Journey Through A Strange Land Story

The last story form is best described as the journey through a strange land story, a great trek and epic quest narrative that is science fiction chiefly by virtue of its setting which is also its plot. The characters in this kind of tale must journey from Point A to Point B, through a landscape as different from our own as a Dali painting is from the reality it represents.

Jack Vance's Big Planet is the classic of this form, dealing with a huge world many times larger than Earth, and a forty thousand mile journey across an enormous continent harbouring dozens of wildly different societies, terrains, and challenges. In one short paragraph near the beginning of the novel, Vance sets the sense-of-wonder tone upon which all such stories depend, presenting a taste of marvels to come:

Looking to where Earth's horizon would lie, he could lift his eyes and see lands reaching far on out; pencil lines of various subtle colors, each line a plain or forest, a sea, a desert, a mountain range... He took a step forward, looked over his shoulder. 'Let's go.'

The landscape over which this trek takes place may be an alien planet, our own Earth in the far future (tens of thousands of years from now and utterly different than we know it today), an alternate world, an Earth based on an altered past, or even our own world in the days of pre-history when the continent of

Atlantis (some maintain) was the focal point of civilization. The writer must create one fantastic scene after another, make them credible, and keep the characters moving toward their distant goal, whatever it may be.

The difference between this story and the alien contact story is simple: in the alien contact story, the alien race and mankind's interaction with it is the center of focus; in the journey through a strange land tale, the landscape itself, rather than any alien race, is the prime focus. Aliens may appear, but they are dwarfed by the land they live in.

There are, naturally, thousands of science fiction stories, each subtly or obviously different than the last. But I believe that all of them can be categorized in these eight forms, without stretching the point much. Those published works that don't seem to fit any of the eight slots are usually composed of a combination of two or more of the plot types, such as John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Keith Laumer's The Long Twilight, and my own Beastchild.

By now, your plot at least sketchily outlined according to the simple plot formula mentioned in Chapter One, your background detailed, you are ready to begin putting the story on paper. It is not sufficient, however, merely to launch into the tale. A science fiction novel requires that certain conditions be met in the first paragraph, others in the first few pages, if the finished work is to be successful. We'll examine these conditions, and how to begin, next.

Every category novel must hook the reader's attention in the first paragraph and, if possible, in the very first sentence. It must provoke in him an immediate "need to know" how the situation, stated in the first paragraph, will be resolved. Once the narrative hook has been planted, the story may hold the reader's interest in one of two ways:

(1) the original situation, which caught his attention, turns out to be the major problem of the story and will not be resolved until the conclusion, after many intermediate challenges to the hero; (2) the hook turns out to be a minor problem that leads the hero rapidly into his most important bind. In either case—though (1) is preferable to (2)—the pace must be swift, the danger and the suspense continuous.

In a science fiction novel, you should not only present a strong narrative hook in the initial paragraph, but also give the reader a glimpse of the background of the story, thereby acclimating him to all the extrapolative detail yet to come. The sooner the reader understands that the story is set on another planet or in the future, the better equipped he will be to follow the plot without confusion.

Yet this information should not come in a dry, encyclopedic fashion. It should be a part of the narrative, incorporated into the developing story without causing the slightest hesitation in the plot pace. The following selection of first paragraphs should help you to understand how this requirement can be met.

This, from my own novel, Anti-Man:

It was really too much to hope for, but we seemed to have lost them. We had jumped from Knoxville to Pierre, South Dakota, from that drab terminal to Bismark, North Dakota, and on to San Francisco. In the City of the Sun, we had walked unknown with our hands in our pockets and our faces open to the sky, feeling less like fugitives than we had any right to, grabbing a day of much needed rest and a moment to collect our thoughts before dashing on. We had spent the day buying gear for the last leg of our escape, eating our first decent meal in two days, and sitting through some atrocious toto-experience film just because it was dark in the theater and, therefore, safer for the two most wanted men in the world. At midnight, we had bought tickets and boarded the next Pole-crossing rocket flight that would take us over Alaska. As the high-altitude craft flashed above Northern California and into Oregon, I took Him into the


bathroom at the end of the First Class compartment (fugitives should always travel First Class, for the rich are always too concerned with the way they look to notice anyone else) and locked the door. "Take off your coat and shirt," I told Him. "I want to see that wound."

