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Science Fiction Trauma

June 7, 2012

One of the biggest problems with SF is bound up in the fact that the audience has no idea what you’re talking about.

SF suffers from the fact that its setting is mostly, if not totally, a fabrication/best guess of the author. And so you run the gauntlet. On the one extreme, the audience has no idea what anyone (including the author) is talking about, and throws the book down in disgust. On the other, the author goes to such perverted lengths to bring his readers up to speed that any suspension of disbelief goes flying out the window.

Maybe I’m not being very clear. Here’s the problem: we understand the world based on our general knowledge, including our comprehension of language. In a crime novel, you know what a gun and a detective and a basement are. In a romance novel, when someone makes innuendo, you know that that’s what it is. You read and comprehend because you come from that exact same world, even if nothing quite as interesting happens to you. Anything not common knowledge (for example, the new superweapon of the week in a Tom Clancy novel) can be explained to the reader because most of the characters wouldn’t have heard of it either.

It’s much harder with SF.

Anything set more than a century into the future is, to put it politely, fucked. Every character is living in a world completely unfamiliar to your reader. Everything they point at has to be carefully explained to the reader so they understand that a ‘spiker’ is a kind of gun and not a member of a punk band. Every historical event referenced, every place people go to, every single thing that happens is built on a foundation of experience that your readers simply don’t have.

And so we’re brought back to the two extremes. Total confusion: “Conjoiner crests are always a good indicator that the mark’s spent a few cycles in reefersleep.”

Or characters who sound like infomercial salesmen: “As you know, Bob, this machine we use every day is a fascinating and futuristic construction. Give me a few minutes to explain its function, which of course you’ve known since you were 12.”

And that’s not even that bad – military concepts get a lot of exposure in mainstream SF (who doesn’t know what a phaser does?), and can generally be explained within a sentence or so. What about religion, or philosophy, or pop culture?

You remember that great scene in Pulp Fiction, where Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta are discussing French McDonald’s and foot massages, on their way to an assassination? It was funny, it made the characters instantly relatable and more human, and it juxtaposed nicely with the violence that followed.

You can’t do that in SF, not without utterly confusing your audience. Most authors get around this simply by not having pop culture ever mentioned – which is probably acceptable when talking strictly about soldiers, scientists or other isolated professionals, but gets a bit weird when you’re focussing on ‘normal’ people, let alone young adults or teenagers.

Star Trek infamously got around this by being ‘culturally enlightened’ – no-one ever mentioned anything made after 1950, but Shakespeare, classical music and Homer were name-dropped like Lady Gaga or Game of Thrones are today. Not exactly realistic, but it was better than most.

And of course, there’s the translation convention.

Let’s assume (very generously) that your SF takes place in a timeline where English is still the dominant language, and your society vaguely resembles the Developed World of today, rather than, say, a cybernetic hive mind run by Congolese plutocrats. Even if your characters are speaking future-English, you’re still going to have to translate for them.

This is because language isn’t static. In just the last decade, words such as ‘meme’, ‘lol’ and ‘tweet’ have been created or changed meaning. You know what I’m talking about – as culture and technology change, we shorten words, start using nouns as verbs, create acronyms and just do our darn best to fuck the English language into a reddened pile of misspelling and grammar errors.

Consider how many euphemisms, references or ‘phrases’ you use every day. “screwing”, “enhanced interrogation”, “restroom”, “up shit creek”, “when in Rome”, “bigger fish”… we use an incredible number of words and phrases in ways that, if you had no understanding of the cultural context, make no sense.

“I’m feeling horny.”

“Ah, you’re turning into a rhino, good sir. I wasn’t aware the people of this century had that ability; I shall be sure not to anger them?”

So, as the author, you translate. Every time a character in one of your stories says a 21st-century phrase, it’s as ridiculous as Thomas Edison saying ‘wassup, bitches?’. But unless you’re Tolkien, you don’t have the time to create an entire new language, which is what 24th-century English would become. So you translate. And you slip a little further along the scale towards ‘people talking like characters in a story, rather than people.’

All SF writers are balancing along this razor edge, between confusion and stupidity. It means that a lot more effort has to be put into every line. Because while most fiction only has to create a story, SF[1] has to create a story, and a world to set it in.


[1] I guess fantasy should have these problems too… but it generally doesn’t. This is mainly because there are some very solid genre conventions for fantasy – dwarves are stout, hard-working Scotsmen, elves are environmentalists who are good at magic and all humans speak English. But the author does have to work hard to create a believable setting (remember Tolkien?).

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