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By Charlie Stross Being a guy who writes science fiction, people expect me to be well-informed about the current state of the field—as if I'm a book reviewer who reads everything published in my own approximate area. This is a little like expecting a bus driver to have an informed opinion on every other form of four-wheeled road-going transport.
Similarly, marketing folks keep sending me SF novels in the hope I'll read them and volunteer a cover quote. But over the past decade I've found myself increasingly reluctant to read the stuff they send me: I have a vague sense of dyspepsia, as if I've just eaten a seven course banquet and the waiter is approaching me with a wafer-thin mint.
This isn't to say that I haven't read a lot of SF over the past several decades. While I'm an autodidact—there are holes in my background—I've read most of the classics of the field, at least prior to the s. But about a decade ago I stopped reading SF short stories, and this past decade I've found very few SF novels that I didn't feel the urge to bail on within pages or a chapter or two at most.
Including works that I knew were going to be huge runaway successes, both popular and commercially successful—but that I simply couldn't stomach. It's not you, science fiction, it's me.
Like everyone else, I'm a work in progress.
I've changed over the years as I've lived through changing times, and what I focus times new roman or arial essay writer in a work of fiction has gradually shifted.
Meanwhile, the world in which I interpret a work of fiction has changed. And in the here and now, I find it really difficult to suspend my disbelief in the sorts of worlds other science fiction writers are depicting.
About a decade ago, M. John Harrison whose stories and novels you should totally read, if you haven't already wrote on his blog: Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing indeed, for acts of reading.
Worldbuilding numbs the reader's ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary.
It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn't there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. I recognize the point he's putting in play here: The implicit construction of an artificial but plausible world is what distinguishes a work of science fiction from any other form of literature.
It's an alternative type of underpinning to actually-existing reality, which is generally more substantial and less plausible—reality is under no compulsion to make sense. Note the emphasis on implicit, though. Worldbuilding is like underwear: Worldbuilding is the scaffolding that supports the costume to which our attention is directed.
Without worldbuilding, the galactic emperor has no underpants to wear with his new suit, and runs the risk of leaving skidmarks on his story. Storytelling is about humanity and its endless introspective quest to understand its own existence and meaning.
But humans are social animals. We exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we're going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists' social context—otherwise, we're looking at perspective-free cardboard cut-outs.
And technology and environment inextricably dictate large parts of that context. You can't write a novel of contemporary life in the UK today without acknowledging that almost everybody is clutching a softly-glowing fondleslab that grants instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, provides an easy avenue for school bullies to get at their victims out-of-hours, tracks and quantifies their relationships badlyand taunts them constantly with the prospect of the abolition of privacy in return for endless emotionally inappropriate cat videos.
We're living in a world where invisible flying killer robots murder wedding parties in Kandahar, a billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars, and loneliness is a contagious epidemic.
We live with constant low-level anxiety and trauma induced by our current media climate, tracking bizarre manufactured crises that distract and dismay us and keep us constantly emotionally off-balance.
These things are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don't have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren't lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note, alienated from the very society they are supposed to illuminate.
Now for a personal perspective. I don't find other peoples' motivations intuitively obvious:Get the most out of a custom writing service with our talented experts and a wide variety of assignment types.
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