Dabbling in sci-fi: should it be a crime?

Writer-wise, I am a speculative fiction dilettante. I do not have any deep understanding of the form, I have read only around the fringes (Mieville but not Asimov; Mitchell but not Le Guin), I don’t know enough about the tropes and styles to properly respect them. My own writing might be glorified by calling it slipstream, but really it’s just dabbling.

Some proper sci-fi writers reckon that kind of behaviour is rubbish. They would rather you’d at least subscribed to Aurealis Magazine and read the classics before giving it a go yourself. If you don’t, you’re likely to write something which you either think is frightfully clever but has actually been written a billion times before, or you’ll just do a half-arsed job. And I have, in public, dismissed that attitude out of hand. My usual argument is it’s OK if you don’t know your sci-fi, as long as your readers don’t know their sci-fi either.

The most popular form of sci-fi dabbling is some kind of time travel – I faff around with it in A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists; you may also have heard of a little book called The Time Traveller’s Wife or read The Shining Girls or maybe even The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. Dystopia is huge too, in the dabbler community. Less common, though, is the mainstay of classic sci-fi, human goes to an alien planet. Until Michel Faber came along, that is.

I’ve just finished reading The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. This book has had loads of column inches, perhaps not least because the author declared it would be his last novel, and because his wife died just as he was finishing his final draft.

The critical reaction to The Book of Strange New Things goes a long way to proving my argument that you can massacre sci-fi tropes as much as you want so long as you don’t aim your book at sci-fi readers. But it also makes me want to say, “you can, but please don’t“.


Faber’s book is essentially a story about the breakdown of a loving marriage as two people’s lives go their separate way: hers, into a collapse of everything she takes for granted as Britain slides into dystopia; his, on a mission evangelising to aliens on a far-away planet. The ‘is it still love?’ story is pretty strong. Faber has a lot to say about how much love relies on shared experience and context, and how quickly something that seems utterly solid can become crumbly and unfamiliar, and I think he does it convincingly.

The sci-fi aspects are not handled nearly as well. World-building is a big part of sci-fi. I have a low tolerance for it, as a writer and a reader, and I can’t imagine I’d ever set something in an utterly alien place where everything had to be thought up and then described (mainly because I can’t bear reading long descriptions of physical things). Faber gets around this by just not bothering. Oasis, the alien planet, is flat and mainly dirt. Its notable feature is that the rain falls in some interesting ways and the air is quite viscous. There is one vegetable species, one insect species, one mammal/bird species, and one humanesque species. As far as we know nothing else lives on Oasis, there are no geographical features and not much in the way of weather. I don’t ask for much from my alien settings. I don’t want Tolkienesque mapping and linguistics. But even I baulk at an ecosystem with only four species – how does evolution even work in that kind of set-up? Can there not at least be a throwaway explanation of what’s going on? (In an interview with Ramona Koval, Faber says ‘I think that if there’s anything that sets this book apart from science fiction, if you like, it’s that I’m completely uninterested in the how of it’.)

There are all kinds of allusions to mysteries, probably sinister, which are hinted at then never really explored. Settlers on this new planet are hand picked for their lack of passion and their absence of connections to earth. Bing Crosby plays over the PA most of the time. There are old art posters on the walls and a mess hall stocked with lifestyle magazines with any references to current affairs torn out. No one is to know what’s happening on Earth (except our protagonist, who knows all about it and is free to talk to anyone who’ll listen). There is a nurse who may be some kind of proto human, or maybe not. There is the previous missionary, gone native, whose name is so much like Conrad’s Kurtz that really can it refer to anything else (it does)? But in the end not much comes of any of it – all the usual tropes of conspiracy and giant bad corporations are pumped up, then left to deflate somewhere in a back room.

Meanwhile, on Earth, disaster rockets around the planet, wiping out countries and economies and supermarkets and hospitals in a matter of months, destroying the life of the wife character and further alienating her from her far-off, un-understanding missionary husband. I mean, it could happen, this series of concerted and sudden disasters. But a more elegantly thought-out apocalypse would have made the whole thing more compelling.

So what’s my point? I guess my point is, if you want to write a love story, and you want to write a story which makes us grateful for our resilient human bodies (a point Faber has raised in many interviews), why put it in a science fiction setting when you so clearly don’t care about science fiction? Why not just have it on earth, in the present day? It feels as though he wrote a story and then worried it needed jazzing up a bit with some aliens and an apocalypse (a crime I myself have certainly been guilty of). But perhaps the biggest moral lesson is that it serves me right for reading a book that comes with a recommendation from Yann Martel.

