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4 Realizations That Will Ruin Science Fiction for You

I love sci-fi like Captain Kirk loves befuddled green women in miniskirts: passionately and against all the laws of nature and man. When I say "passionately," I don't necessarily mean that I like to dress up at conventions or anything; I mean that I believe science fiction is one of the most important, relevant and often overlooked genres. How many times has science fiction altered, predicted or warned against the impending fate of humanity? From Fahrenheit 451 to Cat's Cradle to Neuromancer, sci-fi has proven again and again that it knows where we're going and what's going to happen when we get there. Yet we still marginalize and ignore it, stuffing it into that one cramped, shameful little section of the bookstore that always smells like a combination of Fritos and Raid. And when I say "against the laws of nature and man," I mean, dang -- you do not want to know what I do to my copy of Foundation. Those pages don't just stick together, brother; they're so fused and full of nutrients that the wood pulp has started laying down roots again.

Like this, but y'know ... awful.

That's probably why I wrote this self-published sci-fi serial novel (it's called Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, and if forced to classify it, some would say it's a dystopian pharmaceutical time-travel thriller. I would say it's more like a mental orgasm that teaches you all the skills you wanted to know but didn't have time to learn. In a sense, both are accurate). And yes, of course I'm here to plug it. Let's not kid ourselves: Anything an author with a new book says is to be viewed with the same wary eye one casts on the meth-head complimenting the structural components of your new bicycle. But I also learned a few things while writing science fiction that I never realized while reading it -- some of which might ruin your favorite properties forever ...

#4. Sci-fi Needs a Straight Man Like a Laurel and Hardy Routine

The bulk of the workload in writing science fiction/fantasy is creating your whole world from scratch. It's a hell of a lot of fun, but it also has some unique problems. Characters, by being from this world you've just hand-built, are naturally going to be referring to places and objects and sometimes even speaking in a language that is completely foreign to the reader. To deal with this issue as a writer, you can fill the narrative with clunky exposition, rabidly notate the entire thing and hope your readers like cross-referencing as much as they like space battles (not always a losing bet), or you can attempt to skillfully weave information and plot by virtue of your many practiced years in fiction.

Or you could take the other option: Chuck a dumbass into your story who literally doesn't understand a thing, thus forcing all of the other characters to constantly stop and explain every aspect of the world to him. Like so:

"General Klogg's Pogofighters are bouncing over the city walls! Quick, to the rhythm-cannons!" N-dah Gaim, robo-temptress of the Seventh Veil, screamed in alarm.

"General who's whatfighters are doing huh now?" Biff Manface asked (manfully).

"I forget, Manface, despite your chiseled jawline and just ... really, truly rockin' pecs (seriously, they're so, so good) ... that you are but a human, and a stranger to our lands. General Krogg is the former leader of Klogglandia's dancing warrior caste, you see, and his elite band, or 'crew,' of Krumping assassins have ..."

And so forth.

If you think that's a hack move that you, as a discerning reader, wouldn't tolerate, think again. It's been utilized in nearly every famous sci-fi work in history.

There are easy ones to spot: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was about a man hurled forward in time from the 1970s, not because his '70s-ness was vital to the story -- he didn't teach Twiki to do the Hustle in order to solve a vital plot point or anything -- but because the viewer was also from the 1970s.

"And also to teach these future-chicks how to bone!" -- Gil Gerard (not even in character).

The only reason their hero existed was to provide the show's writers with an easy excuse to explain everything from technology to politics in terms the audience could understand. Demolition Man did the same thing, subbing Gil Gerard's sleazy charisma and legendary hair volume for a (relatively) unfrozen Stallone as the moronic protagonist who needs bathroom fixtures and restaurants explained to him like the giant, muscle-bound child that he is.

But there are subtler ways writers do it, too: It's no coincidence that Luke Skywalker was a hillbilly from a backwoods planet. "Shucks and golly geez, y'all, you'd best explain the back story of this here space war to me, 'cause I ain't never seen no 'Em-peer-eee-alls' before, much less no big ol' hairy 'Walk-ees.'" Paul Atreides was a recent transplant from a foreign planet when Dune began. He needed a hot young rebel fighter to explain that strange world to him, and to reveal what the Shai-Hulud truly were (and, hey, maybe in return he shows Chani a little wormsign of his own, ifyouknowhamsayin').