Here, the narrative hook is planted in the first sentence, when the reader discovers the narrator and his companion are on the run from someone. The second sentence elaborates that point. The third sentence labels them as "fugitives" which would seem to put them on the wrong side of the law. In the fourth sentence, the reader is thoroughly hooked when he's told that they are the two most wanted men in the world. What are they wanted for? Will they escape their pursuers, or be caught? How badly is the unnamed man wounded? How was he wounded? What complications does his wound pose to their flight? The reader must follow the story to its conclusion to learn some of these answers.

A wealth of background detail is fitted into that paragraph, preparing the reader for a science fiction setting. That the heroes "jumped" from city to city implies some futuristic transportation system. "Toto-experience film" is a term that implies omni-sensory cinematic experience but which describes nothing available in the present-day world. They travel in a world-spanning rocketship, and such means of travel appears so commonplace that a future setting is indicated. Finally, the use of the capitalized "Him" for the narrator's companion prepares the reader to expect something odd, something presently indefinable. This last, besides being background, functions as a narrative hook too.

Also from my own work, Dark of the Woods:

The first bit of trouble came even as they were leaving the starship on Demos's port field; it was a harbinger of worse times ahead.

The first sentence is also the first paragraph. The narrative hook is the "trouble" mentioned and the statement that it was indicative of all that is to follow. Also in the first sentence, a starship and alien planet are mentioned, immediately clarifying at least the generalities of background for the reader.

In a science fiction novel, as in no other category, you can delay the appearance of the narrative hook for a few paragraphs, if the exotic background is so strange and intriguing of itself that it acts as the initial grabber to keep the reader going until the problem arises. Such a delay in the plot should never be longer than a page or two.

As example, consider the first paragraph of Robert Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars:

All my life I've wanted to go to Earth. Not to live, of course—just to see it. As everybody knows, Terra is a wonderful place to visit but not to live. Not truly suited to human habitation.

Though the heroine lacks a desperate problem at the outset, she does interest us by casually discounting Earth. Why is Earth a backwater place? Why is it unfit for habitation? What has happened between our time and hers? By the time that she explains herself, we have also been narratively hooked.

Robert Silverberg's excellent novel, Thorns, has a similar beginning in which background acts as a narrative grabber:

"Pain is instructive," Duncan Chalk wheezed. On crystal rungs he ascended the east wall of his office. Far on high was the burnished desk, the inlaid communicator box from which he controlled his empire. It would have been nothing for Chalk to sail up the wall on the staff of a gravitron. Yet each morning he imposed this climb on himself.

The crystal rungs, gravitron, and Chalk's own statement make the reader wonder what this future world is


like. As he reads a bit more to find out, the plot snares him expertly.

Here's a third and last example of the background-as-lead-in from another Silverberg novel, Nightwings:

Roum is a city built on seven hills. They say it was a capital of man in one of the earlier cycles. I did not know of that, for my guild was Watching, not Remembering; but yet as I had my first glimpse of Roum, coming upon it from the south at twilight, I could see that in former days it must have been of great significance. Even now it was a mighty city of many thousands of souls.

Clearly, Roum is Rome, and the story is set so far in the future that the present is forgotten. Such a background interests the reader, because he wonders how it came to be and how it differs from our world. The mention of guilds, Watching and Remembering, serves to add a note of mystery, of the exotic and curious.

Ordinarily, you should avoid the use of a "frame" in opening and closing your story. This is a narrative device in which the reader is addressed more directly than in the body of the plot with the intent of setting the story off like a gem in a gold brace. More often than not, the new writer will create a brace of lead, not gold. If you feel you must employ a frame, keep it short and dramatic, as in the following two examples. From The Puppet Master's by Robert Heinlein:

Were they truly intelligent? By themselves, that is? I don't know and I don't know how we can ever find out.

If they were not truly intelligent, I hope I never live to see us tangle with anything at all like them which is intelligent. I know who will lose. Me. You. The so-called human race.

From The Masks of Time by Robert Silverberg:

A memoir of this sort should begin with some kind of statement of personal involvement, I suppose; I was the man, I was there, I suffered. And in fact my involvement with the improbable events of the past twelve months was great. I knew the man from the future. I followed him on his nightmare orbit around our world. I was with him at the end.

Once begun, a science fiction novel requires a continuing balance of new plot developments and new background material, especially in the first few chapters. Experience at the keyboard, working on science fiction stories, and a study of the better science fiction writers will help you master this technique. To help you learn what to look for in your own work and the work of others you are studying, let's examine the first chapter of one of my own novels step-by-step, with special attention to how the plot and the background can be developed simultaneously.

