Hunting For a Science Fiction Story

I’m working on… maybe, perhaps, when I get around to it one of these days, when I’ve got my shit together… writing some science fiction.

As part of the process of understanding what draws me to that genre, I thought I would review some of the science fiction and occasional fantasy novels that made an impression and try to figure out what specifically made me like them. And then come up with an exploratory pastiche of a story that incorporates similar elements.

A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter Miller, Jr. A wise, sad, funny novel of nuclear Armageddon and its aftermath. The grocery list that became sanctified as the holy relic of a lost culture and the whole monastic, Catholic, hierarchical way of struggling to revive civilization. The story extract: apocalyptic, monastic, satirical.

Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke. A young man begins to question the reality he’s been told is true amidst the delusional stagnation of the far future city Diaspar. Acts on his questioning, and is right, changing the whole world. Very evocative. Extract: young man, subversive.

– The Harry Harrison novels about Deathworld: a world where every plant and animal is inimical to humans, and are constantly evolving to get them, until the humans learn a lesson. (The local life reads the hostile thoughts of Earth settlers and transforms into ever deadlier forms. The harder the humans fight the more formidable becomes their planetary opposition.) The cool thing about this was that the humans had to train to become these incredible, reflexive martial artists/shootists in order to even take a walk outside. Extract: action, survival under extreme conditions, the importance of the way of harmony. Hey, teenage boys! This is a good one!  (And for the teenage-boy-at-heart…)

– Alien contact novels, of which there are many. There’s Chindi, by Jack McDevitt, one I read recently which contained a mysterious alien craft, miles long. There’s also the book and the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke again. The whole idea of that moment of meeting The Other, and that there is such a one to meet. The sense of mystery and wonder. Extract: the alien, anticipation, wonder.

– James Blish, Cities in Space series. The city (ship) manager dealing with all the problems of generations in space between the worlds. Travelling, closed systems, conflicts in tight quarters, the political machinations, the microcosm of human society, the continuity of purpose and its distractions over generations… I’m not quite sure why I liked these. But maybe extract: politics, struggling to do the right thing for the larger group in peculiar circumstances.

– The Stephen Donaldson novels about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. The valor and epic virtue of some of the characters. Events are constructed where the good has a part to play, is integral to the story. Extract: importance of the good.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White. The typical story of unrecognized young man becoming king (in part). The King Arthur mythology is very strong to me. What’s up, Merlin? Extract: mythological dimension.

The Mahjipoor Chronicles and other Robert Silverberg novels in that series. The Mahjipoor stories occur on a bigger than huge planet, and again about an unrecognized youth becoming emperor. Extract: sense of wonder, destiny.

– John Brunner, of course. The Sheep Look Up, Shockwave Rider and others. In their time, cutting edge science fiction. Examining contemporary issues through stories a step ahead or two in the future. A lot about computers, worms, etc. Extract: penetrating social and technological commentary.

– Philip K. Dick. Not so much any particular story, but his whole hallucinatory, parallel universe, the way he questions and confuses what’s real and unreal, that sense of cosmic, spiritual significance. Extract: Reality. What a concept.

– Jack Vance. Wonderful witty science fiction novels of manners… The master of that sub-form if there be such a thing. Such precisely imagined worlds, outlandish plots and great, great names. Novels like The Dying Earth, of which Norman Spinrad said, a story of a far future earth “steeped in magic born of rotting history,” and The Last Castle. Extract: the importance of humour and style.

Wasp by Eric Frank Russell. A great story of subversion, of a guy put down on a hostile, totalitarian planet, who starts to put out revolutionary memes (graffiti on walls, etc.) that get picked up on and start to shatter the status quo of the society. Extract: the strength of subversive ideas, the brittleness of totalitarian regimes.

– A short story or short novel, can’t remember the title, or the author… (It may be Superstition, a short story by Lester del Rey) …memorable for the way a fellow is stuck in prison on an alien planet never to be released. Apparently the aliens are a superstitious bunch. He begins to manipulate their superstitions in several clever ways until they free him and congratulate themselves for doing so. Extract: It’s bad luck to be superstitious.

– Clifford Simak. Many of his stories, in particular Way Station. I remember this guy who stays young forever as the caretaker of a station for time travelers, who starts to come to the attention of hostile neighbours. But mostly I just remember the warmth of his writing style. It won the Hugo Award in 1963 for best science fiction novel. Extract: Characters you care about.

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. The world of the future ruled by two rival advertising agencies… Extract: Satire and social criticism.

– Ursula Le Guin. Just because she’s such a great writer. The Dispossessed. The Lathe of Heaven. Brilliant. Extract: Psychological and anthropological insight embedded in the story, and not as commentary. Story as change, not just conflict, which is one of her points I read in an article she wrote about her craft.