#TBR20 update

I’ve finished The Book of Strange New Things, which you’ve probably already noticed, and started on Best Australian Stories 2014. I took This changes everything by Naomi Klein off the pile, because after 18 months writing a survival guide to climate change I need a little break; I replaced it with Clade, a climate change novel by James Bradley, because I am an idiot. While I was away at Varuna I read about a thousand books that weren’t on my list and that was very bad but I had a lovely time.

This excerpt from a funny little article in Ploughshares goes some way to explaining how on earth my TBR pile got so out of hand…

Book #1: If you’re meeting all these amazing fellow writers at conferences and festivals, you owe it to them to read their books. It will be so awkward if you meet again in six months and you haven’t read their novels yet!

Book #2: The Guilt Pile beside your bed is going to grow taller and taller until the day you die. It will, in fact, be what kills you.

At least that pile is now 11 books smaller…


15 thoughts on “Dabbling in sci-fi: should it be a crime?

  1. Bought Clade yesterday and am looking forward to it. Strange, that I find myself reading these books because they aren’t my usual choice but it seems they are getting prominent, and maybe more people are writing about dystopia? I don’t really read sci-fi (although I did read Asimov, years ago. Can’t even remember which without googling.) In my earlier years I read a clutch of sci-fi books but my tastes developed towards the realism over time.

    About Faber’s book, I probably have to disagree with you on almost everything. I think it was a really effective choice (if it was a choice) to set a love story (if that’s what it was) where and how he did. To me it seemed to make the story really large, almost allegorical and certainly epic (all the stuff about the world ending on earth and him being stuck away, up in the air, unable to help his wife, mirroring what was possibly happening in real life at the time of writing) – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is how he did it. His world was falling apart and he was unable to do anything about it; couldn’t help her, possibly at times couldn’t even have helpful conversations, or be supportive. The business of dying and the impending separation, from what I understand, can be a very messy thing psychologically, and partners of people with illnesses that will kill them have to go through something really mega themselves. During the lead up… What would be worse than being by the side of someone you love who is dying and unable to help? Being in a different city on work; a different country? A different planet!

    As for the simplicity of Oasis in terms of world building, to me that worked. I wondered whether it was about the supposed simplicity of Christianity and how it can be applied in all situations, help everyone. So even these weird creatures on a weird planet, can come to love Jesus Christ without much questioning. (I’m a firm atheist so typing these words feel very strange.) I was glad there weren’t long descriptions of the other world, I liked the gaps. And the way the rain behaved and the light and the rest of it for me was powerfully effective and really original. But then, like I said, I haven’t read much sci-fi so I don’t know how it’s meant to work.

    When are you planning to read Clade? We should do a tandem read and then discuss, that would be fun! I’m immersed in Knausgaard’s boyhood at the moment, and also am devouring the Elena Ferrantes…

    PS I think I am one of the only people in the world who really really liked both Pi and B&V. *hangs head*

    1. I love this comment, Jenny: thanks! I reckon I will start Clade tomorrow, but will put it off for a bit if you’d like to read later (I have rather a large pile of books to read; I may have already mentioned it). Very excited to read about your forthcoming book too – it sounds like you’re having pretty much all the anxieties I had.
      Y’know, I was actually only tinkering with the idea for this post in my head until I read that Ramona Koval interview in which he was so blase about the fact he didn’t give a rats’ about what this planet was like. It just seemed so weird to me to do that – why not set it among a camp of Sea Gypsies with limited internet connection and no phone coverage? You could still have Europe and North America tumbling into apocalypse as the South Pacific trundled on regardless (particularly as the apocalypse he lays out is not an ‘end of the world’ scenario but only an ‘end of advanced civilisation’ one). And it would come with a ready-made world: ours. I felt like I was watching a high school play, with a great deal of dramatics going on in front of a poorly painted backdrop.
      Anyway, this post is mainly a warning to myself to not be too offhand when writing spec fic. I’m glad so many people love this book, and that there are so many different kinds of books to read.

  2. I must look at the Ramona interview because yes, that would possibly make a difference to my view as well, if he’s flippant about it, or really had no design or thought behind it. That’s lazy writing? But if it was deliberate then I think v cool.

    I would LOVE to go to that thing at Wheeler, I’m teaching that day so not possible. I hope you will blog about it if you get a chance, would love to read some notes.

    As for CLADE, let’s start reading tomorrow! Syncronise watches… How shall we do it? I did Murakami’s IQ84 with a blog buddy, it was so much fun.