The book is A Darkness in My Soul, published in June, 1972, by DAW Books, a publishing company begun by Donald A. Wollheim, formerly Vice-President of Editorial Policy at Ace Books and a well-respected, long-time editor of science fiction.

Chapter One

For a long while, I wondered if Dragonfly was still in the heavens and whether the Spheres of Plague still floated in airlessness, blind eyes watchful. I wondered whether men still looked to the stars with trepidation and whether the skies yet bore the cancerous seed of mankind. There was no way for me to find out, for I lived in Hell during those days, where news of the living gained precious little circulation.

I was a digger into minds, a head-tripper. I esped, I found secrets, knew lies, and reported all these things for a price. I esped. Some questions were never meant to be answered; some parts of a man's mind were never intended for scrutiny. Yet our curiosity is, at the same time, our greatest virtue and our most serious weakness. I had within my mind the power to satisfy any curiosity which tickled me. I esped; I found; I knew. And then there was a darkness in my soul, darkness unmatched by the depths of space that lay lightless between the galaxies, an ebony ache without parallel.

The first two paragraphs are part of a frame, but packed with narrative hooks and exotic background. The main hook: what did the hero discover, through ESP, to so change his life, and what trouble did it cause him? The background teasers include strange names—Dragonfly, Spheres of Plague—and the existence of a man with ESP who evidently exists in the future.

It started with a nerve-jangling ring of the telephone, a mundane enough beginning.

I put down the book I was reading and lifted the receiver and said, impatiently perhaps, "Hello?"

"Simeon?" the distant voice asked. He pronounced it correctly—Sim—ee—on.

It was Harry Kelly, sounding bedraggled and bewildered, two things he never was. I recognized his voice because it had been—in years past—the only sound of sanity and understanding in a world of wildly gabbling self-seekers and power mongers. I esped out and saw him standing in a room that was strange to me, nervously drumming his fingers on the top of a simulated oak desk. The desk was studded with a complex panel of controls, three telephones, and three tri-dimensional television screens for monitoring interoffice activity, the work space of someone of more than a little importance.

Here, a new character is introduced, in circumstances that indicate a problem about to develop. Also, we get more evidence of the future setting: the control-studded desk and tri-dimensional televisions.

"What is it, Harry?"

"Sim, I have another job for you. If you want it, that is. You don't have to take it if you're already wrapped up in something private."

He had long ago given up his legal practice to act as my agent, and he could be counted on for at least one call a week like this. Yet there was a hollow anxiety in his tone which made me uncomfortable. I could have touched deeper into his mind, stirred through the pudding of his thoughts and discovered the trouble. But he was the one person in the World I would not esp for purely personal reasons. He had earned his sanctity, and he would never have to worry about losing it.

In the no-nonsense fashion of category fiction, the relationship between these two characters is established. Also, with words like "hollow anxiety" and "uncomfortable," a tone of apprehension is slowly built.

"Why so nervous?" I asked. "What kind of job?"

"Plenty of money," he said. "Look, Sim, I know how much you hate these tawdry little government contracts. If you take this job, you're not going to need money for a long while. You won't have to snoop through a hundred government heads a week."

"Say no more," I said. Harry knew my habit of living beyond my means. If he thought there was enough in this to keep me living fat for some time to come, the buyer had just purchased his merchandise. All of us have our price. Mine just came a little steeper than most.

"I'm at the Artificial Creation complex. We'll expect you in—say twenty minutes."

"I'm on my way." I dropped the phone into its cradle and tried to pretend I was enthusiastic. But my stomach belied my true feelings as it stung my chest with acidic, roiling spasms. In the back of my mind, The Fear rose and hung over me, watching with dinner-plate eyes, breathing fire through black nostrils. The Artificial Creation building: the womb, my womb, the first tides of my life...

I almost crawled back into bed and almost said the hell with it. The AC complex was the last place on Earth I wanted to go, especially at night when everything would seem more sinister, when memories would play in brighter colors. Two things kept me from the sheets: I truly did not enjoy the loyalty checks I ran on government employees to keep me in spending money, for I was not only required to report traitors, but to delineate the abnormal (as the government defined that word) private practices and beliefs of those I scanned, violating privacy in the most insidious fashion; secondly, I had just promised Harry I would be there, and I couldn't find a single instance when that mad Irishman had let me down.

