sci-fi needs the context and the accessibility, largely owing to its other worldly nature.

Now all of this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try writing sci fi or that there isn’t good sci fi out there… There is. It is just, thanks to all of the above, a very difficult genre to get right. The difficulty means there is an awful lot of mediocre and bad stuff out there, and despite the popularity of the author, which I can’t explain for the life of me, it looks like I have had the misfortune to discover one of them. On the plus side it wasn’t the only book I chucked away in disgust this week so at least it has company!

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