    1. I’m going to try to go to Andrew’s (work situation allowing), but I will definitely be at mine. OK, I’m ready to read! Um, I’ve never done anything like this before: do we just bug each other on twitter constantly?

  3. Oh I didn’t see the link to your session! Different day, so have booked and will come to that.

    I read the Ramona K interview, it’s very good, she’s very good, love her work. I thought he came off a little brusque? But of course tone doesn’t translate into print. He was certainly direct. Very interesting to read what he said about the setting etc. I still think it wouldn’t have had the same power for me having the separation occurring on the same planet.

    As for our tandem read. It’ll bug people on twitter don’t you think (and give spoilers possibly)? Or is it better to be more visible? I really don’t mind, it’s your call.

  4. I often think you need to know the tropes in order to break them, but you should always write what you want to write first and foremost. I think even without reading a lot of sci-fi you’re at least aware of the tropes from television and movies – you can’t avoid them. My own reading preferences always tend towards “soft sci-fi” anyway – Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin, rather than the “hard sci-fi” and space opera. I’ve always preferred social commentary to descriptions of spaceships. And my guilt pile is too big… and I just bought another book today… eek. Must. Read. Faster.

    1. I totally agree that so much of this you absorb anyway, just from popular culture: Back to the Future; Star Wars; Star Trek; Firefly… whatever. And I totally can’t deal with descriptions of spaceships.
      Guilt reading is such a strange thing…

      1. I think this is a really interesting perspective, katclay. My sense is that many reader/fans of the genre would be a bit resistant to the idea that you can get ‘enough’ of sic-fi/spec-fic from the popular culture iterations in TV and film. They’re the most conservative iterations of SF for one thing, particularly in terms of their understanding of/depiction of race/class/gender. And games/TV/Movies have a radically different approach to character and narrative to novels/short stories.

        Like, nobody, I think, would suggest that you could ‘know enough’ about stories to write realist novels if all you’d ever done was watch some realist television and films, and played the SIMS, right?

        BUT, on the other hand, I’m not a big fan of policing the boundaries, saying who can and can’t write in any genre, or form, or whatever. Probably reading deeply in the genre you’re writing in makes you more aware of the history of that genre, and the edges of it, but perhaps a fresh ‘outsider’ perspective is useful, too.

        I suspect that, sometimes, it takes an outsider perspective to break new ground. To really take a genre in a different direction. Sometimes, within a genre’s social/writer/reader space, there’s a great deal of focus on what’s ok – on the ‘rules’ of the game – and not so much on pushing the genre into new ways of being written and conceived.


  5. It’s an interesting question. Can you borrow in small ways from a genre without buying into some of its larger concerns. I harbour long-term plans to do a Gothic Romance Space Opera, but am unsure as to how much fidelity I can give to the Gothic Romance themes and interactions, as I’m not deeply immersed in the Genre (give or take Austen and a couple of Brontes). I’ve written a (and read) a reasonable amount of science fiction, of various “hardness” and subgenre.

    It’s partially a reader-expectations issue. Readers are conditioned to want their tropes to be serviced in some way (even if that service involves satire, contravention or outright deconstruction). To simply not bother negotiating the tropes and conventions (as Faber appears to have done, have not read) would lead to a very unsatisfying novel for me.

    Many Spec Fic authors seem fascinated by the “how”, either physically (for example in To The Moon Jules Verne calculated exit velocities with impressive accuracy for his time) historical (Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Series draws heavily on her professional career as a medievalist) or social (Ursula Le Guin in… well, everything she does). It’s a genre infused with immersive detail, either invented or extrapolated. Even fantasy schemas of magic are generally assigned some form of logical, orderly system.

    If Faber merely needed somewhere cool to set his story, sure, but he needs to be aware that people look at both the background as well as the foreground, and his verisimilitude in establishing it will also be considered as much as his plot, character and dialogue.

    And I think you sell yourself slightly short with your own dystopian worldbuilding, Jane.

    1. Oddly (to me, anyway) it seems most people are more worried about the fact Faber’s book is sci-fi (‘ick, it’s on another planet; I don’t read those kinds of books’) than they are that it’s on a half-arsed planet. Went to see Faber last night. He was a very interesting chap. He’s worried people won’t read the book because they think it’s sci-fi when he’s adamant it’s not. Someone did ask if he’s read much in the genre and he said no, but went on to say he doesn’t really read books at all, he’s much more interested in music. At that point I started liking him more: he’s breaking the first rule of how to be a writer!!! But yeah, I think he just wanted somewhere cool to set his story, and his big reveal kind or relies on aliens (though with a bit of effort he might have been able to adapt that) so I guess he was stuck with outer space.

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