I cursed the womb which had made me, beseeching the gods to melt its plastic walls and short-circuit those miles and miles of delicate copper wires.

I pulled on street clothes over pajamas, stepped into overshoes and a heavy coat with fur lining, one of the popular nordic models. Without Harry Kelly, I would most likely have been in prison at that moment—or in a preventive detention apartment with federal plain-clothes guards standing watch at the doors and windows. Which is only a more civilized way of saying the same thing: prison. When the staff of Artificial Creation discovered my wild talents in my childhood, the FBI attempted to "impound" me so that I might be used as a "national resource" under federal control for the "betterment of our great country and the establishment of a tighter American defense perimeter." It had been Harry Kelly who had cut through all that fancy language to call it what it was—illegal and immoral imprisonment of a free citizen. He fought the legal battle all the way to the nine old men in nine old chairs where the case was won. I was nine when we did that—twelve long years ago.

We have now learned that the hero is apparently not of human parents, but an experiment of as yet unexplained "Artificial Wombs." He reads minds for pay—since his ability appears unusual—and is lucky to be a free citizen. We have also learned that the scene is the future United States, that Scandinavia is a source of fashions during this period, and that the hero is twenty-one.

It was snowing outside. The harsh lines of shrubbery, trees and curbs had been softened by three inches of white. I had to scrape the windscreen of the hovercar, which amused me and helped settle my nerves a bit. One would imagine that, in 2004 A.D., Science could have dreamed up something to make ice scrapers obsolete.

At the first red light, there was a gray police howler overturned on the sidewalk, like a beached whale. Its stubby nose was smashed through the display window of a small clothing store, and the dome light was still swiveling. A thin trail of exhaust fumes rose from the bent tailpipe, curled upwards into the cold air. More than twenty uniformed coppers were positioned around the intersection, though there seemed to be no present danger. The snow was tramped and scuffed, as if there had been a major conflagration, though the antagonists had disappeared. I was motioned through by a stern faced bull in a fur-collared fatigue jacket, and I obeyed. None of them looked in the mood to satisfy the curiosity of a passing motorist, or even to let me pause long enough to scan their minds and find it without their knowledge.

I arrived at the AC building and floated the car in for a Marine attendant to park. As I slid out and he slid in, I asked, "Know anything about the howler on Seventh? Turned on its side and driven halfway into a store. Lot of coppers."

He was a huge man with a blocky head and flat features that looked almost painted on. When he wrinkled his face in disgust, it looked as if someone had put an egg-beater on his nose and whirled everything together. "Peace criers," he said.

I couldn't see why he would bother lying to me, so I didn't go through the trouble of using my esp, which requires some expenditure of energy. "I thought they were finished," I said.

"So did everyone else," he said. Quite obviously, he hated the peace criers, as did most men in uniform. "The Congressional investigating committee proved the voluntary army was still a good idea. We don't run the country like those creeps say we do. Brother, I can sure tell you we don't!" Then he slammed the door and took the car away to park it while I punched for the elevator, stepped through its open maw, and went up.


I made faces at the cameras which watched me and repeated two dirty limericks on the way to the lobby.

In the space of three hundred words, the hero reaches the AC building, managing to fill us in, as he goes, on more of the background of 2004 A.D. The wheeled vehicle seems to have been replaced by air-cushion craft. The social system is in turmoil, with rioters and heavy police patrols. A voluntary army seems to have been in effect for some time—giving rise to charges by the "peace criers" that it is somehow running the country. Background topics touched on thus far: social conditions, fashions, transportation, the state of scientific advancement.

When the lift stopped and the doors opened, a second Marine greeted me, requested that I hold my fingertips to an identiplate to verify his visual check. I complied, was approved, and followed him to another elevator in the long bank. Again: up.

Too many floors to count later, we stepped into a cream-walled corridor, paced almost to the end of it, and went through a chocolate door that slid aside at the officer's vocal command. Inside, there was a room of alabaster walls with hex signs painted every five feet in brilliant reds and oranges. A small and ugly child sat in a black leather chair, and four men stood behind him, staring at me as if I were expected to say something of monumental importance.

I didn't say anything at all.

The child looked up, his eyes and lips all but hidden by the wrinkles of a century of life, by gray and grave-like flesh. I tried to adjust my judgment, tried to visualize him as a grandfather. But it was not so. He was a child. There was the glint of babyhood close behind that ruined countenance. His voice cracked like papyrus unrolled for the first time in millenia, and he gripped the chair as the words came, and he squinted his already squinted eyes, and he said, "You're the one." It was an accusation. "You're the one they sent for."

