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Author Topic: Learning how to sound smart from Sci-Fi greats!  (Read 3392 times)

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Offline NO1SY

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Learning how to sound smart from Sci-Fi greats!
« on: September 07, 2023, 12:28:20 PM »
What are the things that make us feel that a piece of literature is a classic? What is the feeling of reading a classic or modern classic? After a bit of a Sci-Fi audiobook marathon this summer, I think I’m beginning to get a slight grasp on that feeling, which I would describe as a sense that what I am reading/listening to/watching is profound.

There are a couple of series I want to comment on here that helped me learn a bit about how to aim for profundity in writing and inspired me to write this ramble, but some honourable mentions would also be: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien; Dune by Frank Herbert; and The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, just to cover the inspirational bases.



Earlier this summer I listened to the Dogs of War duology, followed by the Children of Time trilogy, both written by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is one of the most profoundly speculative authors I imagine that I will ever read (and also ridiculously prolific). I felt this when I finished Bear Head with its presentation of populist politicking, and even more so when I put down Children of Memory, concluding a delightful and confronting journey of identity and bridging understandings between different species, and AI, across the universe.


Likewise, last week I finished Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, which was a meandering, messily paced, wonderfully prosaic, almost (probably) masterpiece. I began to notice a few similarities between the two series in terms of what gave me that feeling that I was reading something profound or cemented as a classic.

Firstly, the characters in these books were iconic (alive, well-realised and overflowing with character) and recurring. It is impressive to me that Tchaikovsky is able to accomplish this with characters who are literal spiders, but he does. In his case, I would say that he takes certain character traits quite close to the edge of caricature - not immersion breaking, but a punchy way to semi-shortcut to memorability. Simmons’ characters are generally more reserved, save for Martin Silenus, but the main characters from the first two books have the advantage of essentially a whole, one book-long (ambling but never sluggish) prologue, whereby their individual stories in the lead-up to their pilgrimage are played out, giving readers a lot of time to get to know them with a great level of depth. But then that is not to say that the characters who do not get the same time commitment lack depth or make less of an impression. Simmons’ descriptive excellence brings everyone vividly to life, and once again their character shines through their dialogue, thoughts and actions - Meina Gladstone and Paul Dure are particular stand-outs.

Next is a case of world-building and its presentation to the reader. Pretty much all of the books I have mentioned so far are journeys through fantastic worlds, whereby the setting is basically a character unto itself. The journeying is as important as, if not more than, the destination, and, in at least the case of the Hyperion Cantos, you feel as though you yourself have explored the entire galaxy by the end, having taken in all of the sights, smells, sounds, flora and fauna, cities and spacedocks, cathedrals and ruins and digital realms. But you are left with a sense that these universes are both so deep and so expansive that what we learn as readers is a fraction of a fraction of what there truly is to know. But this remaining mystery and ambiguity is a great thing. It keeps the awe-inspiring awesome, the mysticism mystifying, the depths of the unknown both exciting and foreboding. The Shrike is great for this. Several questions about it are answered by the end of the series, yet it remains decently shrouded, enough that it never loses its lustre as both an impending boogeyman and mysterious extra main character. This air of mystery also helps to veil it as a convenient plot device from time to time. It’s a difficult balance to hold back explanations, so that in the end you understand just enough that it is not unsatisfying and confusing, and you have not explained away the sense of magic and wonder - to show what lies just beneath the water’s surface, to give an impression of what is their on the way down, but never actually seeing through to the ocean floor. The approach would work really well for any eldritch creatures, god-like beings, hidden realms, strange physics, fears of the unknown etc.

Lastly, these stories are explorations of fascinating and/or relatable questions, often exaggerated by the “what if” Sci-Fi settings, whereby a dialogue with the readers is presented through the characters’ stories, and a conclusion is reached in that narrative, without it necessarily being presented as THE correct answer. The character may state whether it is right or not, but in the author-reader dialogue it should come across as more of a “do you agree? or “what do you think?”. Tchaikovsky asks us to consider how we as people should approach life if the simulation theory were true, wrestle with issues of identity and imposter syndrome, ponder the difficulties and possibilities of first contact and the implications of sharing qualia between different perceptions of the universe. In Hyperion and The Rise of Hyperion by Simmons, I especially enjoyed Sol Weintraub’s grappling with Abraham’s Dilemma, which was like the dramatisation of a rabbinic commentary from the Talmud. Gladstone’s political manoeuvring also felt very weighty with the implications that her final choices presented. And the next two books present a cautionary tale about the faith of the pious being abusable and hijackable by malicious actors when they offer some sort of affirmation of beliefs, explore philosophies of progress, evolution and personhood, and ask us to confront our own mortality and make the most of it in whatever form that takes.

Or, it seems, that the only thing you really have to do to sound profound is to write a few short poems and stick them in your story…
:noidea:

Offline Suuper-san

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Re: Learning how to sound smart from Sci-Fi greats!
« Reply #1 on: September 28, 2023, 05:35:22 AM »
Finally got round to replying :P

Firstly I think those are some excellent points for good story writing, and not just sci-fi, but good writing in general most of these could be applied to. (edit: I realize now I think that's what you meant?)

I think books allow for a more complex portrayal of characters than other media, but having a well thought out character that isn't a generic character trait amplified to 11 allows for complex relationships and interactions, and makes a story more believable than a hero that is 100% good, all of the time, without even a single trace of a negative trait.

I've not read many books although I've read sci-fi manga and I'd definitely agree with the world-building aspect. If you're not world-building in sci-fi, there's almost no point to it being sci-fi. Ages ago I heard a similar point being made that if there is nothing in the setting that is relevant to the plot then there's almost no justification for it being sci-fi in the first place other than the writer's whims. A lot of star trek episodes lean into this problem where the main plot is relationship oriented and just happens to be set in space, and so feels more like a soap opera than a sci-fi. So bringing elements of the world into your story is a must, to keep the world feeling real to the audience.

Things that I like to see in general sci-fi, is the use of "gadgets" in normal settings, i.e. slice of life sci-fi, where we see how they cook their food, how public transport works, financial transactions, and so on. it's sort of related to world building, but the actual showing of these elements can make a story feel more realistic as they are "normal" activities. Treasure Planet had quite a few of these, with the window blinds that could show nice scenery, and even be opened a crack, or the holographic locket that showed short clips instead of just an image. These little things really ground the story and make it interesting without derailing it or dragging out scenes with unnecessary detail.
« Last Edit: September 28, 2023, 05:38:01 AM by Suuper-san »
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Offline NO1SY

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Re: Learning how to sound smart from Sci-Fi greats!
« Reply #2 on: October 04, 2023, 12:25:16 PM »
Nice to see that someone pays attention to my ramblings :P Thanks for reading and replying.

Yes, the idea is to take what I've discovered from my experiences with these books and see what can be generalized a bit.

I do feel that the nature of Sci-Fi and fantasy literature makes them more readily "classic" material, however. For starters, the settings are more innately fantastic and captivating, satisfying the second point, but the genres are basically predicated on "what if" scenarios that act as a basally interesting starter dialogue with the readers, generally more so than other genres of fiction.

But there are stand out examples of books from other genres that have these bases covered. One that instantly comes to mind is The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Even though the settings are based in the real world, the context of the mystery and secret societies casts them all in a new light. I suppose it could be counted as skirting the line of Sci-Fi/Fantasy though. My point is, that even if your story takes place in the mundane world, it can still feel fantastic if it feels alive and immersive in your writing.

I do agree though, that if your goal is to write Sci-Fi or Fantasy, extra attention should be paid to the world building (but no so much that you never write anything!)

Treasure Planet is such a great film!