Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Inside the SF head

I admire those who write science fiction or fantasy, because it requires such an extended and profound act of imagination. To create an entirely new world or a new universe, to people it with strange new creatures, to devise entirely new “natural” laws or sciences – these are things I would not have the patience to even attempt. I love reading science fiction and fantasy, and have done so since I was a small child.

Because so much creative energy is devoted to generating entire new worlds, histories and cultures, sometimes other aspects of writing are neglected. Character development is one of them. Even if I am reading about five-legged, four-eyed, semi-transparent sentient cacti, I still want the characters to have some depth and multi-dimensionality (in the non-SF sense). This is no easy task if the author is also trying to evoke an alien psychology. The story also suffers, sometimes, in favour of minutiae, on the one hand, and epic elements, on the other. Some detail about how this new world works is both necessary and enjoyable: too much is tedious and distracting. A balance is necessary. One way of dealing with this is via appendices, which the reader with autistic tendencies can read if they like, but which are not essential for understanding the story. The epic elements can have a similar effect. I don’t mind the occasional galactic scale battle, but too much will quickly have me nodding off to sleep. The same is true of events taking place at the scale of the society or the political system. This needs to be balanced (perhaps even over-balanced) with “human” scale elements. Few SF writers are good at both of these scales, and it is often the human scale that suffers.

Another thing that epic SF and fantasy tends to do is introduce too many characters, with too many individual story threads to follow. I, as reader, have usually forgotten who someone is, by the time they reappear in the story. This is also true when too many “races” or planets or cultures are introduced. To the author, this is all probably very clear in their mind; but not necessarily so for the reader. This is made worse if races or characters are given difficult or incomprehensible names.

Then, of course, there is length. Why do SF and fantasy writers think that a good story requires several million words, in several volumes, to be told well? I often get sick of waiting for the next volume; and, of course, I have forgotten most of what happened in the previous volume by then.

SF/fantasy writers live in a world inside their head, which they can see, smell and taste clearly. We mere mortals cannot always share their vision. Brevity and conciseness are virtues to be embraced; “keep it simple, stupid” is worth keeping in mind; less, is sometimes more (to borrow another cliché). 


  1. Even I sometimes wonder what is going on in my SF head. That's what comes from watching too much Doctor Who and Star Trek.

  2. Definitely things I'm giving more consideration to these days, especially character development! Feel so bad for all those one-dimensional folks I've created over the years ...

    1. There's an idea and a challenge xeno - write a story where the characters are literally one-dimensional!