For the first time in many years, I was afraid. I was not certain what terrified me, but it was a deep and relentless uneasiness, far more threatening than The Fear which rose in me most nights when I considered my origins and the pocket of the plastic womb from which I came.

"You," the child said again.

"Who is he?" I asked the assembled military men.

No one spoke immediately, as if they wanted to be sure the freak in the chair was finished. He wasn't.

"I don't like you," he said. "You're going to be sorry you came here. I'm going to see to that."

A bit of background is added, extrapolating on advancements in criminology with the "identiplate." By the end of the chapter, the hero has encountered the problem of the child/ancient who is apparently born of the Artificial Wombs and who intends him harm. Wondering what kind of harm, and whether the hero can escape it, lead the reader on.

As the plot develops in chapter two, the reader learns that the Artificial Creation program is a military effort to develop human psionic weapons. Simeon, until this child/ ancient, was their only success, the others being merely normal or hideously mutated but all without esp. Though several hundred words of background are given on the Wombs and what they have done, it is parceled out through the entire chapter, as it was in chapter one, rather than delivered in one or two long expository paragraphs. This parceling-out is the key to a good science fiction background construction.

At one time, writers differentiated story characters by labels, simple descriptive tags used for repeated character identification. The writer would blatantly label one woman a hussie, the next a "good" woman, this man a cold-blooded egoist, the next a man of humanitarian impulses. Thereafter, when reappearing, the characters were recalled to the reader by their labels. Editors and writers alike shun such simplistic "craftsmanship" these days. You are expected to develop your characters through their actions, by showing the reader instead of telling him.

For example, if one of your story people engages in a fist fight, bests his opponent but continues to beat and kick him after he has won, we do not need to have the character labeled a sadist. He has shown us, by his actions, that he has ugly violent urges.

If another character sits in a fancy restaurant, eating french fried potatoes with his fingers, belching, telling raucous jokes, his napkin balled beside his plate rather than smoothed over his lap or thigh, he is clearly somewhat of a mannerless lout. The writer does not have to directly label him as such.

Likewise, it is no longer acceptable for a writer to differentiate his story people through the use of physical quirks or personality idiosyncrasies. A character with a scarred face and no other traits to separate him from his fellows is not a character at all, but a vague outline. A man identified continually through a habit—scratching his chin, pacing, always with a certain kind of drink, or by repeated use of the same phrase—is also a thin creation, ultimately unbelievable.

This is not to say that physical quirks and idiosyncrasies are to be avoided. They work well in conjunction with carefully explained motivation and a well-rounded portrait of all aspects of a character's personality.

A common mistake made by good, new category fiction writers is that in their science fiction stories they attempt to fully realize the human characters, but they construct the aliens out of cardboard, spit, and prayer. As I said before, the non-human members of your science fiction cast must be as believably motivated and as individualistic as any of their human counterparts, with but two exceptions: (1) when the alien is used as a comic foil or focus for satire or slapstick humor (and I've already warned against this approach), or (2) when the aliens never appear directly in the story, or appear only fleetingly, chiefly revealed as a sinister, unseen force (examples of this sort of story are Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham, which recounts a horrifying battle between mankind and unseen aliens who live beneath the seas, and The Shores of Another Sea by Chad Oliver, which describes a first contact between man and unseen alien as they try to conquer fear of each other and learn to accept each other's existence). Otherwise, your extra-terrestrials must be as realistic as you can make them.

The reader can be made to feel the unhumanity of your aliens in several different ways. Most obvious, and the first technique you will use when introducing them, is their appearance, which will be either subtly or radically different from that of mankind. The more detailed you make their appearance, the more solid is your first step toward making them credible beings.

In my own novel, Beastchild, which was voted one of the most popular science fiction novels of the decade in one poll and received a Hugo Award nomination in its year, I was especially conscious of creating a believable alien, for he was the hero of the story and had to capture the reader's interest and sympathy from the outset. Careful, thorough delineation of his race's physical and mental standards helped to make him real, as the following passages from the book should indicate.

In his onyx-walled room in the occupation tower, Hulann had disassociated his overmind from his organic regulating brain. He removed it from all stimuli, including the cells of his memory banks, where it could not even dream. He slept the perfect death-like sleep that only his kind, in all the myriad worlds of the galaxy, seemed to be able to achieve.

The naoli? The lizard men? They're the ones who die every night, aren't they?

