Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Finding your muse in hyper space...

Writers who lean toward science fiction and fantasy often have to contend with the doubts and scorns of the reading public, and other writers.

If you write sci-fi or otherworldly stuff in general, you're not a real writer, they say.

My own mother has said to me:  "It must be easy to be a science fiction writer; you don't have to worry about character depth or motivation or anything like that, just the sci-fi stuff."  Ugh.  That really hurts.

Writing science fiction or fantasy does present a set of unique challenges for any writer.  As with any kind of fiction, if it's a story worth telling at all, you have to know your characters, what drives them, how they'll react to whatever situations you put them in, how they'll adapt, how they'll grow.  What's different about SF and fantasy is that it puts the point-of-view character in a world that's completely unfamiliar to the audience.  At least, one they don't physically live in or have to cope with.  So, of course, it's harder to make the reader identify with your characters, much less care about them.  Sometimes, it helps if the character is like a typical member of the reading public who suddenly finds him or herself dropped into some alien world, Alice down the rabbit-hole style.  The greater challenge is when the protagonist is part of the imaginary world you create.  You have to set the rules of that world, explain how it came about, and in a way that flows with the story so as not to bore the audience.  You have to put the reader right there with the character,  and make them understand how this character grew up in that world, how it shaped him or her, and most importantly, make the reader ask him or herself:  "How would I react in that situation?"

Two films are in the public eye right now:  "Twelve Years a Slave," which tells the real-life story of a free man illegally sold into slavery in the 1840's, and "Ender's Game," which is an adaptation of a science fiction novel.  One draws from life, the other from imagination, but both offer the same challenge:  How to put the audience in a situation alien to their daily lives and make them feel what is being felt, either by a nineteenth century free man facing the hellish nightmare of waking up a slave, or by a young boy facing another hellish nightmare, pulled from his family and trained to fight in a genocidal war on another planet.  For writers, (and actors as well, I'd imagine) the challenge is always getting inside the character's skin, no matter how outlandish the outward situation, and bringing the audience in there with you.  Bringing a totally unfamiliar situation to life in a timeless way is the test of the writer's ability.

The key difference of science fiction from mainstream fiction is of course that in mainstream, the character's place in the real world, past or contemporary is part of the flow of history that shapes all of us; the audience has a connection with it.  Science fiction, especially the far-flung future variety, presents a theory or speculation of where we might be going as a people (some readers just don't want to go there; they just want to experience life day to day.)  But, the moral, psychological and spiritual issues presented in a story that puts people in a hypothetical situation of the future is every bit as real and valid (if well though out; that's the other challenge of SF) as a story drawn from history.

"Twelve Years a Slave" brutally depicts the cruelty that we already know human beings are capable of committing against their fellows when the world they're living in teaches them that 'those others' are less that human.  Once that's socially programmed in, it always brings out the worst in the weakest of us, because it's self-serving and convenient, especially in hard times when you have someone else to blame for your own failures.  "Ender's Game" depicts a situation in which the completely hypothetical 'others' really are inhuman.  Humanity unites (sort of) in a common struggle against an alien enemy we can't understand or identify with.  Or, can we?  It's a story about sending children off to war.  Putting aside the expensive special effects of space ships zapping each other over alien planets, the essence of that subject is of course drawn from reality; we know (or think we know) something of the suffering of child soldiers.  In the movie, the story doesn't take place in some impoverished African village, but on gleaming futuristic space stations where the kids are trained to kill in theory, with video games.  Their trainers watch them on hidden vid screens, arguing complex psychological stratagems of which emotional strings to pull, of which primal needs in these kids to tap into so as to turn them into the most efficient killers.  It's a cold, clinical dissection of how human evil works.

It's easier to put the audience into the skin of the man who actually feels the whip on his back, feels the shackles on his wrists and ankles.  We feel the pain of the boy, too, in the young actor's tears of guilt when he nearly kills another trainee in a fight.  But, diffused through the high-tech wizardry of computer-generated illusion, and the maze of mysterious dream images that have to be navigated and interpreted, it's harder to get the point across to the audience with sufficient force.  "Ender's Game" makes its moral and philosophical point, but somehow, it never lays the necessary groundwork to drive the cruel 'aha' surprise at the end into our hearts with the same pain that the young protagonist feels at the end.  It comes part of the way, in the course of the boy's training, in forcing our society to morally question the philosophy of kicking an enemy when he's down, to make sure he never gets up to threaten us again another day.  A timeless moral question, to be sure, and an ambitious attempt.  But, in the end, I feel they depended too much on the dream-like visual and neglected the human core; it came across as a myth telling a moral, but not a real story of flesh and blood.

That's really the challenge of science fiction and fantasy;  Daring to do the story for real, in however fantastic a setting, and doing what all writers have to do:  Really showing, not just telling.  I say, go all the way, or don't try to go at all.

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