A Distinguished Professor at St. Bonaventure University and multiple Fulbright recipient, Dr. Charles E. Gannon is a best-selling science fiction author whose next book, Fire With Fire, is the first in a hard sf thriller series from Baen. He is a member SIGMA (the “sf think-tank” tasked to help government agencies), has appeared on The Discovery Channel, and received the 2006 ALA Choice Award for Outstanding Book (Rumors of War and Infernal Machines). You can visit his worlds at www.charlesegannon.com.

Why Some SF/F Authors Don’t (Can’t?) Create Worlds That Are “Simple” – And Why That Just Might Be Okay

Before becoming a full time novelist, I spent many years in TV and in academia. Over those years, I was required to participate in a significant number of seminar/workshop retreats which ostensibly strive to measure various professional/work characteristics (I have always harbored the suspicion that these “seminars” were just legitimated means of playing hooky…).  One area in which I was always a statistical “outlier” was in concept-generation. That is the pop-psychology term for how we come up with ideas.

Now, for most folks, the process whereby ideas arise and grow is structurally sequential. There is an originating idea. It is revised. It is expanded. It is reorganized.


In talking to other SF/F authors, I have found that this is far less statistically prevalent among our profession. For many of my peers, and certainly for me, the best and biggest ideas arrive in a manner that is kind of . . . well, epiphanic. Worlds unfold themselves for me in what feels like one sustained, typhonic blast. Instead of having to make things up, I find myself rushing to catalog all the world details which that creative tsunami is trying to show me. (I know, it sounds suspiciously like being “possessed by the muse”…)

This is pretty commonplace for me. But it can make the consequent ideas (and stories) very difficult to explain later on, because (as specialists who study ideas and the communication of them point out) most folks impart their ideas by, ultimately, reprising the cognitive or creative process whereby it evolved. In short, the steps most people employ in the internal construction of an idea later become the sequential steps of their external explanations of it. In consequence, for me it takes much more work—and discipline—to make an elevator pitch than to draft a huge chunk of a novel. This is largely because the details of the world are braided into the dramatic catalysts and character motivations of the story. And I did not build that world step by step; it arrived in one great rush. How does one communicate that to someone else? Answer: you don’t. Because, in all probability, you *can’t*.

So you resort to stripping the story down to its bare bones, its most basic structural elements. But, by the time it’s been simplified enough to make sense to a person who isn’t familiar with the key particulars of the world, it also doesn’t sound very appealing. At this point, the story has begun to sound suspiciously like one of those examples of “any story fits into one of the four/seven/fourteen narrative categories” that taxonomically-obsessed academics revel in creating. In short, the description of the story has become so general that it could be damn near anything. Example: “A parentless young person from a backwater discovers his destiny when greater powers and events enter his world, and he is compelled to become involved in them. In the course of fighting his foes, he learns the true, time-tested values of insight, courage, and compassion. And in defeating his arch-nemesis, he defeats the last demons within himself.” Luke Skywalker? Anakin, too (except for a failure with that last little coda)? Frodo? Arthur? If you really like making lists of structurally similar narratives, then get set for fun: you’ve got a lot of compiling ahead of you…

So, since these worlds can be difficult to sell in the conventional, quick-pitch fashion (how many imprints passed on Dune, or more recently, The Windup Girl?), why create them? Why not create worlds that are simple, in-your-face obvious ones? The answer I offer is one that I’ve heard expressed in different ways by different pals in the genre, but I will respond from a purely personal perspective: those simple worlds just aren’t the worlds that come boiling up out of whatever creative well is bubbling inside of me. With rare exception, “simple” worlds don’t strike me as deeply believable, mostly because they don’t stand up to various varieties of the “bullshit” test. Which is entirely different from the “reality” test, for me. Frankly, I don’t worry about “reality”, because it’s dull and no one—self included—wants to read about it.

(in a sotto voce aside)—Well, some extreme devotees of belles-lettres claim to want to read only about unvarnished reality, but I have invariably discovered that, when you get to know those folks, they almost always have “guilty pleasure” literary indulgences (romance, westerns, or even—gasp—straight old ripping yarn sf).

But whereas I don’t give a fig for “pain-staking (-making?) realism” I won’t tolerate anything in my own fiction which fails to pass the “bullshit” test of a world built upon foundations that reflect what I will call human inevitabilities. So as not to make this a taxonomic list of such inevitabilities (and thereby suppressing  habits learned during my long tenure in academia), I shall offer only two cases in point.

First: a long-standing and robust empire at the peak of its power is somehow toppled by one barbarian warrior who kills its emperor. Sorry: I call “bullshit.” That story/set-up is not only a straw man, it is wildly implausible. Empires that are strong and robust are so, in part, because they have all sorts of redundancy built into their command structures, all sorts of safeguards against single, chance events (including the depredations of a singularly ferocious and hirsute barbarian warrior). I might want to tell the story of an empire toppled by a barbarian, but then I’ve got to create a reasonably plausible scenario in which it could happen (and yes, tons of SF/F authors can and do accomplish that quite handily).