To Hulann in his sleeping state, there was no sound whatsoever. No light. No images of color, no heat or cold. If there was a taste upon his long, thin tongue, his overmind could not know. Indeed all the stimuli were so censored that there was not even darkness. Darkness, after all, represented only nothingness.

He could return to wakefulness in any one of three ways, though there was a decided order of preference among these methods. First, and most unpleasant, was his body's built-in danger alarm. If his regulating brain, the heavily convoluted organic portion of his mind, should discover something seriously amiss with his temporal shell, it would be able to contact and wake his overmind through a fail-safe system of seldom-used third-order nerve clusters. Such a contact would shock its own grey cortex, opening the nether-world pocket in which the ethereal overmind sleeps.

(Pause here for an anecdote or two. In a thousand places across the stars, stories are told which concern the naoli and the seriousness with which alcoholic beverages affect their "danger alarm" waking system. These stories are told in barrooms in port cities, down in the basements of questionable buildings that lease their rooms to even more questionable businessmen, or in sweet-drug centers on better looking but no more honest streets. It seems that while sweet-drugs bring only euphoria to the naoli, alcohol transforms them into bobbling, bouncing, scaly-tailed clowns who—after half an hour of making total fools of themselves—collapse into their death-sleep. They stretch out stiff as ice right on the floor. In some less reputable establishments (which is to say most of these places) the other patrons make great sport out of carrying the unconscious lizard men to odd places like garbage bins and ladies' washrooms and letting them there to wake. This damages nothing but the naoli's ego. A far more nasty pastime among these same drunken buffoons is to see how far they must go to trigger the naoli's "danger alarm" system. But the alarm is stupefied by alcohol and does not work well. The stories you hear later are about naoli lying there with their webs sizzling, not even twitching in response. Or of a naoli with fifty pins stuck in its legs, sleeping peacefully while its heavy blood seeped out through its tough gray skin. Naoli do not often drink liquor. When they do, it is usually alone. They are not a stupid race.)

Much less unpleasant but still not desirable, a naoli could come awake if the Phasersystem had something to tell him. That could, of course, be anything from urgent news to another spate of propaganda from the central committee. More often than not, it was the latter.

Finally, and best of all, the overmind could awake of its own accord. Before retiring into the netherworld, the overmind could plant a suggestion with a time-trigger. Then, ten or eight, or fifteen or twenty hours later, it would click into consciousness with the clarity of a tri-dimensional screen being turned on.

Here, the reader is confronted with an alien quality so fundamental that it becomes impossible for him to think of the hero, Hulann, as a fancily dressed human. If naoli and man are so different in the way they sleep and wake, how much more must they differ on complex questions? Also, with the key words and phrases like "lizard men," "scaly-tailed," "webs," and "tough gray skin," the unhuman appearance of the aliens is kept in the front of the reader's mind.

Other physiological references abound:

He snorted, opening his second set of nostrils now that he would need a full air supply for movement. When his lungs swelled and adjusted to the new air flow, he got out of bed.


Hulann moved closer, raising the double .lids completely free of his huge, oval eyes.

And this:


Hulann winced. His double stomach burned on both levels with acidic agitation.

Aside from their physical peculiarities, alien creatures will have habits and gestures that are unlike human habits and gestures. The naoli, for example, use sweet-drugs rather than alcohol, a substance with no effect on human beings. As for their gestures:

He tucked his tail between his legs, wrapping it around his left thigh in the age-old reaction to danger, to the unknown, to that which made the scales of the scalp tighten and ache.

A human being's reaction to fear might be a hunching of the shoulders, a stiffening of the back, balling of the fists. But the naoli are not human beings. Another gesture:

[Hulann] passed the others without comment, noticing the odd looks he drew from them. Realizing that his lips were pulled in over his teeth, giving him a look of shame, he quickly rearranged his facial composure...

When we say a man looks shamefaced, we certainly don't mean that he has his lips drawn in over his teeth!

Having convincingly established the differences in appearance between the aliens and mankind, you must make continual application of these differences, elaborating on them, throughout the story. This can be done in any of three ways: (1) through the alien's relationships with his own kind, (2) through his contacts with men, (3) through his reactions to events in the story.

Let's look, for example, at alien-to-alien interaction in Beastchild, one of many such scenes in the book, this one concerning naoli sexuality:

She licked her lips with her tongue, then stuck more of it out and flicked at her chin. She was pretty. He did not understand how he had almost walked by without stopping.