– Mervyn Peake. Oh yeah, Titus Groan and Gormenghast. Gormenghast reminds me of a recurring dream of a vast house, stretching beyond what is known, which cannot be seen the end of, where epic stories play themselves out. In Gormenghast, hierarchy as oppression and totalitarianism. The names of people and places, of course, are so bizarre and interesting. The story is not really as intriguing as the setting. Extract: the importance of setting.

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I must have read that at least a couple of times as a kid. Genius founder predicts and somehow responds to the unexpected events of the future in order to save humanity. He establishes the Foundation as a means to manipulate events through his calculus of prediction. Although he dies fairly early on, his hologram is still around to respond (incredible powers of prediction?) to events. Extract: humans of vast vision.

Of Men and Monsters, by William Tenn. The story revolved about a band of humans who are like bugs on the carpet. The Earth has been a world long taken over by alien giants with unknown purposes. Their size is like a hill compared to a human. Eventually a few courageous, if relatively tiny, humans steal an alien spaceship and head for the stars. Somewhat similar, The Alien Years, by Robert Silverberg, where inscrutable giant aliens conquer Earth without even acknowledging humans, inscrutably build alien structures, and then after a desparate human attack with equivocal results, some time later inscrutably leave. Extract: Again survival under great and strange adversity.

Islandia, by Austin Tappan Wright. This made a deep impression on me although I can’t remember many details now. An utopian novel about an island nation where the characters and families who reside there have a city life and a country life, and the entire culture is built around shifting between the two, but the times are a’changing. Lots of dialogue and issues between the sexes. The published novel is a posthumous abridgement of a 400,000-word original. It has been likened in scope to Tolkien’s Middle Earth but with a much more realistic setting. Extract: Other possible social arrangements.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein… don’t know if this would still hold up, but at the time I read it, it was must-read for the counterculture. There was a strong communal aspect to the story. To grok… Again, a religious, spiritual dimension, if too weighted towards a Christian understanding. Extract: the use of a new word to get at higher experience, the power of community.

Now what kind of story does this lead me to, that will get me excited? Some preliminary notes:

  • Possible – make a murder mystery with scifi context, background…
  • In any case, one can see attractive threads of subversion, valour, battle, the importance of the good, martial arts-like traits and skills, social and technological commentary and prediction, aliens and wonder, monasticism, spirituality and apocalypse, survival under difficult conditions.
  • Slimming it down: Survival under adverse conditions, subversiveness, monasticism and spirituality, valour, aliens, the vastness and strangeness of the universe.
  • A stray thought: the Internet as memory. People won’t be able or bothered to remember much, their memories will atrophy as the instantly accessible Web carries more and more the remnants of their identity.
  • Revenge as a good plot driver. Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male comes to mind as a great model to science fictionize.
  • How about a story that combines the best of Canticle for Liebowitz with Deathworld with Wasp with Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. That would be a story!
  • Monastic angle idea: Travel between the stars (make it instead for just the Solar System?) so stressful for crew only a monastic order can do the job. Make it a Buddhist-like monastic order… Their practice is travel among the stars.

As a break from all this design, I like to take an occasional time-out with random story generators. Here’s one at http://www.j-paine.org/cgi-bin/spin.php.

Planet 9 of Alpha-Centauri is used as the cue ball in a game of galactic bar-billiards and is visited by good robots who are wiped out by atom-test radiation which then turns everyone else into supermen so everyone gets very bored and tries to forget this by becoming Gods; creating a new Universe wherein Earth falls toward the Sun and everyone dies.

For more fun along these lines try the much more comprehensive story generator at Flat Earth Games.

(In fact, if the whole subject of generators enthralls you as it does me try The Generator Blog.  Everything from the Hipster Tee Shirt Generator to The Mobster Threat Generator are at your fingertips.  There are treasures here.)

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Explore posts in the same categories: Science Fiction, Writing

9 Comments on “Hunting For a Science Fiction Story”

  1. bloglily Says:

    What a rich description — of many wonderful-sounding novels; and an interesting way to go about setting up your story. I heard Toni Morrison speak once and she said she started writing so she’d have books to read she liked. Sounds like that’s the direction you’re headed. Any of the many you’ve described sounds like fun — but I’m partial to the young man who doesn’t know who he is theme. And the monk-ship. Will you say more as you get further along? It’s inspiring to see how you’re going about this.

  2. qazse Says:

    home late from a catering job:

    I like the murder mystery in sci-fi context. I also like the subversive outsider angle woven in. Could she/he be the …

    I have not had aspirations regarding a novel for quite some time. ( Doc, would LiteraryLavitra help?). It must seem daunting at times and exhilarating at others. I think if I did, I might just start writing and see what began to foment. Or perhaps I would write some short stories to test out characters and settings etc. – kinda like living together before marriage.

