My Kind of SF

I’m not a scientist. Truth be told, I must admit that I’m not even that interested in science. I watch Horizon, read the Bad Science column in the Guardian – and since I was about twenty I’ve attempted without success to keep up with latest scientific and technological trends by reading the New Scientist… but after a paragraph or two my attention wanders. I’m looking for the characters, the emotion, the excitement.

I can hear you asking why the hell, then, do I write SF?

Well, I write SF for the same reasons I read it (and this might not be a popular answer, nor one that many people will admit to). The principle reason I read SF, and other kinds of fiction, is that it’s escapism. I read to be taken out of myself, to forget the worries and cares of everyday life, to be embroiled for a few hours in other lives, other places, to experience emotions and thoughts not my own, to have adventures on far-flung alien worlds… And of course a by-product of this is that I might learn something new along the way, but that’s not the main reason why I read SF.

And when it comes to writing, the same rules apply. I don’t write because I have any vast ideas about the world, or humanity, or philosophy to impart. I write because I have the overwhelming need to tell a story about people in dilemmas, with emotions they need to work through and resolve, often set on alien worlds or in some exotic future, often action-adventure oriented (but not always: my mosaic novel Kéthani was a very quiet book about near future life in my native West Yorkshire), and always with the need to entertain the reader with story. This is vitally important. Story is what I want to read when I turn to fiction, not some ranting diatribe, not some thinly-disguised political screed, not tub-thumping propaganda for whatever idea is in fashion at the time. If you can write compelling, entertaining, page-turning story, then you’ve discharged your principle duty as a writer of fiction.

As a writer of SF, however, you’re saddled with the extra responsibility or expectation of having to write knowledgeably about science or technology or both.

So how do I go about it, with my scant knowledge of all things scientific?

Well, normally, I take a page out of the book of SF writer Michael Coney. He wrote human-centred tales often set on colony worlds about how science and technology effected the culture, and therefore effected the characters within those cultures. You’ll find no long explanations of starship drives, or genetics, or anything else, in a book by Coney. What you will find is beautifully observed dramas of the human heart, set in exotic locations, and driven by story.

That’s all very well when I write books like Kéthani, which was about a group of friends and the coming of an alien race bearing the gift of immortality. I was interested in how the various characters reacted to this gift, and their reactions powered the individual episodes or stories. I kept the aliens in the background – they’re never seen in the book – and gave no explanation whatsoever of the means by which the aliens conferred immortality.

Which is fine when writing a Coney-esque book set in the pub in a near-future West Yorkshire. But what about when I came to write an (ostensibly) Hard SF book like Helix?

My overriding interest when starting Helix was how the various characters, human and alien, reacted to the events in which they found themselves. I wanted to write an action-adventure – peopled with characters as realistic as I could make them – about a starship crashing on an alien world which they find is not merely a single planet, but one of ten thousand worlds strung on a helical bead around a sun. To survive, they must climb away from the lower tier of the helix, where inimical winter prevails, to a more clement level. Along the way they would have adventures, learn things about the habitat and about themselves, meet various alien races – and learn, ultimately, the big question: why did the Builders build the helix?

So I did that, wrote (I hope) an action-adventure sense-of-wonder space novel which by the very fact that it had a big spaceship on the cover raised expectations of its being Hard SF.

It wasn’t, and was never meant to be. Had I been Peter Hamilton, Steve Baxter or Al Reynolds, I would have written a vastly different novel to the one I turned out: the science would have been brilliantly and breathtakingly explicated, and seamlessly woven into the fictive fabric of the novel. I chose, as I chose in Kéthani, to ignore the science, the technology, and merely concentrate on the effect of science and technology on the cultures and individuals I portrayed in the novel.

Some people found this deeply problematic, and I understand this. They wanted Hamilton-Baxter-Reynolds, and not some Star Wars/Star Trek adventure. Their problem – valid from their point of view – was that I’d committed the sin of creating a vast technological construct, without explaining how it worked – which explanation they would obviously find fascinating.

An analogy I sometimes use is the technology in the background of contemporary novels. No one reads Graham Greene or Vladimir Nabokov for explanations of how cars or televisions work. Many of us have no idea how they work – we just know that they do. In my kind of SF, the characters in the stories know that the technology works. This is enough for me. If the characters believe, then so too should the reader. I don’t have to go into explanations of how the technology works in order to convince the reader, do I?

I don’t find explanation of how things work that fascinating. To be honest, I couldn’t give a damn how the helix was put together, how the meteorology worked, how the planets were made to turn. I wanted to tell a fast-paced, emotionally resonant adventure, and the very fact that the helix was there, working, and observed by the characters to be doing so, was sufficient for me. I believed the world while I was writing it, and hoped that the reader would too.

Many didn’t, and wrote about my sins of bad science at length in reviews and blogs. Some loved the story for what I hoped it would be, fun, exciting adventure about strange worlds, aliens and spaceships. (Check out the reviews on Amazon UK and US, and elsewhere on the Internet, for a diverse range of opinion.)

Now, this isn’t to deride or belittle the kind of SF I don’t write, or to say that what I write is how SF should be. The beauty of our field is that it is broad and encompasses Hard SF, Soft SF and SF of every type of squishiness in between. And I’m not even saying that the critics of Helix were wrong. They were right (the little science I did inadvertently commit was sometimes off the mark); but readers hoping for a Hard SF read were reading the wrong book.

After Helix I published Kéthani (Quiet SF) and then the Bengal Station series starting with Necropath (a rewrite and expansion of my 2004 novel Bengal Station), which was declared: ‘Eric Brown’s triumphant return to Hard SF!’

It isn’t Hard SF (Hard SF fans be warned). It’s more Soft, Quiet SF about a telepath and his quest for happiness (with aliens and spaceship and lasers) and which follows his character arc from being a nihilist to being a reasonably happy chap.

Above all else, I think, it is story.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “My Kind of SF

  1. Lee Pfahler

    I am really enjoying your latest posts. Are you b/t projects b/c you have written several posts in the last several days? I do like to read Hard SF as you may remember from an earlier comment but I do get bogged down sometimes in all the “science” speak like in a Baxter novel so I really enjoy your novels b/c you include some science but more importantly your characters and vivid descriptions of the context are so fleshed out that they become very real to me. McDevitt and Silverberg are like that too. Of all of your novels and novellas that I have read so far Engineman is probably my favorite with Helix and Serene Invasion close behind. Jani and the Greater Game just came in the mail today; I look forward to reading it sometime not only b/c you are the author but also b/c I have not read any steampunk novels. Keep it up!

    • Yes, Lee, I am between projects at the moment. I finished a second draft of the third Telemass novella last month, and I hope to start the second Jani novel later this month when my daughter goes back to school, or at the beginning of September. That said, I intend to keep up with the blogs, doing something every other day. And I’m with you on the Hard SF front – I like to keep the science in the background.

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