Certainly, a man would not be attracted to a woman whose tongue was so long she could lick her chin with it and did so, apparently, with some regularity. But naoli values of beauty will be different from those of a man. And, having established a naoli's sexuality, one must also expect it to be satisfied in a manner unlike human satisfaction:

He watched her a moment longer, reluctant to leave. More than any other female he had seen in the last two hundred years, she made him want to make a verbal commitment. It would be a delight to go away with her, into the warren of his own house back on the home world, and fuse for sixteen days, living off the fat of their bodies and the ceremonial waters they would take with them.

He could envision her in ecstasy.

And when she came out of the warren, she would have the gaunt, fleshless look of a desirable woman who has mated for the standard fusing period.

She would be gorgeous in the aura of her femininity.

In a few simple paragraphs that don't interrupt the narrative flow, the reader gets a glimpse of another basic difference between men and naoli, as profound a difference as the way they sleep and wake.

Through contact with men, the alien's unhuman qualities will also be driven home, as in the following exchange between Hulann and a human child, Leo, whom he has befriended against all the laws of his race which has been at war with ours for many years:

"Doesn't that hurt?" Leo asked. file:///C|/My Shared Folder/E-books/Dean Koontz/25 Writing Popular Fiction.html (26 of 108) [7/7/2004 2:15:16 PM]

Koontz,Dean_-_Writing_Popolur_Fiction(1.0) "What?"

"Your lips. When you pull them in over your teeth like that."

Hulann quickly showed his teeth, put a hand to his lips and felt them. "No," he said. "We -have few nerves in our outer layers of flesh."

"You look funny," Leo said. He drew his own lips in over his teeth and made talking motions, then burst out laughing.

Hulann found himself laughing also, watching the boy mimic him. Did he really look like that? It was a mysterious expression on a naoli; or at least he had been raised to respect it as such. In this mock version, it truly was humorous.

"What are you doing?" the boy squealed, laughing even harder.

"What?" Hulann asked, looking about him. His body was still. His hands and feet did not move.

"That noise," Leo said.


"That wheezing sound."

Hulann was perplexed. "Mirth," he said. "Laughter like yours."

"It sounds like a drain that's clogged," Leo said. "Do I sound that bad to you?"

Hulann began laughing again. "To me... you sound like some birds that we have on my world. They are great, hairy things with three legs and tiny little bills."

In other words, the writer must realize that the aliens will find human beings as strange as men find them.

Finally, the writer must apply these alien peculiarities to plot developments. In the following example from Beast-child, while Hulann and Leo are fleeing pursuers by means of a cable car dangling above a snowy landscape in the midst of a storm, we see the naoli react in a very individual and different manner, based on his race's traits:

Hulann's tail snapped, then wound around his left thigh, tight.

"What's the matter?" the boy asked.


"You look upset."

Hulann grimaced, his reptillian features taking on a pained look. "We're awfully high," he said in a thin voice.

"High? But it's only a hundred feet down!"

Hulann looked mournfully at the cable sliding past above them. "A hundred feet is enough if that should break."

"You've been in shuttlecraft without even a cable." "The highest they go is fifteen feet."


"Your starships, then. You can't get any higher than that."

"And you can't fall, either. There's no gravity out there."

Leo was laughing now, bending over the waist-high safety bar and giggling deep down in his throat. When he looked up again, his small face was red, and his eyes were watery. "This is something else!" he said.

"You're afraid of heights. Naoli aren't supposed to be afraid of anything. Do you know that? Naoli are vicious fighters, hard, ruthless opponents. Nowhere does it say they are permitted to fear anything."

"Well." Hulann said weakly.

"We're almost there," Leo said. "Just steel yourself for another minute or two, and it'll all be over."

Because he has irrational fears, the alien becomes that much more of a believable character, amusing and sympathetic.

Appearance, habits, gestures, expressions, sexual and non-sexual value judgments, actions and reactions to plot incidents in accordance with his other-worldly origins all serve to make a non-human character real. You must further explore his eating habits, manner of dress, social customs, forms of entertainment, religion, government, philosophy and a hundred and one other facets of his unusual daily life.

Then, when you have created a believable extra-terrestrial race, you must be certain that the various aliens in your story—if more than one appears—are as unlike each other, personally, as one human being is from his neighbor. Certainly, they will all share attitudes and reactions. But just as certainly, their personalities and opinions will differ wildly from one alien to another—unless, of course, you have postulated a race of ants with a group mind and single social goal.

