Sunday, June 01, 2014

Some Thoughts On Writing Science Fiction

     Yesterday or maybe the day before, I pulled down one of the Pournelle-edited* themed anthologies, in this case Volume Two of Imperial Stars, Republic And Empire.  These collections generally offer good solid entertainment, a mix of well-written short fiction, poetry (I can take it or leave it; generally, I leave it) and essays.  About the only new material is the introduction and lead-ins -- which suits me, as it means classics from John W. Campbell and H. Beam Piper are included, as well as work from writers both well-known and unknown that have previously been published only in magazines.

     Essays by Campbell -- "Constitution for Utopia" -- and Gregory Benford -- "Reactionary Utopias" -- caught my attention.  The Campbell piece is used as a stage-setter for Eric Frank Russell's Minor Ingredient [2] and with good reason, as both are concerned with the selection and education of potential leaders.  The Benford essay is another kettle [3] of fish, addressing primarily LeGuin's The Dispossessed and with a suspicious eye, then moving on to briefly dismiss other "women's utopias" from Johanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr. (dutifully though incorrectly unmasked as "Racoona Sheldon," another of Alice B. Sheldon's pseudonyms) and others.  While he is likely correct as to the impracticality of the proposed societies -- Anarres and Whileaway would probably have experienced greater internal conflict -- and his labeling of them as "reactionary" is not unjustified, he contrasts them with societies he "...suspects...prove rather more enlightened than some recent chic versions," citing Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon and Niven and Pournelle's Oath of Fealty as examples.  This is remarkably disingenuous from a fellow who, pages earlier, defines "reactionary" utopias as those that "...recall the past, often in its worst aspects," and then overlooks the 17th-Century underpinnings of the Heinlein work and the deliberately-evoked feudal overtones in the Pournelle yarn.

     Benford makes a number of excellent points, including what he labels as "five dominant reactionary characteristics" and I would call Big Damn Holes In Worldbuilding You Have To Write Around: Lack of diversity, static in time, nostalgic and technophobic, presence of an authority figure, and social regulation though guilt.  --Though that last is actually half of the most common and low-level regulation of normal human behavior: guilt and/or shame, for all they are ill-regarded, are the primary influences keeping your neighbor from beheading you with a shovel when you go a-lawnmowing at oh-dark-thirty of a Sunday morning.  Any one or maybe two of the others can be used as a key element in worldbuilding but you've got to 'splain it somehow.  Conversely, over- or unconscious reliance on any of 'em will do one's work no good.

     My fiction includes a kind of non-utopian utopia, the societies and worlds of the "Far Edge," which has darned few laws other than a harshly-enforced limit on the size of governments.  At the heart of it is something of a monoculture, the culture of the flitting trading ships; the shadowy "central government" drawn primary from among them refuses to govern and is, in effect, a conspiracy or secret society:
      One of the problems with the shadowy "Federation of Concerned Spacemen" non-government is that it has no official existence and few if any of the assemblies and appurtenances of a government. Being something of a conspiracy of ship-captains and the semi-official representatives of town-meetings, wealthy only as the participants will contribute — a staggering wealth in goods and materials by Earthly standards — it can't or won't do the normal government behaviors. The FCS is nowhere mentioned in the text of the 1989 Agreement; the closest thing to it is the amnesty granted all Project Hoplite spacefarers ("and descendents, associates and immigrants") save a small group of named conspirators. Rumor has it ratification on their side of the line was a raggedly uneven affair of ad campaigns, direct voting and a running debate among ship-owners and captains that nearly became open violence. There aren't any FCS embassies and there's no way for any outsider (or, I suspect, most Edgers) to speak directly to the FCS as a body — assuming it even has meetings. There appears to be no single body in charge, at least not in the way the rest of us think; there's just a broad set of generally-agreed-on principles, with ad-hoc enforcement, funded on the spot. What they have are private message boards (the electronic variety), PR reps, extension agents, a scattering of attorneys (at least in NATO-controlled space) and, if all else fails, hired Mil/Space troops. It's unsettling.

     The Federation of Concerned Spacemen started out as a conspiracy and it still runs like one.
     Thus I find myself concerned with the problems of utopias.

     On another level, I find myself concerned with something else: Benford appears unaccountably hostile to LeGuin and other female utopianists; on first glance, this would appear to be political, but he then quotes Samuel R. Delany in support of his analysis and Delany is no less a leftist than LeGuin.  That leaves two possibilities, a rather childish boys-vs.-girls dynamic or personal animosity.

     I have little to say about the first; like politics, it is what it is and either you accept that not all the other rats in the maze are just like you or you don't and you're either okay with that or you're not.  As for the last, it leads me to one conclusion: other writers are to be avoided. If contact can be limited to the craft of writing and the difficulty of obtaining promised monies from publishers, fine, but otherwise, dodge 'em.   There is nothing to be gained from knowing them outside of what they have written, and too much to lose.

     --And after a certain point, stop reading SF seriously if that's what you write; it's too easy to get pulled into a pigeonhole, too easy to fill your head with old familiar tropes, moldy chestnuts best left as rubbish.

    "Reactionary Utopias" is an interesting essay, certainly thought-provoking, and yet I think it is mistitled.  It's got a certain grade-school playground odor faintly lingering.

     This is the world we've got -- it's no utopia, nor are any of us saints.
1. With John F. Carr

2. One could ask for no better example of the contrast between Russell-the-writer and Russell-the-man than this story, and it should serve as a reminder to not go too far in ascribing to writers the virtues espoused in their texts.  Writing reflects the author in a funhouse mirror -- if even that.

3. You know how to drive a self-educated and mildly dyslexic person nuts?  Have two spell-checkers, one of which doubts the existence of "another" and the other looks askance at "kettle."  As well as, by the gods, "askance."  Keep it up, machines, keep it up; I own a perfectly good sledge hammer and it doesn't give me any backchat.


Drang said...

Now I have to go dig through boxes to see if I have that collection...

I do have several copies of "Survival of Freedom", or whatever it was called, though. It includes Chesterton's "Story of Jones", or whatever it was called.

(Not being too lazy to look stuff up, sitting here in y bathrobe with a cat AND a laptop in my lap, drinking my morning coffee and getting ready -- "steeling my nerves", IOW -- to go into the Salt Mines.)

Carteach said...

"This is the world we've got -- it's no utopia, nor are any of us saints."

Amen to that

Borepatch said...

Damn fine post, Roberta. If I ever get to Indy I'd like to tell you about installing a firewall at Chaos Manor.

Unknown said...

I find myself in firmly in the camp of "Avoid meeting them, and for god sakes don't read about them."

Out of all the authors I've met, only two left me wondering if I was going to keep reading their work. Finally, I decided their work was no less valid because I couldn't stomach the author.

I won't mention names, but best keep your hero's at a distance :)

PS: Borepatch - I'd pay good single malt to hear that story!