"OK, listen, I know it's a desert planet and all, but caves are still chilly, keep in mind ..."

It works the other way, too. You can actually track the downfall of a series by its increasing lack of a loveable, moral, idiot lead. I'm talking about The Matrix, of course. The first movie was rather brilliant in its elegant simplicity. Neo was just another drone, living in a perfect facsimile of our modern era, until the wiser, more informed super-warriors came to free him from the mundane. Of course, as a consequence, they have to stop at every street corner to explain the mechanics of the "real" reality. In fact, by having the whole thing be essentially a giant video game, they could even stop to show literal tutorials to the audience without breaking stride.

"In this program, we'll learn how both the Agents and your own hasty erections work, Neo."

But then came the sequels -- most notable for setting the land-speed record for the fastest time anything has traveled all the way back up its own ass. They failed largely because they lacked what the first had in abundance: a sci-fi bumpkin to be the audience's avatar. After the first movie, Neo became a detached, jaded expert in the world of the Matrix, and we stopped seeing things from the sci-fi straight man's POV. Thus we got characters who quickly strolled through dazzling set pieces, barely taking time to gawk at places like Zion, because why would they? It's all old hat to them. And the plot had to be relayed through bizarre, clunky, long-winded exposition from characters who should rightfully already know the information and certainly have no reason to be explaining it to each other.

Once you recognize this trick, you may be doomed to examine every sci-fi movie for the presence of the sci-fi straight man, rolling your eyes every time the writers find an excuse to make him say something like, "The three seashells, what are those?"

#3. Technology = Magic

As I hinted in the opening paragraphs, a big part of science fiction is a kind of sociological fortunetelling. We tend to assume that sci-fi writers are introducing us to these fantastic new technologies only after carefully basing them on actual research. No matter how outlandish the conclusion, General Krogg's Breakdancing Vacuumech Armada is all just the hyperbolic endpoint of a current trend, right? Orwell imagined cameras on every corner and a system of speech carefully regulated so as not to say anything too inflammatory, and lo, now we have CCTV and political correctness. When you think of him coming up with that, doesn't it bring to mind images of a serious man carefully poring over government reports, marketing releases, camera patents and books on the anthropological progression of speech? And, hey, maybe he did. Maybe he sat down to write 1984 because he'd been hurled back here from Great Britain in 2020 and framing it as a science fiction novel was the only way to properly warn the populace without investing in a hat made out of urine-stained newspapers.

"And they've all become obsessed with reality shows! It's the future, damn you! No, not the Thorazine! Believe! BELIIII-"

But it doesn't matter either way, because at a certain point, to tell the actual story with his actual characters, he had to throw all that carefully researched constraint right out the window. We all do. Lightsabers went from slightly-better-than-swords to invincible mini death rays that can cut through anything, because goddammit, doesn't it look bitchin' when Obi-Wan cuts a Star Destroyer in half? The Holodeck goes from a glorified racquetball court to a murderous AI, depending on how badly whoever's writing the episode wants to explore some Sherlock Holmes/android slash-fiction. At some point during the writing, you're going to get a set piece or plot point in your head that finds itself at odds with the research, and that's when you throw all those peer-reviewed journals out the window and say, "Fuck it. It's robot magic."

And what, exactly, is NOT awesome about this?

That's why science fiction and fantasy are grouped together: They're both set in worlds where the rules of reality are totally irrelevant, and even the made-up ones are going to be broken eventually. I started off my own book carefully basing every single technological or cultural development on real, cutting-edge fringe science and the many bizarre sociological trends that have arisen since the advent of the Internet. And a lot of that stuff still made it in there. I'm pretty proud of that. But then I spent six hours researching how to turn human skin into a bomb, 10 more hours trying to understand that research and then three more writing the two-paragraph monologue that carefully explained the process, only to then cut that monologue in editing because it was boring as shit. What was really important, in terms of story, was just that the dude's skin blowed up real good, and that we moved on from that fact as quickly as possible.

So, hey, robot magic.

Once you realize this aspect of science fiction, you'll have to reluctantly cede that the glaring errors and contradictions in every single episode of The Next Generation were probably there "because the story required it." And then what will your website be about? Cats, I guess?

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Robert Brockway

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