Remember, too, that not all members of an off-Earth race will be soldiers, bakers, or candlestick makers. Each will have a different career and will have his worldview colored by his talents. One present-day science fiction writer continually portrays alien races—in a consistent future history he has been writing in a number of stories and novels—as each being interested in one pursuit: the building of spaceships, the making of war, and so forth. His fiction lacks credibility because of this simplistic touch, this lack of individuality among separate members of the same alien group, and he is the only major writer in the field who gets away with that inadequacy.

As with science fiction, fantasy has improved in recent years, both in the substance of its themes and the depth of its characterization, though it remains less relevant to the real world, on the whole, than science fiction. This lack of relevancy is an unavoidable part of the form, by its very definition: a literature dealing with magic and/or the supernatural, without the scientific rationale for its "wonders" that science fiction must contain. Because it lacks a reasonable, scientific explanation, fantasy is divorced from reality and requires more "faith" on the part of its readership, a greater willingness to suspend disbelief. The moment you begin to explain how a werewolf could exist, how a disease can cause lycanthropy (as in Leslie Whitten's Moon of the Wolf), how a man might become mentally disturbed enough to actually live as a vampire (Whitten's Progeny of the Adder), you are writing science fiction or, possibly, psychological suspense. Fantasy generally lacks these levels of meaning and exists as pure escapist literature—a function it fills admirably well.

The similarities between science fiction and fantasy are so obvious that many writers have a difficult time understanding they are not the same category of fiction. Both kinds of stories are usually set in times and places alien to ours. Both are filled with fantastic incident and bizarre problems for the hero to overcome. Both forms often employ non-human characters. Yet science fiction and fantasy are different, are bought and published and read under different labels.

Except in especially unique stories, fantasy does not deal with extra-terrestrial creatures, time machines, strange new inventions, or space travel. It employs, instead, many sorts of superstitions: ghosts (Richard Matheson's Hell House), vampires (Bram Stoker's Dracula), werewolves (Guy Endore's Werewolf of Paris), demons (James Blish's Black Easter and Day After Judgment), banshees, witches (Keith Roberts' Anita, Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife), sorcerers (David Mason's The Sorcerer's Skull), elves, leprechauns, dwarves, fairies, inexplicably sentient beasts and other mythological beings, charms, incantations, chants, spells, curses, and devils, all of which exist without rational explanation. Usually fantasy is set in its own richly detailed world with no overt comparisons to our place and time (which would destroy the reader's suspension of disbelief in such delicately wrought tales; except in some Dark Fantasy—which we will soon discuss—the reader should be made to forget his own world and settle thoroughly into the fantastic one). The author usually makes no attempt to explain how this other world came into existence or where it is in space/time. The fantasy may also be set at the dawn of time on Earth, in that period of pre-history when, some say, great cities—influenced by the laws of magic rather than by the laws of science—flourished. If set in the far future, a fantasy must not provide scientific explanations for its miracles; for example, if the hero's magical abilities are hinted to be extra-sensory perceptions which have evolved in human kind since our own day, the story becomes science fiction and not fantasy.

In short, fantasy is mystic. It is shrouded in mystery and a psychic sense of "other lives, other places" which require in the reader a special faith in magic and the supernatural for him to be fully snared—while science fiction is predicated on our present-day knowledge of the universe and upon what we rationally expect to discover in the future.

This does not mean, however, that fantasy may be illogical. Once the oddities of the imagined world are given, all events must flow from the background conditions within the world. A hero may not escape from a dungeon simply by "magically" snapping his fingers, unless you have prepared the reader for this development from the outset by establishing that the hero has such a power. (And if you do make a hero's lot this easy, you destroy any suspense you might otherwise be able to build; if he is all-powerful, the hero generates no sympathy or concern from the reader.) Nor may you postulate a land in which the citizens have all sorts of magic powers—and then fail to postulate a set of controls and balances that would insure social order among these men who could circumvent most laws. For example, if everyone could perform feats of magic, would the police use magic too, instead of guns and handcuffs; a stronger magic than criminals might possess? Because of this need to order the basically unorderable, to reason with the unreasonable, many writers find fantasy far more demanding than science fiction.

Like science fiction, fantasy can be broken into sub-types. Unlike science fiction, characterization differs from form to form, as do, in some cases, the motivations. Let's look at the four sub-types of the fantasy story and their individual characteristics.

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