This is just one of the hundreds of “bullshit” factors that I don’t consciously think about, but which are a kind of reflexive filter through which the stories I read—and write—are sifted. Here’s another, somewhat related, BS factor: in any complicated social structure, it is inevitable that canny/crafty/corrupt humans will accrue and retain power using means that are not readily apparent to whoever holds the “legitimate” power (monarchs, oligarchs, civitas, red-haired stepchildren; you name it). In short, there are always surreptitious wheels turning within the main wheel(s) upon which the society rolls forward. And any covert political actors who are not reasonably good at keeping their smaller machinations unseen and obscure get crushed by the bigger wheels—pretty quickly. It’s a ruthless evolutionary environment: the fittest may survive (“may” because bad luck can always getcha), but the unfit get weeded out with startling speed and surety.

So. If such smaller, hidden wheels do exist, it’s likely that they’ve been hidden and spinning for a long time. And have been busy consolidating power and pursuing agendas over the course of their many rotations, rather than benignly contemplating an ever-growing collection of navel lint. How then, do so many simpler SF/F novels of social upheaval (military or otherwise) posit such wonderfully clear political playing fields where there are only two, or at most three, well-defined sides in any conflict, with all actors owing uncomplicated allegiance to one of these alternative camps? This is not the way societies work. Not here, not now, not ever. Diversity of opinion, loyalty, and action—often within the same person—is not “optional” if you are trying to craft a believable social environment: it is a prerequisite. And the great majority of the simple worlds all but ignore it.

Of course, those authors may be the smart ones—because many of them still find TONS of readers. Granted, such deviations from psychological/social norms are a little easier to accept in high fantasy, where, among the many mystical principles presented, a supernal form of social unity could (I guess) be posited. When magic is real and gods live and both are active in corporeal/mundane events, who is to say what can, and cannot, come to pass? Not I.

But in contrast, science fiction is at the other end of the spectrum. In terms of an SF tale’s creative success, there is a necessarily heavy reliance upon it evincing basic conformity with the observed principles of both physical and social realities. And, although SF is often associated with the preeminence of gadgets, I would posit that, actually, an SF author has more allowance and leeway in proposing alterations to the physical world than the social one. Get around the speed of light? Well, the quantum entanglement that Einstein tellingly labeled “spooky action at a distance” sure does suggest that we have yet to hear the last word on how the universe and the supposed light-speed limit really *do* fit together (i.e.; quantum theory is not a unified field theory). And so, with a few clever lines, an SF author *can* reasonably drive the speculative principles of their FTL spaceship through the gaps in present physical knowledge.

But if you want to change basic social motivations and response patterns, you may have to write a whole book to validate that alteration (or novum, to borrow the term from Darko Suvin). There’s a reason why books like The Left Hand of Darkness, We, Brave New World, and the Foundation Trilogy spend most of their time dealing with social ramifications of historical or physical deviations from our own conventional reality: because we won’t accept any hasty authorial say-so on the matter. Authors trying to change what we believe to be a “baseline truth” about human nature have a lot more proving to do if we are going to engage in that “willing suspension of disbelief” that is the sine qua non of the truly effective and compelling SF tale.

And yet. And yet . . . a lot of readers just don’t give a hoot about any of this. And that’s fine: in traveling to the simpler worlds in large numbers, they are obviously finding what they are looking for in those virtual places. And it would be a low and foolish thing to begrudge them those pleasures. That said, it is also fair to say that the pleasures attained when immersed in a simple fictional world vs. a complicated/accountable fictional world are significantly different. It is said that, like romance or horror novels, the pleasures derived from virtual sojourns in simple SF/F worlds are fundamentally those of the senses and emotions. And there is good precedent for such a phenomenon. A horror novel without thrills and chills, or a romance novel with love and titillation are, by the standards of most readers, dismal failures. Similarly, a simple-world SF/F novel without pulse-pounding adventure and sensawunda is just not delivering what it is supposed to deliver: pleasure to the senses. However, to the extent that a reader’s world immersion is incomplete without a sense of gritty groundedness, the novel will probably have to pass a directly proportional number of “bullshit” tests. And it is on just such a canvas that serious new ideas may be most effectively portrayed, since the solidity of the imagined world’s foundation ultimately determines how serious a speculative load it may bear.

In closing, I guess it’s true we write best what we like best. That’s probably why one all-too-true axiom of writing is, “Write for yourself.” That doesn’t mean “eschew market considerations”—because if you can’t find something to write about that other folks like too, you may well find yourself writing the world’s greatest novel—that no one else will ever read. Or buy. But seeking that meeting point—between personal and audience interest—is just one of the many challenges that we writers must face.

And if we’re smart, we’ll see that challenge as a singular opportunity to learn about both our own tastes and strengths as authors, and about the nature of the conversation we really wish to have with our readers.

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