Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Science Fiction and the Art of Striking a Chord

I promise this post will be about more than just science fiction. However, you will have to wade through most of it to discover that.

I finished the first draft of a short story today, which is a breed of beastie I have not written in a long while. What makes this doubly unusual (for me) is that the story is science fiction rather than fantasy. It was also inspired by photographs of Posh Spice, but we'll just ignore that bit of weirdness.

This story got written both as procrastination and preparation for my next novel. I am frankly weak in understanding how to structure a story, so to remedy this, I've been re-reading and slathering highlighter all over Robert McKee's screenwriting book Story. I also decided what I was learning from Story would be best absorbed if I wrote a story of my own as I went along.

I'm very pleased with the result of that exercise, but in a fine example of the cross-pollination of ideas that chronically turns my brain into a flighty little wad of ooh-shiny distraction, this story got me thinking about why science fiction's appeal is waning.

And it is waning--although it's far from dead. Fantasy has taken up the slack, but there has to be a reason why science fiction doesn't grab the attention of general audiences the way it used to when the original Star Wars movies came out. Today, we're all loving Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Beowulf instead. (Although The Matrix got people's attention too.)

In Story, Robert McKee notes that if society changes, genres of story (e.g. science fiction, western, romance) must change their conventions also or lose appeal. He says:

The audience wants to know how it feels to be alive on the knife edge of the now. What does it mean to be a human being today? Innovative writers are not only contemporary, they are visionary. They have their ear to the wall of history, and as things change, they can sense the way society is leaning toward the future.

And that's practically gospel for what science fiction strives to do. Science fiction writers look at today and see a vision of tomorrow in it.

So why have audiences become less interested in that vision?

I went to a physics conference once where the student delegates stayed in the hosting university's residences. The residence doors were controlled by key-card and I remember a friend walking up, swiping his card, grabbing the now-unlocked door and jauntily saying, "Yep. It's the future!"

I think this is the heart of science fiction's problem: It is the future; we're practically the Jetsons. It's hard to fear or be awe-inspired by the familiar, so it has become very difficult for writers--using science fiction's classic conventions--to invoke fear or awe in their readers.

Robots? They're everywhere, with no Father-Of-the-Revolution in sight.

Space travel? Humanity is quite expert in space travel, via robot, and those 'bots send us back interesting data at a nice dependable pace. Space is no longer exciting.

Aliens attack Earth? The cold war ended and we're not feeling paranoid about The Big Lurking Evil anymore.

The perils of virtual reality? Again, it's hard to fear the familiar. Who's afraid of their copy of Halo III?

I could go on. The point is that for science fiction to succeed, it needs to tap into things people are afraid of right now, or excited by right now. Western society has become so technologically sophisticated audiences no longer respond to flashy gizmos and hints of strange new frontiers. The really cool strange new frontiers come to us via fantasy and paranormal stories.

I'll finally get a bit more general: Any genre of writing is susceptible to becoming outdated. If you want your book to really resonate, you need to tap into something that your audience cares about today. Even in historical novels, the audience is looking to see a reflection of itself there in the distant past. They want a story that is relevant to their current life, even if it's set in another world.

Here's an example, and I apologise if it's a touchy one: In the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001, people started thinking a lot more about religion and faith. Extremists of both Christianity and Islam were scaring the hell out of us, and that gave a lot of people reason to examine Christianity and Islam very carefully--especially if one of those happened to be their own religion.

Then The Da Vinci Code came along in 2003 and sold a ba-zillion copies. At that point in time, the world was extremely interested in questioning the politics of what organized religions tell us. The plot of the The Da Vinci Code tapped into that beautifully.

Look at the bigger themes in your current work-in-progress. How do they tap into your fears, or your sources of excitement? Do you think those themes are going to resonate with the rest of the world?

And on a more general level, what sort of things do you foresee the world caring about in the next few years? What shifts in society do you smell lurking over the horizon? As writers, these are the things we should be on the lookout for.

As an aside, my own short story is about how vacuity is winning--gorgeous airheads are adulated, rather than great thinkers and talented artists. That's what bothers me about today's world, so that's what I wrote about. Hopefully, the story will strike a chord with others.

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: