Damien Walter writes on technology, culture and scifi for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches Advanced Scifi & Fantasy : writing the 21st century myth
When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to every possible world! These are all novum of a kind.
The problem. And it’s a pretty big problem, at least if you’re a jobbing sci-fi author who would like to get read (and hence paid). The problem is that your novum, even when it sounds mighty interesting, is actually boring. There, I said it, novums are fucking insanely dull!
“something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being”
But but BUT Damo! A portal that leads to every possible world sounds really interesting! Yes…it SOUNDS interesting. But if it’s actually going to BE interesting for your audience, the novum has to do something much more than just sit around being a cool idea.
All stories, not just sci-fi tales, contain something like a novum. The Oscar winning 1979 movie Kramer vs Kramer isn’t even slightly sci-fi. But the film still has a novum…a couple go through a difficult divorce. But the divorce is only the surface, exterior level of the story. It provides the framework for the much more important story happening on the interior level, as Dustin Hoffman’s character has to finally grow up and take responsibility for home and family. It’s not details of divorce proceedings that make Kramer vs Kramer compelling, it’s the inner human journey, the EMOTIONAL journey, that the audience are captured by.
Advanced SciFi & Fantasy
Writing the 21st century myth
Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.
When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to everyContinue reading “Write better sci-fi stories with this simple idea”
Corporations love to take cool things and turn them to trash to make money. In the early 80s black artists took DJ music loops, rapped radical political lyrics over them, and invented hip-hop. Corporations took hip-hop and degraded it into “gangsta rap”, perpetuating stereotypes of black male violence to sell hip-hop to the masses. CorporationsContinue reading “Science fiction sold out. Let’s take it back.”
“Stanley wanted to create a myth. And I think he succeeded. He wanted to make the proverbial “good science fiction movie”, implying there hadn’t been any good ones before then. I didn’t agree.” Arthur C Clarke 2001 : A Space Odyssey is widely considered the greatest science fiction story ever told. It’s creator, auteur movieContinue reading “How Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey rewrote science fiction”
When did the science fiction community start using “genre” as a proper noun? “It’s a common thing in Genre.” As though “Genre” is a city you can visit. Or a distinct community unified by being “Genre”. It’s one of those linguistic ticks that arise on the internet. But for science fiction it’s also symbolic ofContinue reading “Genre fiction is the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction”
M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of NewContinue reading “How does M John Harrison enter a story?”
When life takes an unexpected left turn I do four things – tidy my room, go running, take 72 hours away from anything stressful…and read a good book. This time around I landed on Neuromancer by William Gibson. I first read this book when I was 14, I suspect I read it at least sevenContinue reading “Neuromancer…still the best science fiction novel ever written”
Is Europe welcoming desperate refugees, or being invaded by economic migrants? Is Donald Trump a serious President, or a clownish attention seeker? The Man In The High Castle reveals the most basic truths about our era of competing narratives. * In 1947 the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan swept to victory over Europe andContinue reading “How Philip K Dick’s 1960’s masterpiece nailed politics in the 2020’s”
Neal Stephenson – legendary author of speculative fiction – on Elon Musk and geek culture, the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, how negative cultural narratives are killing big science – and the upbringing that made him the writer he is. IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks,Continue reading “The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview”
How hard do I have to argue to persuade you that a story that’s actually about divorce proceedings, with long detailed speeches from lawyer characters about the details of marriage contract law, will be quite boring? Then why would a story about a portal that connects all world’s, with achingly long monologues by competent scientists on the details of multiverse physics, be any more interesting? If the story is about its novum, it’s going to bore the hell out of people, because the novum is only intellectually interesting.
Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the HUGE problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanations and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.
What’s the solution? Remember the portal that connects all worlds? If you find that, or another novum interesting, it’s because something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being. Spend some time sitting with your emotional response to the novum that inspire you. A portal that connects all worlds might give those who step into it the chance to be all people. That’s the seed of an emotional experience. Let it grow, and it might one day shiver your audience’s soul.