Fiction first, science second

Despite the name, science fiction isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) all about science and technology.

Sure, you need some of that stuff in there – in varying degrees, from each writer according to his or her individual preference. But first and foremost, the second part of the name is the important bit: science fiction. It’s just stories, first and foremost. And because of the way human psychology works, good stories – the ones that engage the most readers the most effectively – are about people.

Well, maybe it’s better to say characters, because in science fiction some of the ‘people’ aren’t necessarily human people, but the point still stands – and it is made successfully by Ian Hocking’s essay for Concatenation’s twentieth anniversary issue:

“When the story is put on hold for attention-stretching paragraphs, even pages, you place your fiction into the category that justifies the response of those who hate science fiction: ‘I’m not interested in all that space stuff’. You shouldn’t have to be interested in the space stuff to an enjoy an SF story any more than you need to have an intrinsic interest in African territorial jurisdiction to enjoy Casablanca, Russian history to enjoy Dr Zhivago, or time paradoxes to enjoy The Terminator…”

Reading that reminded me of one of Jeremiah Tolbert’s recent posts (that I was sure I had linked before, but can’t seem to find in the archives). He’s talking about reaching the same character-over-gimmicks realisation Hocking discusses above, and mentions that Ted Chiang’s anthology of short fiction was the catalyst for this epiphany:

“What I thought I had realized was a pattern in his collection. Each story seemed to be an idea story, only he had two ideas that he had connected at an interesting intersection. But what he was doing that I had not yet learned how to do was taking a character’s life and figuring out where that idea intersection impacted them most.”

Wise words, I think. As Tolbert’s parting shot mentions, this probably isn’t news to many readers here at VCTB. But to someone struggling to learn the basics of the craft, it’s a crucial revelation, and it’s certainly changed the way I think about writing fiction.

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