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…