Re-Engineering Science Fiction

Will Ellwood asked me to expand on a section of last nights blog-post, which I am also interested to do because the idea came out of left field whilst I was writing it and it seems like it might be worth exploring further.

As I read the handbook, Shock is making me think some things. It is making me think that science fiction is powered by a small number of essential processes, and Shock does a good job of pinpointing what they are. It also makes me think that if we can accurately describe the meta framework of science fiction this way, then the task for science fiction writers is not to keep filling that framework with more stuff, but to start reengineering the framework itself. Don’t keep churning the same old products out of the factory. Don’t even build a new factory. Conceptualise a whole new manufacturing process and see what it produces.

Read last nights post on Shock for more context to this.

Shock reverse engineers science fiction, and reduces the genre to the interaction of two elements. Issues, which are the themes that SF explores, and Shocks, which are the tropes through which it explores them. So to give a classic example, War of the Worlds is a product of Martian Invaders (The Shock) being used as a way to explore Colonialism (The Issue). Or Neuromancer could be described as an interaction between Emergent Intelligence (Shock) and Spiritual Transcendence (Issue). You could even argue that this simple equation describes the entire SF genre:

Shock x Issue = Sci-Fi !

Ok. I’m not seriously going to argue that. But it is interesting to consider how much of the SF genre does work around that basic equation. As a test, take five of your favourite SF novels and see if they can be described within that equation. I’d be interested to hear suggestions of SF novels or short stories that do not.

So when we talk about innovation and experimentation, and about moving the SF genre forward, what we tend to mean is inventing new Shocks and exploring new Issues, or using old Shocks to explore new Issues or vice versa. So in Metropolis the Robot shock is used to explore the dehumanising process of industrialisation. A few decades later Philip K Dick uses the same shock to explore human empathy. Or Vernor Vinge describes the Singularity and introduces a brand new shock which a host of other writers then adapt to different uses. And in such ways does the genre advance.

Lets assume that the Sci-Fi equation holds true (I’m happy to be shown it does not, this is more of a thought experiment than anything else) then perhaps a fertile ground for experimentation is to start reworking the equation itself. Hmm…how about…

Shock x Character = ?

To me, that would suggest using an SFnal trope, lets say Alien Invasion, and exploring its consequences on a purely personal level for one character archetype, with no reference to the broader social context. So, Alien Invasion and the Tragic Hero. Or Alien Invasion and the Threshold Guardian. At the very least, this kind of playful tinkering makes for some interesting writing prompts!

Hmm…it is late and I have much work to tackle tomorrow so I can explore this no further tonight. So please, explore it for me. How far can the Sci-Fi equation be stretched? What other factors could replace Shocks and Issues? Or could we abandon the equation all together and formulate an entirely new one? And of course, does any of this make any sense at all, or am I just spouting nonsense?

I’ll be back in the morning, at which time I expect a fully re-engineered SF genre ready and waiting for me.