    In any case, I am impressed by the amount of sci-fi you are familiar with. You apparently love the genre. From your list it seems you love everything about it. Maybe thinking “first” novel versus “a” novel would give you the freedom to go down one road this year and another the next.

    I commend you for throwing this out into cyberspace. It implies a certain accountability. I do think you are up to the task. But, if you decide not to do it, that is cool too. It is a consuming endeavor for most.

    best regards

  3. fencer Says:

    Hi Bloglily,

    Yes, that theme of young man beckoned somehow by greatness does crop up a lot. Probably because I was quite young when I read most of these, and really wanted to be great someday with that vague hopefulness of the lost teenager and twenty-something I was, and so those stories made an impression on me.

    Actually, going through this little exercise of looking at the science fiction I remember, among other things, has led me to a rough-hewn sense of the story I would like to try and tell. Got a character I’m trying to develop more before I can get farther with it…

    —-

    Hi qazse,

    Thanks for your comments. There is so much great sci-fi, although sometimes buried in the dross. And a lot of the newer stuff, I’m not so familiar with.

    I’m having some fun, exploring ideas. We’ll have to see where it leads…

  4. sputnki Says:

    Hey fencer, superb list and links. Your mention of Frederick Pohl reminded me of a novel I had acquired years ago which didn’t make an impression on me as a young fella. I think it was “Gateway”. I reread it in the last year and well, just like fine wine it had gotten a lot better with age!

    Ursula Le Guin is another favourite. I agree about “The Dispossessed”, that was a great story. My favourite of hers would have to be “Always Coming Home” which I devoured one month when I was doing field work in the high Arctic. The Thomas Covenant series I remember going through in university. A great epic tale that! And talk about a tortured anti-hero….

    Doug

  5. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    You know, that’s one Pohl novel I didn’t read, Gateway, though I know it was supposed to be good. I’m putting together a sci-fi reading list for myself and that one will be on there.

    I found quite a good reference book at the library, Anatomy of Wonder 4th Edition, a Critical Guide to Science Fiction, edited by Neil Barron. Got some good books for my reading list from there.

    I might have missed “Always Coming Home” as well… another one to check out.

    That’s one aspect of the Thomas Covenant series I should have extracted: the tortured, reluctant hero. That is such a memorable part of it, especially at the beginning, that the main character has leprosy and has to maintain a discipline of constantly checking his body.

  6. hyperpat Says:

    The Covenant series has aspirations of being not just very good fantasy, but literature as well. Right down to the protagonists name. Read closely, it’s quite noticable in the type of languange used, its overall plot construction, its very use of an anti-hero meme. Quite a few people who’ve read it have turned their noses up because the protagonist is such an a**hole, and can’t seem to get beyond the rape scene, not seeming to realize that this is really the defining point of the novel from which almost everything else follows.

    Heinlein’s Stranger still stands as one the definining books of the genre, showing that SF isn’t just about gadgets, but rather encompasses all human societies, the belief systems and moral codes of those societies. There’s a pretty good breakdown of this book in The Martian Named Smith: Critical Perspectives on Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land by William H. Patterson and Adrew Thornton. The construction of this book deserves some attention, especially if you’re thinking about writing your own work.

  7. fencer Says:

    Hi hyperpat,

    Thanks a lot for your comments. I remember giving the Thomas Covenant books to a friend of mine who, never mind not reading science fiction, didn’t read much at all. He became completely enthralled and we had some animated discussions about what was going on in the story.

    I will certainly look for that book you mention… sounds interesting and useful.

    Have you tried your hand at writing science fiction? Pardon my curiosity…

    Regards

  8. hyperpat Says:

    A long, long time ago in a universe far, far away, I took a couple stabs at writing SF. Almost got one accepted at Fantasy & Science Fiction. But then I left my parent’s house and had to make my own way in the world, and what with earning a living, getting married and raising a couple of kids, those aspirations got placed far back on the closet shelf. However, hopefully in the near future things will finally get to the point where I’ll have the necessary time to take some new stabs at it – I actually started writing a fantasy short a couple days ago, but it’s got a long way to go before I can call it a real story.

    As far as that book on Stranger, I met the author at the Worldcon in San Jose in 2002, and had some fairly long discussions with him. He also managed to get me to join the Heinlein society, which I most definitely don’t regret, as this organization is trying to do some real work in promoting both space flight and sf reading in schools, both goals certainly something worth striving for.

  9. fencer Says:

    That’s great you’re exploring writing once again…

    My favorite quote from Heinlein:

    “It’s amazing how much mature wisdom resembles being too tired.”


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