Useful Background

One of the biggest problems facing the writer of a science fiction short story is the need to create a background that is convincing without being overpowering. The writer of a contemporary story, or a historical or western or detective story, can take it for granted that the reader is familiar with most of the background details. After all, a table is a table. Modern American readers know what a stagecoach looks like; they can easily visualize the glittering chandeliers of Louis XIV's palace at Versailles; and they think they know what the inside of a jail looks like.

But what does the reader know of the ammonia seas of Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn? How can a reader visualize the flight deck of an interstellar spacecraft? Or the weightless recreation room of a space station, where the crew works out by playing zero-gravity volleyball?

In each and every science fiction story, the entire background must be supplied to the reader. The writer cannot say, "You know what I mean," when he mentions a laser handgun, even though he could simply use the word pistol in a western or detective story and the reader would instantly know what he meant.

This is one reason why science fiction short stories are so difficult to do well, and why science fiction is such a good discipline for any writer.

Often, the writer will start out to produce a short story and end up with a novelette — about 20,000 words instead of 5,000 to 7,000—because she needed the extra wordage to draw a convincing background.

Ten thousand words or more just for the background? This is perfectly all right, if the background is interesting and if it plays an integral part in the story's development. For example, in Orson Scott Card's famous Ender's Game, the entire story depends on the reader's understanding of the high-tech war games that Ender Wiggins and the other children are forced to play. Card spent much time and energy describing those games, not only because they are fascinating in their own right, but because they are vital to the unfolding of the story Card wants to tell.

On the other hand, there have been many science fiction stories in which the background has taken over the entire story and pushed everything else into obscurity. Such stories are usually quite dull. A strange, alien, exotic world may seem exciting, but people want to read about people and not about inanimate objects, no matter how fascinating they may be. A story is about people; take out the people and you have a travelogue, at best.

Of course, a good writer can break that rule (or any other) and get away with it. Isaac Asimov's classic short story "The Last Question" starts with a couple of human characters, but they exist merely to ask of a supercomputer, "Can anything prevent the end of the universe?" The story then leaps forward millions of years at a time. Human characters disappear, only larger and more complex computers people the tale, until at last a computer so vast that it extends beyond the visible universe comes up with the answer to the question. This intellectual exercise can hardly be called a story: It violates all the rules of commercial fiction, yet it remains an intriguing and enduring masterpiece and was Asimov's favorite among all the stories he wrote.

There are other good stories in which no human being appears, and at first glance they seem to be nothing but background, with no plot or characters at all. But look at Ray Brad-bury's "There Will Come Soft Rains." On the surface, it is the story of a completely automated house slowly falling into ruin. Look deeper. That house is itself a character, and it goes through all the phases of life (and death) that the humans did when they lived in it.

Although many writers find that they must devote about as many words to the background of a science fiction story as they do to the main line of the story itself, there are others who prefer to sketch in the background very lightly and depend on the reader's imagination to fill in the details. These writers concentrate on the fictional aspects of the story—the characters and conflict—and leave the background pretty much alone.

It is especially tempting to tell yourself that science fiction readers already know, roughly, what a laser handgun is. Or that so many people have seen "Star Trek" or other "sci-fi" movies in which starships use hyperdrive to exceed the speed of light that there is no need to give any details about such fictitious concepts.

This can be a very dangerous attitude. At the very least, it can lead to stories that are filled with jargon such as space warp, psionics, antigravs, droids and such. These may save space, but they also restrict the understanding of the story for everyone except the hard-core science fiction readers.

Worse still, they usually show that the writer has not been very original. By using the standard jargon of science fiction, you just might find yourself wallowing in the standard clichés, as well. It may be perfectly permissible to tread the same ground again and again in westerns or detective stories, but in science fiction, where you have the whole universe and all of time as your playground, the audience demands freshness and originality. Yes, I know, there are dull stories published that use those clichés and trot out those bits of jargon again and again. But this is merely proof of Sturgeon's Law, coined many years ago by one of the best science fiction writers, Theodore Sturgeon:

"Ninety-five percent of science fiction is crud; but then, ninety-five percent of everything is crud."

You want to be in the good 5 percent! So beware of shortcut jargon and short-circuited thinking.

This is not to say that you should spend page after page trying to describe how a thermonuclear fusion rocket works, especially since there is no such device as yet, and your description is apt to be largely phony. Sternly resist the temptation to show the reader how much science you know (or how many reference books you have read) by piling on detailed explanations of scientific matters.

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