What if the Bad Guys Read Books Too?

Like many people, I imagine, I’ve been thinking of the Handmaid’s Tale over the past week. I think its fair to say that most people read this book as a dystopia, a warning of what would happen if the trends Atwood saw in society in the 80s were taken to their logical conclusion.

It’s now becoming apparent that some people would regard this book as a blueprint.  And it occurred to me that, of course, the bad guys read books too. I sometimes think that, as writers, we think that writing is enough. We raise public awareness, we hold a mirror to society, we write solemn warnings.

It turns out that studying to be a lawyer and having your friends get you onto the supreme court is a more effective way of effecting the change you want than simply talking about things.

Blogging and holding up signs just doesn’t do it, I’m afraid.

And then they start flying…

One of the signs that a story has jumped the shark is when characters who previously couldn’t do so suddenly gain the ability to fly.  A story has really jumped the shark when a character suddenly acquires a flying motorbike. (I have no idea why this idea is so popular.) A story has really really jumped the shark when it’s an invisible flying motorbike.

I’m not talking about characters like Superman or Iron Man, they could always fly. I’m not talking about characters like Hagrid who has a flying motorbike at the beginning of the Harry Potter series.

I’m talking about characters who suddenly acquire abilities in order to invigorate a tired plot.  This is never a good idea, if nothing else it frequently invalidates previous events.

The point is illustrated in Blood, Sweat and Pixels by Jason Schreier, a book that partly describes the troubled development of the computer game Star Wars 1313.  One of the biggest stumbling blocks was the introduction of the character Bobba Fett half way through development. Bobba Fett had a jetpack, which meant that the levels had to be completely redesigned. Objects that were previously out of reach could now be flown up to,  for instance.

SF is all about establishing a set of parameters and then exploring them. You can push your world to its limits (in fact, that’s the point of SF) but you can’t change the rules.

Once you’ve built your world you have to stick with it. If you’ve exhausted it, move on.

The Time Traveller’s Wife

I visited my wife’s childhood home last week, clearing out the last few things following the death of her father.

The house lies in a village just off the A55, the main road into north Wales. My family took me on holiday to Wales when I was about 13 years old, and we would have travelled along that road. I sometimes wonder if I saw my wife back then. Perhaps she was walking to the village shop as we drove by. Did we notice each other?

There’s a small possibility. It’s less likely than bumping into people you know whilst on holiday, but there’s a chance. It’s a fascinating thought: think of all the people you might have met in the past and not known it at the time. Future friends, or people who would become famous.

Which brings me to the Time Traveller’s Wife. I read this book years ago (I’ve written about this elsewhere), but recently I’ve been watching the TV series. I was struck by the scene where Henry, the male protagonist, travels back in time as an adult to meet Clare, his future wife, when she was aged 13.

And it struck me that there was no parallel to this situation in real life. It’s possible that I met my wife by chance when she was 13, but I would have been 13 too. There is no situation where I would have the experience of meeting a younger version of her.

In the Time Machine, HG Wells was writing a critique of utopian ideas. In the Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price, 21st century morals are contrasted with those of a 16th Century Scottish-English Border clan.

I must have enjoyed the Time Traveller’s Wife. After all, I’m watching the series having read the book. I’m just not sure what the point of it is…

The Right Stuff

Someone said that a Science Fiction story was one that wouldn’t work if you removed the science element

I was struck by this watching an episode of the Right Stuff on Disney+. The opening scene deals with the would be astronauts discussing a friend who has just “flamed out”: been killed in a test flight. The characters drink whisky around a fire, they speak in low voices, they shake their heads and look serious as they reflect on the noble mission they are undertaking.

It’s am interchangeable scene that could have appeared in many stories.

Compare that with opening of Tom Wolfe’s original novel. A test pilot has been killed but which one? The tension is raised as the wives phone each other, trying to determine who it could be. The identity of the pilot is revealed.

And then, something different. Rather than nobly reflecting on the tragedy, the other pilots try to determine the cause of the accident. As always, they decide it was pilot error. It wasn’t down to chance, it was something that could have been avoided if the pilot did their job properly. It seems heartless, but that’s how the other pilots maintain their sanity, that’s how they handle the uncertainty of the job.

The Right Stuff novel was Science Fact, not Science Fiction, but like good SF it respected its subject matter, it didn’t just throw standard story elements at a setting and waited to see what would stick.

Incidentally, I seem to remember the opening quotation was by Fred Pohl. I had a look online to check but I couldn’t find it. I did find this rather nice line though:

“Someone once said that a good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. We agree”.

Frederik Pohl, 1968.

The Path of a Story

There’s a story that turns up every so often where one of the characters wonders what things would have been like if x hadn’t happened. If they’d never been born; if they’d never met their partner; if they’d never found the item that turned them into a superhero. Some films that spring to mind are It’s a Wonderful Life, Shrek 4 and Sliding Doors.

It’s something I occasionally think about when writing a story, or more usually, rewriting a story. Sometimes when I’m rewrite I think of a good idea and start to include it, only to find I’ve already done it a few pages later. 

I feel as if I’m creating when I write, but how much creation is there? How much of the path of a book is fixed by my experience and personality? As my friend Eric Brown often says, writing is about letting your subconscious take over. Part of becoming a writer is learning how to do that…

I’ve written more about this here: I Used to Worry about Finishing Stories

Cargo Cult Science Fiction

There’s too much Cargo Cult Science Fiction.

 The term “Cargo Cult Science” was first used by physicist Richard Feynman in 1974. It focuses on the superficial rather than the underlying causes.

Cargo Cult Science Fiction is SF built on Cargo Cult Science.  

Now don’t get me wrong. Cargo Cult SF isn’t SF based on imaginary ideas. Some of the great SF novels contain no real science (a classic example is The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester).

Cargo Cult SF is SF that doesn’t take the science seriously.  In Cargo Cult SF it’s good enough to say something scientific sounding (quantum carburetor anyone?) without exploring the imaginary science further.

In Cargo Cult SF the hero gains superpowers by being bitten by a radioactive vampire bat and no one else in the story thinks to experiment with radioactive tigers, jellyfish or wombats.

In Cargo Cult SF people use time travel to change past events and no one ever thinks to use time travel to change them back again.

In Cargo Cult SF Gaia steps in to save the USA and no one asks what exactly had she been doing when people died in floods and famines in other parts of the world.

If you don’t follow the science, no matter how wild your idea is, you’re not writing SF.

The Machine Stops

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

The Machine Stops – E. M. Forster

I was reminded of the above story while looking at Wikiquotes. I was struck by just how much the quotation described me using my iPad at the time.

I don’t think it’s the purpose of SF to predict the future. I think that the majority of SF writers would agree with me on this. I think what we’re seeing here is a reflection of our world in Forster’s reflection of his world…